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I’m delighted to have just had my story Dependent Assembles accepted for publication in Interzone in January (issue 262).

Interzone is the UK’s longest running science-fiction magazine and is one of the few magazines that it’s worth buying a paper subscription too, as its one of the best looking magazine’s out there.901_large

As usual the issue boasts an eye-catching cover, this time by the artist Sammy Vincent. Inside each story is matched to some beautiful artwork. Dependent Assemblies for example is paired with a wonderfully evocative illustration by Richard Wagner.

This will be my second story sale to the Interzone team, following Automatic Diamanté which they published a couple of years ago.

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VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200 This was my first Milford and in fact my first face-to-face workshop. If I’m honest, I was filled with apprehension.

Even a cursory glance at the history of Milford reveals a roll call of illustrious early attendees. As an example, founder member and original attendee James Blish, wrote the wonderful Cities in Flight books, a series that was a favourite of mine as a nerdling growing up.

Similarly, this list of alumni makes it hard not to constantly reflect upon the fact that this workshop, or conference as it should more properly be called, is now over forty years old.

Given all of the above then, it gives me great pleasure to report that Milford appears to be in very rude health and shows no sign of losing its vitality as a place to talk about, critique (and if you’re lucky) write genre fiction.

The setting, a converted farmhouse and office complex nestling in the Nantlle Valley in the Snowdonia National Park, is absolutely gorgeous. Going for a stroll along the lakeside in the spare moments between reading, writing, critiquing or socialising was a relaxing and memorable experience.IMG_0754

That’s not to say that the pace of work at Milford is breakneck or stress inducing, but it certainly is intense. I usually spent my mornings reading submissions and preparing critiques. Afternoons were spent in the main office with the other attendees going over the pieces that each writer has submitted.

There were ten writers in attendance for this year’s second Milford. Some like Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Carl Allery, Mike Lewis and Al Robertson were old hands. A couple like Guy T Martland and Sue Oke had been at least once before, while David Allan, James Maxwell (and of course me) made up the newbie contingent.IMG_0732

The opportunity to share your work-in-progress with talented, dedicated and big-brained writers who are serious about their work is worth the price of admission alone, but add to that the fact that you all get to eat and hang out together afterwards really does make this an invaluable opportunity. (Oh and there’s regular cake. Did mention that there’s cake?)

The fiction submitted this year ran the entire gamut of genres. We had a selection of second world medievalist stories, noir-ish urban fantasy, YA doom fiction, space opera, future set science-fiction/fantasy and neo-cyber-punk and even some magical realism in there for good measure. Moreover, there was a good balance between shorter works and novel excerpts (attendees can submit up to 15,000 words split over multiple pieces or just one larger piece).

The Milford critique process is a simple one. Before arrival Liz circulates a timetable denoting when each piece will be critiqued (which allows you to plan your reading if you haven’t had the time to go through it all beforehand). During the crit itself each participant gets to speak without interruption for four minutes while the author frantically scribbles down these comments. Once everyone has had his or her turn the author gets the chance to reply.

IMG_0738Generally we critiqued three to four pieces each day this way and although there is a standing tradition at Milford that a writer whose work is in for a kicking has the blow(s) softened by the application of chocolate, no one in our group suffered this fate.

Evenings are usually spent in the library where, after a few drinks, the conversational topics are wide and varied, but always pursued in a good natured and inclusive way. On my visit discussions included: the arcane laws of Swiss toilet usage, how much guano a man has to be smeared with before he ceases to be attractive and (this being the week of the Scottish referendum) whether David Allan (who was a Scot) would have to sit at a different dinner table if his nation seceded from the union.

Occasionally, Jacey would lead a breakout team to an adjoining room to play Bananagram (think combat Scrabble). Given the name of the game, I found the absence of any fruit in play notable, although perhaps players waited until I had retired before brandishing their bananas.

We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather during my visit, so much so that it led to us running at least one critique IMG_0746session seated around the sundial on the lawn overlooking the lake, something unheard of since Milford took up residence at Trigonos in 2004. (I should also point out that despite frequent threats to do so, Guy Martland never did jump in and go for a swim – maybe next year, eh?).

The food was enjoyable and plentiful and Al Robertson and I both reflected that going home would be difficult, given that we’d have to forgo being fed every 2-3 hours.

That said, I do remember one rather avant-garde (and bright green) cheesecake that had come to us from a planet where a race of tiny humans milked giant avocados in order to make cheese. (Maybe). Despite this peculiar provenance, it was actually pretty tasty.

