News and Blog Posts

I should probably mention…

…that I’ll be signing copies of The Dark Defiles this coming Tuesday here.

Maybe see you there.

I’ll also be speaking and giving a reading at the Bucharest International Literature Festival at the beginning of next month, details apparently here.  So if you can’t make Tuesday after work, there’s always the quick flight out to Romania week after next and we’ll catch up then.

(Yeah, I really like that gas-mask headline art too)

It’s the Future, Stupid!

Once upon a time, back in the dim and distant past – so distant, in fact, that I no longer remember exactly where or when it happened – I served on a Con panel about dystopias.  Well, who hasn’t, right?  Pretty much all memory of what I or anybody else on that panel had to say is now gone.  But I do recall with startling clarity that at one point a stern German woman in the audience raised her hand and commenced upbraiding us all for failing to write futures that would give people hope. She had, we discovered in conversation after the panel wrapped up, been raised in East Germany under the Honnecker regime – a time and place in which artists of all stripes were considered to have a very real social responsibility in practising their art. (Tactfully, no-one commented on how that shit turned out). And she still believed that if you were lucky enough to make a living from imagining the future, you had a duty to do so in a fashion that would encouraged optimism and hope in your readers.

At the time, I cherished the encounter because I thought it rather quaint and antique – like running into some time-travelling Victorian adventuress and having her scold me for not having shaved recently enough. Social responsibilities of the genre writer – I mean, good grief. So I smiled and nodded, nursing a mild hangover, and I never did do much to dispute Lady Bracknell’s exhortations on the matter. Quaint and antique, Richard, fix this in your memory – you’re probably never going to see the like again.

Well, not that quaint or antique after all, it seems.  A couple of months ago, I stumbled on this curious call to arms.  Then, a month later, there was this.

Good grief.

All the things I didn’t say to that East German woman come brimming back to my lips, and this time I’m not even the least bit hungover. But good grief – where to start?

Well, maybe with the point that I have no issue with the fiction of Hieroglyph itself.  Elizabeth Bear is one of the contributors, and I know her to be a fine SF writer.  Ditto Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow.  And while I haven’t read any Stephenson since Cryptonomicon, it’s probably safe to assume his contribution will be pretty solid too.  I don’t know any of the other contributors at all, but again, there’s no reason to believe their stories won’t be up to scratch.  So from the point of view of the writing, I make no judgement at all.  I may well even get round to reading it.

But as to the mission statement –

*

Okay, first off, let’s look at the evidence.  The driving force behind Hieroglyph appears to be coming at least in part from scientists, so you’d think they’d want to apply an evidence-based approach, right?  According to that BBC article, the concern is that too much negativity in visions of the future is cramping the ability of people to Dream Big and so come through with genuine scientific innovations in the real world.  If we want to have better futures says project director Ed Finn We have to have better dreams.  Right – where’s the evidence for this?  Dystopian SF as a significant sub-genre has been kicking around since the seventies at least, with a really big uptick around the rise of Cyberpunk in the eighties.  Has this, then, resulted in a drastic slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation and invention as all those who grew up with Cyberpunk feel their innate ingenuity crushed by the weight of dystopian future visions?

Uh – no.

In fact, the rate of scientific progress appears to be rising with almost exponential speed.  In computing, in communications technology, in medical advances at all levels from molecular up to basic prosthetic, in materials technology of all types, in cosmology – it’s all roaring ahead like a forest fire.  So if we take an evidence-based approach, clearly one of two things is true: either dystopian SF is really good for scientific advance, or – more likely, in my humble opinion – there’s no fucking correlation at all, and the type of SF we read, dystopian or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with the advance of human science and technology.

So where’s the beef?

Oh, wait up.

Wait just a moment.  I get it.  Twenty kilometre tall steel towers, citizenship of an innovation hub on a moon of Mars, 3d printers on the Moon…..  This is about the bloody space programme again, isn’t it.  All that talk about Big Dreams and Better Futures – it’s that old gnawing chagrin that we have’t yet sent a manned mission to Mars.  It’s the angst that we aren’t already out there terraforming the Red Planet, mining the asteroids, building O’Neill habitats and generally doing the whole Space Cowboy thing.  It’s Interstellar.  It’s the terror that if we don’t Answer the Call to the High Frontier and Colonise Space like the rock-ribbed men of the Old West, then we’re doomed to a long fall into decadence, cultural death and extinction.

Never mind the fact that medical technology has lifted life expectancy close to double what it was a century ago.  That – for example – the most common age of death in the UK has gone from age 0 in 1964 to age 87 in 2014; that British infant mortality in the first year of life has fallen from one in six in 1900 to one in over two hundred and fifty now.  Never mind that we’ve wiped out smallpox globally, more or less eradicated polio and look set to take down malaria in the not too distant future.  And that the coming advances in gene therapy are going to make even those achievements all look decidedly small-scale and basic by comparison to the health and longevity genentech will offer.  No matter that we carry little slabs of coms tech around in our pockets that make the communicators in the original Star Trek look like something out of a steampunk fantasy.  No matter that we can cross oceans in a handful of hours, talk to people from every other culture on the planet as if they were sitting in the same room with us, consume for a few quid healthy and nourishing foods grown on the other side of the world that only a handful of decades ago only the super-rich could permit themselves.  No matter that present day cosmologists have a pretty good idea what shape the entire fucking universe is, and that physicists can spend time on the Franco-Swiss border hunting the particles that define existence itself.  No, no – none of this matters, none of this means anything at all, if we’re not in space!  We’re just not dreaming big enough!

Not dreaming big enough penises maybe.

(Perhaps no coincidence there’s so much excitement about that twenty kilometre tall hard steel tower, eh?  Look at the size of that, darling!)

