Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Miscellaneous Writing Updatery

With all the things I'm doing for the Shine anthology, my own SF writing gets buried under (much in the same manner as it did when I was still part of the Interzone team).

I do have two new stories ready, but I either run them through the critiquing gamut, or let them age a bit (like wine or cheese), before I send them out. So this update is about reprints.

For one, “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz” – originally in The Amityville House of Pancakes, vol. 1 (officially out of print, although you can snag up a hardcopy [used and even a ‘new’ one] at Amazon US – I notice that the ‘new’ one goes for $36.99 and the used from $6.52 and up – Amazon UK – where one ‘new’ one goes for £8.95 [the other for £51.94, which is insane] and the used for £40.71, what the heck? – Amazon Canada – ‘new’ one for C$62.24, used ones from C$25.95 through C$66.56 , which is also madness – while Clarkesworld Books discounts it to $9.00 [the shop's only temporarily re-opened, and you have to buy for $35 minimum], Shocklines has it for $13.95, and the Genremall has it for $13.35. Finally, an electronic version at Fictionwise) – and now reprinted in A Mosque Among the Stars (hardcopy via ZC Books, kindle edition via Amazon US), is getting some decidedly good reviews:

  • Annie at Annieworld was somewhat confused by it at first, thrown off by the name Leonard, but eventually “So the real reason for the actions of Leonard caught me by surprise and I loved it. It is probably one of the best stories.” (of the anthology);
  • Berrien C Henderson, the self avowed geek, wrote in his LJ review of A Mosque Among the Stars: “My hands-down favorite was the time-travel adventure, “Cultural Clashes in Cadiz,” by Jetse de Vries. He handles multiple settings and points of view quite well and weaves them together for a satisfying conclusion with a bit of a twist I thought I would’ve seen coming and didn’t, so my hat’s off to Jetse for the pleasant surprise.”;
  • And Francesca Forrest – on LJ as Asakiyume Mita – was also very complinetary (while pointing out errors-cum-characteristics: “The language in this one is over the top, sometimes hilariously anachronistic”) in her LJ review: “The story is full of heart. It’s exuberant, hilarious, and underneath it all, moving.”;

However, before my head swells to dangerous proportions, there are also reviews that either don’t mention it (SF Gospel’s Gabriel McKee’s review [maybe it was one of the problematic ones: “There’s a thread running through the anthology, and it’s tough to tell how problematic it is. Many of the stories deal with terrorism, war, and the clash of civilizations.”, however “The important thing, and what the editors have striven for, is that these stories address the questions of terrorism and war without demonizing the innocent along with the guilty. It’s an important message, and this anthology delivers it well. ”], or Susie Hawes at Ghostposts [“The rest of the stories are wonderfully written, with tight plotting, sympathetic characterization and close attention to internal logic. The settings are descriptive. The suspense is chilling.”], or ‘ilm al-insaan’s review [where it was probably one of the problematic ones, as well: “My problems with the volume included a definite sense that readers are still encountering the “Islamic” aspects from the position of outsiders, Western, non-Muslim outsiders. The authors are primarily non-Muslim, and there was a tendency in some of the stories to exoticize the Muslim Other.”), or that don’t like it (I honestly couldn't find one in the A Mosque Among the Stars reviews, although there were a few in the Amityville House of Pancakes, vol 1 reviews).

While “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz” is enjoying its second wind, “Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy” has just had its third publication, albeit as a translation in the latest issue of Galaxies magazine. The story's first appearance was in DeathGrip: Exit Laughing under the title “The Ultimate Coincidence” (after which Hellbound Books, the publishers, immediately called it a day. The anthology is for sale at Shocklines for $3, though), back in November, 2005.

Then a rewritten and retitled version called “Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy” appeared in FLURB #6 in September 2008. The translated version of that version has just appeared in Galaxies (according to the Table of Contents it’s French title is “Exemples aléatoires de fantaisie cosmique”, which is something like “Random Examples of Cosmic Imagination”, if Babelfish is on the money). And my name’s on the cover, so I’m quite chuffed.

And there’s another appearance in the works – at least, I hope that’s still the case – on which more if and when it appears.

Finally, “Transcendence Express” is heading for its fourth appearance (first as lead story in HUB #2, the last print version of the magazine: there’s a dangerous pattern appearing here; then as an electronic incarantion in HUB #44 [no direct link yet as content is moved over from the old HUB website]; and Escape Pod podcast EP #122) in The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar, and planned for a September 1 2009, but already available as a pre-order.

Also in this case there was a fifth appearance planned, but since it’s been very quiet about that one, I suspect it fell through. Anyway, so far I can’t complain.

(Note: edited to correct that Berrien Henderson is a he, not a she)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prologues in SF

This is actually an answer to the "A Bit Previous" post by Neil Williamson, which was triggered by a Twitter discussion after Gareth Lyn Powell made the seemingly innocuous remark "I can haz prologue".

The general sentiment, it seems, is against the (use of the) prologue. Here's my defense of it:

As I already mentioned on Twitter, prologues are like highly dominant spices in a dish: they can work if used with mastery and restraint, and if they add someting essential to the whole.

Three types (from the top of my head):

1) Essential pre-info dumping.

In this, a previous event that — like the famed ‘wings of the butterfly’ — sets off a much larger event. The much larger event is the novel, the much smaller event that initiated the storm is the prologue.

