Your First Book Launch

Elastic Press published my first short story collection, The Last Reef, in August 2008. Since then, I’ve released another fifteen books, and along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about launching them.

Seeing my first book in print, actually holding it in my hands, was an exhilarating and terrifying experience. On the one hand, it marked the fulfilment of a life-long ambition; but on the other, it meant that the stories in the book were now fixed. I couldn’t fiddle with them anymore. Now they were out of my hands and had to stand or fall on their own merits.

I knew they were strong stories. Most of them had already seen publication in various places, including Interzone, but still I was apprehensive. I had the support of the publisher, Andrew Hook, and the good reputation he’d built for Elastic Press over the years, so I knew people would take the book seriously – but what if no-one liked it?

The book launch took place in August 2008, in the Citte of Yorke, an olde worlde pub in Holborn, a few short steps from the Chancery Lane tube station in London. It was a joint launch, as Chris Beckett was also debuting his collection, The Turing Test, which later went on to win that year’s Edge Hill Prize.

The front bar was almost empty when I arrived, and I immediately started to fret that we wouldn’t pull a crowd. I needn’t have worried. It was a warm but wet Saturday afternoon and soon people were packing the place. Chris and I took turns reading excerpts from our books, and then we held a joint Q&A session. I sold around 20 copies of my book. The crowd were good natured and all-in-all, it was a very pleasant afternoon.

What I Learned Then, And Since:

1. Location, location, location. Most launch events seem to take place in bookstores, which makes sense. But if you can’t find one, many pubs or restaurants have private function rooms that they will often let you use for free during the day, as long as you can guarantee a certain number of visitors.

2. Advertise the event beforehand on social media and your website. Include the time and location. Make it as easy as possible for people to attend. And perhaps consider offering signed book plates for those who can’t attend.

3. Get an MC. If you aren’t comfortable hosting the event all by yourself, ask a friend, your publicist, or a member of bookshop staff to act as MC. They can introduce you and help field questions from the audience.

4. Be nice to the staff. If your launch is in a bookstore, show your appreciation. If it’s after-hours, the booksellers might not be getting paid for keeping the shop open, so be as helpful and professional as possible. Let them know how much you appreciate them hosting you, and make it as easy for them as possible.

5. Be approachable. Don’t hide away at the bar with a clique of followers. Work the room. Shake hands with everyone. Make eye contact and listen to everything people say to you. Don’t force yourself on people, but if they’ve taken the trouble to come out and attend your event, do them the courtesy of showing them that you’re pleased they are there. A plate of baked goods on the signing table also helps.

6. When signing books, ask what they’d like you to write. Some book collectors just want a simple signature; other readers are delighted by a personal or quirky message. To avoid disappointment, ask them up front. And always check the spelling of any names – you’d be astonished how many different ways there are to spell seemingly common names.

7. Dress comfortably. Wear something appropriate. I usually wear a blazer over a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Once, I made the mistake of wearing a full flight suit, and by the end of the afternoon, I was wishing I’d worn a t-shirt. Find a balance between comfort, confidence and clothes that reflect the image you want to project.

8. Be engaging. When reading excerpts from your book, look at your audience as much as possible. Catch a few eyes. Speak loudly and vary your tone. If you need to, don’t be afraid to stop and take a drink. If you’re relaxed and having fun, chances are the audience will be too.

9. Record the event. The purpose of a book launch isn’t to flatter your ego; it’s to make a splash and sell some books. So don’t be afraid to ask your audience to live-tweet pictures of the event. Display your own pics on Instagram. Post videos of your reading and Q&A session on YouTube or TikTok. A book launch is a huge PR opportunity, and you should exploit it to the fullest.

10. Have fun. This is your chance to hang out with friends and meet readers. If you relax and enjoy yourself, everyone else will too.

Do you have any tips not covered above? Please feel free to share them in the comments.

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Science Fiction’s Secret Weakness Chamber

The other night, I watched Battle: Los Angeles, and while it was okay as a piece of reasonably brainless entertainment, it still suffered from what I call S.W.C.S. – Secret Weakness Chamber Syndrome.