Because, when all is said and done, I suspect that’s what this may be about.  This conquer-the-stars schtick is at base very male.  It’s about Boldly Going, Ruggedly Enduring, Standing Heroically Tall.  It’s about carving out a domain in the wilderness, about Hard Men conquering Hard Terrain and putting their mark upon it.

In short, it’s a Golden-Age-of-SF dream, filled with all the heroic – and erroneous – images of space colonisation the Golden Age gave rise to.  And as such, it’s a bust.

The truth, of course, is that we are in space.  We just landed on a comet, for fuck’s sake.  We have a crew of international astronauts in permanent orbit.  There are so many probes on Mars that pretty soon we’re going to have to start allocating parking spaces.  We’re out past the gas giants to the edges of the solar system and beyond, we’re cataloguing Earth-type planets around stars at hundreds of light years’ distance.  Not dreaming big enough, my arse.

Of course, none of this resembles the Golden Age dream of rocket-ships full of explorers, settlers, traders and rogues criss-crossing the solar system like sailing ships of yore, brave new independent statelets spring up on Mars and Ganymede or, for that matter, space opera dreadnoughts slugging it out between the stars.  No, we’re not going ourselves, thank you very much, because the distances are bloody vast, the conditions insanely hostile and our increasingly magnificent space-going ICT is a far better fit for the job.  But so what?  No-one goes to work on a jet-pack either.  That era of SF story-telling got it wrong, is all.  Medieval European trade adventurism, Napoleonic naval conflict and the conquest of the Americas turn out not to be very good imaginative templates for how space exploration works.  We don’t get to be cowboys/conquistadors/pirates/ranchers/marines or merchant princes in space after all.  Boo hoo.

Our vision has moved on.  These days, we tend to see with cyberpunk eyes.

The big thing that Cyberpunk did – and that some people still seem unable to forgive – was to invert the telescope and turn the focus inward.  Wetware, genentech, cyberspace – suddenly all the interesting stuff was going on at the infra level.  Cool SF was inside us now, cutting us open and splicing us up, getting icky and up-close and personal (instead of rock-ribbed and distant and in cool Kirk-like command).  It was territory that the New Wave had helped open up, of course, along with a handful of early iconoclast practitioners like Bester and Sheckley and Pohl, but Cyberpunk was the critical mass – the point at which general realisation dawned that we didn’t have to leave the planet to have mind-blowing futurist adventures.

And of course along with this shift, came another lurch toward the internal – politics.  The cyberpunk politics of SF, instead of shooting for Imperial Rome among the Stars or the Declaration of Independence on the Moons of Jupiter, suddenly became concerned with a model much less masculinely rousing and much closer to home – neoliberal corporate dominance and the military-industrial complex; the destruction of the social contract and regression into oligarchy via consumer addiction, misinformation and rising proletarian ignorance.

Which, as it turns out, was a much closer fit for the future we’re actually having to deal with right now.

Some might see all this as dystopian or defeatist.  Cyberpunk borrows liberally, after all, from the Noir tradition, which is itself infused with a deep (and invaluable) cynicism about human affairs.  Damaged, disillusioned men were its luminaries – writers like Hammett and Chandler, who’d seen the face of war up close and the crucifixion of the poor that followed, and were locked in struggle with their own internal demons and disappointments.  There was a weariness and a wisdom to their fiction that Cyberpunk co-opted and poured into the new future sensibility.  With Cyberpunk, you suddenly didn’t need to worry about encroaching alien menaces, because there weren’t any.  Better start worrying instead about nightmarish government agencies and corporate thug squads, because those were the guys who were really going to get you.  You don’t get to seek out brave new worlds in Cyberpunk, and colonise them in proud defiance of a distant oppressive overlordship, because the world you already own has been sold out from under your feet while you weren’t looking, and like ninety percent of the human race, you’ve been dumped in the underclass, sonny, where your chances of getting your rocketship pilot’s license is about the same as fucking the movie star of your choice.

Grim?  Dystopian?  Welcome to the whole fucking point.

*

The truth is that the sentiments expressed in those linked articles (and in that nice German lady’s thesis) are utterly and fatally flawed in their whole perception of what fiction is and how it works.  If someone writes a powerful novel about the slave-owning American south, that doesn’t mean they think slavery is the only viable labour institution for the human race.  Fiction about the Holocaust – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example – isn’t written to suggest and celebrate the fact that we are doomed to an eternity of genocide and brutalism.  A story about a woman dying of cancer doesn’t imply that there can never be a cure.  And dystopian futures aren’t there to tell us that there is no hope.

Does that shit really need saying?  Apparently so.

Look, good fiction isn’t a TED lecture or an IKEA assembly manual.  It can’t be, it’d be catastrophically anodyne if it were.  Good fiction is wild, unrestrained, malcontent and looking for a fight.  Good fiction is human – it examines the world and the human condition, turns it restlessly  this way and that, sees its flaws and tries to get a handle on them.  William Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction doesn’t celebrate the rise of corporate dominance, the death of the middle class and the hollowing out of society into Haves and HaveNots – it’s an examination of those trends and a warning (and a pretty prescient one too, as it turns out).  The whole point of dystopian fiction is that it rings the alarm bells, it points at what’s going to happen if we don’t wake up and pay attention, at what is in fact happening all around us, even now.

And this isn’t a very new thing, either – dystopian warnings have been kicking around in science fiction since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927.  They are to a great extent the very lifeblood of SF as a genre.  It’s a big part of what we do.

