Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Monday, 26 November 2007
Daisies of the Galaxy
Now Playing: Eels

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. 

Posted by voxish at 12:34 PM CET
Friday, 16 November 2007
The Cutter
Now Playing: Echo and the Bunnymen

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.

Posted by voxish at 9:14 PM CET
Saturday, 10 November 2007
Sing for Absolution
Now Playing: Muse

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...

Posted by voxish at 7:26 PM CET
Updated: Saturday, 10 November 2007 7:42 PM CET
Sunday, 4 November 2007
Gold Star for Robot Boy
Now Playing: Guided by Voices

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...


Posted by voxish at 4:57 PM CET
Updated: Sunday, 4 November 2007 5:25 PM CET
Friday, 5 October 2007
Air Wonder Stories
Now Playing: Led Zep

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. 


Posted by voxish at 9:46 PM MEST
Wednesday, 3 October 2007
And Behold, a Pale Horse
Now Playing: Johnny Cash

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.

Posted by voxish at 10:34 PM MEST
Friday, 28 September 2007
Rock Hard Times
Now Playing: The Eels

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.

Posted by voxish at 11:36 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 29 September 2007 12:21 AM MEST
Thursday, 27 September 2007
Bird Land
Now Playing: Weather Report
I wonder if we're in for a cold snap? It's still nominally September, and yet I've seen Fieldfares this morning. I don't usually associate these birds with anything other than cold, crisp, wintery days in the weeks after Christmas, when they're often accompanied by flocks of Redwings, often sharing the same trees. There's definitely something Autumnal in the air, anyway...

Posted by voxish at 2:03 PM MEST
Saturday, 8 September 2007
Check the guy's rock records
Now Playing: The Fall

A reader called Charles asked me to fess up about my musical influences - you know, the story titles that are actually records, the little in-jokes in the narrative that seem like a terribly good idea at the time, rather less so five years later. The fact is, though, I do listen to a great deal of music - mountains of it, quite honestly. Very few jobs allow you to sit in a room all day and listen to music, as loud as you wish - writing's one of them, if you have the inclination. I suppose being a master brain surgeon might be another. I know writers need absolute silence, but I'm emphatically not one of them. I can work in silence - and I often do, when it's going well - but as often as not I work to music. What I can't tolerate is listening to someone else's music...

I listen to a lot of stuff - I'm still an avid record buyer; a fully-paid up member of the "fifty quid bloke" demographic. We're the ones who buy five or six records at a time, forking out for CDs that we've read about in Mojo, or that we used to have on vinyl. I fill up Ikea CD racks at a frightening rate. I've never downloaded anything - I've got to own the artefact. I'm still secretly in love with vinyl album sleeves. I read Q religiously until abandoning it a few years ago, when I felt it was trying too hard to be a lad mag.  I switched to Mojo and Uncut and read them intermittently; these days I'm more likely to pick up a copy of The Word, a very good magazine indeed. What do I actually listen to, though?

Well, that depends to a large degree on what kind of mood I'm in. I've never really stopped listening to certain kinds of music; I just add more to my collection and dip in and out of it as and when I feel like it. Like many a spotty youth, the first records I bought were all prog-rock albums. I started buying records when I was 16, and I think my very first purchase was Genesis's Three Sides Live. Or it may have been Yes's Close to the Edge - you get the idea. If it had a gatefold sleeve, it was OK in my book. Strange to think, really, that some of this stuff was almost contemporary back then - no more ancient, say, than Oasis's first couple of albums. It was only ten years since Genesis had recorded Foxtrot. I wasn't really into punk, and although I listened to Tommy Vance on radio 1 every friday night, I didn't much care for heavy metal. But Tommy would play the occasional Hawkwind track, so that was OK. My mates were into much the same stuff as me - the only difference being that Ieuan liked reggae, and Dave, Alan and Ieuan liked The Damned and The Stranglers. I did, sort of, but not enough to buy the records. I think I was actually a bit threatened by it. Punk was a big, gob-smeared hobnail Doc Martin threatening to crunch down on the idyllic, fog-enshrouded Roger Dean landscapes of my imagination.

The one thing I remember is that none of us were really into the contemporary chart music of the early 80s - we couldn't give a stuff about the New Romantics and all that bollocks. Ieuan liked Toyah and Blondie, Nige liked XTC, but that was about it.

The prog thing lasted until about 1985. By then I was into King Crimson - difficult, spiky prog - and someone at school suggested I'd like the Talking Heads. So I listened to some TH tapes and was smitten, totally and utterly. By the time I went to university at the end of that year, I was massively into Talking Heads. I'd even gone on a bus to Newport to see the Stop Making Sense film. Not having a record player with me, I bought Fear of Music on tape in my first week at Uni. That's a great album - still is. I really must get it on CD one of these days. I kind of lost interest in Talking Heads after the Making Movies album, but I never stopped liking them.

