Heresy of the Week – Softly softly gets fantasy into the mainstream

game of thrones white walker
Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

After years of lingering in the side streets, with the astounding success of Game of Thrones fantasy fiction seems to have finally broken through into the mainstream — through a strategy of introducing fantastical elements so gradually that many viewers don’t notice.

Read on…

Genre Evangalism

science fiction

In my review, yesterday, of Interzone #251, I touched briefly upon the potential for the magazine to (properly displayed) bring new readers into the genre fold. As happens frequently, an entirely unexpected thought has snowballed in mind since I wrote it, and a result I’ve been musing heavily on how, exactly, the genre world should be looking to reach out its tentacles.

Of recent years it has become almost fashionable to be a bit “geeky”. From the emergence of Firefly from the cult to the mainstream, to Marvel’s franchise-titan rolling comics out of the nerdy corner, there seems to be a somewhat ascendent atmosphere at the moment.

Yet there are still trends of an insular nature — something which the recent Jonathan Ross fiasco (“Hugogate“) exemplifies.

Read on…

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it: a view on Hugo-gate

jonathan ross

Sorry, I lied.

If you haven’t heard about the debacle which unfolded over the weekend, the summary is this: Jonathan Ross was going to be hosting the 2014 Hugo Awards; some people weren’t too impressed with the choice of him as host; in the resultant controversy, he ended up stepping down.

Now, there are plenty of opinions floating around here — too many, in fact — and I don’t really want to get into the substantive issues. I doubt that this post will make me many friends, but if I wanted a quiet life I wouldn’t have a blog. Or a Twitter account. Or the internet. In fact I’d live in a cave somewhere, cut off from the rest of the world.

But what the hell, eh?

Read on…

The Importance of Variety

Yours truly, trying to save the endless variety provided by libraries.

It’s strange, but as a writer one of the questions I most dread being asked is one of the most frequent: “So what do you write then?” It’s not so much that I don’t like talking about my writing- though I do get a strange modesty conflict- but more that I’m never sure how to categorise myself.

Look at the last piece of writing that I had published. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, a psychological horror published in the Night Terrors II anthology (which, I’ve recently discovered, is only £3.88 on Kindle. Just saying…). Last night I finished and submitted a near future SF story with an environmental bent. The next story I write will, it seems, be harder SF centred around augmented reality. And I have *holds breath* recently started a novel that seems like it will be a mixture of medium-hard SF and light fantasy.

So it’s a little hard to categorise my writing as a whole. When asked about it today in the barber’s chair, about all I could manage was “dark, horror-y, science-fiction-y stuff”. Which is somewhat embarrassing for someone who is supposed to be good with words.

But “dark” is about the only common thread running through my writing. Whether it’s overt horror, or SF exposing the darker side of humanity, I have an almost macabre fascination with the shadier side of life. I take heart that, whilst he started off with undeniable horror, Stephen King has matured into a taste for variety in the extreme. How would you categorise Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, for example?

My reading patterns are, generally speaking, just as varied. I make a special point to read a wide range of fiction, since I strongly believe that we write what we read in the same way that we are what we eat. Sameish reading results in stagnant writing.  The last book I read was Tom Fletcher’s The Thing on the Shore, a strange and introspective horror novel which was frankly excellent. And I’m currently reading two books: the first is Greg Egan’s Quarantine, which represents my first forray into reading full-length hard SF. The second is a physical copy of Dragonheart by Todd McCaffrey.

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, and was deeply saddened last year when she passed away. I hadn’t read any of the later novels in the series by her son Todd, but seeing it on the shelf at the library the other week I just couldn’t help myself.

Which brings me neatly to another thing that’s been on my mind. Wokingham Borough Council’s plan to privatise the libraries rumbles onwards. The matter has seen scant attention from this blog of late, partly due to the exploding incompetence of the waste collection scheme and partly due to the fact that it’s all being done in secret. The council can claim that the secrecy is due to EU tendering rules, but those rules didn’t prevent the Conservatives from proposing it at the last election, or consulting on it before opening it up to tender.

When I go to the library for a book, I don’t go looking for anything in particular. I look for something that catches my eye, whatever it might be, and that contributes greatly to the variety in my reading. This is why I am determined to make sure that the libraries issue doesn’t drop off the agenda. As I have said before, the world would be a far poorer place without them.

A Tale of Two Literary Awards

Christopher Priest doesn't like the Clarke Award nominees- so thinks the judges should be fired.

