Now Playing: Timbuk 3
An interview with me appears in the latest issue of Physics World.
I just got news of another sale, which is not the worst way to start a wednesday. A new short story of mine, "Soiree" (I'd add the accent over the "e" if I knew how to) will appear next year in an anthology being edited by Ian Whates to commemorate fifty years of the British Science Fiction Association. It's a resolutely science fictional tale about what happens when a slow starship is overtaken on its way to a distant solar system - a ripe theme going all the way back to AE Van Vogt's Far Centaurus.
It's been a pretty good year for short fiction for me - the tally so far is "The Six Directions of Space", "The Manastodon Broadcasts", "The Fixation", "The Receivers" and "Soiree", none of which will appear before 2008. I am now working on another novella length piece for Jonathan Strahan's Godlike Machines, but I won't finish this before the New Year.
I'd been fairly prolific in the late nineties, but my short fiction output had tailed off once I began to get into novel writing, and specifically writing novels to contract. By the time I was on my third or fourth novel I was lucky to find time to write one story a year. Clawing back the space to do more short fiction was one of the motivating factors that led to me giving up my day job, so I'm glad it seems to be working. Of course, we are also in a time when the anthology market is booming, which also helps.
Writing novels, as I've said on more than one occasion, can feel like painting the Forth Bridge, an arduous task calling for a broad brush and a lot of stamina. Writing short fiction is more like putting a ship in a bottle. That's how it feels to me, anyway - and with several commissions due in 2008, I hope it will turn out to be another productive year.
Reading: just finished A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (very good, eerily prophetic in many details) and an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in the November 12th New Yorker about criminal profiling methods and why they may be almost entirely valueless. Listening: Blood on the Tracks, Dylan.
I just got back from a pleasant weekend in Leuven, Belgium, attending Beneluxcon. It was a good convention, well organised by Guido Eekhout and colleagues, and a welcome chance to catch up with friends. We liked Leuven - the old quarter was something very special, and my wife and I found a great Moroccan restaurant on our first night in town.
Returning home (three and a half hours door to door, with two changes of train - not bad for a convention taking place in another country) I did my usual round of web-surfing, and was intrigued to see a mention on Paul McAuley's blog that there's to be a BBC documentary on Mark Everett, the man behind the band Eels. It transpires in turn that Everett is the son of Hugh Everett III, the man behind the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics. Astonishing stuff, not only because I'm a fully paid up convert to the Many Worlds theory, but that Eels are one of my very favorite acts. Yet (like Paul) I'd never made the connection - even though, with hindsight, there's at least one whopping clue in the sleeve of one of the CDs. Strangely enough, I connected with the Eels around the time that I was finishing Redemption Ark, a large part of which was inspired by the deeper implications of Many Worlds theory (time travel, etc) explored by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality.
I'd be here until wednesday if I started listing my favorite Eels tracks, so I won't even start. Really, they're all great.
The documentary is on BBC Four tonight (Monday 26th November) at 9.00 pm. I'll get someone to tape it for me as I don't have access to digital here in Holland.
One thing I've learned in this business is never assume you'll be doing anything from one week to the next. Instead of diving into a new story, I've been back working on HoS again. The chance arose to do a bound proof (something we've either not done, or done so late in the production process that it's of debatable value) from the existing manuscript. While happy with the idea of getting proofs out earlier than usual, I felt that - with the benefit of a few days away from it - there were a few things I'd like to take care of before the book was read by more than a handful of people. Then my wife read the submitted version and raised a few points of her own ... and here I am, five days later, with a different draft of the book about to go back to the publisher to form the proof. There is still some work to do over the weekend, but this draft comes in at about 180,000 words- about 22,000 words below the earlier version. That's still a long book by any measure, but it's short by my standards.
I've also been trying to catch up on my correspondence, but since I've been working backwards through my inbox rather than forwards, if you sent me an email more than three or four weeks ago, I still won't have caught up with you. Rest assured I'll do my best to catch up next week - hopefully before I dash off to Leuven for the next Beneluxcon.
In the meantime, time to mention that my CD of the week is Roisin Murphy's rather fantastic Overpowered, and that the book I'm reading now is Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.
A package of books arrived this week, including the French paperback of ABSOLUTION GAP. I was very taken with the cover, as I've been with all of the French editions, so thought it might be worth putting here. Unlike the very successful UK designs, which have been emulated to one degree or another on most of the foreign editions, my French publisher has gone for a different - and, I think, equally successful - look.
