Sunday, November 17, 2013

Climate Scientists as Psychohistorians

The current state of affairs in Australia - where we have a government that refuses to accept the scientific evidence of climate change, that undermines that science and climate scientists whenever it can, and that is now dismantling the only proven method to effectively manage carbon emissions - made me think of a scientist who presented his government with another inconvenient truth.

The great psychohistorian Hari Seldon, from Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, used his science to predict that Trantor, the seat of galactic government, would fall and that the fall was inevitable, but that he and his fellow scientists could work to mitigate the effects of that fall on the population of the empire.

The government, like all governments and most particularly our current government, preferred to do nothing.

Chen said, ‘Dr Seldon, you disturb the peace of the Emperor’s realm. None of the quadrillions living now among all the stars of the Galaxy will be living a century from now. Why, then should we concern ourselves with events of five centuries distance?’
 ‘I shall not be alive half a decade hence,’ said Seldon, ‘and yet it is of overpowering concern to me. Call it idealism. Call it an identification of myself with that mystical generalisation to which we refer by the term “man”.’
 ‘I do not wish to take the trouble to understand mysticism. Can you tell me why I might not rid myself of yourself and an uncomfortable and unnecessary five-century future which I will never see by having you executed tonight?’
 ‘A week ago,’ said Seldon, lightly, ‘you might have done so and perhaps retained a one in ten probability of yourself remaining alive at year’s end. Today, the one in ten probability is scarcely one in ten thousand.
 ‘How so?’ he said.
‘The fall of Trantor,’ said Seldon, ‘cannot be stopped by any conceivable effort. It can be easily hastened, however. The tale of my interrupted trial will spread through the Galaxy. Frustration at my plans to lighten the disaster will convince people that the future holds no promise to them. Already they recall the lives of their grandfathers with envy. They will see that political revolutions and trade stagnations will increase. The feeling will pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account. Ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back. By their every action they will hasten the decay of their worlds. Have me killed and Trantor will fall not within five centuries but within fifty years and you, yourself, within a single year.’
Climate change is real. And the Direct Action policy will do nothing to meet the challenge of climate change. Do we really have to hope there's a wily Hari Seldon in amongst all the climate scientists who can bend the government's intransigence to his own ends in order to save humanity?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Kresh book 3

In my mind there was always going to be a book three, but other than a vague endpoint I hadn’t gotten any further than that. But with books one and two of the Lenticular Series now off for a critical review by a professional editor, I’ve found that the beauty of having so much story behind me with so many characters moved into particular positions and oppositions, is that the next part of the plot is busting to unfold before me. 

There are obvious things my characters will be doing because of where they ended up in book two. There will be wound licking and the desire for revenge or salvation depending on who we’re with. I’ve fulfilled my promise to my main character and brought him to the point he had to reach. We don’t owe each other a thing now, so together we’re entering terra incognita and I’m relishing plotting that in detail.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sixteen years in the making - the final scene in the Kresh books

On a tram ride home from the Aurealis Awards in 1997, I had a vision of an alien held down on a table and having a vital organ sliced from its body. That's what started an (overly) long journey from a series of short stories to a novel about Jeldon, a Kresh terribly disfigured during an invasion by Earthers and his own personal quest to overcome adversity and reclaim his homeworld.

Sixteen years and 190,000 words later, I'm ready to write the final scene in what has become the two book Lenticular Series. It's by no means ready for publication. For one thing it needs a professional editor's eye to look it over from a structural point of view. Which will mean rewrites, killing my darlings and - hopefully - making it better. But it's time to reflect.

The thing that kept me writing for so long was the feeling that I owed something to Jeldon, my main character. I put him through some quite terrible experiences, taking him to the brink of death and then to the depths beneath, where he wishes he had died. You have to like your characters or else what's the point? I owed Jeldon a shot at redemption and - if not happiness - some kind of resolution.

