Sunday, 27 December 2009

Dave's Favourite SF, Part 4

Although I tend to think of myself as more of an SF fan, some of my favourite stories are better classed as fantasy. Before stepping out onto the wobbly pontoon of distinctions, let me venture the opinion that both SF and fantasy are mechanisms for bringing the miraculous and fantastic, for better or worse, into a tale, so that more possibilities of experience can be examined.

SF is usually set in the future, featuring some new technology that is important to the story. It is more or less believable in terms of what we imagine the future might be like, without invoking any extra laws to hold that reality together.
Fantasy can be set in any time, and no technical explanation is required for the weird and miraculous stuff that happens. The miraculousness comes from other dimensions with their own laws, usually some version of magic, which may be kept to rigorously, but do not need explaining.

For an unusual take on the genre of sword and sorcery, something I usually avoid like the Magus's curse, there is Tim Powers' tale of a grizzled mercenary and reincarnation of King Arthur fighting against the Saracen in the 16th century siege of Vienna, The Drawing Of The Dark. This book generates such an intense sense of place that when I first visited Vienna a couple of years after reading it, I looked for a basis for the pub that features extensively in the story – and found a 16th century candidate, embedded in a remaining section of 16th century city wall.

Akif Pirincci's feline whodunit, Felidae, is the story of a cat who sets out to investigate cat-murders in his neighbourhood, and via some carefully-researched material on cat behaviour (Pirincci has also written a book on cat habits) eventually succeeds in uncovering a horrifyingly brutal conspiracy. Echoes of the Holocaust mingle with very funny exchanges between the felines. The roughest street cats swear continually and refer to humans as 'tin-openers'. Highly recommended, even if you don't normally read animal fantasies.

Among the greatest ever writers of fantasy I would include Tom Robbins, particularly Jitterbug Perfume and Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, but I shall leave discussion of his work for a specific blog about the fictional representation of magic.

What I want to get onto now is the kind of fantasy that stretches genre boundaries; is it fantasy or is it magic realism? I've ignored that almost ludicrous distinction for a while and gradually I'll take it as an opportunity to excoriate literary prejudices

Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics is a mighty boundary-crossing work. Calvino tells stories of beings who've existed since the Big Bang, now finding themselves in mundane jobs, like an agent for a plastics firm in Pavia, with a blithe, straight-faced ease that takes its absurdities in hand and plunges you into the story. These superbeings are human, in the sense that they have the preoccupations of children and adults – play, sex and love, reputation, fear and shame. A sample:

"One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy a hundred million light years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy's light had taken a hundred million years to reach me, and since they saw up there what was taking place a hundred million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred million years.

Even before I checked my diary to see what I had been doing that day, I was seized with a ghastly presentiment: exactly two hundred million years before, not a day more nor a day less, something had happened to me that I had always tried to hide."

This story develops into an almost Kafkaesque toying with the paranoid basis of religion – that there's someone out there watching you all the time.

'All At One Point' is an elegant and funny modern exposition of an ancient myth. The Goddess principle concealed in the material world, that is mourned and sought by everyone, she who the Gnostics called Sophia, Wisdom, who is responsible for the expansion of the universe from its original point, is here called Mrs Ph(i)nk0 (approximately), and is characterised as a woman whom everyone loves, who wants to make pasta for everyone, which is how the universe starts, to give her the resources to do so.

Blundering on into the realm of "magic realism", this is often a device to make a point. In Irving Welsh's powerful dark tale Filth, the policeman's sentient tapeworm is able to give the reader a unique perspective on a torn-up life.

More genre-busters appear in the works of Flann O'Brien / Brian Nolan / Miles naGopaleen. The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive involve mad scientists, time travel and policemen with magical powers, set against a comedic take on the repressive morality of Ireland in the 1950s. No doubt the doorkeepers of mainstream literature, wishing to have such a fine writer as O'Brien in the tent, would class these books as "magic realism", the critic's stamp of approval of anything weirder than ordinary realism.

Peering through this lens of critical approval, let's take a look at the excesses of the magic realist style. Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is, in my view, badly marred by trivial and obscure fantasy scenes. For example, on the first page Saladin Chamcha survives falling out of a plane, and later on a mass movement of Indian people walk under the sea towards the Arabic peninsula. All I can make of scenes like that is that the reader is supposed to fall down and worship the author for his sheer exuberant cleverness. To me, this is postmodern storytelling on the cheap, its pretentious chest-beating operating within the sanction of an academic PoMo establishment that has given up on awe, immersion, and indeed all the basics of good storytelling, hates entertainment and loves to strut its own obscurity along the lines of: "You don’t understand me therefore I’m deeper than you".

Some justify this arch, narcissistic cleverness as exuberant fabulism, saying it honours alternative views of reality than the consensus of atheist humanism, that Rushdie created a style that enables us to grasp the complexity of modern India. This sounds to me like a species of exoticism, not far removed from 19th century Orientalism, which at least managed to entertain (try Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo for a lurid, gorgeous video-nasty).

Having said that, it's about time I said what I like about Rushdie. I'm immensely glad he escaped the curse placed on him by the hate-filled old monsters of the Iranian clergy. I’d probably not have bothered with The Satanic Verses but for the fatwa.

Writers of this kind of PoMo fiction seem to be saying "Nothing is true, everything is relative, and I'm the one with the most stylish way of presenting my nihilism". It seems you're not supposed to immerse yourself in magical realism, but view it from some alienated, ironical PoMo position, whereas at least with fantasy the reader is being offered an experience of naïve immersion in a narrative, not a bloodless intellectual bit of one-upmanship.