My only two pieces of advice for any potential attendees would be:
1) relax. The idea of the critique process is a little intimidating at first, but in practice Jacey and Liz go out of their way to make newbies feel instantly at home. Moreover, the feedback (especially about the parts of your submission that might not be working) is absolutely invaluable and motivational.
2) do as much of the reading as you can before you get there. While it’s easily possible to read through all of the submissions on site, having got through everything beforehand means you’ll be able to do some writing in a wonderfully tranquil setting. I felt for those old hands, such as Mike Lewis, who reminded me of the pre-internet days when attendees would be greeted at the door by a stack of printed manuscripts and told to get on with it.

IMG_0725Writing this now, it occurs to me that compared to our colleagues elsewhere in the world we are starved of world-class genre writing workshops here in the UK. We have no Clarions, no Taos ToolBoxes and no Viable Paradises.

Perhaps that dearth is merely a reflection of the few native, professionally paying short fiction markets here in Blighty, but if that is the case then it’s also at odds with the fact that as a relatively small nation of speculative scribblers we seem to punch well above our weight.

For all of the grit and graft of our industrial history and post-empire angst, maybe this island of ours is full of dreamers after all.

It’s a good thing then, that we have Milford.

(Anyone interested in attending future events can contact Jacey bedford via the website here.)

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It’s commonplace for evaluations of the speculative fiction canon to hinge upon the predictive accuracy of its texts. You know the sort of thing: Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite, Jules Verne described the moon landings in meticulous detail and Philip K. Dick predicted which aerosols you could extract cocaine from after a three day DMT binge at a shopping mall.

This is a shame as it’s not only often the least interesting aspect of the writers in question, but also the reductive implication that when a work’s predictions are wildly wrong or anachronistic then the text is somehow devalued.

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Image courtesy of Zoe Harley

This is clearly bunkum. Huxley’s Brave New World isn’t any the less valuable because it imagines a world where people whip back and forth from one orgy to the next in helicopters. (A vision of the future which only really accurately predicts the lifestyle of Jay Kay from Jamiroquai).

Instead of telling us what our smart phones will be doing next week or how we’ll update our Facebook status by arching our eyebrows (or the mileage that Jay Kay will get on his jet copter) it seems to me that the most interesting aspect of the genre is the way that it can give us an intimate and subversive sense of what the future might feel like.

This subversive streak runs thick in speculative fiction and I suspect it is caused by the interaction of two things:

  1. What the cultural theorist Raymond Williams calls structures of feeling.

    “[these are] meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt … characteristic elements of impulse and restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships” (p132).

    So, rather than historical or technological proxies for a given age (e.g. steam-trains and Victorian England), structures of feeling enable us to imagine what it might feel like to be alive in a particular milieu at a given historical (or imagined) moment.

  2. The fact that speculative fiction is not an entirely respectable literary tradition.

For his part, Williams shows how different structures of feeling give rise to three different components of culture which he calls the residual, the dominant and the emergent. While the residual refers to those aspects of contemporary culture that originate in the past and the dominant provides a framework for the lived experience of the majority (what cultural conservatives might refer to as “what is normal or natural”), the emergent is where, “new meanings and values, new relationships and kinds of relationship” (p123) develop.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: far from predicting technological advances surely what the best speculative fiction actually does is articulate, inform and incorporate these new structures of feeling into art and entertainment. Indeed, the reason it can do this so readily is precisely because it sits far from the disapproving eye of “respectable” literature in the bug powder dust party of the emergent.

At its best then, speculative fiction isn’t just about ray guns or steam-powered blimps or spaceships (although these are all well and good): it’s about how automated birthing might change how we value human life, wondering what it might feel like to be gendered for only part of an earth-year or how being practically immortal might alter our psychology and sexuality.

It invites us to imagine worlds where notions of humanity and its attendant cultures are very different from our own and then try them on for size. The fact that dear old Arthur C. came up with space elevator really is the least of it.

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So, somewhat amazingly, my story Automatic Diamanté came second in the James White Award, placed after Shannon Fay‘s “You First Meet the Devil at a Church Fete”! Congratulations to

Me on stage with Sarah Newton, 'science fiction behemoth' Stephen Baxter, Paul Cornell and Donna Scott.

Me on stage with Sarah Newton,’science fiction behemoth’ Stephen Baxter, Paul Cornell and Donna Scott.

Shannon and a big thank you to the judges: Hugo nominated Aliette de Bodard, Hugo Winner Ian McDonald and the Interzone editors Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock.

Speaking of which, the Interzone editors said so many positive things about my story I’m beginning to wonder whether a crumpled fiver found its way into my submission:

“Our initial response to Automatic Diamanté was that it is smart, dark and engaging. Our next reaction was that it’s the work of a talented writer who we would hope and expect to hear from in the future. It tackles big ideas of self, identity and consciousness: these are ambitious themes for a short story, and they carry a risk that narrative can collapse under the weight of philosophical speculation and be reduced to the status of ‘thought experiment’. But this is an adroit piece of writing that avoids this pitfall through its wit, its emotional resonance and the controlled energy of its language.”