I hope he's happy with how it ends up.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pacific Rim: Front and Centre

Would you buy kaiju body parts from this man?
After the disappointment of Man of Steel, I was glad that I really enjoyed Pacific Rim. Often there's no substitute for a simple story told really well and that's what Pacific Rim delivers. What could be simpler than, 'giant monsters are destroying Earth, so we build giant robots to defeat them?' Actually the first few minutes of PR very effectively and economically set the scene and delivered the backstory in an enjoyable way that reminded me of the gold standard for info dumps - Joss Whedon's Serenity.

A lot of commentators are shaking their heads over why the director of Pan's Labyrinth chose to do what to the uninitiated looked like a Transformers rip off. Those guys don't realise del Toro also made the Hellboy movies and that Pacific Rim is giant robot head and shoulders above Transformers in evoking the Japanese giant monster 'kaiju' idiom as expressed through manga and anime. While PR delivers great action and a well-paced storyline, I also enjoyed those little nods to PR's anime/ manga roots like Idris Elba's suits, haircut and nervous grunting; Burn Gorman's apoplectic/ eccentric English scientist whose mugging recalled some of those strange anime expressions you see in older cartoons; and the whole Miss Mori flashback scene with the small girl holding her shoe while kaiju and mecha destroyed the city around her. It was all so magical.

The other thing that made Pacific Rim stand out was the photography and staging of the kaiju/ mecha fight scenes. Too often - and I'm looking at you Man of Steel - it's hard to follow the flow of the battles because of extreme close-ups and poor shot composition. Del Toro displayed his compositional eye to great effect with the fights and showed a natural progression with fight elements growing in complexity from battle to battle as the stakes rose higher and higher.

And who couldn't love a movie with Ron Perlman as a golden shod black marketeer? If you haven't seen Pacific Rim yet, get out to a cinema as quickly as you can. It's exactly what monster movies should be like.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Man of Steel: In a World of His Own

You'll believe a man can fly!
If there had never been a superhero movie made before in the history of cinema, then Man of Steel would have been the kind of movie they made. The film is filled with such static moments that 'allow us space' to ponder the true import of having a super man among us, that it reminded me of the tag line from the very first Superman movie, 'You'll believe a man can fly!'

But this is 2013, and not only do I believe a man can fly, I know it. I've seen Iron Man and Thor do it, and even Spidey and Hulk manage a pretty good approximation. It feels like DC are trying to reinvent the superhero movie. But that bus left long ago and Man of Steel, with its soft focus arthouse shots - that just seem out of place in this kind of film - doesn't add anything new to the superhero lexicon and doesn't stand up well against the worldly, sassy movies that are streaming out of the Marvel stable as Phase Two kicks off. By comparison, MoS has very little in the way of humour and the dialogue, particularly between Clark, Lois and Ma Kent, is dull and prosaic.

While I appreciated the whole Kryptonian genetic codex subplot, and I really liked Russel Crowe's Jor-El contribution, the 'super-smackdown' fights between Supes and a range of Phantom Zone Kryptonian baddies just felt like a rehash of the building crunching that went on between Neo and Agent Smith in the last Matrix movie a whole 10 years ago. And after breaking more than enough buildings in this first of the Superman reboot movies, one wonders what DC has left for the next outing, because if it's more of the same, or a rehash of the old Lex Luthor/ Kryptonite deal we've seen in two previous Superman movies then give me Iron Man 4, 5 and 6 anytime.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Opening new dimensions in 2014

Dimension6 is the name of the new e-magazine I'll be editing and producing in the new year. It's an exciting prospect, not just because I'll be working with short fiction again and hopefully discovering some new talent and great stories, but also because I'm learning how to put together an ebook magazine format using the latest InDesign software.

D6 is going to be pretty cool. An entirely electronic, entirely free magazine. You can learn more about the what and why of D6 at the coeur de lion website .

