Friday, June 01, 2018

Where I'll Be At

Sticking this to the top of the blog for a little while - a list of events I'm planning to take part in, some relating to the upcoming publication of Austral. Hope to add a few more before the year's out.


Wednesday 18th October 2017. Signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue, London. 6 - 7 pm. Day before publication of Austral - get your early copy signed.

Saturday 28th October 2017. BristolCon, Hilton Doubletree Hotel, Bristol. Taking part in panels and reading from Austral at this small but perfectly formed one-day convention.

Saturday 4th November. Gollancz Festival, Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London. 11am - 6pm.

Sunday 19th November. Writeidea Festival, Whitechapel, 5.30pm. Discussing inspiration, writing science fiction and the future with Gavin Smith. NEW

30th March - 2 April 2018. Follycon, Majestic Hotel, Harrogate.

25th - 27th May 2018. Satellite 6, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow. I'm one of the guests of honour at this space-themed science fiction convention.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Farewell Fantastic Cassini

Machine into meteor: Cassini's last encounter. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
I would have written The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun if Cassini had never been launched, or if it had failed, somehow, on its long journey. After all, Saturn had been already visited by four spacecraft. There were images of the surfaces of its major moons, where much of the two novels take place. There were maps. We already knew, before Cassini arrived at Saturn, something of the history and composition of those moons; could guess what it might be like to stand on the surface of Dione, or Mimas, or Iapetus.

But while the previous visitors had snatched glimpses of the planet and its rings and moons as they shot through the Saturn system on their way to other places, Cassini went into orbit. Settled in. Made the place its home for thirteen years, guided by its flight engineers in intricate loops that took it close to all the major moons, eking out its fuel by gravity assists during close encounters with Saturn and its biggest moon, Titan. Cassini's discoveries and beautiful images of the planet, its rings and above all its moons, immeasurable inspired, enriched and deepened my writing. We make up worlds all the time in science fiction. But here were real worlds as weird as any ever conjured by imagination; real landscapes. Some of those landscapes were - startlingly - like those of our own planet; others were utterly different. Places where people might settle one day - but who would choose to live there, and why? How would it shape and change them? I wrote those two novels to find some answers to those questions, and Cassini helped to bring those wildly strange and various worlds into sharp focus.

Launched in 1997, it arrived at Saturn, one and a half billion kilometres from Sun, in September 2004, its transit time shortened by slingshots around Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. A few months later, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe detached from Cassini and in January 2005 landed on Titan. The first landing on the moon of a planet other than Earth; the most distant landing ever made. And for the first time we saw the surface of Titan: glimpses of mountains cut by branching riverine channels as the probe descended through the thick nitrogen atmosphere and a haze of hydrocarbon smog; a fixed view of the marshy surface, strewn with pebbles, of the shoreline where it touched down.

Frozen beach. © European Space Agency
Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System. Fifty per cent larger than Earth's Moon; bigger than the smallest planet, Mercury. And because it is so cold out there, where the amount of sunlight is one eightieth of that received by Earth, Titan has retained a thick, opaque atmosphere, and, like Earth, has a hydrological cycle, and weather, and seasonal changes which Cassini has observed for almost half a Saturnian year. Its surface features, with lakes and rivers and huge equatorial dunes, resemble those of Earth, but the lakes and rivers are of liquid methane and ethane, and the dunes are built of grains of frozen petroleum. A chilly but geologically active world that's familiar yet utterly alien.

Mapping and observing Titan's surface was just one of Cassini's achievements. It has discovered more than a dozen tiny moons and moonlets. Shown that the ring system is active and dynamic, an intricate dance of icy particles and shepherd moons and gravity; helped to solve the mystery of why one hemisphere of the moon Iapetus is dark, and the other is ice-bright. And it has not only shown that the little inner moon Enceladus is active, jetting plumes of icy dust from crevices in its south pole that access an inner sea or ocean of liquid water; it has also flown through and sampled those jets, discovering that they contain the ingredients necessary for life.