And in connection with this, here’s what I think I find most irritating about Hieroglyph’s mission statement – it takes a wide-eyed and utterly ignorant view of how human society works; it assumes a one-to-one beneficent relationship between a better future and better technology, and this simply isn’t the case.  Gibson again - the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.  He was right on the money.  We already have the technology, right here and now, to end world hunger, to see that no child dies of simple preventable diseases, and we have not fucking done it.  It’s not lack of tech that’s stopping us having a better future, it’s us – humans and the social and political systems we’re hardwired to prefer.  Global warming isn’t happening because we don’t have enough technology, it’s happening because we haven’t yet learnt to control the technology we already do have in a sane adult fashion.  The Socialist dream didn’t fail because of a lack of technological innovation, it failed because it doesn’t fit the human psyche.  The Middle East isn’t on fire because we just haven’t come up with the right scientific advances yet.  All the cool technology in the world hasn’t prevented the devastation of the American middle class, the creation of record-breaking levels of wealth inequality in the most developed nation on Earth, and the brutal rolling back of human rights legislation everywhere.

People accuse me of writing dystopian fiction, but to be honest all I do is look around and extrapolate.  I look at neo-liberal economics tearing down public health services all over the world, driving down wages and milking national budgets to fight stupid illegal wars, selling cheap and lethal foodstuffs to populations too ill-educated to grasp what’s being done to them, telling people freedom lies in being able to choose which insanely expensive shiny mobile device you mortgage yourself to own and which of the hundred and fifty seven TV channels full of recycled shit you watch, and when I see all that, do I think these problems are going be solved by building a twenty kilometre steel tower, an innovation hub on the Moon and a colony on Mars?

Do I feel the need to write some cheery, upbeat fiction about how future technology’s going to save us all?

Fuck, no.

Notice Anything Different?

Well, that’s a relief.

Yes, please put your hands together and welcome back my new webmaster (who used to be my old webmaster, actually, until he dropped briefly out to get a real job for a while), descendant of highwaymen past, resolute Mancunian, web-gent and genre fan extraordinaire – Darren Turpin!

Darren has, as you see, totally overhauled the site and hauled it kicking and screaming into streamlined modern form.  You’ll find tonnes of new linkage and functionality now, plus a fresh easy-on-the-eye colour scheme and text base.  The work is actually on-going right now, we’ll have book extracts up and running shortly.  But meantime, have a poke around, see what you think, and if you hit any snags, let us know.  Oh, and if you’re hankering after a shiny new web-presence yourself, delivered swiftly, painlessly and professionally with a smile, you can find Darren’s services over here.

Oh yeah – and, in case you hadn’t picked it up from the multiple shout-outs on site, as of yesterday, The Dark Defiles is now out in the US in trade paperback and electronic formats.

Fireworks!  Applause! Buy it!

Here in the UK, Defiles won’t hit the shelves until November 20th, but it will include a rather handsome hardcover edition, so if you’re prepared to wait that long, your patience will be richly rewarded.

Enjoy!

Last Call (Next Time you See this Stuff, it’ll Be in a Book)

He woke from a dream of winter sunset out on the steppe, long, low spearing rays of reddish light that spilled and dazzled across his eyes as he rode, but failed to warm him at all.  He was riding somewhere important, he knew, had something to deliver, he thought, but there was a faint terror rising in him that whatever it was, he’d lost it or left it behind somewhere on this long cold ride, and now the remainder of his journey was a hollow act.  He should have been able to see the Skaranak encampment by now, the thin rise of campfire smoke on the horizon, or the dark, nudging mass of grazing buffalo herds at least.  He raised up in the saddle, twisted about, scanning ahead and side to side, but there was nothing, nothing out here at all. He was riding alone, into a rising chill and a dwindling red orange glow……

Egar blinked and found the fire sprite hovering in his face.

He flailed at its red orange radiance with a stifled yelp.  One blank moment of panic.  Then full wakefulness caught up.

He sat up in his blankets and stared around.  A pallid dawn held the eastern sky, pouring dull grey light across the sleep-curled forms in their bedrolls around him, the scattered packs and the blue radiant bowls now gone opaque and glassy, like so many big stones gathered from a river’s bed.  Across at the stairway entrance they’d come in, Alwar Nash waved casually from where he sat huddled at last watch.  Everyone else was still out cold.

“Early yet,” the Throne Eternal commented when Egar had stumbled to his feet and wandered over to join him.  “Another hour to full light at least.  But our friend there seems pretty agitated about something.”

He gestured and the Dragonbane saw how the sprite was now floating directly above Archeth’s sleeping form, flickering rapid shades of orange in her face.

“It tried her first,” Nash said.  “Guess she’s too wrung out to notice.”

Egar shook his head.  “Always been that way.  When she sleeps, she really sleeps.  Seen her snore right through a siege assault at Shenshenath once.”

“Must be that Black Folk blood.”

“Must be.  Had the lizards a hundred deep at the walls that time, couple of blunderers smashing their heads in against the stonework because they were too stupid to find the gates……”  Lost in the skeins of memory for a moment, and then understanding hit him in the head like a bucket of cold water.  “Shit!  Nash – start kicking them awake.  We got to move.”

“Move?  But-”

“Scaled Folk.”  He was already on his way to Archeth, calling back over his shoulder.  “Lizards don’t get up early.  Something to do with their blood; their heritage or…….  Look, just get everyone moving.”

Can’t believe you forgot that, Eg.  Not like the war was that long ago, is it?

  Is it?

And he had a couple of seconds to feel suddenly very old, as he realised that Nash, in common with most of the others, had not only not fought in the war, he had in all probability never even seen a living lizard before yesterday’s fight.

 

*

 

They got everyone awake inside a couple of minutes, gave soft instructions to load up and be ready to move out.  When Archeth blinked initial sleepy incomprehension at him, Egar gestured at the fire sprite’s agitated bobbing and flickering.

“Someone’s in a hurry here.  My guess?  It wants to get us someplace before the lizard hour.”