Despite the distinguished roll-call of successful literary figures who've either written or been influenced by SF or fantasy, including a large minority of celebrated authors before the last 50 years, mainstream lit-crit often attacks SF, as if it has something to fear from it. (Maybe the exposure of the pathetically limited palette of a dodgy realism?)

This division may be a function of the cultural split that became noticed some time in the 20th century as scientific education began to be taken seriously, as the appearance of "two cultures", the gap between those educated in sciences and those in humanities subjects. On the humanities side, they come over as cooler, less nerdy than the science kids, largely because they don't have to work as hard on getting their qualifications.

So what are they moaning / worried about? That the superficiality of much humanities education doesn't fit people for living in this fast-changing civilization, and that those who cross over between the two cultures, like those who appreciate the best SF stories, are in fact better-fitted for life in this world than they are?

There follows a few examples of well-written stuff (from the SF side of the barricade) that shows how confused and prejudicial such judgments are.
Eric Brown's Kéthani is a novel built out of the stories of residents of a Yorkshire village as they begin to benefit from an alien immortalization technology. The examination of what makes people want to go on living, and how they recover from trauma is superb. This is just one example of writing which is surely as finely-crafted as most of what is admitted through the gates of mainstream lit.

A novel whose time has definitely come is Air by Geoff Ryman. This is a portrait of life in a peasant village in the Turkic Republics of Central Asia, just about the last place on earth to go online in a technological revolution. The new Air technology feeds the Internet directly into the brain. During the chaotic sequence where the new tech is being installed and routed in everyone, the protagonist finds herself holding in her arms her dying neighbour. The rest of her terrifying adventure at the hands of various vested interests is coloured by the fact she got possessed by the spirit of the dying old lady. Here we have a story that digs deep into human experience and gives a vivid glimpse of how the world is changing. It would be nice to see mainstream lit do that well.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

carbon-neutral fairy tales wanted....

No doubt everybody has seen the recent ad campaign about global warming, featuring a dad reading a modern fairytale to his daughter. HarperCollins, via Authonomy, are launching a competition based on the Act on CO2 message. Write a short story or fairytale (3000 words max) on this theme, and winning entries will be published in an anthology.

closing date 31st January 2010

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

James White Award 2009

The James White Award 2009 has been open since 11 July 2009, but there are only three months left until it closes on 28 February 2010.

"The James White Award is a short story competition open to non-professional writers and is decided by an international panel of judges made up of professional authors and editors."

First prize is £250 and publication in Interzone. Stories must be under 6,000 words, and writers must not be "professional authors" - i.e., have not made three short story sales to markets deemed as "professional" by the SFWA.

See here for the full rules.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Twelfth Planet Press open for novelettes

Twelfth Planet Press is looking for novelettes for its doubles series. Stories should be between 10,000 and 20,000 words, science fiction or fantasy ("speculative fiction"), and they "are particularly looking for works that feel fresh, different and take risks to push boundaries and ideas".

Submissions will be open from 1 December 2009 to 28 February 2010, and should be sent as RTF attachments to Payment is $100 advance and 8% royalty on subsequent print runs.

See here for full details.

Monday, 16 November 2009

No one would have believed...

Canadian "micropublisher" Northern Frights is looking for sf short stories for a new anthology, War of the Worlds: Front Lines.

"... we would like to see are stories influenced by HG Wells' The War of the Worlds and containing Aliens in some form against Humanity. They don't have to be the tripod riding, octopus-style Martians from the original novel. In fact, we would prefer seeing what your imagination can come up with. And while the title of the anthology is War of the Worlds: Front Lines, we realize that wars between man and alien could be fought on many fronts, and in many ways. Feel free to send stories that span time, space, and genres."

Stories should be no more than 8,000 words. Payment is one cent per word, up to $50.00 (plus one contributor copy). Deadline is 31st December 2009. Submissions should be sent as RTF attachments to

See here for full details. Check the guidelines - the publisher is quite particular about manuscript format.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Call for submissions - Music for another world

Mark Harding is looking for stories for a science fiction and fantasy "anthology of stories on what music means to us and what it does to us, how we shape and it, and how it might shape us". The anthology will be published in paperback and as an ebook in the summer of 2010.

Submissions will be open from 6 January 2010 to 30 April 2010. Story length 2,000 to 6,000 words. Electronic submissions in RTF format to mark.musicanthology'@' Payment is a flat rate of £80 per author.

See here for full details.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Off the Shelf

The Sheffield SFF Writers' Group, in association with the Off the Shelf literary festival, presents

An Evening of Flash Fiction.

Monday 19 October 2009

7:30 pm onwards

Upstairs at the Old Queen's Head, Pond Hill.

Panverse accepting submissions

Panverse, a new publisher of all-novella anthologies, is currently accepting submissions for Panverse Two, its second anthology, which is due to be published in late spring 2010.

They're looking for "pro-level" novellas of 15,000 to 40,000 words. Science fiction or fantasy - but not epic fantasy or sword & sorcery. Payment is $75 per novella. Submissions are open until they have enough good stories for the anthology.

Full guidelines are here. Note especially the sort of stuff they don't want.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dave's favourite SF, part 3

SF goes back as far as you want to look, though the technophilia of the 19th century definitely gave most of its themes a big boost. When I was about eight I saw the 1959 Pat Boone and James Mason film of Jules Verne's 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth and went on to read the book as soon as I could get hold of it. About the same age I discovered a graphic novel version (though I think they were called comic books in those days) of H. G. Wells' 1898 The War of the Worlds, going on to read the full text novel a little later.

