Monday, May 28, 2018

The Art of Worldbuilding

I talk about worldbuilding the Lenticular, including how to use Pinterest and language to create depth and texture, over on Kerry Rogerson's blog.

Review - The Buried Ark - James Bradley

The Buried ArkThe Buried Ark by James Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first Book of the Change, The Silent Invasion, channelled classic YA speculative fiction like the Tripods and Tomorrow series and ended with one hell of a cliffhanger. See my earlier review on Goodreads.

The Buried Ark picks up the action immediately after the end of Book 1. Callie is in the Zone and penetrates deeper into the nightmarish landscape with her less than trustworthy companion. The people that exist there are terribly altered. Author James Bradley is clearly riffing on The Invasion of The Bodysnatchers but manages to turn it into something darker, which is no mean feat.

Of course the deeper horror of the Books of the Change is that the Zone is a corollary for the climate change we see accelerating around us, and which is turning our ecosystem into something just as inhospitable. It's a truth the young readers of these books will have to confront in the too-near future. Speculative fiction often deals with what is happening in the real world today, and Callie is the perfect avatar for the upcoming generation who - we hope - will be able to solve the problems left them by so-called adults.

Within this uncomfortable framework, the action in The Buried Ark is relentless as Callie finds unwelcome truths about the Zone's denizens and herself before becoming embroiled in a plan to halt the Change with deadly consequences for everyone on the planet.

The ending of Book 2 is one of the most gutsy pieces of writing I've seen in a long time, doubling down on Book 1's cliffhanger and then some. Where Book 3 will take us, I have no idea, but I'm buckled in and ready for the ride.

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review - La Belle Sauvage - Phillip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well that was disappointing. I loved the His Dark Materials books and their combination of imagination, action and big ideas and I looked forward to diving into Pullman's world again with the first in a prequel trilogy.

The story of La Belle Sauvage starts promisingly enough. Lyra is a baby and has been ordered into the protection of a nunnery near Oxford. Malcolm is a likable and plucky boy who works and lives with his parents at a nearby pub and often visits the nuns. The arrival of Lord Asriel to see his daughter draws Malcolm into a battle that is raging around the baby between the Magisterium and a secret network of spies called Oakley Street.

The witches in the north have a prophecy about the baby and others want to do her harm. During a violent storm and subsequent flood, Malcolm flees with the baby and Nancy, a serving girl, in his boat La Belle Sauvage across a drowned land.

The rest of the book - 50% of the text - centres on a series of adventures the three have, which become quite repetitive and have little to no bearing on the central plot. After a few chapters of this it begins to feel like incident for incident's sake. Filler. The central plot is also vague. There's talk of Dust and certain scientific research, but because Malcolm and Nancy are not part of the Magisterium or Oakley Street, their knowledge (and ours) is limited.

The whole series of events (it's not a plot really) peters to a predictable end with the promise that something interesting or really exciting might happen in the next book. I don't think I can be bothered.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Christmas reading!

My annual shout out on some amazing stories to enjoy.

Perspolis Rising - James SA Corey

Hot of the press, I'm reading this right now, but if you haven't read any Expanse books (or seen the TV series on Netflix) get into it. This is book 7 and the adventures of the crew of the Rocinante have been fantastic up to now. Persepolis Rising takes a huge gamble, skipping forward 30 years (so substantially ageing our favourite protagonists) but the writing duo that is James SA Corey know what the hell they're up to and they have a game plan for the next two novels already contracted after this one, so have faith!

In The Dark Spaces - Cally Black

Ampersand Award winning Kiwi author Cally Black’s In The Dark Spaces is a surprising and original YA novel. Set on a spaceship way out between the stars, the story is tense and – true to the title – often dark, but the young heroine, Tamara, has a really engaging voice and a big heart that won’t let her give up trying to find her lost little brother. If you have a youngster you want to indoctrinate in the ways of sci-fi, I really recommend it.

The Silent Invasion - James Bradley

There are books you just fall in love with when you read them as a young person. For me they included Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Susan Cooper’s Under Sea, Over Stone and Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Others come to mind that I enjoyed as an adult because they gave me that same kind of feeling: John Christopher’s Tripod books, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and so on, all of them treasured by one generation or another.

James Bradley’s The Silent Invasion delivers just that feeling. A brave young person standing up against the injustices of the world they live in, taking risks to save those they love, being confronted with terrible trials and overcoming them. The story is timeless, but Bradley makes it relevant to now: the idea of a planetary environment that is hostile is – sadly – a very contemporary idea that children growing up now will have to confront as a reality in the not too distant future. The book also riffs on very familiar SF tropes like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids as well as more modern films like Gareth Edwards’s 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters. But it’s all the more compelling for that because the story telling feels so fresh. The plot flies by effortlessly and the writing is clean and compelling – which means Bradley has put a hell of a lot of effort into it – and the ending just makes you want to devour book two.

