Site of the week: World Book Night 2012

Having recently discovered “StumbleUpon”, I must confess I have already become a bit of an addict. So to put it to good use, once a week I am going to feature a website (related to writing) that I’ve been particularly impressed with. This one can count as the first…

It is never too early to cast your vote. So get cracking for 23rd April 2012.

The first World Book Night was held in the UK in the spring of 2011 and saw 20,000 people give away 1 million specially printed books – 40,000 copies of 25 brilliant titles.

This site exists in order to celebrate books and to connect readers with one another. You can learn more about World Book Night itself, the 2011 books and authors, and connect with other passionate readers.

And most importantly, you can help us shape World Book Night 2012 by telling us your ten favourite books – the books you most love to read, give and share – to give them a chance to be featured in next year’s list. Simply sign up or login and tell us what books really matter to you.

The World Book Night Website

Red pill or blue pill? – Post a Day #169

To answer today’s “post a day” question it is the red pill every time for me. I would rather spend my life anguished and knowledgeable than happy in ignorance. One of my favourite fables is Voltaire’s story of the good Brahmin so there is no contest, I would always choose to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I’m not actually going to talk about Alice in Wonderland or The Matrix but one of this year’s most fascinating films (at least, it was for me).

Limitless stars Bradley Cooper who seems to have lost the motivation in life. A writer with an unfinished novel, no job and an ex-girlfriend who wants him to get his life back on track. When the brother of another ex-girlfriend offers him an experimental drug which he claims will give him a legal high, he doesn’t imagine that the drug will unlock his mind, allow him to perform calculations like a supercomputer and see through the petty prejudices of human consciousness and give him back the drive (and more) that he had lost. He finishes his novel and the agent who was unimpressed with his first submission calls him back practically salivating at how amazing the book is (hey, I could do with one of those right now!). He starts trading stocks while under the influence of the drug and winds up a millionaire in weeks before being offered a high profile job.

Without giving too much of the plot away, it isn’t all up hill and he soon finds himself being hunted by people who want the pills for themselves. Worse, the pill is addictive and withdrawal leads to horrific side effects that in the end Eddie believes he has the resources and the ability to conquer.

The film asks us more or less the same question that both Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix asks: do you take the risks for the great potential gain or would you refuse and live in blissful ignorance?

I have no doubt that I’d take a pill that would allow me to use my mind so fully even knowing the drawbacks. I like to believe that I would put it to the best possible use but the first task would be the perfect re-drafting of my novel.

Book Review: Shades of Grey 1: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde

I wanted to like this, I really did. I am a big fan of Jasper Fforde and his clever method of mixing mundane storylines with a hefty dose of the bizarre. It is this formula that has given him success in the ‘Thursday Next’ and ‘Nursery Crime’ series. So when I found this novel with its interesting blurb I felt I had to get it.

Here is a world from which all colour has been removed, everything is coloured by artificial means by devices that look like fire hydrants. Furthermore, it seems that people cannot see colour very well and the rigid ‘outraged middle England’ social heirarchy is organised on the perception of it.

Eddie Russett is a ‘Red’ who dreams of greater status… until the day he falls in love with a ‘Grey’ (the lowest class) and persues her only to begin to discover that all is not well in his rigid but seemingly transparent world. I ploughed to the end, admittedly I struggled with this, which is a big difference with the other Fforde books that I flew through.

This is quite a messy book that is difficult to get into and at times lacks any sort of direction. The bizarreness of the world, instead of being amusing, makes it a slog at times and the plot that is seemingly heavily influenced by Gilliam’s Brazil left, for me, very little to enjoy. Perhaps this was just a step too far in the weird department when coupled with characters I couldn’t care a bout and a plot that was just too familiar.


Anti Science Fiction snobbery – my protest. Post a Day #160

Started this post before the subject of today’s Post A Day came up but nice to be able to tie it in all the same!

Having read this article last week, I felt inspired to comment on the ridiculous idea that some writers feel the need to insist work is not science fiction.