Ever since the exhaust vent on the Death Star in Star Wars, all evil alien technology has come with a secret weakness, which is usually housed in a handy ‘secret weakness chamber’ located at the heart of the alien’s stronghold. This weakness allows our out-gunned and out-numbered heroes to defeat vast armies with a single blow.

In the Avengers and Independence Day, the alien hordes are controlled by a central mothership, the loss of which disables their forces. There’s a similar set-up in Edge of Tomorrow and Starship Troopers, in which the aliens troops are telepathically controlled by a single entity. In Battle Los Angeles, all the aliens’ technology is controlled via centralised command and control nodes, which just happen to make handy targets for the plucky marines. And in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the mechanism for disabling the deadly armoured helicarriers is housed, for some inexplicable reason, in easily accessible glass bubbles on the bottoms of their hulls.

And let’s not forget the Borg from Star Trek.

These weaknesses, or magic off-switches, can probably be traced back to War of The Worlds by H.G.Wells where, as I’m sure you already know, the Martian invaders – having defeated everything humanity can throw at them – are finally destroyed by germs.

These secret weaknesses make for involving plots, where the good guys get to fight back against seemingly overwhelming odds – but reality just isn’t that tidy. There is no simple re-set button to cancel the alien invasion. Instead of wiping them all out in a single explosion, you’re more likely to end up with alien casualties, prisoners-of-war, and guerrilla resistance. This is the lesson the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Russia may soon learn in Ukraine: nothing ends cleanly.

That’s why in my novels The Recollection and The Embers of War trilogy, I confronted humanity with seemingly unstoppable foes; and purposely neglected to provide those foes with secret weaknesses. There is no off-switch, no central brain or control system; and so none of the usual space opera narratives work.

Sometimes, you can win a temporary cessation of hostilities. Other times, all you can do is fall back. Fall back, and survive.

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Mirrorshades: Sometimes, Yesterday’s Science Fiction Becomes Today’s Reality

When Mirrorshades first came out, many saw it as a warning shot across the bows of the science fiction genre. Designed as a showcase for the newly-emergent Cyberpunk movement, the anthology featured early stories by writers William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, Lewis Shiner, Paul  Di Filippo, and John Shirley, and it took few prisoners.

The very first story, Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, drew a very deliberate bead on the techno-utopian sci-fi of the pulp era, contrasting its shining cities and thirty-lane highways with the world as it actually was: a world of crumbling gas stations, rented Toyotas, and cinemas showing Nazi Love Motel. The future it implied wasn’t a future constructed by heroic American engineers, but an international, improvised future cobbled together from necessity. The prose is stripped-down and elegant, with hardly a wasted word; the characters just people doing their jobs. Science fiction, Gibson seemed to be saying, could get along fine without being pompous or self-consciously experimental. 

As a statement of intent, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ illustrated everything that Bruce Sterling claimed in his introduction: especially a fascination with the fabric of daily life, and an acknowledgement of, and desire to build upon, the SF that had gone before.

That point is reinforced by Sterling’s choice to include a story co-written by himself and Gibson. ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ tells the tale of a Russian astronaut marooned on an orbital space station as his country collapses beneath him. Space, it says, will not be settled by handsome USAF pilots riding gleaming Von Braun rockets, but by those who pull themselves up there anyway they can, and repurpose and reuse whatever they can find in order to do so. Rather than an expansionist future of stellar empires, the story postulates a gradual dispersal of bohemian settlers in jury-rigged habitats built from the cast-offs of a dying space programme.

“Cyberpunk,” Sterling wrote, “has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion but a modern reform.”

Whether all the stories in Mirrorshades reflect that statement is a question open to interpretation. For me, one of my favourite stories in the book is the least ‘cyberpunky’ of them all. Rudy Rucker’s ‘Tales of Houdini’ is set in the 1940s and features magic and fantasy rather than the usual associated tropes of the sub-genre. On first reading, I found it hard to understand why it had been included. Each of Rucker’s ‘Ware’ trilogy of novels is a classic Cyberpunk text; but this story – highly entertaining though it is – doesn’t seem to fit the purpose of the book.