I always enjoy the technical challenge of a new project as much as the creative one. I enjoyed learning how to edit and produce the Terra Incognita podcast show and before that I enjoyed the technical aspects of getting an issue of Aurealis together - in the old, old days when we made print plates and folded and guillotined the whole thing manually. So lots of challenges ahead and hopefully an opportunity to bring Australian speculative fiction to a wider reading public

On the novel front, I've just completed the latest draft of book one of what I'm now calling The Lenticular Series. Book one is The Way of the Kresh and book two, which I'm working on now, will be The Kresh War. Working titles only of course, but it's all progress.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kresh update - finding the finished form

Work continues on my two book (with potential for a third!) space opera, The Way of The Kresh. I'm up to 184,000 words and currently expanding the secondary protagonist's story line - and pouring on the pain for him just as much as for my lobster alien boy Jeldon. If a little suffering is good for the soul, these guys are preparing for canonisation.

I'm asked by writers what's the ideal word length for a novel. Of course there are many exceptions to the rule but for traditional publishing, the science fiction sweet spot is generally about 80-100 K. But really there's not a lot of point worrying overly about what length the finished article should be. The story needs to be the right length for what it is. If the book gets picked up your editor will tell  you whether you need to add another 50K or cut just as much (ouch!). As long as you're past novella length territory, don't sweat it. Mind you with the rise of ebooks, actual word count is becoming less of an issue because it doesn't impact on the ideal page length to minimise printing costs. So there's even less to worry about in this regard.

Having said that, with two books on the go I've been wondering where the split should occur. Happily today I found a natural break around the 85K mark with Jeldon finally escaping his war-wracked homeworld. Really it was a no brainer to break the story there, but I didn't see it until now.

More to come.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Many movies to look forward to...

At this stage I'm thinking of just handing over my credit card to Hoyts. I can't actually remember another year where there were so many movies coming out that I wanted to see. So far the list looks like this...

World War Z, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, The Wolverine,  Elysium, Robocop, Kick Ass 2, Riddick, Ender's Game,  and Thor: The Dark World. That's getting on for $180.

Good times.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

2012 Aurealis Awards

I had a great evening at the Aurealis Awards last night, and I have to say a big congratulations to the SpecFaction NSW team for doing a bang up job over the last three years.

The other big congratulations go to Margo Lanagan who just about scooped the awards winning best YA novel (shared with Kaz Delaney), best SF short story, best Fantasy Novel and best Fantasy short story. Way to go!

Some folks at the awards commented about how the organising committee should have done something to 'sort' out the fact that Margo won so many awards. Well, I'm not sure how that could have been 'sorted'. Firstly it's important to know that all the juding panels work independently and do not know the results of the other panels. That is entirely fair and as it should be. The second thing it's important to know is that Margo is a singular literary talent who had two extremely strong books out this year. That's why she won those awards, and deservedly so.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek: Moving Past the Darkness? *Huge Spoilers*

I can’t decide whether or not I liked JJ Abrams latest Star Trek outing. I felt the same way about the first of this ‘rebooted’ series. The creation of an alternative timeline was an elegant way to free up the Star Trek characters to experience a whole new set of adventures, and ST:ID takes that further; perhaps too far.

The production looks great, and the way they subtly, and sometimes not too subtly, update the Trek: Original Series (TOS) costumes, sets and gizmos is very clever. The acting is good too. Quinto and Urban pull off a very believable Spock and McCoy, and Chris Pine has his moments too channeling Kirk. But are they playing these characters, or are they playing Nimoy, De Kelley and Shatner playing these characters? Too often if felt like the latter and here’s a theme that emerged during my watching ST:ID. What’s the tipping point between ‘homage’, ‘pastiche’ and just ‘shi**ing on your memories of a cherished series of shows and movies’?

The alternative timeline allows Abrams to play with our memory of TOS. So there’s Khan — yes, despite Cumberbatch’s protestations to the contrary — and the rest of his genetically enhanced family (although they stay in cold-freeze this time instead of wreaking havoc as in Space Seed or Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan). There’s also Carol Marcus, progenitor of the Genesis Device again from Star Trek 2. So we get winks and nods and sly references and it’s all a nice ‘in-joke’ for those in the audience that know the mythos.