First, let me give you a premise. It is the mid 21st century. The Earth has suffered irreversible ecological damage. But we have a back up in the form of a recently discovered planet that has an earth-like atmosphere and can support life. A small group of humans set up a colony there and await the arrival of the transport ships bringing the survivors from Earth. This team of scientists creates clones to help build the colony. Sometime in the brief history, a disease wipes out a fair proportion of the populace. The clones are blamed and are ordered executed (though many escape or are allowed to leave). There is something not quite right about this plant; there seems to be no native species other than grass and certainly no animals. Further, some of the colonists are reporting seeing dead people, especially those killed on the planet. During the course of events, a human skull is found buried. Clearly human, it is radiocarbon dated to several thousand years old.

You would be forgiven for thinking that such a television series as described above would qualify in several ways as “science fiction” wouldn’t you?

Not according to the Producers of the series “Outcasts” (which is what I have just described above). Read the quote and gasp if you will:

But it’s not sci-fi in the sense that we’re not like Star Wars: we’re not putting in lots of flying spaceships and they’re not wearing metal suits! It’s very character-led and it’s very human. Maybe it’s a new genre. The French have a wonderful term for it, ‘la drama de l’anticipation!’ It’s imagining a future for the human race but it’s not about creating something that would only show on a sci-fi channel because this is for BBC One at 9pm. It’s very much a piece that needs to feel accessible and about human stories and real people’s lives.

Seriously… read that again “spaceships”, “metal suits”, “its character-led”.

This is the sort of anti-science fiction snobbery I thought we had grown out of by now. The BeeB’s slow starvation of Doctor Who in the 1980s showed that it had become embarrassed of the genre. Its return in 2005 has been to popular and critical acclaim. Under Matt Smith, it has become a global phenomena. Outcasts was quietly euthanised in March this year. It was poorly handled, badly written, tedious, clich├ęd and only became interesting in the last two episodes. The fact that it treated its potential ready-made fan base as morons and pretended that they were doing something new and original demonstrates hubris on the person who made the comment above. Science fiction fans are a much more discerning bunch than we are ever given credit for and we were not fooled by ‘Outcasts’. We are not inclined to mull over the complexity of imagined concepts simply because your book, series or film has “space ships” or “metal suits” or in the case of the link I provided, scantily clad women riding snakes.

SFX, the superb science fiction magazine that has been going since 1995 took great delight in mocking the producers of the BBC series ‘Bugs’ who, when the magazine contacted them to do a piece of the series, instead of accepting the chance of free publicity, chose to dismiss the magazine’s staff that their series was “not science fiction”.

This should be the first lesson for a writer: Don’t treat your audience with contempt.

The biggest furore of recent times was the exclusion of science fiction from the BBC’s World Book Night in April. The BBC stood accused of sneering at science fiction; the letter jointly signed by an astounding number of writers stated:

“The BBC World Book Nights self-indulgent coverage gave the general public the misleading impression that novels are only for an elite, and that unless you’re reading Dostoevsky, preferably in the original Russian, you’re wasting your time on trash.”

A hefty dose of unhelpful hyperbole there, but as a science fiction writer I understand the depth of feeling about this issue. There is still a view among most people that if you like science fiction, you are a Trekkie and your love of science fiction doesn’t go beyond that. Science Fiction need not contain a single space ship.

1984 is arguably the most identifiable and has provided so many ideas and words into the vernacular. How often does the media use words like “Orwellian”, “double-think”, “thoughtcrime”, “Big Brother”, “Room 101″, “Thought Police”. If you read The Daily Mail or the Telegraph, probably every day. Yet for all its futuristic themes it is a novel that explores totalitarian government. Similarly, “Brave New World” is a social criticism of mass production and the worship of commerce. Both of these widely acclaimed novels are science fiction and neither has a single space ship or metal suit! We need look no further than John Wyndham for social commentary. I have touched on this issue before so in the interests of not re-treading old ground, I won’t give any more examples.

We must also make note of those science fiction writers who are or were scientists and highly qualified in their respective fields. Carl Sagan, author of “Contact” was an astrophysicist. So too is Alastair Reynolds. Arthur C. Clarke was a physicist who invented the communications satellite. Isaac Asimov was a biochemist. Stephen Baxter has degrees in Mathematics and Engineering.