Her eyes widened.  “Oh, shit.  Got to be, yeah.”

She flung off her blankets.  Flinched as the movement caught the wound he’d stitched for her the night before.  Impatient grunt of pain held down, and the flare of anger in her eyes at her own unwelcome weakness.  She settled her harness and knives about her with a blunt lack of care that looked to the Dragonbane like punishment.  She must have tugged on the wound more than a few times in the process, but to watch her, you’d never have known.

“Alright, then,” she said tightly when she was done.  “Let’s go.”

They filed rapidly down the staircase behind the sprite and let it lead them out into the street.  Any actual sunrise was still a good way off, and down at ground level there was a lot of gloom.  The jut and slump of broken architecture around them worried at the Dragonbane’s attention, sketched hints of a thousand phantom enemies, crouched to pounce every few yards.  Every darkened gap in the rubble they passed seemed to promise an ambush, every glint of something shiny in the low light was a reptile peon’s eye.  Egar, yawning despite the heightened tension, marched with a prickling at the nape of his neck and tried to recall useful detail from the tactical lectures given by the Kiriath commanders during the war.

Like any reptiles, the Scaled Folk like heat better than cold, but they seem to have adapted beyond this in ways their smaller cousins on this continent have not. They do not depend on warmth to the same extent, and can function quite sufficiently well in cooler conditions.  Yet their ancestry tells upon them in a number of ways which may be helpful to us.  They are drawn instinctively to warmer climes and to discrete heat sources; they appear to accord some sacred significance to the roasting pits they build and ignite; and they do not stir early in the day if they can avoid it.

  Sounds like me, muttered Ringil to him in the back rank where they stood, and Egar tried to stifle an explosive snigger.

They’d both been a lot younger back then.

  You have something to contribute?  Flaradnam, seamed black features glaring into the ranks.  He waited a beat, got no response.  Then shut the fuck up and listen, all of you.  What we tell you here today could save your life.

Across the shattered pre-dawn city, then, threading through empty streets and plazas, picking their way up and over mounds of rubble bigger than any intact building he’d ever seen, even in Yhelteth.  Once again, the fire sprite led them a crooked, seemingly senseless path through the ruins.  They backed up and twisted and turned.  They followed thoroughfares straight as arrows for miles, then turned abruptly off them into tangled, broken ground, worked difficult, meandering routes, only to spill out onto what Egar would have sworn was the same thoroughfare an hour later and head onward as if they’d never left it.  Once, some way along a broad boulevard similar to the one they’d been attacked on the night before, the sprite led them directly off the street and up a punishingly steep rubble slope, then along a windy, exposed cliff face of ruined facades that ran for at least half a mile and tracked the boulevard directly.  It was tricky work, and in some places involved clinging and edging their way forward with the risk of a lethal fall, while all the time below them, the boulevard stretched on, devoid of apparent obstacles and utterly deserted.

“You think,” he asked Archeth, breathing hard, as they rested at one of the infrequent safe sections.  “That this thing has a sense of humour?”

She looked out to where the sprite hung blithely suspended a couple of yards away in empty space and a hundred feet off the ground.

“Either that, or it thought we’d like the view.”

“Yeah.  Well worth the climb.”  Egar glowered out across the fractured landscape, and the pale grey wash of another cloud-shrouded morning.  “Like Gil would say if he was here, I’m particularly enamoured of the……”

She glanced round curiously as he trailed off.  He squinted, wanting to be sure, then pointed outward, what he estimated had to be north-east from their position and a dozen miles off or less.

“You see that?  Past that torn up pyramid thing?  Where the three boulevards cross, then back a little and left.  See the……..what is that?  Looks like…..”

  Talons.

As if a broad expanse of the city’s structure had broken like pond ice under the weight of some vast, lumbering black iron creature, which now clung to the ragged edges of the hole it had fallen through with huge claws sunk in, struggling not to go down into an abyss below.  As if several gargantuan black spiders out of one of his father’s tales hung suspended in a shared, irregularly shaped ambush burrow, only their limbs extending up and out to grip the edges of the gap on all sides, poised to spring.  As if dragon’s venom had splattered on the city’s flesh in overlapping oval pools, had eaten its way in and left splayed black burnmarks all around, or……..

It dawned on him then, full force.

It looks like Kaldan Cross.

As if the Kiriath had laboured here as they had at Kaldan in Yhelteth, delving down into the bedrock for their own obscure purposes, reinforcing the sides of their pit with outward clamping iron struts, but on a massively larger scale.

“Look familiar?” he asked.

“Well, it’s Kiriath built, that’s for sure.”  Archeth, shading her eyes against the glare the rising sun had put into the clouds.  “And whatever it is, it goes down.  Aerial conveyance pits, right?”

“You reckon?”

“I reckon it’d be a pretty huge coincidence otherwise.”  She propped herself carefully upright against the facade at their backs.  “Come on, let’s see if our flickery friend there feels the same.”

 

*

 

They followed the facade almost to its end before the sprite dived into a gap in the stonework and led them down through a series of collapsed and angled spaces that might once have been rooms.  They crowded in behind, relieved to get away from the sheer drop, but none too happy with the confined quarters and gloom.

Our scaly pals show up now, they’ll have us quicker than a shaman’s shag.  Egar’s gaze flickered about, making the odds.  Barely enough room in here to swing a fucking long knife, let alone a sword or axe.  And gaps on every side – floors, walls, ceilings, it’s all up for grabs.

Still, he slapped down any comments in that direction from the men at his back, told them to shut the fuck up and watch where they stepped.  While ahead and below him, Archeth’s lithe form braced its way downward with boots and elbows and arse, backlit into silhouette by the sprite’s onward beckoning fire.