Thanks also to everyone for all the kind words of congratulations, both on the interwebs and at the event (which was part of the BSFA awards ceremony at this year’s Eastercon) as well as to those who were kind enough to forgive me shambling onto stage to give an impromptu speech (based largely it must be said on my previous blog post). Chuffed doesn’t really cover it (so you have to excuse the blowing of one’s own trumpet). Likewise, if you want to see the judges’ feedback on both stories it’s here (so you can see I didn’t make it up or get my missus to claim to be a judge, write nice things on a napkin & present it to me with dinner).

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As a follow up post to the discussion of ye olde space-opera, I’ve gone through the comments people left and compiled a list of titles recommended by them. There was quite a lot of debate about this at the time and there are too many books here for me to have read them myself, so I can’t comment as to their relative merits or lack thereof.

20130213-185049.jpgFirstly we have a list of more specifc titles:

Eluki Bes Shahar’s Hellflower series
Helen Wrights’s A Matter of Oaths
Alis Rasmussen’s Highroad trilogy
Banks’s Player of Games
Colin Greenland’s Tabitha Plenty
Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit (and pretty much anything else)
Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga
Vernor Vinge’s space opera series
CS Friedman’s This Alien Shore
Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers.

Secondly, a more general tip of the hat to the following authors:

Yoon Ha Lee
C J Cherryh
Octavia Butler

Let me know if I’ve missed any authors or titles from the original thread. Similarly, if anyone else has any further suggestions just post a comment and I’ll add them to the list and repost.

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I used to love space-opera. As an Earthlet I grew up reading Clarke’s Rama, Asimov’s Foundation, Heinlein’s bugs, A.E. Van Voight’s icky inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s Alien and Blish’s Spin-Dizzies. As I got older though, I got more interested in Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut and drifted away from the spaceships ‘n’ aliens end of speculative fiction. This might have had something to do with the fact that the girls I liked all liked Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut, but there you go. Superficial me.

Recently though, I dipped my toe back in the water to see if there were still thrills to be had in the veritable old genre. I don’t know if I’m just getting cynical and jaded (actually, I know I’m getting cynical and jaded, so no comment necessary there), but I’m sad to report that what I read suggested the genre might have become something of a prisoner of its conventions.

Firstly, a word about setting. I don’t know if this is perhaps a manifestation of our perceived contemporary economic and cultural uniformity, but much of what I’ve recently read seems to treat the universe as one huge mall in a, “humanity reaches for the stars and builds a Starbucks on every bleeding planet it arrives at” kinda way.

This is only exacerbated by another problem that afflicts some space opera: world-building Tourettes. I don’t really need to know the exact nature of the concrete used to build a space-bridge nor how the protagonist’s galacto-socks are held up, unless, of course, the story is about how her galacto-socks came up with a really neato new formula for the concrete of said space-bridges.

A more troubling observation is the that women in many of these stories still seem to tend towards the whore-bitch-mother stereotype (or that late 20th century addition to the canon: “action-man-wearing-a-bra”). Even in the more enlightened books where your gutsy pistol-totting heroine doesn’t sport a figure-hugging jumpsuit and a pair of intergalactic chest-zeppelins, there’s a good chance she’ll be sexualised to a degree that male protagonists never are.

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Moreover, these male protagonists themselves seemed to be wish-fulfilment writ large. White Anglo-Saxon middle-class billionaire types with multi-wives predominated. When they weren’t tanned, lantern-jawed George Clone-ys they were spindly geeks who made billions selling hyperwidgets over the interspatial cyberweb. Despite the fact that these fellows lived forever due to advanced medicine their psychology was, somewhat puzzlingly, exactly like ours. If I was cynical I might conclude that is because pondering how immortality might affect what it means to be human is hard, whereas writing about chicks in cat-suits is, you know, fun*.

Many plots tended towards the generically anodyne and epic. Some ancient horror is discovered/awoken/remembered it had always intended to wipe us out, but had gotten distracted and lurches towards us across the void of space. However, the empire of billionaires isn’t ready for this because they spend most of their time drinking space-lattes at the space-mall and bedding pneumatic pistol-totting bitch-whores. The narrative that follows builds a bow-wave of palm-sweating anticipation as characters spend the next 500 pages discussing how to escape via a really, really big space-bridge and panic buying galacto socks.

Alas, this sense of threat evaporates when The Evil-Ones finally materialise in their million strong battle fleet and turn out to be bees crossed with pigs that wear hats. The millinery obsessed bee-pigs demand the empire’s cheese reserves. No! cry Earth’s leisure-suited masses: our cheeses you cannot haz! before engaging their grizzled family warrior/retainers in a desperate battle to decisively set up the next tome in the series.

