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Archive for the 'SF' Category

David Langford’s “Ansible” – an essential SF news resource

I have always had a soft spot for David Langford’s “Ansible”, which I receive by email and read avidly at the start of each month. It combines SF news, some market information and convention details with a bundle of useful links and plenty of good humour.

While produced in and focused on the UK SF scene, it also holds its own internationally. If you have not checked it out, look at the Ansible web site or take a look at the latest issue (February 2013) number 307

It was through reading the awards section of an Ansible in 2006, I found out the Britsh Fantasy Society had given a “founders award” to the the four of us who set up the BFS back in 1971. A very pleasant surprise for me, sitting as I was in rural France. It led also to my reestablishing contact with the BFS.

That reminds me, I still owe Dave a beer for that!

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‘Space marines’ – Games Workshop’s appalling trademark claim on SF trope

Ever heard of “space marines”? If you read Heinlein or Doc Smith, watched “Aliens” or “Avatar” – or many other SF stories from the 1930’s onwards – the term will be familar enough. Yet Games Workshop are claiming it as a trademark as part of their Warhammer 40k universe. They forced Amazon to remove Indie writer M.C.A. Hogarth’s self-published e-book, “Spots the Space Marine”, last December. Read Hogarth’s Blog for her side of the story.

Fortunately, following high profile SF names taking up the case, including a blog by John Scalzi (current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Amazon have now reinstated the story. Good – but it should never have been taken down in the first place. GW seem to have attacked an Indie author on the assumption (correct) that she would not have the funds to fight such frivilous nonsense claims rather than attack a mainstream publisher.

“Space marine” is such a common term in SF circles it could be called a trope, a cliche even. What are GW thinking of? What will they try to trademark next?

It is fortunate the SF community is rounding on them over this and defending a writer who used the generic term and did NOT take any GW-specific aspects of the “space marine”. It highlights an issue for indie authors. I suspect we will see more of these spurious claims in the future. Shame on Amazon for how they responded initially.

The story has now made the mainstream press such as the BBC and an excellent article by Lewes Page on The Register which highlights that GW values are ‘Honesty, Courage and Humility’ – all of which are conspicuous in their absence in this case. GW seem to be imitating the “patent trolls” that plague the technology industry.

What do you mean, I can’t use the term “troll” because someone’s trademarked it?

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SF review: “To Die A Stranger” by Jilly Paddock

Jilly Paddock’s novel-length story has been on my “to read” list ever since I read her excellent “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone”. The “spook” of that off-world crime thriller is a creepy “agent-pair”, an intriguing concept of a Terran spy with super-human psi powers. I wanted to know exactly what is an “agent-pair”?

“To Die A Stranger” provides the answer by taking us to near the start of the development on Earth of “agent-pairs” – the linking of humans with strong psi capabilities with AI units – at the Delany Computer Corporation, a manufacturer of advanced computers which is working on a secret programme for the Terran government.

All this is not really a spoiler, since this information comes out relatively early in following the life of Anna-Marie Delany, daughter of the owner of the Delany corporation, and who also lives a pretend life as Amaranth, a holo-drama actress. There is a nice teaser in the intro to Part 1: “…and this is the story of her death.” We then go into Anna-Marie’s first person narrative.

Based on “The Spook” and the intro I had been expecting another crime thriller but, while the story has some of these elements, this story is more an entertaining “space opera”. Following a horrific air-car crash, Anna-Marie, disfigured and with her acting alter-ego killed off, becomes linked to a recalcitrant AI manufactured by her father’s firm and the story becomes a chase thriller, with our protagonists hassled by a shadowy Earth Intelligence unit, full of dirty tricks. The pursuit then takes up most of the rest of the story, moving swiftly from Earth to planets in other parts of the galaxy.

The way the psi powers work and the easy interstellar travel combined with the whole traditional SF tone of the story reminds me of some of the SF romps from the 1950s and 1960s. Its style feels to me not as if written by Isaac Asimov but rather as in the tradition of stories by Eric Frank Russell, who had a light touch and more humour in his tales. This is not a criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed Russell’s work, which I consider to have been under-rated.

In conclusion, recommended as a light but good traditional escapist SF story. It is available for download through Amazon UK:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger
Or, in Amazon USA:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger

So now, having found out about Agent-Pairs, I’m waiting for the next Afton and Jerome story!

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More musing on SF magazines

Now I have the first paper Asimov’s and Analog magazines that I have seen in a while, it is interesting to compare them physically to F&SF and Interzone.

Interzone has just resized, bringing it down close to the size of the three US magazines. I have found this a great improvement, easier to hold and it takes up so much less “desk space”. The glossy cover and the qualkity matt white paper are pleasant to hold.

The first thing I noticed about Analog and Asimov’s (which are from the same publisher, Dell) is how flimsy the covers are. I remember them as being much more substantial magazines when I last bought them (true it is a decade or more ago!) Very easy to tear and flopping around when reading the magazines. F&SF, by contrast, has a nice stiff cover that makes the physical experience much nicer though the subscription divider card mid-way is a bit of an irritant.