Not bad, Archidi, for someone with a sewn gash across the ribs big enough to stick your whole hand in.  And not a grain of krinzanz to sweeten the ride.

He didn’t know if she’d used any of the powders they were gifted with at An-Kirilnar, but somehow he doubted it.  There was a gritted edge on Archeth right now – if anything, she seemed to be using her pain for something, maybe as a substitute for the fire the krin habitually lent.

“You alright?” he asked her, when they finally spilled out into the light at street level and he stood close at her shoulder.

She didn’t look at him, took no break from scanning the street ahead, for all that the sprite was already drifting steadily along it.  “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Stitches holding up?”

“Well, you should know – you put them in.”  She glanced round at him, face tightening up into a grimace as her body twisted.  “Stings worse than getting head from a cactus, if you really want to know.  But it’s some beautiful fucking work, Eg.  I don’t reckon Kefanin stitches my riding leathers this well.”

He shrugged, mask for the enduring bitter taste the skirmish the night before had left.  “All part of the service.  If I can’t keep you from getting hurt, at least I can patch up the damage afterwards.”

“Works for me.”

The last of the men dropped out of the gap in the masonry behind them and straightened up with vocal curses of relief.  Egar shut them up, got them formed into a loose wedge, and led them out once more behind Archeth and the sprite.

The rest was hard marching but uneventful.  They cut across the mounded rubble a few times more, leaving one boulevard in favour of another, trading plazas for streets and vice versa, but it was all open ground, ruined masonry packed solid underfoot or sections of stairway and raised platforms that had taken no more than superficial damage in whatever cataclysm had snuffed the city out.  Clear views on all sides now, no real risk of ambush, and their pace picked up accordingly.  Egar began to catch traces of a familiar reek on the wind.

He jogged forward, caught up to Archeth who was striding a few yards ahead.

“You smell that?”

“Yeah.  Like the stacks at Monal.  Must be getting close.”

Sometimes at An-Monal, the winds blew in from the south, and then you caught an acrid whiff of the chemicals at play in the Kiriath brewing stacks on the plain below.  The Dragonbane had never been very sure what it was Archeth’s people made in those towers, he’d only understood that they preferred to make it at some considerable distance from where they lived.  Watching at night as huge, unnaturally coloured flames leapt and gouted atop the miles-distant darkened towers, he didn’t much blame them.  Whatever they had trapped in there, you wouldn’t want to be standing very close if it ever got loose.

He remembered asking Flaradnam about it once, one banquet night out on the balcony shortly before they all headed out for Trelayne and then the Wastes.  He might as well not have bothered – as was so often the case with the Kiriath, any reply you got left you with more questions than you’d started with, and this time was no exception to the rule.  ‘Nam glanced around the table at the various commanders’ faces in the bandlight, then dropped some cryptic comment to the effect that most of the Kiriath’s more useful alloys had to be grown to full complexity or some such shit.  That it was in fact a process less like smelting and smithing, and more akin to raising crops or, in its finest expressions, breeding warhorses or – a fond side-smirk at an embarrassed Archeth – children.  What all that actually meant, Egar had no fucking clue and was too half-cut at the time to pursue any further.  And later there was no time, they were all too busy, and a couple of months after that, Flaradnam was beyond all asking.

The smell was growing stronger, there even in the gaps between the bluster of the wind.  He sneaked a glance at Archeth, wondering if it kicked her back as thoroughly to memories of her father.

But in the grey morning light, her face was as impassive as the flat of a blade.

They came over steeply-piled mounds of rubble the size of hills, started a descent through isolated crags and outcrops of architecture that looked like the drowned upper levels of buildings once dizzying in height.  And then, abruptly, they were looking down at the edge of the Kiriath earthworks from not much more than five hundred yards away.  The holes gaped there, larger than some lakes he knew back on the steppe, but empty, shadowed and dark.  More than ever, it looked as if these were wounds the city had sustained, and the vast black iron protrusions that sprouted from them on all sides some kind of surgical clamps to prevent healing.  As if the Kiriath had dropped something from a great height on their enemies here, and then left it in place to grow and sprout, just the way all those complex alloys were supposed to grow in the stacks at An-Monal.

The fire sprite came to a flickering halt just past a standing ruin a handful of storeys high, paused there perhaps to give them time to take in the view down across the rubble.  The air was warmer now.  Even the occasional gusts of wind carried some stale-tasting heat along with the brewing stack odours.  Egar fetched up at Archeth’s shoulder again.

“See a way down inside?”

She cupped both hands above her eyes to shade them, peered for a while.  “Not from here.”

“At Kaldan Cross, you got those things like big mason’s hods running on cables, but they’re sort of tucked away, under the lip.”

“Yeah, I know.  I was there when they built it, remember.  This is a fuck of a lot bigger than anything at Kaldan.”

“Well,” he shrugged. “Bigger hods and cables then.  Maybe.”

The warm wind came and went, gusts and gaps, blowing directly across the open plain and the huge iron-clamped holes in it.  The acrid chemical reek rolled in again, but it brought something else with it this time, another note to the mingled odours that –

  Sandalwood…..?

Or not.  He’d lost it again, in the buffet and gust of the wind.  He turned his head, breathed deep trying to get it back.  He cast about, a sliding sense of doom behind his eyes.  Saw the fire sprite turned jumpy and irresolute, slipping back and forth in the air beside them.  Archeth, lost in peering down at what her people had built here……    

Sudden, sharp spike of aniseed in his nostrils.  The wind came banging back, brought with it the sandalwood again, stronger now, no room left for doubt.  He heard comment murmur among the men, men too young or too lucky to know what it meant.  He stared down at the gaping holes ahead of them.  Felt the warmth in the air again, as if for the first time, and understanding fell on him like the ruin at his back.