Most of the early SF I've been reviewing here is from that era between 1930 and 1960, the so-called Golden Age of SF. Many of the great themes of SF were established and explored in these years, coloured by a host of wonderful, quirky, eccentric people.

Some more deep future history from that era: since posting up part two of this blog, the gods of SF have placed into my hands just this week another classic of "deep future history", Arthur C Clarke's The City And The Stars, which I somehow managed never to read before. This starts off with a perfect description of immersive VR – he writes:

"it was as if he lived in a dream yet believed he was awake"

- and is it the first of its kind, in 1956? The "real" space of the City is as mutable as VR, so they overlap, which is a terrific theme in itself.

I realised that this novel must be a descendant of Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men and an ancestor, probably, of Michael Moorcock's The Dancers At The End of Time (see below), and maybe Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light too.

The core of the story is the thrill of Alvin's discovery of a way out of the City's enclosed world. At the core of life there has to be, as far as I'm concerned, engagement with seeking the mysteries of life. This is why I value weirdness in SF – the world is weird in places, at the edges of normal discourse, and the weird edges of it give escape points from what would otherwise be a prison-planet of physical "scientism" (not that science is bad – it's the blind faith in materialism I call "scientism" that is so restrictive).

Back to Utopias and their pains, and projecting forward into the future from existing subcultures, we have Gwyneth Jones' Bold As Love and Castles Made Of Sand. Yes, those really are Hendrix titles, and the books are thick with 60s references (even including ones to the Grateful Dead, which made me wonder who the series is aimed at – I wasn't aware that anyone under fifty listened to their music). It's also got some true-life type stoner jokes in it.

The background to the novels is the splitting of the UK into its component parts, and a resurgent retro-romantic tribalism, in some areas of which the old 60s counterculture gets to see all its dreams and nightmares begin to come true. This is done with tremendously rich detail. The references to festival life – some of its less savoury characters, its fearless, amoral children, and the absurd or horrific results of "let it all hang out" ideologies show she's lived in that world.

There are a couple of illustrations from veteran comic / graphic novel author Bryan Talbot. The central characters are in a two-men-one-woman triad, and the relationships are very well done. Jones seems to be one the current darlings of the British literary-SF world, and deservedly so.

I expect I shall read the other novels that have come along to follow the first two, though I'm generally suspicious of series – how long can it be before the other-world the reader has come to love playing in becomes a bigger draw than the story, and it all goes thin?

The Bold as Love series has an interesting website. Visit it with your sound on, and hear how cleverly Jones plays on the ideas of Englishness and Britishness.

My taste for cyberpunk's neo-noir and also for stories that raise political questions means I get to read a lot of dystopias.

Fitting neatly into neither of these categories is the first short story I read in the 60s New Wave SF, J G Ballard's 'The Voices of Time'. The human race is decaying into permanent sleep, and the protagonist, like many a Ballardian character, is caught between his old life and the some mutation into an unknown and terrifying future being. This story is almost pure poetry, Ballard mixing bleak post-industrial landscapes with speculative neurology to hint at the alienness of evolutionary process.

Recently re-reading The Drowned World made me remember how brilliant Ballard's writing is:

"These are the oldest memories on earth, the time-codes carried in every chromosome and gene... now we are being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past... Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory... The... central nervous system is a coded time-scale... The further down the CHS you move, you descend back into the neuronic past."

Ballard's densest, most apocalyptic poetry is in the collection The Atrocity Exhibition. I first read 'You and Me and the Continuum', a related story, in a copy of New Worlds from Woolworths' remainders counter some time in the 60s. This was the beginning of the reaction that turned SF from outer space to inner.

One of my all-time favourite novels is William Gibson's Count Zero, second in the Neuromancer trilogy. It's a slickly-written thriller with some really daring ideas, and a plot based around the evolution of artificial intelligences at a stage where they're impersonating Voudon deities. I can't quote the opening lines because my copy is currently missing, but the temporary death of one of the main characters on the first page sets a tremendous pace.

In Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley we have multidimensional characters in a multiverse of political conspiracy. This is clearly a satire on the US imperial role in the world and doubts about it of people in the know. CAs are intelligence operatives of the blackest-ops sort, a bit like James Ellroy's tough guys (in, e.g., American Tabloid) but with a touch of Switters in Tom Robbins's Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, a highly recommended book which I'll get round to discussing later. Satire it surely is, but told from a very USA POV in which everyone not conventional right-of-centre is a communist. But I think this supplies clarity in the transformations that follow – by presenting a stereotypical image of the hawk faction in US life. The dimensions deepen though – our operatives have profound doubts about their Government's policy of interference in parallel Americas to bring about democracy. Conspiracies nest inside conspiracies, black ops inside black ops. The appalling moral and political consequences of this imperial interference in the name of democracy come into stark focus as the tale progresses.

A fairly long book, full of painstaking detail, like Ellroy, I think this novel does a great job of suggesting then showing the moral horror of imperialism done in the name of democracy. Cowboy Angels is SF in the mode of using an imaginative device to make a more powerful or nuanced point about human life than "realism" can do.

Brian Aldiss's recent novel HARM is set in a dystopian near-future UK oppressed by Guantanamo-type torture centres, which oppression is in turn radicalising Moslem youth, leading to an escalation almost into civil war. The situation is running out of control, a feedback loop of increasing brutality on both sides. The protagonist, Paul Fadhil Ali, a British-born apostate Moslem writer, is arrested for making a joke in a comic novel about the assassination of the British PM. Subject to dissociative personality disorder, he finds his identity fragmenting under torture, escaping to a planet colonized by future humans. But it is no escapist fantasy – Stygia contains all the genocidal evil of Earth at its worst, and parallels emerge between his parallel lives.