Inside, all three US magazines use a more pulpy quality paper than Interzone. F&SF’s pages are a touch thicker so all in all, better to handle than the slightly larger format Dell magazines.

My conclusion? Ignoring content (perhaps another post?), Interzone’s size change makes it the hads-on winner for me, followed by F&SF. It will take me a while to get used to handling the other two… though I am still happier with them than with the Kindle versions.

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Musing on SF magazines

At the start of the year, in my enthusiasm for my new Kindle, I added several electronic SF magazine subscriptions (Analog, Asimov’s,Clarkesworld and Lightspeed) to my existing paper ones for “Fantasy & Science Fiction” (F&SF) and Interzone, both of which have been running since the 1980’s. So how have they done?

I have cancelled Clarkesworld, which I felt was too reprint-oriented. I have kept up Lightspeed on the Kindle. Asimov’s and Analog I have switched to paper subs. So why did I go counter to the current trend with these two?

    I am a browser of magazines, often flicking through to find stories and articles that interest me even if I intend to read the whole magazine cover to cover eventually. The Kindle is best for reading through.
    I find the Kindle’s indexing / contents listing unhelpful: listing by type – novella, novelette, short – then within these categories, showing the title without the author’s name. I look out for particular authors and like to turn to their stories first.
    Assessing the cost of Analog and Asimov’s, I found a two-year international postal subscription is not that much more than I was paying for the electronic version.
    Unless you consciously “keep” a magazine issue, Amazon deletes it when there are six or seven more recent issues. I like to be able to go to my collection and re-read from time to time (eg: Hugo and Nebula winners, or if I am reading a follow-up in a linked series)
    The content is DRM-protected. I can’t back it up to Calibre to read on my laptop nor can I pass the magazine on to anyone else, such as my daughter who is becoming almost as much as an SF fan as me.

To me it was “no contest” against the Kindle, though I find that great for reading novels and novellas (I am finding some excellent self-published ones I would not otherwise have discovered).

What of the future? Will I find myself a Luddite? Now my wife has an iPad, it will be interesting to check out reading a magazine (in colour) on that (if she’ll let me near it… which is unlikely given her current attachment to it!)

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The ubiquitous Ken Liu

On my recent return to the family home in South West France, I was pleased to find waiting for me the latest editions of both “Fantasy & Science Fiction” (September/October 2012) and “Asimov’s SF” (December 2012). Their covers revealed they both contained stories by a writer I have admired for a while, Ken Liu.

Subsequently opening “Analog” (December 2012) which arrived around the same time, the inside listing also showed a short story by Ken Liu. Then, within a week the delayed “Interzone” (September / October 2012) also popped into the letter box to show on the cover a story by none other than Ken Liu.

By this point, as an aspiring yet unpublished writer myself, I confess to feeling a little green with envy that someone – albeit an excellent writer, which could have something to do with it! – could get stories into the current issues of all four print SF magazines I have subscriptions for.

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Support the right to parody!

The UK Government held a public consultation over copyright earlier this year. I heard about it via Open Rights Group who were concerned, among other issues, about the impact of excessive control over copyright impacting comedy and the ability to parody popular works. Putting on my “Concerned Citizen” hat I gave my two pennies worth in defence of the right to parody and also to relax the constraints on sharing music and film within the family unit. (Technically, it seems I can’t rip a CD I paid for to MP3 or let my daughter use those MP3s on her iPod.)

The Government report has now been produced IPO Hargreaves Review and they only received “471 responses from representative bodies, large companies, SMEs, independent media professionals, the legal profession and interested individuals”. So few that they could list the individual respondees, so there is my name, in among the “usual suspects” and “vested interests”!

Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. Otherwise you will not be able to watch gems like ‘The Star Wars That I Used To Know’ based on Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ while also parodying Star Wars and George Lucas. Enjoy!

Hat tip to Eben Mishkin for drawing my attention to this.

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Fantasy – a genre with a sense of community

Last night (Friday 2 March) I went to my first British Fantasy Society Open Night in London. Apart from attending Fantasycon2011 in Brighton this was my first SF/fantasy social activity for a long time though I had been an active fan in the (far distant) past. What really struck me once again was the friendliness and and accessibility, not only of fantasy fans but of the professionals working in the genre. Over the course of the evening, I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with several writers, publishers, editors and an agent as well as enthusiastic genre readers.

I think this accessibility is unique to the fantasy genre (in its broadest definition from SF through to horror) and goes back many decades. I guess it is because most of us start as fans – and stay fans of the genre. There is a real sense of community as well as of enthusiasm.

The BFS has had more than its share of ups and downs but it is a community more than a formal society and this was noticeable in the way the community pulled together to save it after the awards fiasco last October. Last night the BFS was showing its strengths.