Of the other stories in the book, John Shirley’s ‘Freezone’ imagines a shantytown floating in the Atlantic, accreted around the remains of abandoned oil platforms, and a rock musician struggling with the encroachment of electronic music.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Rock On’ and James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Solstice’ also concern themselves with the evolution of drink and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 

My personal favourite is the last story in the collection. ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’, co-written by Sterling and Lewis Shiner, is a time travel romp in which corporations have discovered that changing the past has no effect on the present, and are therefore enthusiastically dedicating themselves to plundering history. Intent on turning the eighteenth century into a massive Third World of cheap labour and abundant natural resources, they trample over everything, creating a world where Amadeus Mozart is a hustling street kid who plays electric guitar over synth riffs sampled from K-Tel pop cassettes, Marie Antoinette reads Vogue, and one of Genghis Khan’s generals rides a Harley.

Yes, aspects of the stories have dated – everybody smokes; nobody owns a mobile phone; and some of the ‘futuristic’ technology already looks dangerously obsolete – but science fiction is always about the time in which it was written, and these stories are most definitely about the 1980s. And yet, as we do more and more of our socialising, shopping and banking online, they still seem curiously prescient. And, when you consider that these stories helped shape the minds of the people who built the Internet we see around us today, I guess that’s hardly surprising. 

In the 1980s, Cyberpunk predicted that in the early years of the 21st Century, we’d be living in a post-Cold War dystopia ruled by greedy and all-powerful corporations, in a world where data was the most important commodity and misfits and loners stalked the virtual frontier in search of mischief. Forty years on – as I scan headlines concerning international cyber war, corporate tax avoidance, online fraud, and the latest information war between Russia and the West – that prediction doesn’t sound so far off the mark.

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Gateway by Frederik Pohl

What would you buy if you won the lottery? For Robinette Broadhead, protagonist of Gateway, the answer is adventure and escape, and the chance to make even more money. He wants to get away from a short, dirty life spent mining shale, so he buys a one-way ticket to the eponymous space station, which is an ancient artefact filled with thousands of abandoned spaceships.  

Little is known about the alien builders of Gateway  – a mysterious race dubbed the ‘Heechee’ – but humanity has figured out how to start up their abandoned spaceships; and now a thriving gold rush is afoot as volunteers ride these ships into the unknown, seeking their fortunes. A ride on a Gateway ship is the ultimate gamble. The controls are unfathomable; the ships follow preset courses of unpredictable length; and your chances of returning alive are only one-in-three. Some crews simply vanish, never to be seen again; some come back with their blood smeared all over the cabin walls by unimaginable forces; and others starve because their food and water runs out before the ship returns to base. But of course, there are always a few gamblers who think they can beat  the system, and the potential rewards are huge, as returning pilots are handsomely paid for new discoveries.

At the start of the book, Robinette (or “Bob”) is back on Earth again, years after his time on Gateway, having apparently survived his experiences and made his fortune. His story is presented to us through a series of exchanges with his robot psychiatrist, Sigfrid. Chapters alternate between their discussions on Earth and Robinette’s first-person account of his life on Gateway, through which we – like Sigfrid – begin slowly to piece together the truth of what happened on his fateful final flight. 

The trouble is, Bob isn’t a very reliable narrator, and there are some things he doesn’t want to talk about. Sometimes he’s downright evasive. All we know for sure is that he suffers from a crippling sense of shame.  Bob seems to despise himself, and it’s not just survivor’s guilt. He seems to hate himself for some of the sexual choices he’s made. For him, sex seems bundled up with guilt and self-loathing, and a deep resentment of his feminine-sounding first name. Since making his fortune, he’s been throwing himself into hedonistic romps with bimbos as a way to suppress his misery. But does that misery derive from his suppressed homosexuality, or from something deeper? And what happened to Klara, the woman he ostensibly fell in love with?

As Bob slowly recounts his tale, Pohl brings the echoing corridors of the Gateway station to life, painting a brittle portrait of men and women suffering from the psychological stress of living in a claustrophobic and potentially-lethal alien environment. Memos and personal ads dot the narrative, adding flavour. When not out risking their lives in space, the denizens of Gateway throw themselves into sexual experimentation and gambling. They are obsessed with games of chance: and none more so than Bob. His very presence on the station has come as the result of a lucky lottery win. Life, Pohl seems to be telling us, is all about chance and coincidence. We may have free will, but only to the extent that we get to decide how we’re going to respond to the hand we’ve been dealt. Luck alone decides if we’ll be wealthy or poor, if we’ll live or die.