A dark, dark, disturbing novel, not least because it is so beautifully written, the decayed English of the Stygia colonists full of malapropistic word games and puns.

More cyberpunkish and more optimistic is Jeff Noon's writing, set in Mancunian youth culture. In Vurt he is writing what could be called nanopunk – youngsters get hold of incredibly powerful nanotechnolgy and use it for fun and adventure into other dimensions, and in Needle in the Groove a new recording technology renders music indistinguishable from drugs.

Optimism in SF
This entry is written partly in response to a question from a writer friend of mine who is not particularly into SF: he asked if I thought that if someone wrote an optimistic sci-fi story they would be considered naïve?

One old and buoyantly optimistic example is Howard Fast's short story 'The First Men'. A group of scientists believe that humans restrict the potentials of young people by immersing them in our corrupt and stupid culture, so they isolate a group of highly intelligent youngsters and bring them up in a loving, creative, collective environment. The results surpass their wildest expectations – they have nurtured the first clutch of Homo superior, basically. The children shed the shadow which has haunted humanity since the beginning, the spectre of original sin is banished and amazing new capabilities evolve. Of course, the ordinary human world is appalled by these 'godless', rational, compassionate beings and sets out to destroy them, but their powers are far too great to fall victim to the old race.

This story dates from 1960, and I don't think I've ever read a more optimistic take on the human future. Stapledon certainly didn't seem to believe in human perfectibility, and even inhabitants of Banks's ideal Culture society are prone to terrible doubt about their Culture's effects on other races, and to boredom.

Of recent stories, Jetse de Vries's 'Transcendence Express', published in The Hub 44 (and apparently in other places) is a shining example of optimism*. Set in an African village school where a teaching volunteer who's been involved in the development of quantum computers from organic materials gets the kids to carve their own laptops from wood. Extraordinary things happen in the interface of heuristic AIs and the children, leading to new solutions to old political and social problems.

* whatever happened to The Hub magazine? It's many issues since they included anything of the quality of some of their early stories. They seem to be making a run for the mainstream, publishing exclusively the kind of stories that might get shown on the least-demanding end of TV SF.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Dog Horn Literature & Art Prize announced

Dog Horn Publishing, publishers of Polluto magazine, has announced their first Literature and Art competition for "works of a cutting edge or transgressive nature" in fiction, poetry and art.

"Entries should be experimental, cross-genre or post-something in nature. We want you to challenge traditional forms and ask difficult questions. We want you to have fun and, to coin a cliché, think outside the box. In fact, we want you to take that box, cram it with Semtex and blow it to pieces."

Competition ends 1 April 2010, and the winner in each category will win a publishing contract for a book-length project of fiction, poetry, art of combination of all three.

Entrants must be 18 at time of submission. Entry is not free, but as per the following:

  • short stories cost £5 for the first entry (max 5,000 words) or £7 (max 5,001 - 10,000 words), with additional stories costing £4/£6, respectively
  • poems cost £3 for the first entry (max 40 lines) or £4 (41 lines+), with additional poems costing £2/£3, respectively
  • art submissions cost £10 for the first entry, and £8 for additional entries
See here for full details.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Blade Red Press anthology open for submissions

Blade Red Press's first anthology is now open for submissions. Blade Red Dark Pages - Volume 1 will be a dark speculative fiction anthology, available in early 2010 (before June). Only submissions sent between 17 September and 30 November 2009 will be considered.

Stories must be up to 7,500 words, and have "some element of a speculative nature" and "must also have a dark and gritty edge". Send stories as .rtf attached to an email to The subject of the email must read, "SUBMISSION: Story Title". The body of the email must include: story title, author's name, address, contact email, and wordcount of the submission.

Payment is AUD$25 per story, plus a contributor's copy of the anthology. Payment by PayPal only.

See here for full details.

Sunday Times Short Story Competition

The Sunday Times has created a new literary short story award, with the largest prize of any short sotry competition - £25,000 to the winner. There are also five runner-up prizes of £500.

The competition is open to anyone who has been previously published in the UK or Ireland (does not include self-published works, or on-line publication). Stories must be no more than 7,000 words, and seven copies must be provided.

Deadline is 30 November 2009. The winner will be announced at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in March 2010.

See here for full details.

Friday, 18 September 2009

EUSci Science Fiction Short Story Competition

The Edinburgh University Science Magazine is holding a science fiction short story competition on the topic of: What does the future hold for Edinburgh? The competition will be judged by Ken MacLeod.

Anyone can enter, they don't need "a personal connection to Edinburgh". Length is 1,300 to 1,500 words. Deadline in 5 p.m. 1st February 2010. The winning entry will be published in EUSci, and receive Blackwell's gift card to the value of £50.

See here for full details.

New Scientist Flash Fiction Competition

This week's New Scientist is a science fiction special, and so they are running a science fiction "(very) short story" competition.

Stories must be set one hundred years from now, and no more than 350 words in length. Closing date is 15 October 2009. Winning entries will be published in the magazine.

See here for full details.

Friday, 7 August 2009

More of Dave's favourite SF books

I mentioned in my preferences street-level realism, which became such a trademark feature of cyberpunk, but it goes back much further than Gibson and the 80s. In Theodore Sturgeon's collection E Pluribus Unicorn, the action takes place in low-lit bars, often narrated by a heavy-drinking shiphand or farmhand. This in turn shows the detective-noir origins of the style.

Sturgeon is convincing and compassionate about the dirt-poor – More Than Human features a character living in what is very much Depression Era rural USA.

What is the opposite of that kind of noir style? An unremitting diet of glossy super-people, maybe? Or Heinlein's all-American high achievers? Or Asimov's somewhat ivory-tower world of scientists and top engineers?