Jets. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
That's the reason why, as Cassini runs low on fuel, its engineers have aimed it towards Saturn. Better a fiery death in the gas giant's atmosphere than ending up in an orbit that might one day intersect with Enceledus and possibly contaminate that inner sea, and any exolife that might exist, with hardy terrestrial bacteria. And so, from April, in what Cassini's engineers and scientists have dubbed the grand finale, the spacecraft has been racing close above the ring plane, zooming through ring gaps, skimming above Saturn's cloudscapes. Engaging in the kind of manoeuvres that until now were too risky to contemplate. Thrilling moves that mirror those of its science-fictional counterparts.

And now, after hooking around Titan for the last time, the spacecraft is heading inwards. Heading towards its final, fatal encounter with Saturn, on Friday. It will go out transmitting a live feed. Doing science until it breaks apart, the sharp end of a great human enterprise of enquiry and discovery. Mourn the machine, but celebrate that achievement, which has accumulated data and images that will be analysed and picked over for years to come. A lasting legacy that's given sense of shape to things formerly unknown, and names and local habitation to places barely glimpsed, or never before seen. Ave atque vale!

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

In Shanghai

When he revisited Shanghai in 1991, J.G. Ballard discovered that the Tudorbethan house in the old International Settlement where he'd spent most of his childhood was still standing, although much dilapidated, overshadowed by new tower blocks, and serving as the library of a state electronics institute. Some years later, it was converted to a restaurant; when I visited a couple of weeks ago it had undergone another conversion and extension, and had become a gated private members club.

The golden gates to what was once J.G. Ballard's childhood home.
The caretaker saw a bunch of Europeans standing around outside and opened the gates for us; I snatched this picture of the regooded original house and its extensions just before he realised we were tourists.
Along with fellow author Richard Morgan, I was a guest of the Shanghai International Literary Week, part of a British delegation organised by the London Book Fair. Although the Literary Week focused this year on science fiction, our trek to the house on the former Amherst Avenue (now Panyu Road), was the only acknowledgement of this famous British science fiction writer's association with the city. But perhaps the past wasn't the point.

We were staying in the French Concession, a mostly low-rise area adjacent to the former International Settlement, its streets shaded by plane trees, a green island hedged by towers and skyscrapers. Elsewhere, Shanghai is an enormous ongoing experiment in economic evolution, a simmering petri dish inhabited by more than 24 million people, endlessly reshaped by China's expanding economy and foreign investment. Streets in the French Concession are lined with stores hawking international luxury brands from perfumes to Prada. An excursion to a famous garden in Suzhou involved a two-hour drive through an interstitial sprawl of factories, greenhouse farms, power stations and tower blocks, cut by canals, motorways and high-speed train lines. And while Ballard would still recognise the solid grey banks, trading houses and hotels along the Bund on the western bank of the Huangpu River, on the opposite shore thrust clusters of new skyscrapers that dwarf the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

View from my hotel room window across the low-rise French Concession.
The Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Blade Runner prongs of the Pudong shore.
One of my events took place in a huge, newly reburbished bookshop in a dockland office development, with tall French windows looking out across the river towards those Blade Runner skyscrapers. The next day there was a poetry reading in the biggest function room of the new W Shanghai hotel, with a railway-station-sized atrium and gold bars stacked on the reception desk like the trademark of a James Bond villain. The local government had invested heavily in the book fair. I didn't get to visit the arena where publishers hawked their wares to the public, but banners advertising the fair and extolling the virtues of literacy were ubiquitous in downtown Shanghai, there were guest writers from Argentina, France, Japan, Russia and the US, and amongst more than twenty Chinese writers Chen Quifan, Fao Yi_Feng, Han Song, Ma Boyong, Wang Jinkang, Zhang Ran, and Wang Kanyu represented the Chinese science-fiction scene.

This year's emphasis on science fiction may have been partly down to the international success of Liu Chixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy (translated by Ken Liu, the first volume, The Three Body Problem, won the Hugo award for best novel in 2015). There was also a story floating around that, because many NASA engineers on the Apollo moonshot program had been inspired by reading science fiction at an impressionable age, the Chinese government was pushing the genre in the hope that it would encourage a new generation of space technology engineers. Weird if true, but it was given some credibility when in his speech at the opening ceremony the Vice-Chairman of the China Writers Association told a charming anecdote about having trouble figuring out how to use a phone-based peer-to-peer system to pay for his haircut, and suggested that science fiction could educate people like him about the future.