Finally, I wish to comment on the absurd notion raised at the beginning that science fiction is never about character. True, hard science fiction is usually about the exploration of concepts of technology and future sciences; soft science fiction (though I prefer the term social science fiction) discusses social themes; space opera largely concerns exploring galaxies and the variety of civilisations and beliefs. But to say that science fiction lacks characters or characterisation is an amusingly bizarre accusation to make, even if you don’t actually say it. And the person who made the accusation produced a TV series full of bad characters that barely qualified as wooden. But anyway, cheap shot aside… such an accusation may be true if you only took Star Trek as your yard stick, particularly The Next Generation (which I feel was terrified of characterisation). Characters rarely, if ever seemed to change. Ridiculously, Commander Ryker is temporarily promoted to Captain after the Borg destroys a significant proportion of the fleet. In the next episode he is demoted back to Commander! Clearly Starfleet had a ready supply of Captains infinitely more qualified than Ryker who were temporarily unavailable. Now compare that to the most engaging characters in Babylon 5. Watch Londo Mollari go from buffoon with delusions of being in high government (amongst whom he is a joke) to mass murderer, war criminal and then liberator and finally Emperor of a civilisation heading for collapse. See also G’Kar go from bad-tempered, uncouth, bully with a small-dog complex to freedom fighter then spiritual leader determined to elevate his people through enlightenment and co-operation. These profound changes are believable because of how characters were carefully crafted early on. No characterisation I ask you?

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of creating strong characters who develop around or alongside the plot and the ideas he wishes to explore. I’ve said it before, but his Three Colours Mars novels are an exercise in building a new world in every conceivable way. Once we get half way through “Green Mars”, we move away from the science and associated problems of colonisation and onto how society should be formed, politics, philosophy, religion and social values and the big question of the colony’s relationship with Earth. If any modern science fiction writer will be considered part of the literary classics in future, you would do well to bet on Kim Stanley Robinson and I guess by then the idea of how Mars was colonised or the discovery of an icy Stonehenge on Pluto will miraculously find itself excluded from the list of science fiction and included in the genre “literature”. I ask… why need they be mutually exclusive?

The Chances of Anything Coming from Mars – Post a Day #149

Today’s Post A Day is whether we believe in life on other planets…

I don’t “believe” in life on other planets because in this case belief is irrelevant. People used to believe that this planet was the centre of the solar system. The fact that this hypothesis was violently enforced does not make it true. What matters is the evidence and the logical deductions. Granted, we have limited evidence about life on other planets and what evidence we do have is disputed. Referring back to the post where I discussed the Hubble Deep Field Image, in that small piece of space Hubble identified over 3000 galaxies. Each of these galaxies contains billions and billions of stars. To quote the late Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, if we are alone in the universe that is an awful waste of space. My logical deduction then is that life on other planets is highly probable. Continue reading

Book Review: Science in the Capitol trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting) by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is World Environment Day today and I thought I would mark the occasion by posting a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy.

Forty Signs of Rain: The first part of the trilogy sees the arrival of a delegation from the (fictional) island nation of Khembalung to petition the US government to change their course of action to halt the regular flooding of Khembalung.

Despite Robinson’s reputation for hard scifi, this is very much a story about people. Not just the delegation from Khembalung, but Anna Quibler, an NSF employee and her husband who is an environmental consultant for a politician. It also goes into detail about the politics of research funding. Not rivetting, but fascinating nonetheless. The majority of this first book is about their daily working life and the frustrations of dealing with politicians who pay lip service to the problem but do nothing. If you are looking for action a la The Day After Tomorrow then you will be bitterly disappointed because this is science fiction with the emphasis on the SCIENCE. At the end there is a flood that devastates Washington DC but that is only the beginning…

Fifty Degrees Below: Following the devastating flood, it seems that the ice caps are melting rapidly and the Gulf Stream has shut off, plunging the entire northern hemisphere into a winter that would make Siberia seem like Hawaii. The focus of the story now shifts to Frank who is keen to emphasise that the environmental changes are reflecting conditions of the Younger Dryas. There is also the hint of political thriller as Frank is being constantly watched while his boss fights for research funding against a backdrop of a possible attempt to fix the election. Robinson does not have designs on being the next John le Carre though, this story is still one of science and philosophy and a stark warning about what will happen if we carry on business as usual.