Here are three of the French covers, beginning with CHASM CITY, showing some kind of cable car contraption heading towards the eponymous city. I can't remember if there are actual cable cars in the book, as opposed to the brachiating ones which appear inside the city, but it's a nice enough image anyway.
Next up is the cover for REDEMPTION ARK, showing some Inhibitor cubes converging on one of the ships - possibly Skade's, I think.
Finally, AG, with one of the giant cathedrals trundling along on the surface of Hela. Naturally, I fully approve of the two steam locomotives which appear to be providing the necessary traction - shades of Harry Harrison's Planet Story, I think...
Last night I finished HOUSE OF SUNS. I gave it another look this afternoon and made a few additional changes. Then I emailed it to my editor.
There is still work to be done, although as always at this point I feel that the hard labour is behind me. Writing a book takes me about eight or nine months all told. For most of that time the work falls into what one might call the 9-to-5 category, in that I do a manageable chunk of work each day and sustain that output over many weeks and months. I'll sometimes set myself micro-deadlines to keep up the pace, but they're a separate issue from the contractually specified delivery date. Miss that by a couple of days and the world won't come to an end. Miss it by a couple of weeks, and the knock-on can cause major difficulties with production slots.
The work moves into a different phase in the last month, in which I work at a level I know I can maintain for a few weeks, but not for month on month. Finally, the last week or so - seven to ten days - is an endurance exercise. At this point I'm not necessarily setting myself arbitrary word count targets for a given day's work, but I am focussed on doing all that is necessary to finish the book. As often as not, that'll involve a large amount of cutting, so word length targets become a little moot. For a few weeks in October I was cutting in the morning, then adding in the afternoon, with the net word count hovering around the same mark.
I'm exhausted now, but I know from previous experience that my recovery time will only be a couple of days. Writing is a compulsion for me - keep me away from it for more than a few days and I start getting frustrated. Before very long the stamina levels are back where they are and a new story is hatching. Last year I wrote and submitted "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter" while awaiting feedback on THE PREFECT. I've got to write a story before Christmas, although I don't know what it'll be yet. By the end of the week I hope to be getting some idea.
I'll say a bit more about HOUSE OF SUNS in due course, and perhaps post an extract or two. For now, it's safe to say that this feels like my" biggest" novel to date in terms of scope and complexity - it's real galaxy-spanning stuff, far more so than the relatively claustrophobic and contained RS-universe stuff. Structurally, it's got more going on than any of the recent books, although it still follows a more-or-less linear timeline. It has 25-km long starships, two major space battles, immortal clones, a variety of different planets and locales, a supporting cast of robots and posthumans, and (I'd love to think) a touch of that far-future colour, exoticism and off-hand weirdness that I so much enjoy in the work of Cordwainer Smith and Gene Wolfe. Well, you've got to try, haven't you.
And now I can start catching up on my correspondence...
One of an occasional series of entries in which I reveal what I'm reading and listening to in a given week.
Book: Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel by Douglas Botting.
Title says it all, really. It's an engrossing history of the development of the dirigible airship, from the first Zepellins through to the Hindenburg. Zepellins are big in SF (it's obligatory to have them in any alternate history) but it struck me that I really don't know much about them. This book provides a lot of answers,. and much more. Eckener was evidently a bit of a lunatic, but one of only a handful of men who could actually pilot a dirigible - a much harder task than I have ever imagined. The story of the Graf Zepellin encountering a line squall in the mid-atlantic is nerve-shredding stuff.
Music: my favorite CD of the week, and one I'm going to have to stop listening to, is Shining Brother, Shining Sister by Jackie Leven. I only own one other record by Jackie Leven, but it's also a very, very good one, and given that the first one has never outworn its considerable charms, I have high hopes for this as well. It's got a great spoken word piece by David Thomas which is really "worth the price of admission", as they say. But the closer, 1798 (Jackie singing the beautiful lyrics to a poem by Ciaran Carson) is quite wonderful as well.
Memo to self: get more Jackie Leven.