  Oh no…..

But he knew it was.

And now the stealthy chill, waking and walking through his bones.  The grinning skull of memory, the bony beckoning hand.

  Well, well, Dragonbane.  Here it comes, after all these years.

He grabbed Archeth by the shoulder.  “Snap out of it, Archidi.  We got trouble.”

“Trouble?”  She blinked, still lost in thought  “What’s the…….”

She caught the blast of spices on the breeze.  Her eyes widened in shock.  Egar was already unslinging his Warhelm-forged staff lance.  He shed the soft fabric sheaths at either end, let them drift to the ground without attention.  Plenty of time to chase them up later.

If there was a later.

“Clear your steel,” he snapped to the men at his back, as they gathered in around him.  “And get back inside that ruin, find yourselves some cover, fast.”

“Is it the lizards again, my lord?” someone asked.

He had time to offer one tight grin.  “I’m afraid not, no.”

“Then-”

Across the wind, out of Kiriath pits below them, it came and split the air.  A shrieking, piercing  cry he’d thought he’d never hear again outside of dreams.  A cry like sheets of metal tearing apart, like the denial of some bereaved warrior goddess, vast, immortal grief tipping over into the insane fury of loss.  Like the drawn-out, echoing rage of some immense, stooping bird of prey.

“It’s a dragon,” he told them simply.  “Pretty big one too, by the sound of it.”

Racoons with Guns

So there’s been a bit of talk about this, and how it heralds the End of Grimdark (rumble), a Return to Core Values (drumroll), some sort of genre re-set maybe, at least within the context of superhero movies.  I don’t see it myself – but then I haven’t seen it and I don’t suppose I will for quite some time (my son’s only 3, so a little young yet for that avalanche of self-righteous gun violence and fisticuffs that passes for PG entertainment in Hollywood these days).  So I’m not about to start passing judgement on either the film itself or the contention that it represents some kind of paradigm shift within genre.

But.

I can’t help noticing that the much vaunted opening take of 94 million dollars ranks quite a long way down this list, and that the last Dark Knight movie, floating right there in the top five, took close to twice that amount.  Presumably all the people who paid to see that one haven’t undergone a sudden revulsion against the Gotham Gloom they were so eager to partake of two years back, and though many of them probably went quite cheerfully to see the Racoon with a Machine Gun this month, they would presumably also hurry just as cheerfully back for another instalment of the Grim Dark Knight if anyone’s prepared to serve one up.  And I don’t see anybody crying out for a return to the Adam West days on that particular  franchise.  So there’s that.

But beyond that, I have to ask – what is all this desperate longing for an End to the mythical Grimdark?  What’s with the whinging about collateral damage in Man of Steel?   I mean, who are these people?  What parameters are they using?  Have they really been going to cinemas to sit through superhero movie after superhero movie over the last ten years with gritted teeth because those movies are just not Shiny Happy enough, just not Black and White enough in moral tone?  Seriously?  Did they just……fall asleep or something, and miss sixty years’ worth of cultural growth and diversification?  Have they also been sitting at home with the TV, stomaching HBO and Nordic Noir with a bitter grimace, dreaming wistfully of a return to the glory days of TJ Hooker and The A Team?  Is this a constituency so totally bombproof resistant to cultural shift that they want to go back to a fictionscape dreamed up in the middle of the last century, back when women and coloured folks still knew their place, the cop on the beat was a lovely cuddly (white) guy, war was a glorious endeavour undertaken against dastardly foreign foes, and real men walked like John Wayne?  Do they really feel so threatened?

Look, this mythical Grimdark overlordship just doesn’t exist, it never has.  Want Shiny Happy Superhero movies?  You got ‘em.  Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy straddles the previous decade, box-office triumphant, and the grimdarkest thing that happens in those movies is Tobey McGuire going briefly rogue, which in the end added up to what?  Wearing a bit of black, not showing up to work on time and leching at women in the street.  Oooh, shudder.  What else?  Well, the much reviled moral landscape of 2007’s KickAss actually features the squeakiest clean gang of heroes you could imagine going up against cackling evil Mafia bad guys (oh, but Hit Girl swears a lot and she’s a girl – Hey. Deal with it.)  Even Chris Nolan’s Batman never really lacks for clear moral justification, his antagonists are all chips off the old Supervillain block, and he gets a straight up Happy Ending to round the trilogy out.  And is someone really going to try to tell me that the Iron Man movies are dark?

Even in the arena of fantasy literature, where Grimdark has perhaps kindled to life as an actual thing, a conscious sub-genre, it’s still never been the dominant form.  Anyone recall the name Paolini?  The Inheritance Cycle?  That sucker’s sold over 33 million copies since 2002.  And it’s not exactly grimdark in its thematic assumptions.  Lord of the Rings hasn’t gone anywhere either, it still shifts copies by the tonne, and so do books that are its direct thematic heirs.  Sure, George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie sell, but so too do Terry Brooks and Trudi Canavan. The only thing that’s really happened in fantasy is a diversification of form – something for everybody, a spectrum of story-telling reflecting a spectrum of demand.  And in the shifting matrix of that marketplace, what still sells more than anything else – just go back to that opening weekend list – is straight up Good guys vs Bad Guys with the Good triumphant and a Happy Ending every time.

So where’s the beef?  Why do people get so bent out of shape about this minor thing called – for want of a better, more nuanced, more fucking grown up descriptor – Grimdark.  Why so desperate for its limited influence to be over?