I'm not certain what the local science fiction writers, who have to navigate the mutable whims of the state-controlled publishing business, made of that, but it's certainly true that science fiction, long regarded as a marginal enterprise with little relevance to the present, is currently undergoing something of a renaissance. Yet although Chinese science fiction has a reputation for leaning towards traditional hard sf (and Liu Chixin's trilogy bristles with familiar hard sf tropes, from alien invasions and international conspiracies to space battles and virtual reality), it is as various and disputatious as the Western kind. Ma Boyong's The City of Silence is a dystopian satire in which the protagonist searches for human connection in a world where language has become fatally attenuated by control of the internet and face to face interactions; Han Song's Subway is a critique of China's unthinking embrace of modernisation and Western technology, in which descendants of space explorers returning to Earth find themselves trapped on a non-stop train; in Zhang Ran's 'The Gloomy States' stories, use of different technologies has shattered countries into a patchwork of independent states. If you want a taste of that variety, Clarkesworld magazine is currently publishing a regular series of translated stories by Chinese writers, or check out the anthology Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu.

At that bookshop event, Richard Morgan and I shared a panel with Wang Jinkang. Along with Liu Chixin and Han Song, he's one of the Three Generals of Chinese science fiction and has impeccable hard science fiction credentials: an engineer whose novels and stories deal with speculations about core science-fictional tropes such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, god-like aliens, and virtual reality. Even so, as he made clear in the panel, he's more interested in the ethics and philosophical problems posed by biotechnology and AI than with the nuts and bolts of the actual science. In the end, like all the good stuff, Chinese science fiction isn't concerned with handbooks or guides to the future that's already all around us, but with a host of imagined futures that mirror and distort the concerns of the present, and the human stories that can be found there.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Who Can Replace A Brian?

An appreciation of the late, great Brian Aldiss, published in Locus. Dave Langford's Ansible has also published a fine collection of tributes. The photograph was taken by Steve Jones at a signing in the World Science Fiction Convention, London, 2014.

In 1989, when I was working at Oxford University and was also a fledgling SF author, I was lucky enough to visit Brian Aldiss at his home in the leafy village of Boars Hill. The rambling house, with its airy living room, a broad lawn running out to woodland, and large square study lined with packed bookshelves, was everything a successful author could desire. ‘All you have to do,’ Brian told me, with a mischievous twinkle, ‘is publish a book a year, and you’ll have something like this too.’

Brian’s productivity considerably outran that modest ideal. In a writing career spanning more than sixty years, he published fifty novels and around thirty short-story collections, as well as memoirs, plays and volumes of poetry, essays and criticism. He also edited numerous anthologies of SF stories, including the three hugely successful Penguin anthologies that, still in print today, comprise a definitive overview of sixty years of science fiction history. 

His career as an SF writer began in the 1950s, when the genre was still dominated by the big beasts of the Golden Age, almost all of them American. He invigorated over-familiar tropes with a distinctive, wryly British slant, and like Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells, some of his best works are unsentimental but not unsympathetic depictions of humanity’s petty triumphs and foolishness set against enormous backdrops of time and space. Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is a series of interlinked stories that spans forty million years of human history; Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) is a lush, melancholic vision of the deep future, when humanity and its works have become little more than ghostly memories, and our distant descendants have been stripped by evolution of unnecessary intelligence, and struggle to survive in the mazy branches of a vast world-tree. 

Hothouse, published in 1962, is one of my all-time favourite SF novels, as is Greybeard (1964), a pastoral apocalypse set some fifty years after humanity was sterilised by nuclear bomb tests. And let’s not forget Non-Stop, The Dark Light Years, Cryptozoic! Earthworks . . . It was my great good fortune that my personal golden age as an avid teenage SF reader coincided with Brian’s golden age as an SF writer. As the British New Wave developed he embraced a range of experimental techniques, from the fractured language of Barefoot in the Head to the infinite regression of observers in Report on Probability A, but his masterpiece, the densely imagined Helliconia trilogy, is superficially more conventional, describing the rise and fall of civilisations on a planet whose seasons span centuries, a perfect synthesis of pulp SF and serious speculations about cycles in history. 