Wednesdays are always the toughest day of the working week for me. As a rule, I try to write 3000 words a day. It's an achievable target which feels like a good day's work, but isn't so demanding that it leaves me exhausted the day after. I've done 5000 words a day, but it isn't something I can sustain for a week. And I've written 10,000 words in a day - but that's not something I can recommend. 3000 is a about right, though. I can break it down into three chunks of a 1000 words - say, three sessions of one or two hours concentrated writing. It's about 10 pages of a paperback, give or take - a short chapter, or a long scene, depending on your viewpoint.
But wednesdays are a killer, because I go out in the evenings. I have to get all that work done by 6.00 pm, which wouldn't ordinarily be a problem. But by wednesday my energy levels are starting to wane, and because I'm out all evening, my only chance to eat a decent meal is at lunchtime - so that's another two hours out of the day, and - because I've just stuffed myself - I generally feel a bit sleepy in the afternoons.
It's all worth it, though. By 7.30 I'm on a horse, and within about five minutes I can pretty much guarantee that any worries I might have taken with me from the office, or that strange entity called "real life", have completely evaporated. Sitting on a horse, there's no room for anything in your head except total concentration - it's the ultimate "zone". You're relaxed (hopefully, or the horse will feel it and start playing up) but you're also totally focused, living in the moment. It's great. I'm sure people get the same rush from any number of sports, but this is the one that always does it for me, and I hope I never have to give it up.
My horse tonight wasn't pale, though.
At the risk of boring everyone senseless (but hey - you don't have to read this, do you?) here's the rest of my thrilling odyssey into the world of music, picking up where I left off last time.
In 1991 I moved to Holland and shortly afterwards I got my first CD player. I think the last vinyl album I bought - apart from the odd second hand thing - was a My Bloody Valentine LP. The first CD I bought was something by The Fall, one of their Brix-era albums. Later that year, they released Code:Selfish, one of their best records of the period. I saw them live for the first time at the Paradiso, in Amsterdam.
If there was a significant shift in my music appreciation during this time, it was my growing appreciation of classical music. I blame it all on Gavin Ramsay, a very good astronomer who's still a good mate of mine. Somewhere near the end of my time in Scotland, I went around to Gav's flat to drag him out for a beer. Gav had some music on his record player - he'd sit there listening to stuff while reading through the score. I'd been exposed to Gav's taste in classical music before, but nothing had ever connected with me - until that evening, when I heard something astonishing, like nothing I'd ever heard before. Awesome, desolate music. What was it? Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, Gav said. Right, I said - I want a tape of that by monday.
It was significant for me because I'd made many futile attempts to get "into" classical music by following the canonical route - Beethoven, Mozart, all that stuff. But it was only when I had an honest, emotional reaction to it that I found a way in. I became a firm admirer of Shostakovich, and then started working my through his contemporaries - Sibelius, Vaugan Williams, and spiralling out from these initial points of discovery. I've never stopped listening to classical music and much of what I've written has been under the influence. Want to know what Chasm City sounds like? Listen to the second movement of RVW's London Symphony.
Drifting back into the arena of rock, if there was a personal discovery that stayed with me for much of the nineties, it was the music of an unfairly neglected band called Kitchens of Distinction. There was something very special about this band. They were a three piece, but they sounded like a nine-piece, or a twelve piece. Glittery, swirling guitars ... wonderful vocals and lyrics. Kitchens of Distinction sounded like a more intimate U2, a dreamier Chameleons, but they weren't "just" another gloomy, echo-drenched rock band. Their music was shot through with a bracing bleakness, doomed romance, a rainy days at the end of summer quality. And Patrick Fitzgerald's singing - his voice not a million miles from that of Michael Stipe's - was always brilliantly expressive and tender. His lyrics made no secret of his sexuality, and perhaps that was what held them back. But maybe Kitchens of Distinction were just too intelligent, too subtle, too fragile and withholding, to find success at a time when the shouty simplicities of Britpop were dominating the UK music scene. Their albums revealed their secrets slowly - they had to be unwrapped carefully. I've never stopped playing them. Listen to the likes of Editors, Interpol, etc, and you can hear echoes of Kitchens of Distinction (and the Chameleons, and the Comsats) along with the bands that are usually trotted out as influences - Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. Favorite track: Aspray. It's only about two minutes long, but there are infinities in those two minutes...
Where are we up to? Mid nineties, I guess. I could go on, but it all gets a bit fractured from hereon in - Neil Young, Bruce, Guided by Voices... and all that other stuff I never stopped listening to.