Gateway deserves its reputation as a classic (the year following its publication, it won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards, and has since been reprinted as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series). The plot zips along at an agreeable rate, but it is the central figure of Bob who keeps us turning the pages. We view the marvels of the universe through the eyes of a flawed everyman, and we root for him to succeed, despite already knowing that (on some levels) he does; and we feel his discomfort as he squirms ever closer to revealing the events of his final trip, and the decision he has been forced to make. We know something terrible happened to him, and Pohl cleverly uses our trepidation to draw us unstoppably onwards. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, we’re wincing in anticipation of what we may discover but, at the same time, we dare not look away. Even though he’s flawed and sometimes makes bad decisions, we’ve come to like Bob, and we’re worried what he might have done.

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Maybe you can help me with a dilemma?

For the past 13 years, I’ve been making a precarious living as a writer. As I’m also a carer, I can’t get a full-time job, so I’m reliant on freelance gigs and book contracts to keep me afloat.

Ko-fi also helps. It’s a site where fans can support their favourite creators through small one-off or monthly payments in return for behind-the-scenes stories and posts.

It’s been a lifesaver at times.

But here’s my quandary. I appreciate the awesome community I’m building on Ko-fi, but I don’t know what to offer them in return. As a time-strapped writer, there’s only so much content I can produce.

So, what can I offer? What would you like to see, and what would make you sign-up?

Take a look at my Ko-fi page and let me know what you think.

Living in an Artificial World

Photo by Philipp Deus on Unsplash

A few years ago, I had a random thought. I wondered if the best environment for an intelligent species is one they create themselves. At a certain point, is it better to start adapting the environment to suit yourself, rather than adapting to suit it?       

That started me thinking about space travel, and how humanity might develop if it found itself confined to an artificial environment on a long term basis. 

But why would humanity choose to thus confine itself?

In my forthcoming novel, Stars and Bones (March 1st from Titan Books), I postulate a superior alien intelligence that shows up and acts like a parent. It decides to give the Earth a chance to heal from all the damage inflicted upon it by the human race, and so it casts us adrift in a vast fleet of arks. Instead of being allowed to strip mine the Earth and run wild with nuclear weapons, we are effectively scolded and sent to our room. 

How would we react as a species if we pressed the big red button and went for full-throttle Armageddon, only to see all the missiles snatched away while in flight and cast into the sun by a powerful alien entity? Obviously, we would be shocked and maybe more than a little ashamed and traumatised. I don’t see how we would ever again be able to trust the leaders that brought us to the edge of annihilation. And having faced that yawning existential chasm, maybe we’d decide to do things differently from there on out, to avoid the possibility of such a thing ever happening again.

But how would we adjust to living in a wholly artificial environment? Could we possibly remain mentally and physically healthy without a direct connection to nature?

Life on the arks is very different from life on Earth. For a start, every person has equal access to food, water, and healthcare. To some, this seems like the answer to their prayers; to others, a socialist nightmare. One of the viewpoint characters is a software billionaire by the name of Haruki, who spent much of his life and fortune building a bunker where he hoped he and his family could survive the ravages of climate change. But in the Continuance Fleet (as humanity’s diaspora becomes known) almost anything a person desires can be manufactured by the arks at no cost—so Haruki’s billions are suddenly worthless. He thought he would be restarting civilisation with a handful of survivors, but now everybody’s survived and he no longer enjoys any special advantage.

How would you feel in that situation? Imagine it’s a normal Thursday night. The news is full of rising international tensions. And then suddenly, the missiles are in flight. The world is about to end in nuclear fire. And then… It doesn’t. All the missiles disappear, and instead, a bunch of blue-skinned androids appear in your neighbourhood and start ushering people through a silver portal to a starship that feels like a cruise liner the size of New York.

You no longer have a job or bills. Your mortgage is gone. You will never want for anything, for the rest of your life. But in return, you have to spend the rest of your life in this fleet of giant ships. You will never again feel a natural breeze or sink your feet into the sand of a real beach. Could you adjust?