By then, he’d also published two series of literary novels, the Squire Quartet and the rambunctious, best-selling Horatio Stubbs trilogy. And while many of his later novels were similarly character-led, he continued to be a prominent figure in SF, genial, generous, tirelessly promoting the genre as a serious literary endeavour. The last time we met was at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, where we shared a signing table for an hour and I watched him treat a stream of fans with gruff good-humour, Afterwards I had him sign my first edition of Helliconia Spring. To Paul, he wrote in a typically generous gesture, with much love. Hard to think that his ebullient imagination and busy pen are finally stilled.

Friday, September 01, 2017

In Omnibus




Out as ebooks, two pairs of novels from the Quiet War sequence. First up is The Quiet War, featuring the build up to war and its aftermath in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. And then, a thousand or so years down the line in The Vastening, there's revelation and change in In The Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires. Space opera and history's long tale around Fomalhaut and in the new, vast and varied outer reaches of the solar system.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Six Months


Friday, August 25, 2017

Another Blurb


"The excitement of a new country appearing right here on Earth, a real possibility that is quite fascinating in itself, is doubled down here by way of a thrilling kidnap-and-rescue plot that ranges across this beautiful new landscape, showing how we will soon be not only terraforming Earth, but finding new ways to take care of each other. It's a vivid example of science fiction at its best."
 
Kim Stanley Robinson 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Artworks

In the early 1970s New English Library reissued a selection of the late Brian Aldiss's novels and short-story collections, with fabulous covers by Bruce Pennington. Here are seven of them (I'm missing The Interpreter).








Saturday, August 12, 2017

Undefining


Austral is a science fiction novel - I'm a science fiction writer, it's set in the future, what more needs to be said? Except that these days not all novels set in the future are science fiction. Some, for instance, deal with the effects of climate change on the world in general and human society and the human pysche in particular, and although the effects of climate change are beginning to accelerate right here, right now, the worst effects will be manifest in the next couple of hundred years. So much  fiction dealing with climate change is by default set in the future. But it isn't science fiction. It's cli-fi.

I don't think it's a very useful term. Not just because it echoes sci-fi, often used as a label for the worst examples within the science-fiction genre by those who ignore the preference for the term SF by those who read and write the stuff, but also because the person who coined it is something of a jealous gatekeeper, policing its use, deciding ex cathedra what's in and what's out. It's less a genre, more a marketing tool, and much of it (especially the Young Adult fiction) is both dystopian and apocalyptic. Climate change as another excuse for winnowing the excess population and staging adventures in a simplified post-civilisation board game.

There's another sub-genre, solarpunk, which is much more optimistic, but currently there are few fictions that fall inside its boundaries, and it tends to scant the seriousness and difficulties of the immediate problems of climate change. But if Austral had to fall into a category I'd rather it shaded towards solarpunk than dour cli-fi dystopias. There are all kinds of problems caused by climate change in Austral's future, but its inhabitants are making the best of what's happened -- most especially by the establishment of a new nation in the Antarctic Peninsula, and greening tracts of new land which have been exposed by the great melting. Terrestrial terraforming, or a variation of the speculative extreme gardening I described in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Mostly, it's about these two people I know, trying to find an escape route across those emergent landscapes:

Close to the end of the day the girl and I drove up out of the forest and crossed the broad snow-covered saddle between the Cayley Valley and Blériot Basin. A solitary peak stood off to the north, hard pinkish light glowing on its flanks, and the wind blew cold and clean and the last of the sunlight turned the snow crust’s icy lace into a carpet of diamonds.
We’re simple creatures. A change in the weather or a glimpse of a distant panorama can transform our mood in an instant. Looking across snowy ridges towards that mountain peak I was struck head to toe by a tingling charge of exhilaration. We had escaped, I was about to take up the path Mama and I had once followed, and this time it would all come right.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Extrasolar


Imminently due from PS Publishing, Extrasolar, edited by Nick Gevers: an anthology of original stories inspired by the discovery, over the past twenty-five years, of the rich and populous zoo of exoplanets orbiting other stars. Terrific line-up of authors and stories. Also one by me, inspired by the difficulties and craziness of field research, and a James Bond film.
  • Holdfast – Alastair Reynolds
  • Shadows of Eternity – Gregory Benford
  • A Game of Three Generals – Aliette de Bodard
  • The Bartered Planet – Paul Di Filippo
  • Come Home – Terry Dowling
  • The Residue of Fire – Robert Reed
  • Thunderstone – Matthew Hughes
  • Journey to the Anomaly – Ian Watson
  • Canoe -- Nancy Kress
  • The Planet Woman By M.V. Crawford – Lavie Tidhar
  • Arcturean Nocturne – Jack McDevitt
  • Life Signs – Paul McAuley
  • The Fall of the House of Kepler – Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse – Kathleen Ann Goonan
More details over at the PS Publishing web site, where you can pre-order or even buy the book.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Austral Coming Through