But Abrams takes things too far when he stages an alternative Wrath of Khan death scene. The original scene with Spock sacrificing his life because, ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ stands as the single greatest scene from the long run of TOS movies. Pitch perfect acting from Shatner and Nimoy, building on a relationship that had played out to the audience over 80 odd TV episodes brought the house down and continued to be felt through The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home as the cast (and the audience) searched for healing after a deep wounding.

The reversal that Abrams stages with Kirk speaking his dying words to Spock, with Spock crying(!) and absurdly screaming, ‘KHAN!!!!’ could never stand up to the original movie. It was a serious misstep because it highlights the uncomfortable truth that these people are not Shatner and Nimoy, they do not have the history of Shatner and Nimoy, and as a result they cannot hope to bring the same emotional gravitas to the scene as Shatner and Nimoy. Instead it comes off as a couple of kids attempting some cosplay death scene re-enactment. 

Annoyingly there were also a lot of stupid plot points in ST:ID. You can forgive most of these but when the plot forces the characters to behave in a monumentally stupid manner, you can’t let that slide. So, Kirk dies. But McCoy learns that Khan’s blood has amazing restorative powers. So Spock chases after Khan to get said blood. In the meantime McCoy brings up one of Khan’s supergenetic brothers who is frozen in stasis and takes him out of the stasis tube. Since this brother is exactly like Khan, couldn’t they just use that guy’s blood? Nope. They don’t even think about it or invent some psycho-babble about how that wouldn’t work. They take the guy out the stasis tube and stick Kirk in it to keep him safe till Spock catches Khan. That is one huge elephant sitting in the corner of Sick Bay. I felt insulted, not just for me but for McCoy too.

The other thing that wore on me was all the ’splosions and fist fights. I ended up getting explosion fatigue. I got confused about whether I was watching a Star Trek movie or a Die Hard movie. Interestingly this escalating violence was played out as a theme with the evil Admiral Marcus pushing a more militaristic agenda for Starfleet (and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer was criticised for the same thing). But when the dust and rubble eventually die down we learn that all that fighting and shooting at things is behind Starfleet. This is the beginning of the Enterprise’s historic five year mission of exploration, ‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’ and hopefully not kill them. I don’t know what’s up next for the Star Trek franchise. I hope, going on the movie’s ending, that the next movie might be less about fighting and killing and more about exploration and some of the moral dilemmas Star Trek used to do so well. But maybe that’s not possible in today’s cinema. Maybe Star Trek will never be able to move past the darkness and terror of threats and violence. That would be a pity.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Publishing Diaspora

Ted Heller's 'Self Publishing is the Worst' article on makes for sobering reading. It's indicative of
the effects of the publishing diaspora which is not only hitting writers but publishers too.

Everyone has been busy hailing the rise of ebooks and the breaking down of conventional publishing models. As a publisher the benefits of ebooks were obvious, removing traditional printing costs and cutting distribution costs to next to nothing. As a writer I - like many, many others - was excited at the new opportunities opening up for authors to sell their work through an increasing range of options, not just the traditional publishing houses that were already swamped with submissions. Even more exciting was the opportunity to 'cut out the middle man/ woman' and engage directly with your readers, using all the free e-commerce gadgetry to sell-through from your own website.

Yes sirree, we were all going to get rich and famous. But the downside of  this explosion in opportunity has become all too evident over the last year or so. Increased channels of production and sales means the traditional gatekeepers have been sidelined and we are literally drowning in a sea of content. Unless you have a frakload of money, or are a gifted social networker who just happens to have a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of good fortune, it's nigh on impossible to get your work seen, let alone bought.