Recent research by the American Psychological Association suggests time exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits. But can we fake a ‘natural environment’ using birdsong, sunlamps and hydroponics?

The second generation born on the arks don’t understand the homesickness of their parents. The corridors and gardens of the arks are all they’ve ever known. The idea of living in the open air seems strange and a little terrifying to them. They have never experienced sunburn, hay fever, or frostbite. But as one of the older characters complains:

John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without countries, religion, greed or hunger. Now, that world had come to pass, and we were living in an imposed utopia in which everyone had shelter, food and clothing, and access to education and self-betterment.

However, as wonderful as this all was, I couldn’t help feeling we’d been let off the hook a little too easily. Instead of reaching this state by ourselves, we had it foisted upon us. We hadn’t had to take responsibility for our behaviour or clean up our own mess, and maybe that meant we’d missed learning an important lesson.

Would you exchange a natural existence for an artificial one? 

Stars and Bones is published by Titan Books on 1st March 2022. This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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What I Owe to Bounty Hunter Leia

I’ve been thinking about Star Wars recently, and more specifically, how my early exposure to the original trilogy influenced my work.

The most obvious way it shaped my view of what science fiction could be was the way it portrayed Tatooine as a rough and ready ‘used’ future, in which vehicles were patched and rusty, and folks were just scrabbling to make a living — all very different from the shiny opulence of Star Trek‘s Federation, in which the interior of the Enterprise had more in common with the sterile corridors of the Death Star than the lived-in recesses of the Millennium Falcon.

But one of the key things that influenced me — and I only realised this recently — was the moment at the beginning of Return of the Jedi when Boushh the mysterious bounty hunter pulls off his mask to reveal… He was Leia all the time!

As a youngster, this seemed revolutionary. I thought it was so badass. I’d consumed quite a few 1960s and 1970s sci-fi movies and TV shows by that point, and those tended to feature scantily-clad love interests with poor survival skills, who regularly needed the hero to come and bail them out of trouble. But here, the princess got tooled-up and went to rescue her man. And she even managed to stare down Jabba the Hutt with a thermo detonator!

Luke had the Force and Han had his luck, but Leia had love for them both and it gave her the strength to equal either of them.

When I later came to start writing, I think that version of Leia lay at the back of my mind. I had wanted to see this new Leia embark on some freewheeling adventures with Han and Chewie. The three of them could have blazed quite a trail across the galaxy. But if I wanted to see those exploits, I’d have to write them myself, and embody her spirit in the new characters I created. Because like her, the female characters I wanted to write about (like Sal Konstanz in the Embers of War trilogy; Katherine Abdulov in The Recollection; Victoria Valois in the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy; and Eryn King in Stars and Bones) were tough and capable, but they were also unafraid to be human. In fact, just like Leia, their humanity was always their strength and the source of their power.

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The Stainless Steel Rat

‘The Stainless Steel Rat’ is the nom-de-guerre of interstellar conman and criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim DiGriz, whose life is a lone battle waged against conformity and boredom. In a galaxy so civilised that 99.9% of criminal tendencies are caught and cured in childhood, only somebody extremely smart and extremely larcenous can survive beyond the law, using bank robbery and confidence tricks to generate the excitement he craves. As DiGriz says at the start of the book, “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel rat – and it is the greatest experience in the galaxy if you can get away with it.”

While DiGriz is a criminal in the eyes of society at large, he sees himself as a benefactor of mankind, and a protester against its stifling laws and surveillance. He, and a handful of men like him, keep the police in business; they give the newspapers something to write about; and the citizens something juicy to read over their breakfast tables. In his own eyes, he is a Robin Hood figure with a strict code of personal morals. He steals only from banks, governments and large corporations, and holds human life sacred. Crime for him is a form of social protest, as well as a kind of intellectual extreme sport.

This knockabout novel began life as a ‘fix-up’, comprising a couple of previously-published short stories. It tells the tale of how Slippery Jim goes from being a lone criminal grafting away on the fringes of society, to star field agent for the top secret ‘Special Corps’ – an elite law enforcement agency with staff recruited from the best of the criminal underworld.

