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Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

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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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IMG_2819I was just looking through Gardner Dozois’ Best New Science Fiction 31st Edition (published in the UK as The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 27th Edition) and nearly fell off my chair when I noticed that my story Automatic Diamanté had got an honourable mention. I’d had no idea that it had snuck into the book at all. There the title was nestling between works by Charlie Stross, Rachael Swirsky, Lavie Tidhar and Adrian Tchaikovsky. All I have to do now is make it into the actual table of contents.IMG_2820

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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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I’ve just finished listening to the audio adaptation of Automatic Diamanté featured in last week’s episode of the Hugo award winning Starship Sofa podcast.

In the hands (and vocal cords) of the very talented Nick Camm I had the odd feeling of not having written the thing at all. Nick’s wonderful narration managed to bring new levels of both creepiness and empathy to the central character. (Moreover, his pronunciation of Chalchiuhtlicue is faultless.)

I heartily recommend subscribing to the podcast if you haven’t already (it’s free).

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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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