Books and writing have fallen prey to the curse of the modern world. They've become just another consumer channel. Okay they already were, but moving into the digital space and being robbed of their physicality - the paper book you fondled off the bookshop shelf - they are now competing head to head against apps, videos, games,  music and all the other shiny things the 21st C provides. And just looking at the ebook market alone, the number of books being published has exploded because of all the things we were celebrating a couple of years ago. A lot of these books are released when they are far from ready. And a lot are just plain bad and would never have been published under the old models. How then do we find (or promote) the gems to be read and treasured forever? If I knew that, I'd be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

 This from Ted Heller:
Now, I happen to know a few people at magazines and newspapers; I’ve had novels published and I have an agent. But what is this experience like for Jane and John Q. Self-Publishing Author way out there in South Podunk, who don’t know anybody at all and who have zero connections? My heart goes out to them. I know why I do it (I enjoy the piss out of writing, I believe I might be good at it, I don’t know how to do anything else, and I was laid off from my last job). I cannot explain how I do it, but I really don’t know how those other people — the 99 Percent of Writerdom — can do this. Where do they find the time and the stomach?
The market hasn't just fragmented with the publishing diaspora, it's smashed into a million pieces. It's a headless beast with attention deficit disorder.The traditional publishing houses are still there, but doing it a lot tougher than they were five years ago. To a casual observer looking at the shelves and shelves of books in their local Readings or Dymocks, it might look like nothing's changed. But the forces I and others describe are just gathering pace. Ebook reader ownership was only about 10% last year, but it's probably nudging 20% now and is set to rise rapidly over the next couple of years, and that means the changes we're seeing in buying behaviour and expectations from readers of ebooks (especially the price-point expectation) will eventually become the norm. When that happens the traditional channels will collapse, the 'bestseller blockbuster' may well become a thing of the past and we will enter the boutique era where the reader can get anything they want but the numbers sold of individual works will be far below what they are now - and they aren't that good at present anyway (with a few minor exceptions).

Those who want to write will still write. But you can forget that dream of six figure advances and national tours. The individual writer's world is about to get smaller as the collection of 'things that get published' stretches far beyond anyone's horizon.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Forward the Kresh

When last we spoke, I was busy reading through the 175,000 odd words of my current manuscript just to get my head around the stuff I've been writing for the past few years. Having come to the end of that, the good news is that it doesn't suck and the plot and character arcs actually make sense.

Yay me.

I've identified a few places where the various parts of the jigsaw need to be chivvied and wiggled to fit together better and I've now started what is (another) purely creative part of the process, addressing those areas identified and also rewriting those scenes which were - in my hurried desire to get to the end of this thing - merely placeholders with cardboard sets and cheesy dialogue. Now I have a handle on the plot and characterisation this is proving to be very enjoyable. The end - or at least the beginning of it - is in sight.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hearts and minds

Increasingly these days private and even public sector employers want their staff to be passionate about their jobs. Being passionate about the environment is great if you work for Greenpeace or the Environment Protection Agency; being passionate about animals is handy if you work for the RSPCA; being passionate about ensuring excellent service for the customer is great if you work in Maccas (though I haven’t seen that in evidence much lately).

Unfortunately we can’t all get jobs in areas that we’re passionate about (especially if we’re passionate about Starfleet). I worry (but not overly much) about how many people who are passionate about X there are in the workforce. Not, I suspect, enough to fill all the roles in industry X. This means unless they want a lot of empty work-stations, organisations are going to have to employ folk who aren’t as passionate about their widgets as that organisation might want.

In that case the organisation needs to do stuff to make people passionate about being there. A good starting place is to have managers and leaders who can – by their knowledge, expertise, empathy, vision and communication skills – engage employees who are ‘not particularly passionate’ and rally them to the organisational cause.

So, big organisation, next time you say you want passionate people working for you, maybe make sure it’s not just lip service to the latest recruitment buzz word and that you’ve done the groundwork to inspire that desired for passion.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Argo Dark Thirty

I watched the Oscar winning best film Argo on the weekend and, finding myself with nothing to do in the big city last night, I watched Zero Dark Thirty at the movies.

There are obvious parallels between the two movies: both are about terrorism and America’s response, and both deal with events that are a matter of record. But Argo, to my mind, is a far inferior film and doesn’t hold up well in comparison.