When one of DiGriz’s operations goes wrong, the Corps pull him in and offer him a job. Then they turn him loose against a very different sort of criminal: a homicidal mastermind intent on building a battleship and carving out an empire.

The story is told in the first person by DiGriz himself, which lets us get inside his head and enjoy (and sympathise with) his crooked view of the world. Intelligent, wry and self-important, Slippery Jim makes for an engaging and amusing narrator, and Harrison keeps the action moving by using short chapters, each ending on a page-turning cliff-hanger – a trick I’ve picked up and used in my own work. He never lets our anti-hero rest on his laurels. As soon and Di Griz thinks he’s got everything figured out, Harrison pulls the rug from under him. Some of the coincidences and surprises in the plot are a little contrived, but the whole thing is done with such energy and brio that it sweeps you along before you have time to question it.

As the original short story was written in the late 1960s, some of the technology seems dated. Computers still require punch cards, for instance. But these lapses don’t detract from the story’s frenetic pace, and can be explained by the fact that galactic society is recovering from an event referred to only as ‘The Breakdown’, when many planets reverted to medieval levels of technology, and are only now being slowly rediscovered and brought back into ‘The League of Planets’.

In fact, this discrepancy in available technology from one planet to another gives DiGriz considerable room for manoeuvre, as his pursuit of the piratical mastermind (whose identity I won’t reveal here), leads him to infiltrate a recently re-contacted feudal society, where the locals don’t stand a chance against his knowledge of high-tech chicanery, and he’s able to pass himself off as a minor nobleman.

Part of the fun of reading this book is the knowledge that, however bad things get and however many setbacks he suffers, Slippery Jim is going to emerge triumphant at the end. He might be a criminal in the eyes of society, but he’s on the side of the angels when it comes to righting wrongs and standing up for the little guy. 

The Tightrope Act of Near-Future Science Fiction

Asking what our world will be like just a few years from now, near-future SF writers draw their vitality from their knife-edge topicality. But no other type of literature has such a potentially short shelf life

You only have to turn on the television news to realise that we live in a futuristic world and that things change with dizzying speed. When rolling-news channels struggle to keep up with the pace of change, what chance do novelists stand? Fiction set in the near future casts a weather eye on the technological and social trends of today and asks, What will this be like in another 10 years? It tends not to feature aliens or interstellar travel, preferring to focus on characterisation and social commentary, and depicting a world almost identical to our own, with the addition of one or two speculative elements.

Near-future fiction is a tightrope act, a game played with the audience. It’s a way of looking at the world, reflecting it through a prism to make the everyday extraordinary and the future relevant to the reader. But it’s a risky undertaking. If you assume it takes 18 months to write and publish a novel, world events may have rendered the entire premise of the book obsolete before it hits the shelves. Maybe even before you’ve finished writing it. No other literature has such a potentially short shelf life.

William Gibson, for example, is credited with predicting the internet in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, but he was writing at the height of the cold war, when a confrontation between the superpowers seemed inevitable, so, naturally, he includes such a conflict in the book, limiting it to a small-scale exchange of nuclear weapons. Nobody could have foreseen that just five years later the Berlin Wall would fall and that, not long after, the Soviet Union would collapse, relegating his book to the shadowy realms of “alternate history”.

In an even more extreme case, Charles Stross, once complained unexpected real-world events (in this case the result of the UK general election) had forced him to rethink the plot of the novel he was writing. It’s this knife-edge topicality that gives near-future fiction its vitality.

Writers such as Ian McDonald, Bruce Sterling and Lauren Beukes use the near future as a canvas for terrifyingly plausible speculation. In her debut novel, Moxyland , from 2009, Beukes shows us a vision of South Africa a few years from now, where mobile phones have evolved into a kind of social passport – credit card, ID and web access rolled into one – and drinks companies are paying influential young people to become addicted to their products.

In The Star Fraction , from 1996, Ken MacLeod tours us through a Balkanised United Kingdom, his characters leading us through a society that has fragmented into a jumble of ministates where every interest group has its own scrap of fiercely defended ground.

As well as technological and social change, catastrophes play their part. The near future is a setting particularly suited to depictions of disaster, whether intended as dire warnings or simple entertainment.