Sixty Days and Counting: And so the trilogy ends. A second horrific winter has gone by, Phil Chase is now President and setting about tackling the problem caused by years of human recklessness. The emphasis shifts back to the Quiblers when Charlie is appointed as Science Advisor to the Senate.

Poignantly, Frank goes on a walking holiday in the Sierra Nevada and it is during this seeming interlude that Robinson really hammers home the issues. More than DC flooding, more than the harsh winters, this part of the book demonstrates the wider environmental change that has been forced on the landscape and highlighting what the world has lost.

Overall, this is yet more high quality work from Kim Stanley Robinson that is character driven and science heavy. However, this trilogy takes a while to get going and really lacks the magic of some of his other work, especially the Mars trilogy. What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance through research and characterisation and attempts to bring home not only the potential problems of climate change, but also of doing nothing.

Fear – Post a Day #145

I’m going to reinterpret this “post a day” to discuss horror. I realise I have barely touched on the subject so far and it is right next to science fiction in practically every book store.

What is it about horror that fascinates us? What is it about being scared that is like a drug? For many Brits of a certain age, that fear began young: cowering behind the sofa at the appearance of the Daleks or the Cybermen on Doctor Who. Children seem to love being scared and my childhood memories of television are littered with terrifying programmes such as Children of the Stones, Under the Mountain, The Tripods, Dramarama (some were spooky) and countless others who titles I can’t remember but have images of events that took place. One is really irritating me that I cannot remember what it was called. There was a witch in a cave that presided over a labyrinth. The walls of the labyrinth were about 6 inches high but in order to get into a magical world, the protagonist (I think a girl of about 12 years old) had to follow the path through it.

All of these were scary and all of them were aimed at children. Some of them are still disturbing these days, I can still recommend Children of the Stones.

As adults, most of us still like being scared but for me the horror genre of the last 20-30 years has really been short on scares. I cannot remember the last horror book that actually scared me, if there was ever one. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the genre. I’ve read quite a lot of Stephen King and I think that James Herbert is an amazing writer… but that is mostly because of how he engages social issues (anybody who thinks that ‘The Rats’ is just about mutant killer rats needs to re-read the first 100 pages or so). I have read a couple of novels by Dean Koontz; I find his style is generally lacking in the sort of substance that I look for. Furthermore, his work is more about shocks than plot; the written equivalent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fine if you like that sort of thing but I don’t.

In film, the situation has been even worse. After the 1970s, horror became less about scares and more about effects. That was until an ultra low-budget film recorded on a handycam became the first internet sensation riding a wave of hype and word of mouth promotion. But love or hate The Blair Witch Project, it cannot be denied that it re-invigorated an exhausted genre and brought back the scares. Since then, horror has generally taken a step away from effects-laden gorefests and tried to get back to basics. This is no better demonstrated than in the overwhelming success of the sort of films that we have seen since 2000: [REC], Insidious, Sunshine, 28 Days Later (and its sequel 28 Weeks Later), Dawn of the Dead.

We also have the influence of Japanese horror to thank for this greater emphasis on scares. Though many of them have been unnecessarily re-made by Hollywood, clearly international cinema has helped to give horror a new lease of life.

I’ve never understood what it is about people that we want to feel terrified and the success of those films mentioned above shows that it is scares, not gore, that is important to most horror fans. Perhaps it is the adrenaline rush? The only film that ever gave me that feeling was The Blair Witch Project, I came out of the cinema with a buzz akin to getting off of a white knuckle ride. Or is it something else? I open the floor to you readers…

So, putting aside all waffle here is a list of my top 10 favourite horror novels:

1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
2. The Stand – Stephen King
3. Dracula – Bram Stoker
4. The Rats – James Herbert
5. Needful Things – Stephen King
6. The Thief of Always – Clive Barker
7. 48 – James Herbert
8. Haunted – James Herbert
9. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
10. The Dark Half – Stephen King

Looking at the list above I realise just how narrow my horror reading has been to date. I had a fascination with Stephen King through most of my teenage years before moving on to James Herbert. So far I have really only stuck with the safe bets of King, Herbert and Barker.

And my top 10 favourite horror films:

1. Alien
2. The Thing (1980)
3. The Blair Witch Project
4. The Shining
5. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
6. Ring (Japanese version)
7. The Exorcist
8. [REC]
9. The Omen
10. 28 Days Later