It’s been an interesting day in the world of genre fiction. For those of you who aren’t plugged in to that particular social media and niche news corner of the internet, basically Christopher Priest (a much-respected and very talented SF writer) has attacked a number of his colleagues and a literature award of some esteem over the quality of nominees.

You might say that this shows just how little actually happens in the world of SF, but really this was something to behold (it even made the Guardian). Some of his criticism is downright personal, and honestly left me dumbstruck. Take the treatment that poor Charles Stross’ novel gets:

It is indefensible that a novel like Charles Stross’s Rule 34 (Orbit) should be given apparent credibility by an appearance in the Clarke shortlist. Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long.

Which I would say is below the belt. Thankfully, Mr Stross has one heck of sense of humour, and responded with this piece of Twitter-brilliance:

But on a serious note, there is a problem with Priest’s web-ranting. It’s not that he’s particularly nasty or insulting, it’s that he goes on to call for extreme solutions. Specifically, he says:

The present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately… These people have proved themselves incompetent as judges, and should not be allowed to have any more say about or influence on the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

He wants them sacked. Because he doesn’t like the books they picked. Now, I haven’t read any of the nominees (though I have read one of Priest’s suggested alternatives- Lavie Tidhar’s “Osama”). If I had, it may be that I agreed with Priest’s opinion of them (though I wouldn’t express it like that- I am not devoid of tact). The problem is not hisopinion, it’s the fact that he seems to think that his opinion is scripture. That people should be removed from their post because people disagreed with him. I said I was tactful, but frankly that is nothing short of ego-maniacal.

Last year there was another controversy in the genre world, over another literature award. It was, of course, the British Fantasy Awards. This was a slightly more “serious” kerfuffle- serious in that it wasn’t one person losing the plot, but rather a defect in the rules and process. If you want a summary of what went on, you can find it here, but in brief there was a potential conflict of interest with judges.

As a result, author Sam Stone faced frankly embarrassing levels of criticism and sadly felt she had no choice but to return her award. But it did lead to a complete overhaul of the awards’ rules and process, leaving the BFS as a better organisation (in my opinion).

That is not the same as  the present issue. That was a genuine problem of perceived conflict of interest, which necessitated a structural rule change (if not the personal animosity that regretfully seemed to come along with it). What Christopher Priest is trying to do, it seems, is enforce his opinion as law.

And, in my opinion at least, that is where it stops being funny.

On (Finally) Joining the BFS

So now I'm a member of the British Fantasy Society

So, at last I’ve done it. Last night, Ashleigh and I joined the British Fantasy Society.

It had been something we’d both been meaning to do, and discussing, for a while but hadn’t seemed to get around to. Ironically, I think it was probably the controversy surrounding this year’s British Fantasy Awards which finally spurred us to take the plunge.

It’s possible that joining this close to Christmas was a bit silly, as I doubt there’ll be much activity in way of our new membership until the New Year, but even joining up feels inspirational. The BFS’ “Join us” page, bears this message from Stephen Jones, which I shall relate to you here:

“Whenever a fledgling horror or fantasy writer comes up to me, at a convention or somewhere else, and asks me how they can get their work published, I invariably advise them that their first step should be to join the British Fantasy Society.”

After what has felt like a fairly lacklustre year in my writing career, I’m keen to improve in 2012, and this feels like a good step towards it. I’m looking forward to attending some of the get-togethers, including FantasyCon 2012 (which will give me a good excuse to go back to Brighton). And at £35 for a year’s membership, it feels like a bargain to me.

So here’s to the next year, for myself and Ash as members of the British Fantasy Society! Let the fun start here!

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself


Happy Halloween to everyone! Have yourselves a very creepy night.

Happy Halloween, to all and sundry.


I have plenty of issues with Halloween as a celebratory occasion (Americanisation of the UK, not being genuinely sure what people are celebrating, the fact that it seems to be a free licence from society for little shits to engage in acts of vandalism, etc, etc), I’m not anti-Halloween. Horror as a genre- whether in film, television, literature or wherever else- tends to be much maligned in today’s society, and those of us who really enjoy it are sometimes looked upon as dangerous aberrations.

Except on one day a year, when the TV channels roll out the classic films, costume shops justify their existence, and even the supermarkets deck themselves out for the occasion. So to celebrate, I’m going to have a go at explaining why I’m a horror fan.