Bound proof copies of Austral have arrived: the penultimate stage in the alchemical process of thought to words to book. A few early reactions:

'Bleakly beautiful, Austral is both a finely-honed character study and a powerful evocation of landscape and change, delivered with icy clarity. This is the kind of fiction we will need as the Anthropocene takes hold.' Alastair Reynolds

'An exquisite human story set on an undiscovered continent of our near future. Austral may be McAuley’s best yet.' Stephen Baxter

And over on Goodreads, this from Joanne Harris:

'I was sent this proof by the publishers, and oh boy, it's a good one. A cracking setup; great writing; great pacing; a genuinely fresh narrative voice, and for once - hooray! - a male author writing a complex, first-person female narrator who is neither a broflake's wet-dream, nor a wooden stereotype. Austral is big, strong, powerful, and yet with real vulnerabilities; a flawed and relatable heroine with agency, feelings and spirit.'

Monday, July 03, 2017

Soft Launch

A while back I promised a Kindle edition of my short story collection A Very British History. And then actual life intervened, and the delay in publication stretched into very nearly a year. Now it has finally gone live, and is available for purchase in the UK, the US, and all points north, south, east, and west of the Pecos.

It's a look back at the first twenty-five years of my career (and was first published by PS Publishing in 2013: I really am as old as dirt) - from my first publication in Interzone to 'The Choice', which won the Theodore Sturgeon Award. Because it's a best-of collection, some of the twenty-three stories have been published in Little Machines, Stories from the Quiet War, and Life after Wartime. So if you've bought any of those and feel that you don't need to buy this as well, I quite understand. But if you're new to my stuff, this is a selection of what I think are the best stories in the first half of my career. There are also notes on every story, and a short biographical essay, 'My Secret Super-Power.'

Table of Contents

'Little Ilya and Spider and Box'
'The Temporary King'
'Cross Road Blues'
'Gene Wars'
'Prison Blues'
'Children of the Revolution'
'Recording Angel'
'Second Skin'
'All Tomorrow's Parties'
'17'
'Sea Change, With Monsters'
'How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen'
'A Very British History'
'The Two Dicks'
'Meat'
'Rocket Boy'
'The Thought War'
'City of the Dead'
'Little Lost Robot'
'Shadow Life'
'The Choice'
'Searching for Van Gogh at the End of the World'
'Karl and the Ogre'
'My Secret Super-Power.'

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Headbanging

Currently working on the proofs for Austral, with the usual feeling that I am bound to miss some trivial but really annoying error. That never goes away.

And have just finished the penultimate draft of a short story, the first in a year or so. It took a while, mostly because I tried to work out the consequences of a confluence of ideas about climate change, artificial life, a closed community, so on, without a clear understanding of the pivotal character. It wasn't until I began to get her right - to see how she saw her world - that the narrative began to acquire its own logic. It still needs work, but at least it now has a real, rather than a forced, ending. Headbanging against a stubborn narrative that refuses to crack open? That never goes away either.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Award Season


Interrupting a small silence while I try to finish a short story to announce that Into Everywhere has been shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Thrilled, needless to say, and especially honoured to be included with some very fine novels:

2017 Campbell Award Finalists

Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter The Medusa Chronicles
Don DeLillo Zero K
Kij Johnson The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Paul J. McAuley Into Everywhere
Nisi Shawl Everfair
Tricia Sullivan Occupy Me
Tade Thompson Rosewater
Lavie Tidhar Central Station
Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad
Aliya Whiteley The Arrival of Missives
Rick Wilber Alien Morning
Ben Winters Underground Airlines
John Nicholas Wood Azanian Bridges

Friday, May 26, 2017

Quickening Antarctica

Credit: Matt Amesbury
Currently, only a minute fraction of Antarctica is occupied by plant life, but a new study has shown that may soon change: even modest temperature increases along the northerly curl of the Antarctic Peninsula have dramatically affected the growth and spread of moss banks. Matt Amesbury, one of the investigators, says that if this continues the Peninsula 'will be a much greener place in the future.'