Argo has a very prosaic storytelling mode. I wasn’t challenged by anything as the story unfolded and quite frankly the narrative dragged dramatically. It seemed to shy away for the most part from anything that hinted at deeper, darker complexity. For example, the Shah’s record of oppression was mentioned at the start and the fact he had been given refuge in the US — really the incident that incited much of what was to follow — but the moral ambiguity of the US’s action in granting refuge was not interrogated. Similarly the characters were — with one minor exception who turned out alright in the end — nice and noble and good. Affleck’s character was compassionate and intelligent and got the girl, Goodman and Arkin’s ‘Hollywood folk’ were crustily heart-of-goldish, and the tension was at times laughable: will Arkin be able to get past the assistant director filming the fight scene in order to answer the phone call from the suspicious Iranian airport guard!?!!?! Be still my heart. The other thing that irked me was the ‘moral authority’ of the protagonist and the whole American intelligence community. There were very few shades of grey and the voice over from ex-President Jimmy Carter over the credits rammed that message home in case any of us had missed it, that all of the remaining hostages were eventually rescued without America compromising its principles.

You could argue the reason for Argo’s simplicity was that all this happened in more innocent times, until you remember Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Zero Dark Thirty is much more morally ambiguous. The protagonist Maya and other intelligence operatives deal in torture. The acting and the storytelling is nuanced. We get the feeling that Maya does things that are against her nature, but has decided these things are necessary and accepts the personal moral and emotional damage that brings. None of the characters are particularly likeable for that reason, and that’s interesting storytelling because we stick with them regardless of that distancing effect. There are two other things that hold our interest. First is the entrĂ©e we are given into the shadowy world of the CIA, how that operated pre-Obama and the effect of the Obama changes, as well as how a series of seemingly unconnected events and people led to Bin Laden. Second is the very realistic step by step portrayal of what happened during that night raid on Bin Laden’s enclave, which feels almost like a documentary.  

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t Hollywood-ise the events and is prepared to focus on some very inconvenient truths along the way. That’s much more satisfying from a storytelling point of view, and it’s a shame that the Hollywood cognoscenti chose the comfortable, ‘God Bless America’ Argo over the far more textured and ambiguous Zero Dark Thirty. I guess that’s showbusiness.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Humans --> Mars

It’s not every morning you wake up and hear some news that thrills you down to the bone level. Dennis Tito did that for me today with his simply phrased announcement that he plans to send two people on a fly-by 500 day mission to Mars.

I don’t know about you, but the 21st Century future I dreamt of growing up in 60s Glasgow hasn’t really paid off. Robot missions to space and other planets are amazing, but it’s not the same as people travelling far away from the safety of Earth on that ultimate adventure. That’s what I — and, I think — a lot of people have really been missing. As I said, the statement was simple, but it had the same effect on me as when I heard possibly the most stirring speech about being out in space that I’ve ever heard, from (of course) Start Trek TOS:

KIRK: They used to say if man could fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars and then to the nearest star? That’s like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great-grandfather used to.
I’m in command. I could order this. But I’m not, because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great.
Risk. Risk is our business. That’s what the starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.
Star Trek: Return to Tomorrow
Good luck, Mr Tito. And if you need a few bucks, I’ll be happy to pitch in.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lobster alien rising

For those who came in late, I have upwards of 470 A4 pages of manuscript, which is getting up to 2 books' worth, about everyone's favourite (okay, my favourite) lobster alien Jeldon. I have a bit more to write, mainly the END, which I haven't done yet because I want to make sure everything that's gone before ties together, as well as a secondary protagonist string which needs to be incorporated.

Now that the summer holidays are well and truly over, I'm working through what is essentially a polished draft and interrogating the text. What I mean by that is reading through what I've got, checking for internal consistency for my plot and motivational and psychological veracity for my characters as well as looking for opportunities to add situational texture and interest. It's a crucial stage in what has taken years so far to get to this stage and I'm (thankfully) finding that what I've written is working for the most part and for the bits that aren't quite there, the distance I have from the ms - which I put aside last year - is letting me really hone the motivational aspects that were kind of niggling me when I was writing them, but which I didn't worry too much about at the time because I just had to get this stuff down and keep the plot moving.

So I'm enjoying myself and I reckon by the end of next year I may actually be finished. Though having started this whole odyssey in 1998, I don't want to commit to an end point with that kind of finality!