Gareth L. Powell

Interzone #251 – A Review

interzone #251I’m sure somebody will disagree with me here, but I don’t know of any fiction magazine as consistently striking as Interzone.

Obviously a book, or magazine, shouldn’t be judged by its cover, but presentation is important, and the new(ish) design of the Interzone cover supplemented with a succession of frankly fantastic artwork, only makes the interior more enticing.

Interzone‘s in the wild are a fairly rare occasion — the shelves of W.H. Smith being stocked mainly with nonsense — which is a shame really. Actually, I think this would stand out a mile off on a newsagent’s shelf.

And if I saw it there, hell I’d pick it up! Wouldn’t you?

I’m not sure what the point of this little pre-review rant is, just that some of the best genre material is something of a secret by the simple fact of a lack of exposure. There is no reason at all that magazines like Interzone should be just for established fans.

Read on…

Mightier than the Sword

Despite the inefficiencies of it, there is something inherently beautiful about drawing the nib of a fountain pen across a piece of paper, to tell a story.

Those who are vaguely familiar with who I am will know that I am a writer. Those a little more familiar with me, may know that I have an intense fondness for fountain pens. It started in Year 7 when I first used one, and never really went away. Day to day I use a black and silver Waterman Hemisphere pen, with black ink. The crowning glory of my pens is a brushed steel and gold Autograph pen, which I keep filled with red ink from a  bottle on my desk. The lid is adorned with the words “LOVE ASHLEIGH X”.

So naturally, this article in the Guardian on writing longhand vs word processing grabbed my interest the other day without much trying. In it, Lee Rourke says:

In longhand, the hand moves freely across the page in a way no amount of computer jiggery-pokery can muster. I think the economy of writing longhand is to do with its pace.

I think I agree with this, somewhat. When I was sixteen, I wrote an entire novel (about vampires in the Spanish Civil War) in three blue notebooks, when ostensibly I probably should have been paying attention to the history lessons that I was sat in at the time. There was something simple and beautiful about being able to open the notebook, put the nib to the page, and weave a story across it.

I don’t handwrite all, or even most, of my writings. The vast majority start out as a blank word document, onto which I vomit ideas which I reformulate as I go. But I still keep a notebook, which I love to use for first drafts of stories which have been niggling at my imagination for a while, and about which I’m still not quite sure- something which Jennifer Williams and I seem to have in common.

I posted a link to the article on Facebook, and triggered an interesting discussion. Sci-fi writer Gareth L. Powell expressed how he always writes on a computer, explaining:

I can’t write fast enough with a pen. I type at the same speed I think, therefore typing suits me.

I think he has a good point. What is leisurely and calm when working through something uncertain can be downright frustrating when the idea of what you are trying to write is clear in your mind, and ready to flow out of your fingers. My (unbelievably talented) Ashleigh also types everything, and the speed at which she can knock out high quality first-drafts is frankly astounding.

Another interesting element of the writing process is editing. For myself, I cannot edit on a screen. I don’t know why, but I can’t spot the errors, the typos, the sentences which just don’t work. When I print the draft out, those same problems jump out and slap me, and I can go through a piece with my red pen, stripping out unneeded sentences and rewriting poorly-phrased ones.

Gareth, on the other hand, does his editing on a screen as well. Maybe I just need to play with my screen settings, but I just can’t do it. I’ll give myself a migraine trying. I much prefer the organic process of me, a draft and a red pen (I’m presuming that the red ink is a leftover fixation from school).

One thing that I’ve taken up lately is using my Kindle to edit. The screen has the same effect on me as paper, and the text-to-speech function is brilliant for finding the bits which don’t sound quite right- since I don’t trust myself to read it aloud and read what’s actually there, rather than what should be there.

Every writer has their own way, and technology is an integral part of my own. It doesn’t dominate absolutely, but I can see if I ever break through and become very serious in my writing (an appalling phrase, but to my shame I can’t think of a better one) that it may become even more important. But for just now, I won’t be laying down my fountain pen(s).

“The Recollection” by Gareth L. Powell – A Review

"The Recollection" by Gareth L. Powell

(Solaris, 400pp, paperback, £7.99)

“Rising star” is a phrase which I seem to use all too often, but when I say it in relation to Gareth L. Powell it seems entirely appropriate. Here is a man who I started reading in genre magazines of great repute, such as Interzone, a few years back. His short stories demonstrated a profound understanding of science-fiction’s place in the world. His debut novel Silversands was excellent, and the follow-up was sensational.

The Recollection is Powell’s take on the space opera, and the scale of the story really should not be underestimated. Spanning the galaxy, and hundreds of years, it follows characters on various convergent plot threads, weaved into a beautifully complete story.

The story starts with the appearance out of nowhere of arches across Earth. When his brother is gobbled up by one, Ed Rico sets out, with his brother’s wife Alice, to follow and find the missing man. Meanwhile (or not, exactly) space captain Katherine Abdulov seeks redemption with her family and revenge upon a former lover, in a race across the galaxy into the arms of danger.