One of the conversations – with Jo Fletcher and Peter Colborn – was about this, in part stimulated by the fact that I was “returning to the fold” – having been one of the four founder members of the BFS back in 1971 but away for years. We talked about what was different and what had remained the same. For me, the enthusiasm for the genre was as strong as ever, but what is very different is not only the number of fans involved in the fantasy genre (and buying the books!) but also the involvement of professionals with the BFS and with conventions. We could not identify any other genres that came close to this friendly interaction: crime and romance are perhaps the closest but nowhere near this level of personal interaction.

Other signs of a good community included an excellent charity auction in aid of a children’s hospice and, a particularly nice note, Steve Jones going round and, noticing I was a first time attender, coming over to talk and make sure I was involved and enjoying myself.

All in all, a great evening (and good beer!)

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Discovering new authors with Kindle: Jilly Paddock

One objective in acquiring a Kindle was to try to broaden my reading, finding new authors or tracking down hard-to-find or out-of-print titles. While I feel the latter objective has not been met (my first experiment – and failure – was based on assuming that all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would be easy to find and download from Amazon!)

I have subscribed to magazines that are difficult to find in UK and downright impossible when living in rural France unless one signs up for a late-arriving postal subscription. Since obtaining my Kindle at Christmas I have been enjoying Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed – all with free trial and reasonable subscription rates.

I have also discovered my first author totally new to me, but one whose work I will look out for in the future: Jilly Paddock. I downloaded two of her stories when they were on a promotion through Amazon (another benefit of the Kindle is the chance to experiment at no or low cost).

First I read “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone” – this is a combination of SF setting on a colonised world and police procedural around the kidnapping of the 9-year-old daughter of an Earth diplomat. The story is told from the PoV of a local detective, Jerome, not entirely human and just reassigned from Fraud to Homicide division to work with Afton, a difficult to work with detective inspector. The characterisation, particularly the relationship between Jerome and Afton and Jerome and the kidnapped girl, work very well. Add into the mix an extremely unpleasant kidnapper and equally unpleasant Terran agent with psy-powers (the spook of the title) plus a nasty underground guardian (the spirit, a near-fantasy element) and what sounds like quite a mish-mash of genres actually works remarkably well. The story moves briskly and with good touches of humour to leaven the, at times, distressing tale of the kidnapping of young girls. I would estimate this is novella length and I believe (and hope) this is the first of a series of “Jerome & Afton” stories. I will certainly be looking out for more.

The second Kindle story by Jilly Paddock is quite different. “No Earthly Shore” is set on a colony world, Calvados, where some 30 years after arrival, there are indications that one of the local life-forms, the invertebrate “sea-quilt”, may be sentient if the report by 12-year-old Boadicea Nantucket is true. Junior member of the verification team from Earth, marine biologist Dr. Zuzana Aaron-Jones, suspects that her colleagues want to come up with a negative result in order not to impact a fruitful colony. The leaders of the team, Major Burgoyne and Dr Moya Kent, border on stereotype characters, impeding Zuzi as she tries to communicate with and understand the squilts. However, the main human characters, Zuzi, her new-found colleague, Mooney – who has an ill-defined mission role – and Boodie. are well drawn but the stars of the story are the squilts, particularly “Drunkard’s Path”, who are a delightful invention. The story is told with humour and humanity (in its broadest sense) – what does it mean to be sentient? I’ll not spoil the story by giving more of the plot away – it is well worth reading.

Both Jilly’s stories are available on Amazon for 77p each – good value as both would hold their own on the pages of either Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine and demonstrates to me the new market opportunities opening up for good authors through e-readers.

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The peril of using real locations in SF stories

For some time I have been working on a novel, “Rose In Winter”, set in near-future London. It is a post-disaster tale, with Europe enveloped in an apparently permanent snow-bound winter. Survivors huddle together in communes in the Underground tunnels and the story focuses on one group who are based in Clapham, in the old World War Two deep bomb shelter underneath Clapham South station (south of the river on the Northern Line).

I tried to make the setting as authentic as possible. The Internet provided me with photos of the shelter and the plans and elevations from their original construction at the start of WW2. Google Maps and Google StreetView enabled me to explore the area and work out the routes followed in the story. So far, so good!

Yesterday I was in London on business and, between meetings, had enough time for my first visit to the area. Going through the station and walking the area put the scenes from StreetView into perspective. It also reminded me of the peril of using real locations… Since the StreetView survey on Balham Hill in 2009 the south shaft surface exit to the shelter (which is below and more than double the length of the station itself) has been demolished and a multi-storey building is under construction in its place. I have no idea of what this means for the shelter itself but it appears to have wiped out an exit / entrance and has implications for how my characters will get out of the shelter if they should be attacked (an event in part 2 of the story).

It is a salutary lesson that one needs to build in a certain flexibility or ambiguity to settings as it is impossible to “future-proof” them.

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