Which is of considerable interest to me, as Austral is set in that much greener place:
I was driving over flat terrain cracked into big polygonal plates and lightly covered in snow. House-sized boulders, erratics dumped by retreating ice, were dotted about like a giant’s game of marbles. Off to the left, a line of trees intermittently visible through gusts of snow marked the course of the river. More trees thickened ahead, and quite soon I was driving through the fringes of the forest, wallowing up and down low ridges, swerving left or right as trees smashed out of the darkness. Crooked spires no more than ten or twelve metres high, bent and warped by snow and ice and wind. I remembered hiking with Mama through a forest just like it the summer we escaped, remembered columns of dusty sunlight slanting between pine trees, moss and ferns thick on the ground. A green cathedral that seemed as old as the world, but had been planted out by ecopoets just forty years before.
Suggesting that climate change will make Antarctica more hospitable to life isn't a radical prediction, but it's a little disconcerting to discover that it's already happening. Here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, history's drumbeat is quickening. Worst-case scenarios are too often exceeded. Change is the new normal. Reality threatens to outrace imagination.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Something I'm Doing Later This Year


Friday, May 12, 2017

Alien: Covenant


Although touted as a sequel to the venerable first film in the franchise, the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, with a sophomoric, inconclusive discussion about God and creation between Michael Fassbender and Guy Pierce, firmly identifies it as a direct sequel to Prometheus. Fassbender reprises his role as David, the android whose motives trumped those of the human exploration crew in Prometheus; he also plays a sibling android, Walter, who is part of the crew of the Covenant. A colony ship that, after receiving a signal containing a distorted version of John Denver's 'Country Roads', diverts its course to an Earth-like planet in nearby star system and the expected xenomorph mayhem.

The film is beautifully designed and shot, with sets that nicely reproduce the workaday retro interiors of the early films, and a palette of blues and dark greens and deep shadows for exterior shots that evoke the Gothic romanticism Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. But as in Friedrich's metaphysical landscapes, the human figures are the least significant elements. Billy Crudup's acting captain makes much of the fact that he's a man of faith, but his confrontation with David's delusions of godhead is an inconclusive fizzle, and apart from Danny McBride's Tennessee and Katherine Waterson's Daniels (who nicely evokes Ripley's gritty determination), the rest of the crew are, even if you've watched the online prologue that isn't included in the onscreen film, mostly two-dimensional cyphers. Meat for the Wagnerian plans of David, who snared them by broadcasting that signal from an alien city littered with corpses. There's inventively gory body-horror, some good jump-in-your-seat shocks, and plenty of fan-pleasing references to earlier films, but stringing together variations of iconic scenes fails to create a coherent or interesting story. It's not the worst film in the franchise, but its final revelations undercut mythology with trite and unnecessary explanations, and the slingshot ending isn't aimed at the Nostromo, but at the continuation of the far less interesting and original Promethean trilogy, and David's ongoing issues with his dead dad.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Close Encounters

I encountered many fictional aliens before my only face-to-face meeting with a person from another planet; so many, back in the 1960s, when I was growing up, that I can't now remember the first. It definitely wasn't the Mekon, because I wasn't a reader of The Eagle and Dan Dare (as far as comics were concerned, I was still fighting the Second World War with The Victor), and could well have been Fireball XL5's Zoonie the Lazoon, a round-headed big-eyed big-eared precursor of Jar Jar Binks, although more than fifty years later I remember the programme only for its opening credits, with the titular spacecraft's ungainly launch along a monorail track. Fireball XL5's run ended in 1963, and my first clear memory of an alien dates from late in the same year, in the first episode of Doctor Who. Not the Daleks, who featured in the programme's second story, nor even the Doctor himself, but an unearthly child in trouble at school: Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter.