This leads me into the big pictures stuff, the deep future history theme.

It's many years since I read the Foundation trilogy, but I remember the thrill of another set of potentials that SF could lay out for the human race, a beautiful thought-experiment.

I went on to delight in other tales of future humans. The ur-texts of the whole area are, of course, Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men and Star Maker, the first a history of mankind from the time it was written (1930) to the end of humanity on Neptune 10 billion years in the future, and the second a journey taken by an ordinary man of 1937 to the end of time and beyond, in the quest for god, basically, for the ultimate intelligence of the universe, the Starmaker.

In Last And First Men, Stapledon got a lot of his future history so far right, despite the foreword to the recent edition I just read apologizing to the Americans for his prejudices against them. He recognizes and salutes the greatness in America, but his magnificent contempt for human stupidity cannot overlook his correct prediction about the corrosive effects of the 'degenerate religion' of Christian fundamentalism. To anyone with a brain, it is harrowing and perplexing that such a mighty nation, so filled with excellent and exceptional people can nonetheless be led by a cabal of ignorant bigots trading cynically on the stupidity of their oppressed, a malign subculture that illegalises the teaching of proper science in schools, systematically poisoning the minds of its young with category errors that replace science with the most primitive and stupid theology.

The downfall of the First Men (i.e., us) is due to a 2-fold process – a neurological disease, then, much worse in the long term, a degeneration of human intelligence caused by worship of primitive instinctual behaviour, in form of obsession with endless energy-wasting flight. In this phase of breakdown, the worse the energy crisis gets, the more people think they should fly – sounds familiar? The selective upshot of this collapse is rather like what might happen if all the next generation were bred exclusively from Big Brother inmates.

He also got right some kind of nuclear power, but centuries after it happened (Gordelpus!), germ warfare as terribly important and dangerous, the wars over oil, and Nordic supremacy doctrines. But, curiously, instead of happening over 150 years it happened in the next 15...
He got badly wrong the 'Russian character' as impervious to physical possessions and status. Maybe he was still clinging onto some hope for the then-new Soviet regime.

He also got wrong the leap into space taking 200-300 million years, and biotechnology such as could intervene in human development on a similar timescale. He died in 1950, seven years before Sputnik and three before the structure-determination of DNA that led to the revealing of the genetic code in 1961. Computers were in their absolute infancy.

In any case, the name of the game is not correct guessing. This book had a massive influence on me when I first read it at about the age of 14.

Last And First Men is not a novel; it has no plot, and the only character development is that of the human race itself. However, it is beautifully written. Brian Aldiss described it, only a little fulsomely, as a prose poem.

Star Maker is something else again, set on an even bigger scale.

With a kind of fusion of logic and vision, he deals with the gulf between human love and the physical, created cosmos, and the paradoxes of perfection and imperfection in creation.

These are big mystical questions. His standpoint sometimes seems like that of the Gnostics, an ancient group of 'cults' who influenced William Blake, amongst many others, in seeing such a lack of love and compassion in the created universe as to attribute to the creation to an amoral demiurge, a blind force of creativity.

His timescales, on another hand, recall the immense time-spans of the kalpas, the 'days and nights of Brahman' in Hindu cosmology, each 4.32 billion years, in each night of which human consciousness is extinguished.

He ranges over all religious modes, in fact, in his exploration of the Starmaker's creativity. Eventually, the Starmaker makes a universe which teaches him something, but the observer still recoils in horror. From P183, contemplating the most perfect creation:

'I scorned my birthright of ecstasy in that inhuman perfection and yearned back to my lowly cosmos... there to stand shoulder to shoulder with my own half-animal kind against ... the indifferent, the ruthless, the invisible tyrant whose mere thoughts are sentient and tortured worlds.'

Phew! Not love, but contemplation of everything, is its core nature.

At that point, he goes home, a Marxist mystic who has returned from the quest and wants to go no higher into the cosmic mystery, but simply to get on with the practical matters of living a good life.

The nearest attempt in terms of scale I'm aware of since then is Charles Stross's Accelerando. This follows a family (or two) through changes over a few centuries, a much more realistic timescales from our present state. In Accelerando, the projections into the future are heavily centred on changes in computer power and the post-human software that runs it.

As a read, it's about as good a book with so many big infodumps can be. It has a magnificent scale of ideas, central to which is the transformations of humans and post-human entities by systems of resource allocation.

He posits something like an ideal world – but frames this final human civilization as an 'economic backwater' – but it reads like I'd be delighted to live in it.

This leads us into the themes of posthumanity, utopias and liberation. Something different in the way of superhumanity is offered in Michael Moorcock's The Dancers At The End of Time. Here we have very jolly post-humans, partying on to the end of the universe, using it all up for fun. This is a vision of Huizinga's homo ludens, mankind at play – a '60s dream that went deeper than most of that era, the idea that technology and repressive culture had done their job, and that humans could look forward to a future of self-actualization without being coerced economically or by force to go to boring work. (What happened to that ideal?)

This great utopia finds its limits (no utopia would be interesting if it was entirely successful!) in the end of the universe (which the protagonists have just used up) as well as in its internal limitations – the most interesting characters get a bit bored with perfect fun. Time-travel is invoked to give the protagonists societies which they can compare to their own, insular culture, and this gives rise to some great scenes, particularly the incursion into Victorian London of the Lat, a bunch of interstellar raiders rather like alien Hells Angels.