It boils down, at its simplest level, to the fact that I enjoy feeling scared. When you get right down to the core of it, that’s what horror is always about. The fear is the core of it, and the very reason why we love it. There’s an excitement in being afraid that very little else matches.

For me, horror films have always been a part of a larger experience. From horror films as a child, sat in my bed or on the sofa in the dark, flinching at every noise, to the present day with the walk back from the cinema in the dark and wet night. A true horror film will have your hackles up until the first light of the new morning. A good horror story will worm its way into your mind, and somehow even dawn won’t bring relief.

But the real power in horror, to me, is to go beyond the obvious. Recently, films such as the Saw franchise and the Paranormal Activity films have relied on gore and shock to scare the audience. Anyone familiar with me will know that I’m not a fan of either. For me, that’s the easy way out. Real horror should be about more than being grotesque or loud. Real horror should about getting into your head and frightening you to your very core.

Now, that’s going to be different for each individual, but often I find it’s the most understated films that really frighten me, in a way that an abundance of splatter and sudden noises don’t. Often, they aren’t even strictly horror films; for example Robin William’s downright creepy photo technician in One Hour Photo.

So if you’re not going trick or treating tonight, or going out somewhere to get drunk (as all holidays these days seem to be celebrated by some people), then why not have yourself a creepy night in? Have a think about what frightens you, what you’re really afraid of. Then hunt down a horror film about it, I’m sure someone has thought to make one.

And then, afterwards, just try to remember that it’s all fictional. There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself. Probably.

Can I get some Science with my Fiction?

This sort of follows on from my “In Defence of Genre” post, so

Is this the image of science we want to be portraying?

you might like to take a look at that first.

But anyway, I’ve been thinking about what precisely science-fiction is. It covers a great deal of subgenres, some of which I’ve written in. But the fundamental idea behind it is in the name, I think. Science-fiction. Equal measures of each. Fiction about science. Or fiction involving science. It boils down to the same thing, that the difference between sci-fi and other brands of fiction is the science.

And I think that lies at the core of a lot of matters. Given that science is under a daily assault (by various religious elements of society some of the time, by the Daily Mail misrepresenting it most of the time), it seems all the more important that sci-fi represents science in the most honest way possible. To me, sci-fi has always been about dreaming, about what could be in the future, but I know that a lot of people think of sci-fi as impenetrable nerd-gruel, but it really doesn’t have to be.

Reflecting on it, I think a lot of the bad sci-fi is the scientifically inaccurate stuff. To compensate for frankly impossible plot developments and holes that the writer has dug themselves into, they throw impenetrable technobabble and deus ex machinas into the mix, despite having little to no understanding of how the universe actually works. And then we’re using science as the plot crutch that magic so often is in fantasy.

The science in sci-fi doesn’t have to be so bold. It should be the lifeblood running through the veins of the story (and now I’m waxing all lyrical). What I mean, is that it shouldn’t be something glued onto the side to make it fit under the sci-fi label. Science is not a gimmick.  And yes, there are sci-fi tropes which are used so commonly that they pass right under the radar (e.g. hyperspace, wormholes, noises in space), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it still makes me smile when I see something that adheres more strictly to the rules it claims to be built around. I’m talking, lack of artificial gravity, sub-light travel only, kinetic weapons rather than laser-based. They’re minor things, but give the story a sense of realism.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert when it comes to science and technology. I have a working knowledge, and I did well enough when I studied them, but it’s been four years now since I’ve had any substantial education in the sciences. So do I have enough knowledge to avoid hypocrisy on this matter? I’m not altogether sure. I try to do my research, I try to keep myself within the realms of scientific possibility (still a very wide berth, for a writer with a reasonable imagination to play within), but in the end, I’m not an astrophysicist, or an engineer, or a geneticist. I’m a law student who likes to write sci-fi.

But maybe if we all make that effort to understand what we’re reading and writing about, then the world will be a little better. Certainly, for writers, I feel our fiction will be. If the science is accurate, then the fiction feels closer to reality, and that is what a writer should be aiming for. I’m not saying only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that would be hypocrisy), or that only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that’s stupid, and even aside from that would create a cut off community of science enthusiasts, like Norfolk meets CERN, while the rest of the world returns to the dark ages). But sci-fi can be, and is, so much more when the writer takes the time to present an accurate snapshot of the universe, with just a bit of research, to get the science right.

Realism doesn’t limit imagination. It just focuses it down the right avenues.