I bought another tape in my first week at Uni - more or less an impulse purchase. A song had been going through my head for weeks, after I heard it on the radio during a camping trip. It was that remix (I don't know who did it) of Michael Jackson's Billy Jean and Steely Dan's Do it Again, the one where they segue together. I couldn't get Do it Again out of my brain, so I decided to chance my arm on an SD album. I knew nothing about SD, other than they were American. Apart from Talking Heads, I didn't like much American rock music, which I tended to assume was all stuff like Foreigner, Boston etc - urgh. Then I happened to read a remark in the paper about them being "one of the few interesting 70s American rock acts" or something, and my mind was made up. I bought a double casette which had Can't Buy a Thrill on one side (their first album) and - bizarrely - Aja, their penultimate one, on the other side. Stylistically, they're light-years apart. But I liked them both. Really liked them, in fact. By Christmas I'd bought Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam and Donald Fagen's first solo album - The Nightfly. Listening to those SD albums was astonishing. The Caves of Altamira, Don't Take Me Alive - I can't get enough of those songs. I still play SD regularly - they're one of the constants in my record collection, a band I return to again and again, finding new depths. I don't believe I've dropped any SD references in the books, though - Paul di Fillippo seems to have that gig more or less covered, judging by some of his story titles. The title of this blog, incidentally, is a Donald Fagen song - it's on Kamakiriad, his second solo album.

Towards the end of my university days, I hooked up with some goth types, and - apart from ridiculing my taste in laidback, jazz-inflected soft rock (one of them had a record player, so she'd kindly tape my SD albums onto casette for me) they introduced me to the gothier, doomier, more melancholy side of rock. I'd already discovered this great band called The Chameleons (I heard them on the Janice Long show) and that was OK by the goths, even though the Chams weren't exactly goth as it was known and understood. But my flatmate Ian had a great record collection and he got me listening to all sorts of good stuff, including Echo and The Bunnymen, Jene Loves Jezebel, The Skeletal Family, Sisters of Mercy - basically, anything mid-80s and with big hair, echo-laden guitars and singers who had very deep voices. That kind of stuff kept me going for a few more years. SD weren't making records, Talking Heads were in stasis, so it was a good time to broaden my tastes. By the time I left Newcastle and moved to Scotland to begin my PhD studies, bands like the House of Love were getting a lot of attention on the John Peel show. I liked all that stuff, and started cultivating the indie-rock fan's standard issue wardrobe of black jeans and black jumper.

The most significant musical discovery I made after moving to Scotland was The Fall. OK, The Fall weren't exactly obscure - they'd been on the Tube, I'd heard them on John Peel etc. But it had always sounded like an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket. On a whim, though, I bought a cheap copy of The Frenz Experiment, The Fall's seminal album from 1988, and within a few plays - or maybe within one play - I was hooked, a fully-paid-up member of the church of Mark E Smith. The Fall's output was already vast - the band had been going for ten years already, and were (and have remained) massively prolific, so it wasn't a case of going out and buying all their records. But I did buy every subsequent one, and went back and filled in the gaps when I got a CD player. I still love The Fall. In many respects my initial assessment was valid - they are an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket - but there's gold there, if you've got the patience to sift for it. I've dropped Fall refs into things, but I've noticed that the only ones I tend to get called on are the prog ones. I think it probably says something about the SF reading demographic - and me, for that matter.

I'll leave it there for now, but as we're still only up to about 1990, there's a lot to go. Thanks for tolerating this blatant self-indulgence... 




Posted by voxish at 9:43 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007 10:36 PM MEST
Monday, 3 September 2007
Now Playing: Therapy

I got news of a couple of short fiction sales over the weekend. Nick Gevers and Jay Lake are taking my story "The Receivers" for their forthcoming alternate history anthology "Other Earths". The Receivers is my take on what might have happened to Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth if the Great War had still being going on in 1935 ... with some added weirdness on the side. And it's set in Dungeness!

The other story, "The Fixation", also has an alternate history theme, although it's a very different kind of piece. This story was originally written for a birthday surprise for Helsiinki SF fan, music critic/broadcaster and all around good guy Hannu Blomilla, and it appeared as part of a book made for Hannu by his friends in Finnish fandom, which also includes fiction by Jeff Vandermeer and Peter Watts. The rest of the book's in Finnish, so don't ask me what's in it - the only words I know in that impenetrable language are Salmiakki and Koskenkorva, for some reason. Anyway, as only 200 copies of the book were produced, I didn't think it would be too naughty to offer the story for sale elsewhere, and I'm pleased to say that it will appear in the third Solaris anthology, as edited by George Mann. I am very grateful to George for agreeing to take the piece.




Posted by voxish at 9:26 PM MEST
Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007 2:03 PM MEST

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