Another utopia – Iain M Banks' The State of the Art – is a novella set in his Culture universe. I could have chosen any of the Culture novels to make this point, but my personal favourite is this early one, because it has a recognizable Earth in it, therefore more 'presence' for me. The Culture is a star-spanning civilization where people live for a few centuries, have enhanced themselves to enjoy sex more and to 'gland' endogenous drugs for recreation. Way to go! But of course, there are problems in its perfection, giving us interesting plots about an advanced civilization colliding with primitive ones, and the individuals who are frustrated by perfection becoming the agents – Special Circumstances – of the Culture's interference in less sophisticated societies.

This is about the imperfections inherent in utopia. The best we can imagine has its limitations, may be a spiritual desert for some people, like the Culture citizen who 'goes native' and stays on earth, only to lose everything and yet be satisfied, fulfilled somehow as he dies in a street brawl.

An examination of some possibilities for political liberation is contained in William S Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night. It is an alternative history of freedom; 18th century pirate gangs liberate areas of the world from church and state and form free republics. They accept new members who sign up to the Articles:

  • 'No man may be imprisoned for debt;
  • No man may enslave another;
  • No man may interfere in any way with the religious beliefs and practices of another;
  • No man may be subjected to torture for any reason;
  • No man may interfere with the sexual practices of another or force any sexual act on another against his or her will;
  • No man may be put to death except for the violation of the Articles.'

Of course, the Articles are compromised by the actions of leaders – even though they are of the highest calibre of honesty. The exercise of power corrupts, and the Republics fail; this book is a lament for what might have been.

Naturally, being a Burroughs book, it contains various other levels too – magical rituals, alien diseases and lots of (mostly grotesque and mostly gay) sex, as well as a model of internal liberation based on a deadly pilgrimage through the six Cities of the Red Night, in which variations of the rallying cry Burroughs attributes to Hassan I Sabbah, 'Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted', are played out in thought-experiment societies.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

favourite SF stories

I'm posting up my 'favourite SF stories' essays. This will be a sprawling set of writings with no overall theme other than sharing my best SF experiences. It's not exhaustive, merely a few starting points.

To pin down most of what I like in SF: plausible weirdness with interesting concepts taking place in a world I can relate to at a gut level. This often takes the form of a kind of punk sensibility.

I think SF is the perfect medium for the exploration of themes of the alien Other, Utopias and Dystopias, superhumanity and the future of what we call humans and, at the more fantastic end, lyrical explorations of magical experiences.

These essays will focus almost exclusively on text SF – most mainstream TV and film SF is not to my taste (with a few notable exceptions like Dr Who, which I may get round to discussing).

In a SF film, I want vivid visual delights and engaging style. Think – for one particular style that resonates down through the years – Blade Runner and style-derivatives such as Minority Report – Philip K Dick's dystopias brought to film life. Game style visuals leave me cold – surely the reason game players (I 'fess up to having sworn off this particular intoxicant in order to spend more time on other kinds of fun) put up with such unconvincing detail in the sets and people / entities is down to constraints from the fact that the hardware is running at its limits. Why indulge in such design in films, unless the issue is budget constraints? A particularly flat-looking example of bargain basement CGI is Ultraviolet, with Milla Jovovitch.

I started my adventures in SF when my Uncle Jeff, the only science-trained member of my family (he worked as a wartime electronic engineer on radar, then on early ICL computers, and apparently built the family a TV set from war surplus, with a 9", round, green screen) gave me a copy, old even then, of Astounding Science Fiction, some time in the late 50s.

I would be delighted if someone could help me track down which one – the only story title I appear to remember (allowing for the instability of memory traces) is 'Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant'. I've tried Googling the title and also tried to find listings of Astounding's contents, both to no avail. I can't even remember much about the story, but I do remember being taken out of myself into a world of alien intelligences, strange energies and humans framed differently to how I'd ever read before.

That led me over the next few years to reading the Spectrum anthologies, collected by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Blish's A Case Of Conscience and many other 50s novels I don't recall at the moment.

Taking some of the above themes one at a time, I'll start with the superman / übermensch theme:

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. For those enviable folk who have yet to read this masterpiece, the backstory is that the First arrive on a planet already inhabited by energy beings, take over, breed more humans, make themselves immortal by reincarnating into new bodies at will, develop extraordinary powers by growing close to some technology that represents the Attribute of the god whose identity they each take on, from the Hindu pantheon. Isolating themselves in Heaven, maintain the Hindu religion and withhold this and all but the most basic technology from the rest of the people. Years before, one of the First had sided with the banned Accelerationist tendency in Heavenly politics which taught that the technology should be spread to the people. This one teaches a form of Buddhism as the vehicle for liberation – beautiful use of Buddhist and Hindu poems interwoven with the technology.

'For six days he had offered many kilowatts of prayer, but the static kept him from being heard on high.'

That's an example of what I read SF for – maximum believable weirdness!

There's an exuberance of invention beyond what's needed to drive the plot, and an uplifting conclusion – despite human inventiveness in enslaving each other and devising excuses for it, new ideas (or old ideas in new guises) prevail and liberation comes. Also a sense of the power of ideas over repression in the long term.

Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human is another take on the übermensch theme – a Gestalt mind, but led by a psychopath! This is one of those books I read every few years, it is so perfect.

Wandering from the superman theme to alien superhumanity, one of the great classics is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in which the superman teaches us a better way of living, a blend of Martian and human. The morality of this book is intriguing, coming from the pen of a writer who in some of his works seemed to favour a kind of militaristic space fascism – here he writes of a sovereign individualism including, amongst other things, a loosening-up of the rigid sexual prejudices of the time (1961). Some of these ideas were no doubt influential a few years later in the freak subculture of the 60s, as well as the word 'grok'.

The Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land are depicted as alien, never human, scarcely recognizable from a human point of view, but nothing like as alien as the ultimate alien story. For pure alienness, the greatest book of all has to be Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, another book I read every time I forget enough of it to enjoy it again. The Solaris entity is a being on which the humans' most obdurate curiosity shatters on. The atmosphere is created by hinting (can any more be achieved?) at an incomprehensible alienness. The story itself has become a mysterious artefact subject to as many interpretations as the entity it is about. Lem stated that both films, the 1974 Tarkovsky and the 2003 one missed the point of the novel. Of the two films, I recommend the Tarkovsky.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Pantechnicon want non-fiction writers

This from their forum:
We're currently planning our next three issues - for September and December 2009, and March 2010. I've been tasked with co-ordinating non-fiction for the zine, and I'm now looking for additional article writers and interviewers to contribute to Pantechnicon.We're looking for articles of between 1,000 and 5,000 words on any topic related to science fiction, fantasy, horror or cross-genre - in literature, on film or TV, events - anything which you think might be of interest to Pantechnicon readers. Also, we'd like more people willing to interview those who work within the genre, like writers, TV/film actors / producers / directors, etc. From my own point of view I can tell you that interviewing's a very rewarding thing to do. I'd never interviewed anyone until I did my first interview for issue 2 of Pantechnicon (writer Stephen Gallagher). I've done several since, and I love every minute of interviewing. So if you fancy a go at that, we'd like to hear from you too.If you're interested, or just need more information or have a query, please PM me via the forum or email us at the usual submissions address:

Thursday, 28 May 2009

British Fantasy Society competition now open

This competition is open to anyone who has had no more than three pieces of fiction published in paying venues. You don't have to be a member of the British Fantasy Society either, although non-members must pay a £5 admin fee to enter. Nor does the story have to be fantasy - science fiction and horror are equally welcome.

First prize is £50 and publication by the British Fantasy Society. Runner-up prize is £25 and publication by the British Fantasy Society.

Entries should be no more than 5,000 words in length. Deadline is 31 August 2009.

Send all submissions - in standard manuscript format, attached as .doc or .rtf - to Put "BFS Short Story Competition" as the title of your email.

See here for full competition rules.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Hub magazine competion extended

The Hub magazine announced its short story competition, Bootstrap SF, back in September last year. The original closing date was 14 May 2009. This has now been extended to 14 June 2009.

Bootstrap SF
The British are an unusual combination of heroism and fatalism, humour and malice. Their Science Fiction is unique, blending pragmatism with sarcasm and death with laughter. For the British, Science Fiction is something subtler than the standard utopias and dystopias, something more concerned with exploring the future with a healthy cynicism.

The genre faces stagnation. Fans who discovered SF in the Sixties and Seventies are now actively resisting the very progress that they embraced when they were younger, cutting out new audiences by relentlessly defending stories which have little relevance to newer, younger readers. SF has built a wall around itself, and for it to survive we must break it down.

The competition is only open to UK-resident writers who have not previously made a professional sale (i.e., 5p or more per word).

First prize is £100, and publication in The Hub #100 (August 2009). Twelve runners-up will also be published in The Hub. No further fee will be paid for either. The winner and runners-up will also be published in a paperback anthology.

Stories must be between 5,000 and 10,000 words, and should be sent as attached RTF files to Boostrap.sf(at) See here for details on the required layout of manuscripts, and for information on the judges.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Call for submissions for themed issue of The Future Fire magazine

The Future Fire magazine is looking for submissions for a Feminist Science Fiction themed issue to be published towards the end of this year or beginning of the next. They are looking for "science fiction (or speculative) stories that address issues of gender, sexual identity and sexuality; stories that take the "radical idea that women are human beings" and do something about it; stories that can engage, empower, educate, and inspire men and women alike. And of course stories that challenge our expectations, that avoid cliché, that are beautiful and useful, that are social, political, and speculative cyberfiction."

Indicate in your cover letter that the story is a submission for the Feminist Science Fiction special issue. Stories submitted to the general pile may be considered for the feminist-themed issue, and stories submitted to the theme may be considered for the intervening issues. All submissions should be sent as attachments to fiction(at)futurefire(dot)net. Use the email subject line: TFF submission: Surname, 'Title'.

Payment $20 per story. Stories over 10,000 words are unlikely to be purchased. "Please use a common, easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier, and use no other formatting than italics." Full guidelines are here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

BBC National Short Story Award 2009

The BBC National Short Story Award competition is now in its fourth year. It's not genre, but neither does it exclude genre stories. The competition is only open to writers who "previously have had works of prose fiction, drama or poetry published by a UK publisher (excluding self-publishing) or established printed magazine in the UK or broadcast by a UK national radio station".

Word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is 5 p.m., 15 June 2009.

First prize is £15,000. Runner-up gets £3,000, and three other shortlisted stories wil lreceive £500 each.

See here or here for more details, entry form and terms and conditions (note: both are Word documents).

Monday, 30 March 2009

Pantechnicon #9 Out Now

... containing stories by two members of the group: 'This Place Sucks' by Steven Poore and 'The Amber Room' by Ian Sales.

At present, the stories are on the web site. A PDF copy of the issue should be made available soon.

Two Anthology Calls for Submission

Ahmed A Khan is looking for submissions to two sf anthologies, one of which is aimed at ten to twelve year olds.

Cheer Up, Universe: "For this anthology, I am seeking ORIGINAL speculative fiction stories (both SF and Fantasy) that make us feel good." Payment: one cent per word up to $15. Deadline: 30 June 2009.