In summary, I think the thing that I found most disappointing about the books I’ve read over the last few months was how bland many of the imagined worlds and protagonists were. Despite its reputation as a medium where “sensawunda” abounds, these books for the most part explored a very limited set of tropes through to very inevitable conclusions.

20110816-050101.jpgThat said, I’m keenly aware that these observations are only based on the works that I’ve read recently, which again can only be only a small percentage of what’s out there, so does anyone care to steer me in the direction of books that take good ole Space Opera somewhere where no-one has gone before?

*I have nothing against the fun, just bored of the lazy.

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“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘Science Fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal”, Kurt Vonnegut

All images courtesy of Zoe Porteous

Kilgore Trout’s old adage may be a bit of an exaggeration, but many critics do seem to regard any genre other than “the literary” with their dainty noses held. Something that’s perhaps borne out by how few speculative fiction books end up on prestigious literary prize short-lists. Correspondingly many speculative writers seem to fiercely guard “their” turf . If you’ve had a few “straight” novels published, seems to be the attitude, don’t go writing nothing about no go’rram aliens. ‘Cos that’s what we do over here, ya dig?

I have scratched my head over this quite a bit. I read a fair amount of both literary and speculative fiction (though admittedly never as much as I’d like) and enjoy both. Certainly my own tastes seem to tend toward the literary end of the speculative (whatever that is) and I’ve often wondered whether there is something woven into the fabric of speculative fiction which upsets those with a more literary mindset.

I have a couple of thoughts on the subject, though I must preface them with the disclaimer that since “a collection of words that has something wrong with it,” is the best definition of the novel that our literary minds can come up with, trying to pin down anything as amorphous as “the texture” of speculative fiction is going to be wobbly as hell and perhaps not even worth the effort of doing in the first place. So if you have the time to waste … here goes nothing.

Initially, I wondered whether the problem was simply a question of subject matter, but this is not the case, since many perfectly “respectable” books (1984, Slaughterhouse 5, Never Let Me Go, The Handmaid’s Tale) adopt speculative contexts and plots and yet are regarded as “literature” (that is, as a source of personal enlightenment rather than as mere entertainment). Upon further reflection, I began to suspect that this genre antipathy has its roots in two things: firstly the relationship between plot and character, and secondly the type of protagonist portrayed.

If we look at the first of these, while all books are read, to paraphrase Barthes, “in order to find out what happens next”, the genre conventions for literary works are rooted in what we might call “the internal”. That is, states of mind, feelings and self-reflection. As Chabon says in his mischievous introduction to McSweeny’s Thrilling Tales anthology, this form is probably best characterised as the “moment of truth” tale wherein something of emotional import is revealed to the protagonist and is positively dripping with “epiphanic dew”. Conversely, the conventions for speculative forms seem to tilt towards the “external” or more plot-driven narrative models. (Events. Actions. Consequences.) Yep. I know that action is character and that we all disappear up our own portals if we take such pronouncements too seriously. But there you go. I did say this was going to be more wobbly than a jelly model of the leaning tower of Pisa (and perhaps less useful).

All images courtesy of Zoe Porteous

Turning to the second aspect, character type, much literary fiction seems to be inhabited by protagonists who are marginalised by the power hierarchies they inhabit. By contrast, a quick glance at mainstream speculative fiction suggests that these narratives are more likely to feature square-jawed alpha-males, over-sexualised women, billionaire science-geeks, or muscular spies in starring roles. Taking a bit of a leap, I think we could say that these sort of escapist characters actually confirm societal power relations rather than undermining them. Furthermore, giving a voice to subalterns is an essentially subversive act. So we might very loosely conclude that perhaps there’s a sense of subversion in some literary forms that is conspicuously absent from some speculative fiction. This is particularly ironic given that as a genre it is famous for its unlimited horizons and abundant ‘sensawunda’.

Moreover, if we examine the handful of “respectable” books that I mentioned earlier, while all of them tackle speculative subjects, they do so in a way which gives voice to subaltern characters: Winston Smith the inadvertent revolutionary, Offred the handmaiden in the Republic of Gilead or Billy Pilgrim on Tralfalmadore.

So what am I saying? Are the literary “cool kids” right then? Should all speculative fiction writers throw our mythical archetype characters into the bin? No. Not at all. And yes, well, perhaps a little bit. Maybe. Obviously this is all a matter of taste, but I think there is a point of synthesis where literary fiction could learn from the action-packed yarn of the pulps and speculative fiction could dump some of its white middle-class rich dudes. I like Star Wars as much as the next Mandalorian warrior, but it’s worth remembering that Fat George always said that the main characters in his original trio of films were the serving ‘droids.

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