After that, it's all a bit of a blur, from H.G. Wells's Martians to Star Trek's Mr Spock and the monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was even a brief dalliance with UFO literature. My mother's family came from south coast resort town of Bognor Regis, and we often holidayed there, staying with my great aunt, who ran a traditional boarding house. Unlike the rest of her guests, we weren't kicked out for the day, a bonus in the thundery last weeks of August 1970, when it rained every day: torrential downpours that swept the beaches clean and drove holidaymakers into the slot machine arcades, bingo halls and seafront shelters, where they huddled in their pacamacs, picking at sodden chips and watching the grey windlashed waves roll past the deserted pier. There was nothing else for it: I joined the local library, one of the first in Britain with a computerised checkout; the ticket was a slab of plastic much like the memory cards Mr Spock inserted into the Enterprise's bridge computer. Most of the titles in the science-fiction section duplicated those of my home town's library, but there was a long shelf of UFO books and I steadily read my way through that, noting that the Venerians and many other extraterrestrial visitors were, much like the crew of the Enterprise, here to help. Friendly humanoid gods who'd visited Earth to impart cosmic wisdom and reassure us that our little local difficulty with the everyday threat of nuclear annihilation would soon pass. Many were caricatures of Californian hippies: Orthon, the extraterrestrial mentor of the Godfather of UFO literature, George Adamanski, had tanned skin and long blond hair, and Adamski notes that 'his trousers were not like mine.' Flared patchwork jeans, perhaps. Anyway, I absorbed this idea of helpful humanoid aliens imparting inscrutable wisdom, and more than forty years later used my own version in the two Jackaroo novels, Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere. Books I couldn't have written without the help of Mr Adamski and his otherwordly visitors, Bognor Regis library and much summer thunder.

But I was going to tell you about my face-to-face meeting with an alien. It was also in August: August 21st 1990, to be precise, in Edinburgh. One of my friends -- I'll call him Julian, because that's his name -- worked for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and I spent an evening with him before I set out for the 48th World SF Convention in the Hague. Julian had passes for one of the concerts, and as we walked through the warm twilight from the Festival's offices to the venue he casually swung a plastic supermarket bag. We badged our way to the back stage, and that's where I had my first and so far only encounter with a man from another planet: the headliner of the concert, Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blunt, in Alabama, the jazz bandleader had long ago revealed that he was actually from Saturn (which George Adamski had once visited, when he attended a cosmic conference), here to study Earth and preach peace. He was enthroned in the busy green room, inscrutable, robed, kingly, a still point amongst the bustle as members of his Arkestra came and went. After a short consultation with one of his aides he beckoned us into his presence. Julian presented the plastic bag and Sun Ra examined the contents -- twenty thousand pounds in cash, the fee for the concert. Satisfied, he handed the bag to the aide and raised his hand in blessing. A blessing from a wise unearthly observer I'm happy to pass on to you.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Transect: Hammersmith to Richmond












Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rivers Run Through It


Rivers braid the coasts of the warmer, wetter Antarctic Peninsula of Austral. Rivers fed by meltwater lakes and the stubs of remnant glaciers. Braided marshland deltas. Rivers whose valleys and basins have been gardened with forests:
Somewhat past noon we encountered a second river, running broad and shallow over a bed of white pebbles, faintly smoking in the frigid air. We crossed it easily and parked up on the far side and brewed tea, black with the last of the sugar stirred into it, and ate a scant lunch of shrivelled bearberries picked along the river’s edge. Sunlight sparkled on the water and on the far bank a Siberian larch clothed in flame-red leaves flared in the sombre shade of conifers. The sheltering hush of the forest was broken only by the rippling rush of the river and the creak of trees pinched by cold and the occasional soft slide of snow from an overloaded bough. It was as if we were the first or last people in the world.
A new survey has shown that there are already plenty of rivers in Antarctica. In summer, bare mountain slopes and stretches of blue ice absorb sunlight's heat and feed seasonal drainage systems that cut through ice and run to the high margins of the coast, and plunge to floating ice shelves. As Antarctica grows ever warmer it's likely that these outflows of meltwater will increase in extent, perhaps accelerating loss of ice shelves that presently protect the outflows of glaciers from intrusion of warmer ocean currents. Meltwater melting more ice and creating more meltwater, a positive feedback loop. Seasonal streams becoming permanent, running across bedrock exposed by retreating glaciers and depleted ice sheets. As usual, fiction about the future is anticipated by its present.
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