Fun Times in Andromeda: "I am looking for speculative stories aimed at pre-teens. Target readers: precocious kids between the ages of 10-12. The anthology will be fully illustrated." Deadline: 30 June 2009.

See here for details on both anthologies.

Ahmed A Khan has previously co-edited A Mosque Among the Stars.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

alt.fiction 2009 cancelled

Alt.fiction, the science fiction, fantasy and horror writing convention based in Derby has apparently succumbed to the credit crunch. It should return in 2010.

Call for Submissions - Destination: Future anthology

Hadley Rille Books are looking for submissions for a new anthology, Destination: Future, to be edited by ZS Adani and Eric T Reynolds and published in 2010.

They want "science fiction stories, particularly Hard SF, Space Opera, Alien Worlds, Alien Encounter Beyond Earth, Exploration and Quest stories". Length 3,000 to 6,000 words. Payment 3 cents per word.

Submission period: 1 March 2009 to 30 June 2009.

Electronic submissions - attached. doc or .rtf - only to submissions.future[at]gmail[dot]com. Put DESTINATION FUTURE in the subject line.

More details here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Chimeraworld 6 Open for Submissions

The editor is looking for...

"I want stories depicting THE WORLD AFTER THE COMING REVOLUTION, as mankind returns to a life stripped of Capitalism and Mass Media Propaganda. Is this a worse or a better world, without the Google-fuelled glare of the bankers dictating every move you make? I want insane stories about a travelling life, a journey through real freedom. I want uncensored stories about chaos, uncertainty and anarchy. I want enlightening stories about how the world deals with no money, no banks and no business loans."

Word count 2,000 – 4,000 words, strict. Rich Text Format only. Font: Times Roman, 12 point, single space. Add postal address, email and word count to first page. Add 50–100 word bio after THE END.

Payment is £10.00UK (approx $20.00US).

Electronic submissions only to (remove the dots in m.i.k.e.).

Chimeraworld #6 (new world disorder) will be published by Chimericana Books, late 2009 in American format 6" by 9" trade paperback.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Story Reviews

Three reviews of Jupiter #23 are now online:

Annie at Random Thoughts on what I Read - see here.

SFCrowsnest February 2009 issue - see here.

SFRevu February 2009 issue - see here.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Concept Sci-Fi Short Story Competition

Concept Sci-Fi magazine has launched its first annual short story competition. Prize is £100, plus assorted "goodies" from sf author and competition judge Sean Williams. Entry fee is £3.50, and all short-listed entries will be published in a special edition of the magazine. Deadline is 15th June 2009. All entries must "conform to the following theme":

Frank Zappa once said that everything in the universe is part of one great big note. He wasn't far wrong. There's music in the earth's core, in the sun's atmosphere, even in the roiling fire of the Big Bang. There's music in our interior lives too, in the stories we tell. "Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable", according to Leonard Bernstein, which makes it a perfect tool in the writing of space opera--my true but not my only love.

Way back in the late 1980s, I had to choose between two lives: one writing words and another writing notes. In an alternate universe, there's a version of me beavering away at a new symphony, or the score to a Hollywood movie. Here, the closest I get is putting Gary Numan lyrics in the mouths of my characters, and dreaming.

Dream for me. Tell me the note that ripples through spacetime in the wake of an ftl cruiser. Convey to me the songs that alien cephalopods whistle in their jovian soup. Give me the music of the spheres as you hear it. When the echoes fade, we'll all be richer for it.

See here for more details.

Genomics Short Story Competition

Genomics Network has launched a short story competition. The subject is, unsurprisingly, genetics:

Information about the genetic makeup of people, animals and plants impacts on every aspect of our lives. But do we understand this impact? And what should we make of it?

How is our understanding of who we are affected by the knowledge that we share so much of our genetic makeup with fruit flies, mice and even pumpkins?

Max length 3,000 words. First prize is £500. Closing date is 31st March 2009.

Winning entries to be posted on the Genomics Forum web site.

See here for more information.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

alt.fiction 2009

This year, alt.fiction will be held at Derby's new arts centre, QUAD, on Saturday 20th June. There will be a "launch event" the evening before, Friday 19th June.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Jupiter issue 23 now out

The publication of anything written by members of the group will be announced on this blog - whether published online, in print, or wherever else. Which means I now get to blow my own trumpet:

Jupiter issue 23, containing the science fiction story 'Thicker Than Water' by Ian Sales, is now available. The story is set on Tethys, a moon of Saturn, and was inspired by Euripides' play Iphigeneia in Tauris.

Get Jupiter from

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Thoughtcrimes Anthology Call for Submissions

Writer Leonard Richardson is putting together an anthology of five stories, Thoughtcrimes. Deadline is February 28th 2009, unless he fills the anthology before then. Payment is $200. The anthology will be published on his web site under a Creative Commons licence.

Full details here.

Group Meetings 2009

We now have the upstairs room at the Old Queen's Head on Pond Hill booked for the first and third Mondays of every month. If you're interested in joining us, someone is usually there from around 7:30 p.m.

Meeting dates:
19 January 2009
2 February 2009
16 February 2009
2 March 2009
16 March 2009

Monday, 5 January 2009

Another Competition

The US National Space Society and Baen Books have teamed up to create a science fiction short story competition in memory of Jim Baen. They want "a short story of no more than 8,000 words, that shows the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned space exploration." There is no entry fee. Deadline is 1st April 2009.

Details here.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Aeon Award 2009 Now Open

The short fiction competition run by Albedo One magazine is now open. Grand prize is €1000 and publication in Albedo One. Second and third place prizes are €200 and €100 and guaranteed publication in Albedo One. Entry fee is €7 and you can submit as many time as you want.

Details here.