The Road to Winter - Mark Smith

Australian author Mark Smith set out to write a page-turner and achieves this beautifully. The Road to Winter is a great addition to YA post-apocalyptic fiction focusing very tightly on the after-effects of a plague on the likable protagonist Finn. Left alone in a deserted town on the NSW north coast, he survives quite well for a couple of years, hunting with his faithful dog Rowdy and hitting the surf like a typical teenager when it all gets too much. But his solitude is shattered when escaped refugee Rose comes to his small town.

The writing is pared back, clean and vivid, and Smith tackles personal timeless issues of growing up along with contemporary problems of today's Australia while keeping the action thrumming along. Book two, Wilder Country is out now and promises to expand Finn's world. It's on my 'to read' list.

The Stars are Legion - Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion is refreshing on so many fronts. Firstly it's a stand-alone, so not weighed down with all that a trilogy entails. Secondly the world building and technology is visceral - literally: bio-organic spray-on spacesuits,walls and floors on the 'spaceship/worlds' of the Legion that feel moist to the touch, petal-like doors that unfold, cephalopod guns, willing dolphin-like attack craft that you sit 'on' rather than 'in', interchangeable wombs that grow people and ship parts - it's like Cronenberg wrote an SF novel. Thirdly the writing is fresh and tight and the characterisation and plotting is intriguing.

Zan wakes with no memory on the ship/world of the Katazyrna. But she has been here many times before, and she's told by Jayd, daughter of the Katazyrna leader, that she has failed once more in a plot they share to gain control of the free ship/world of Mokshi and must try again. It's up to Zan to learn what is true and false in the worlds of the Legion and what really matters.

Paranoia and treacherous intent build beautifully under Hurley's tight control and the worlds of the Legion get weirder and weirder as Zan discovers the truth of the spaces they inhabit and what has happened during her countless previous failures.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Writing and... Pinterest

Up until about six months ago I’d only used Pinterest to show scans of 20th-century science fiction book covers, many of which I’d had since I was an early teenager, and as another channel for promoting my book reviews and my first novel, Horizon.

But as I’m creating the many alien beings, environments and spacecraft for the Lenticular Series I’m currently writing, I’ve realised Pinterest is a good reference source to help add detail to my imagination and I’ve started a visual library of material. I’m mining Pinterest to help me create new scenes and characters I’m adding during rewrites, and it’s really come into its own in helping me get an immediate fix on the physicality, speech patterns and psychological outlook of tertiary characters.

A case in point is the ruling political figures of the future Earth Hegemony and its various departments and bureaus. Here’s my current rogues’ gallery for this oppressive regime:

My characters aren’t direct representations of these actors. Rather, I’m trying to capture the essence of their performances that tie in with my ideas of who my characters are.

Similarly with settings: I’m currently writing a series of scenes that are set in long-abandoned underground tunnels, so pictures of similar environments help me imagine the look and feel of my tunnels more easily. I can add realistic details that I doubt I’d think of without a real picture to study.

Pinterest is becoming an indispensable writing tool for me. If you find yourself reaching for a sense of place in your writing, or you’re having trouble capturing a character’s essence, why not give Pinterest a go.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Missing Planets

In 2006 our nine-planet solar system dropped to eight when Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet. The reason for the downgrade was the discovery of other similarly sized objects in the Kuiper Belt: a region of space extending beyond the orbit of Neptune to a point fifty-five times the distance between Earth and the Sun or, put another way, fifty-five Astronomical Units (AUs). The Kuiper Belt is where a lot of frozen objects hang out in fairly eccentric orbits, like Hayley’s Comet, which dives in and around the Sun every seventy-five years.
But even though we’re busily discovering exoplanets around other suns light years away ‒ and may just have discovered our first exomoon ‒ questions still remain about whether there’s a ninth planet out there in the cold and dark, and maybe even a tenth.
Two scientists at California Institute of Technology studied the movement of objects in the Kuiper Belt and worked out that something unseen was having an effect on the orbits they observed. Running the numbers indicated the rough size and orbit the unseen object would need: a mass ten times greater than Earth in an orbit 700 AUs from the Sun. They dubbed it Planet Nine, but no telescope has been able to find it yet.
Oddly, the possible existence of Planet Nine in an eccentric and remote orbit makes our solar system more like others we’ve observed, rather than the strangely regimented planetary arrangement we’re used to.
Now two other scientists from University of Arizona who observed different oddly moving Kuiper Belt objects are theorising the existence of Planet Ten, with a mass about the same as Mars at a distance of 50 AU. Again, no one has been able to catch sight of it.
It’s weird that things so large can’t be definitively observed, particularly when their orbits have been inferred in fairly precise terms. Golden-age SF writers imagined Venus as a steamy jungle world filled with strange alien plants and beasts, but we know more about planetology now. Or we thought we did. Data from exploration missions like New Horizons and Cassini is showing that outer Solar System bodies are stranger than scientists have theorised. So when you think about Planet Nine and Ten, feel free to let your imagination run wild.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my regular newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Subscribe at

Friday, September 8, 2017

Happy Star Trek Day!

Here's a pic of my single episode appearance (as a redshirt, of course). 😀