It seems to me that for a certain sub-section of genre consumers, it’s not enough that Grimdark exists as a limited aspect of the genre landscape and that there’s plenty of other, brighter and cheerier stuff to consume elsewhere.  Grimdark is like the latte-sipping elites so railed against by Republican Right pundits in the US a few years back – it’s a construct that offends by its very existence.  Never mind that childlike story-telling completely dominates genre cinema.  Never mind that such grimdarkness as has actually managed to creep into superhero movies is at most a veneer on a largely unchanged black and white moral base.  No, the mere intimation that there might be more to a heroic narrative than the heroes are the Good Guys, the villains are Bad Guys and the heroes should Win a rousing Victory appears to be in itself such an offensive contention that it arouses a kind of defensive knee-jerk hysteria just by surfacing.  Get that Grimdark out of my sight!  How dare you imply a moral relativity in my fictionscape!  There’s no place for that shit in this town.  I want capital E escapism, dammit, and so should every other decent person on the planet!

Guess some of us just aren’t decent.

In fact, some of us wish SF movie-making could manage to import a sensibility that looks a bit more like this.

Now there’s a movie I’ll be queuing to see.

Grimdark ain’t over, it’s just hanging out elsewhere under its real name.  Look for the mailbox labelled Nuanced Adult Thriller.

If you only read one science fiction novel this year…

…make it this one!

Looks cool, don’t it.  And I happen to know for a fact that it is cool, because I was lucky enough to snag a super-early advance reading copy at the back end of last year.  Peter Watts is one of a very small list of writers, and an even smaller list of writers within the SF genre, who make me genuinely jealous when I read their stuff (full disclosure, he’s also an occasional work colleague, and a friend).  Blindsight blew me away with how head and shoulders above the general standard it was – there was a poetry to the prose, an intensity to the characterisation and action, a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred emotional honesty to the storytelling that rarely surfaces in genre fiction of any stripe, and barely exists at all in the rarified cerebral vivarium of so-called Hard SF.  Blindsight left me painfully aware of how lacking those qualities tend to be in genre fiction, and it left me desperate for more.

Now there is more.  Echopraxia picks up a bit less than a decade after the finale of Blindsight, and like its predecessor, it puts the whole of the rest of the genre in the shade.  It deserves to walk away with the Clarke, the Hugo, the Nebula, the BSFA, and pretty much any other genre award for which it’s eligible.  It’s off the scale.

What’s it about?  Well, here’s my attempt at a blurb, some of which you may or may not see adorning the jacket of the book when it hits the shelves next month:

  • Ever wondered what X-Men or Avengers Assemble might have looked like if it were written for adults and based on actual bleeding edge science – now you don’t have to; Peter Watts is back after cometary absence and burning bright as ever across the genre skies.  Zombies, vampires, post-human prophets and invasion from outer space – Echopraxia reads like some dark, twisted superhero ensemble piece, but with all the prose gravitas of a novel by Cormac McCarthy or Philip Roth.  Its late twenty first century future feels at one and the same time dizzyingly outlandish and all too grimly real, exploding with high-end concepts, laced through with harsh human truths.  If science fiction can really be claimed as a literature of ideas, then Watts is without doubt its premier practitioner – Echopraxia is a depleted uranium shot across the bows of complacent, by-the-numbers SF, and a bright rallying cry for the soul of the genre.  Fucking awesome!

And here is my rough-cut, less-than-honed initial impression, once I’d put the finished book down and got my breath back:

  • Makes Blood Meridian look like Bonanza

I suppose that last comment is a warning of sorts, because if you thought Blindsight was kind of bleak, well, prepare to revise your parameters – Echopraxia takes bleak to a whole new level.

But it’s a beautiful kind of bleak, and as with any kind of beauty, you’re going to find it very hard to look away.

How you know you’re having a good summer

- breakfast is late and leisurely, and rather than actually ending, it just peters out into a vague stirring to activities which mostly don’t require you to relinquish your still unfinished coffee; check your mails, from the one place on the verandah you can get reception; carry the used crockery back inside by dribs and drabs; tidy up last night’s spent matches and mosquito coil stubs; top up your phone credit; read.

– the news all seems to be happening a long, long way away.

– you haven’t had access to a PS3 for more than a month; you don’t care.

– your socks are all still packed neatly away in the suitcase you brought them in, surplus to requirements since you arrived.

– your favourite T-shirts are growing bleached and frayed with prolonged exposure to seawater, suncream, chlorine, sweat; you find you like them better that way, and like yourself better when you wear them.

– your hair’s a mess – long and unruly and stacked stiff with salt, suncream, chlorine, sweat; you don’t care.  Most mornings, you grin at yourself in the mirror like sharing a secret.

– your nearest supermarket car park features views out across heat-hazed open ground and ragged giant palms to the sea.

- you’ll cheerfully drive the seven kilometres of winding mountain road to the village on an empty stomach and sleep-clogged eyes to get fresh bread and coffee for breakfast.

– you buy and barbecue meat at the slightest excuse, using wood and pine cones you foraged for yourself just hours earlier; in certain places, at certain moments, as you forage, the breeze carries hints of rosemary and wild thyme.

– you haven’t eaten inside for a month now; the idea of doing so starts to seem odd.

– despite all this food, you seem to be losing weight.  Or maybe it’s just the tan.

- your three year old son mistakes Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart for the theme tune to Postman Pat – Special Delivery, and insists you play it over and over again in the car.  You comply, and after a while you start to realise that despite Ian Curtis’s mournful voice and lyrics, Love Will Tear Us Apart is actually quite a catchy, upbeat little number….

– at night the stars glimmer so brightly and the cicadas’ rhythmic chirring sounds so loud that that they seem to blend, to become two sensory aspects of the same huge single phenomenon

– you shower outside with a garden hose whose coils have been heated so long in the sun that the water comes out too hot to use for the first thirty seconds.

– you’re careful to avoid actual serious sunburn or heatstroke (obsessive care of your infant son has spilled over into looking after yourself better too), but you find flirting with borderline overdoses of sun carries the same faintly masochistic pleasures as the hangovers and Sunday mornings after of your misspent youth.