In JG Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World, solar flares have melted the ice caps and turned London into a steamy swamp. The action of Colin Harvey’s 2010 novel Damage Time takes place 40 years from now, at a time when flood defences are needed to save New York from the rising sea and the US is bankrupt and close to collapse. And in Stephen Baxter’s 2008 novel Flood we watch the world engulfed by water from subterranean aquifers, and every scrap of land drowned beneath the waves. The world we see drowned is ours, and the peril is therefore immediate and visceral. We can imagine living through those events.

While reading we can pause to wonder, Where will I be, and what will I be doing, when all this comes to pass? Or, in the case of the more dystopian futures, What can I do to prevent this from happening?

Near-future fiction comments on our world by imagining how it might change. Like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it shows what our lives might be like in a decade or two, so forcing us to think about the choices we make today and mentally prepare ourselves for tomorrow.

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Nova-Level Literary Fireworks

A review of the classic Hugo-nominated novel, Nova by Samuel R. Delany.

Written when the author was in his late twenties, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. I first discovered it in 2001, when Gollancz reissued it as part of their ‘SF Masterworks’ series, and it’s a curious beast of a book, inhabiting as it does the largely unmapped spaces where pulp excitement coexists with scholarly discussion, and each benefits from the presence of the other.

Set a thousand years into the future, the book tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. He believes a cargo hold filled with illyrion will be enough to tip the balance of power between Earth and the quasi-independent Pleiades Federation.

The narrative acquires its ‘scholarly’ qualities through the speculations of the crewmembers Lorq chooses to accompany him on his quest. They are a crew of storytellers, each one representing a different approach to the art. The gypsy, Mouse, has his musical syrinx (an instrument capable of producing effects across the entire sensory spectrum), which he uses to sing songs and create moods; the fortune-teller, Tyÿ, uses her deck of Tarot cards to construct a meaningful narrative from events around her; and Katin, the aspiring novelist, can only relate to the world through the theories of literature and history that he constantly formulates.

As readers, these three characters are our interpreters. As the events of the story unfold, they are on hand to explain the significance of each.

Katin is particularly prone to verbalising the symbolism he sees around him. He wants to be a novelist but has yet to find a subject he deems worthy of his intellect and talent. Instead, he spends all his time pontificating about the nature of novels, recording endless notes to himself — notes we suspect he will never get around to making use of.

Katin provides us with a rather pompous view of the narrative as great art whereas, when Tyÿ reads the Tarot for Lorq, she interprets his quest (and the role of each crewmember) using the archetypal symbols on her cards, thereby highlighting the mythical context of the story for us. But, of all the characters, it is Mouse who seems closest to the vision of a traditional storyteller. Unencumbered by a need to interpret anything as other than what it is, he simply plays the old songs and tells the old stories, using his instrument to create all the fireworks and effects of mood and wonder that Katin could achieve in written form, if only he could stop theorising and actually commit words to paper.

Like Mouse, Delany produces a few fireworks of his own. Characters begin a line of dialogue in one chapter, and end it in another. The action leaps back and forth in time, taking us back to Lorq’s childhood and adolescence in order to show us the resentments and rivalries driving his quest, reminding us how incidents from our formative years can warp and twist the courses of our lives.

There are no clean surfaces in this book. Everything and everyone has been used, over and over again. Even the interiors of Von Ray’s spaceship are covered in graffiti from former crews. In this respect, Nova can be seen as a forerunner of subsequent “used” futures, and the spinal sockets that the characters use to jack into and operate machinery seem to anticipate the machine/body interfaces of Cyberpunk, 18 years before the appearance of Neuromancer.

The influence of Nova can be seen in the works of later practitioners of the space opera sub-genre, notably in Use Of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1990) and books by other writers identified with the ‘New Space Opera’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was certainly a key influence on my own early foray into the genre, The Recollection(Solaris, 2011).

The physics of Nova might be a bit iffy now (especially the vaguely described process which allows a ship to dive into an “imploding” nova and emerge unscathed at the other side), but that doesn’t detract from the grandeur of Delany’s vision, nor the ambition of the novel — a novel which reminds us of a time, not so long ago, when the universe was a place of unknown wonderment, and where anything might have been possible.

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