It’s a wondrously complex patchwork, with a great attention to detail and to the sub-genre’s rich history. To those who are widely read within it, the wealth of little nods here and there will stand out like little gemstones. For those without such experience, the attention to detail will do the same.

Particularly notable is Powell’s grasp of the consequences of relativity. Space travel across the cosmos is possible in the world of The Recollection, but a journey which is instantaneous from the the perspective of the traveller takes objectively as long as the same journey would at the speed of light. It not only throws up fascinating problems of timelines out of synch, but manages to knit the plot together across centuries.

The beauty here is that Powell has a good grasp of both the technical and the artistic side. I’m loathe to call this “hard” sci-fi, because it lacks the dryness which frequently marrs that genre. But it feels accurate, with a realistic atmosphere and entirely believable characters.

One thing that moved me in particular: the acknowledgement page makes a point of thanking the late Colin Harvey, whose death shortly before the novel’s launch was truly tragic. Given the credit which Powell himself has given to Harvey for his role in The Recollection‘s existence, I think it’s safe to say that Harvey would be proud of the finished product.

The Recollection is a thought provoking work, brimming with imagination. It has the vital undercurrent of “what if?” that is the lifebood of good science-fiction. And what if there was more sci-fi like The Recollection? Then the world could only be a better, more exciting place.

“Silversands” by Gareth L. Powell – A Review

"Silversands" by Gareth L. Powell

"Silversands by Gareth L. Powell

(Pendragon Press, hardback, 160pp, £12)

I seem to be having a run of short novels/novellas lately. Maybe it’s a subconscious choice, as I’ve also caught myself praising shorter forms of fiction in particular. Especially with speculative fiction, where the suspension of disbelief is often inherent to entertainment, the shorter  novel is often the ideal format.

Suspension of disbelief isn’t really so much of an issue in Silversands, as Powell has crafted a fairly realistic-feeling novel, which particularly struck me near the very beginning, upon realising that there was no artificial gravity. As a science-fiction nut, this impressed me from the off. Artificial gravity has become something of a cliché of sci-fi; often no explanation is given at all, and when one is the story often suffers for as a result. To have a characters floating around is, I’ve found, a rare concession. (When artificial gravity does later make an appearance, it is of the centrifugal flavour, which actually make scientific sense).

The characters are also imbued with an air of realism. The main character’s motivations are clear and understandable from the start, and her confusion/flirtations with despair when the major plot twist smacks her in the side of the head is entirely sympathetic. And along the way, the secondary characters are equally as sympathetic, making some of the trials they suffer with the progression of the plot really resonate with the reader. Maybe I’m just becoming soft in my adulthood, I don’t know, but I thought they worked well.

The plot is, as one would expect with a novel of this length, very fast paced, keeping the reader reading hungrily on. I finished it in about two days, purely because it gripped me by the collar and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished. The scene changes don’t feel particularly jarring, despite the fact it flits frequently between several locations and groups of characters, and in fact that might be one of the points in its favour. In moving quickly and fluidically between scenes, settings and characters, it manages to sustain an overall commentary, and avoid the annoyance of pulling the reader away at a cliffhanger moment for one character, to bore them rigid with a bunch of people they don’t care about.

In terms of actual criticism, I find myself about to criticise the thing I started off praising. It’s length makes it a perfect light read, but it has the sense it wants to be more than that. In some cases it feels that characters are persuaded into unlikely (and in some cases unpalatable) courses of action with a haste that doesn’t seem to sit right. My feeling as a critical reader is that in places it could have done with a let up of the relentless pace, in favour of sitting down and talking out bits- to give myself a chance to catch my breath, and for the characters to be legitimately persuaded around into a course of action necessary, but not particularly easy.

My only other criticism is the major criticism of the book, and it feels a little unfair. Powell’s writing is up to its usual high standard (see such short stories as The Last Reef and Ack-Ack Macaque), but finds itself let down by some very shoddy editing work. I haven’t much experience with Pendragon, but given what I’ve seen here, I’m a bit concerned. Too frequently, letters are missing from the beginning of sentences or words (“Marcus” becoming “arcus” a couple of times) and in one place it seemed that the first part of a paragraph was missing. It isn’t Powell’s fault, but with a story so dependent on pace, it trips the reader up, and is a real shame.

But on the whole, I really did enjoy this novel. It was fun, but not silly. The characters were strong, the plot engaging, and the writing well beyond competent. But the real triumph, I feel, is the world that Powell has created. A universe with humanity scattered across the stars by unreliable FTL travel is one that has a lot of potential, particularly with the developments at the end of the story. I hope that Powell returns to this universe at some point, and it would be a real shame if some of the characters from Silversands didn’t get a second appearance.