– you get your hair cut locally and they fuck it up; you don’t care.

– you rip out the inner wall on a front tyre when it slips over the edge of a ragged poured concrete track and catches (on reflection, you maybe took that corner a little too hard, maybe had the Joy Division cranked up a little too loud); no matter.  Changing the tyre in 30 degrees of heat feels like Boy’s Own fun.

– you’ve quite forgotten you’ll ever have to go home.

Wrap Music (and Tracks from the Dawn of Time)

Finishing a trilogy – it turns out – is a more protracted affair than you’d imagine.  For quite some time now, I’ve been trying to get Ringil and company out of my head, in order to clear the decks for some straight up SF, but they’re not taking the eviction well.  Had a dream about the Gil the other night, something to do with dog-food, make sense of that if you can. And a few days ago, I heard this on some nameless local radio station out in the wilds of Andalucia, and was surprised to find how well it suited one of the principal characters.  So I backed up through my dodgy vinyl hard rock collection (so near as I can recall it at a distance), and sure enough I managed to find a match for the other two as well.

Bonus points for matching protagonist to track (note – some space for ambiguity and overlap here, but in my mind at least, it’s clear).

Right.  Maybe they’ll leave me alone now, and fade out like heroes of legend should…..

Choose your Poison

Find that I’m currently enjoying this rather a lot more than this.

Still not entirely sure of the why, both certainly have their respective flaws.  Might be a question of scale, or maybe just of tone.  But if anyone were to ask, I’d have to say the Ringil books chime far closer to the former than they do to the latter.

Luke Skywalker, Left Unity and the Stuttgart Megabrothel

Having been approached by the Star Wars franchise to write a tie-in with quote “a startlingly fresh angle on the canon”, I find myself-

Okay, just kidding.  Though it is tempting to imagine which New York-based emigre Latin American or East European post-modernist writer you might hire to deliver a tie-in novel behind that title…..  No, ahem, what this is really about is a minor revelation of linkage I had a few weeks ago.  I’d greeted the foundational statements of Ken Loach’s political brainchild Left Unity back in November with a facepalm-level groan – hey, a political party that’s against inequality and injustice; how come no-one ever thought of that before?  What a genius innovation!  All those other people who’ve spent their lives working in politics must just be kicking themselves that they missed that one.  And the procedures, I mean, it’s so simple – just end capitalism.  Yes, that’s worked so fucking well every time it’s been tried before.  Oh, and on an international scale while we’re at it!  Yes.  Just oppose all forms of discrimination, fully democratise all levels and aspects of society, everywhere.  Off we go, then!

So, wearily irritated by the fact so many seemingly intelligent people seem to be drinking this particular Koolaid, off I grouched.  Didn’t even bother posting at the site because, honestly, what’s the fucking point?  I mean, have we really learnt nothing in the last few decades?  Nothing about human nature, about social dynamics, about wealth-creation, about state control, about power – nothing, in short, about who we really are?

But I did notice that the irritation felt vaguely familiar.  I’d had the same basic feeling about something else, at some other time – but couldn’t pin down what exactly it was.

It took this article about megabrothels in Germany, with its links to an article on Canadian sex trade legislation and an interview with a British sex worker, for the penny to drop.  Here again, was the same myopic well-intentioned idealism, repelled by an unpleasant aspect of human behaviour, and touting brain-dead big-stick policy-making as the cure.  Yes – just ban prostitution; that’ll work.  Oh, and hey, why don’t we have a war on drugs while we’re at it, fuckwits?  Take down that Evil Empire, why don’t you?

Ah.

Sudden recollection slammed in, of this quote from George Lucas on the subject of his inspiration for the original Star Wars (the quote is from Wikipedia here, cited as occurring in the Joseph Campbell biography A Fire in the Mind):

“I came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is”

Right.  Which is why I could never stand Star Wars once I’d reached the age of about fifteen.  Because by then, most of the literature and cinema I was consuming was precisely about showing the world (the human world anyway) the way it is.  By then, I took – and still take now – the effective mirroring and interrogation of the human condition (rather than dreamy, idealistic flight from it) as the hallmark of good adult fiction.

Thing is, though, Star Wars sure is popular, and not just with kids under the age of fifteen.  Huge numbers of people actively enjoy the refuge from the real that idealised Hero figures and their battles against a Great Evil provide.  Which is fine, I guess, it is only fiction after all.  But I can’t help wondering whether an entertainment matrix which constantly reinforces unrealistically black and white contexts of struggle doesn’t also distil a similarly unrealistic attitude when it comes to assessing real human struggle in the real human world.  How many Left Unity supporters see themselves as Che-style X-wing pilots, swooping in to destroy the evil capitalist Death Star, because then, of course, all will be right with the universe?  How many campaigners for maintaining the criminal status of prostitution once dreamed of rescuing a captured Princess from the clutches of evil men?  Come to that, how many supporters of the Iraq war thought they were finally seeing a chance to take down Darth Vader and set a people free of tyranny just like that?

My irritation is not with the dreams.  They’re part of who we are; we all have them – wouldn’t it be nice if…….  My problem is with those who stubbornly expect, against all the gathered evidence and informed opinion from those on the ground, that their dreams can be imposed, flatly and mechanistically, onto the myriad teeming variegated mess that is the real human world.  Abolish capitalism.  Abolish commerce in sexual relations.  Stamp out Drugs.  Free Iraq.  Yeah, right.

And I have the feeling that the general failure of maturity present in that mindset, the apparent congenital inability to understand that in the real world things are actually a bit complicated than that, isn’t helped by the pervasiveness of a fiction whose primary intention is full retreat from that real world.