Example: Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan. Part one of that book is nothing but a prologue; that is: the experiment that triggered a Universe-wide change of reality. The experiment in the prologue is about probing reality at its deepest core — like Fermilab and Cern are doing, but then on a much grander scale. This experiment focusses immense energies at a very small scale, and triggers a change of the ‘normal’ vacuum state, something the researcher in the prologue didn’t expect.

However, once a quantum of the vacuum turns into ‘novo-vacuum’, this releases enough energy to transform nearby vacua as well, and a chain reaction ensues: reality changing from state 1 to state 2 at about half the speed of light.

The researcher and her team don’t survive the experiment (are simply transformed/absorbed by the novo-vacuum), so can’t be used as a flashback/infodump latter on in the story.

The rest of the novel is about how the novo-vaccuum expands from the initial site of the experiment — a sphere expanding at half lightspeed — and how some people eventually find that — while it transforms ‘normal’ space, ‘eating up’ planets settled by humans — this might not be a bad thing after all, as they discover that the novo-vacuum might be *richer* than normal space. However, for deeper emotional richness and involvement it is essential that the reader knows that the onruishing novo-vacuum is not a freak event, but something initiated by scientific curiosity, giving the novel a richer moral ambiguity.

Schild’s Ladder is probably the most extreme hard SF novel ever written, and possibly the one’s that least understood. I consider it Egan’s absolute masterpiece, the most extreme extrapolation of hard SF to date.

And it wouldn’t have worked without the prologue (even if it’s called ‘part 1′: it stands completely apart from the rest of the novel, so is the perfect definition of a prologue).

2) Superb scene-setting without giving anything essential away (that almost the antidote of example 1).

This is even harder to do: the only example that comes to mind right now (and I’m almost certain that next week or next month, when this discussion is forgotten, several better ones will come up) is Ian McDonald’s Brasyl.

I know, Our Lady of Production Values is presented as a first chapter rather than a prologue, but its first three ’slices of Brazil’ — present, future and past — work phenomenally well as three separate prologues into the complex multiverse that is ‘Brasyl’.

(Warning: music analogy coming): It’s akin to the way that ‘Prelude to Madness’ — which is a very heavy version of the Grieg original — is used as an prelude (musical prologue) of Savatage’s “Hall of the Mountain King” (which is the original title — albeit in Norwegian — of Grieg’s composition. It sets the stage for the main song, the whole atmosphere while also, in a way, is quite different from it. It paves the way without giving too much away, and both the prelude and the main song are more than the sum of the separate parts.

3) Both an essential pre-info dump that does give something essential away *and* a superb scene-setting that doesn’t give everything away.

This one is the hardest to do.

For this, check out The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is probably one of the most perfect prologues ever written: the protagonist tells how — when he was still very young — he was taken into the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ by his father, and had to make a life-changing choice by selecting one book (which was, obviously, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax). This foreshadows everything while giving almost nothing away. It makes you want to read this, no matter what. And the novel delivers in spades.

Maybe it’s more like an overture (warning: musical analogy coming up) than a prelude: it contains the seeds of everything to come while not telling the whole story. Like the ‘Overture’ of 2112 by Rush.

I know that anybody can give countless examples of prologues that are total failures, and I gladly concede that the utmost majority are.

However, that is the same as saying that 'stream-of-consciousness’ writing can never work. Indeed, it almost never does. However, you have novels like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (the obvious English-language examples: there are Russian & French predecessors and many international and English-language successors to this style of writing).

In science, the single successful experiment leads to a new, breakthrough theory that eventually gets general acknowledgement (and acknowledges the necessity of the failed experiments, as well, as these showed how it shouldn’t be done). In SF writing though, it seems that more often than not people prefer to discard the rare but spectacularly successful experiments on the basis of all the failed ones.

That, I am arguing, is fatally wrong and will help make SF irrelevant.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

EasterCon: LX 2009

I will be attending EasterCon in Bradford. I hope to see many of you there: both the ones I already know, and new people (happy to meet you!).

I will be on the following programme items:

Friday April 10:

SF music in popular culture : War of the Worlds to Rocky Horror
Fri 19:00 Hawthorn
Persephone Hazard (moderator)
Mike Cobley
Jetse de Vries
Neil Williamson

Sunday April 12:

"Near-future, optimistic SF": "Two impossibilities, or something we can pull off?"
Sun 19:00 Hawthorn
Jetse de Vries (moderator)
Chris Beckett
Jaine Fenn
Charlie Stross
Tony Ballantyne

"Writers, artists and fans discuss their musical inspiration"
Sun 20:00 Sycamore
Persephone Hazard (moderator)
Mike Cobley
Paul McAuley
Jetse de Vries
Alastair Reynolds

E-Books - are they the future? Ebook readers are being sold in high street stores. Has the timefinally come for them to achieve mainstream popularity?
Sun 22:00 Hawthorn
Alex Ingram (moderator)
Mike Scott
Lee Harris
Jetse de Vries

Monday April 13:

Hugo nominations panel: "The nominations for the 2009 Hugo awards have been released - what do we think? What are the surprises, and what are the notable omissions?"
Mon 11:00 Boardroom
Pauline Morgan (moderator)
Mike Scott
Penny Hill
Shana Worthen
Jetse de Vries

So my Sunday evening schedule is quite full, but luckily I will have time enough on Saturday to check out a few book launches (especially the Future Bristol anthology), the BSFA Awards, the Symphony Orchestra, the dealer's room, and other programme items.

There's even a beer tasting Saturday at 21.00!

Hope to see many of you this coming weekend!