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A good while back, I did a post here pontificating about how the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ was not a particularly good query to fire at a writer.

This is the sequel to that post, in which I answer the question in question. Just thought it’d be fun. Might also help to illustrate my case that ideas are the easy bit, coming as they do from everywhere, all the time, unpredictably.

So, here’s where the idea for every piece of fiction I’ve sold came from, in chronological order of publication.

Farm Animal, my first published story, appeared in the UK’s venerable sf magazine Interzone a long, long time ago. It has a unique, and unusually simple, origin in the context of my fiction output: it’s loosely based on a dream I had. It was a kind of creepy, not very nice, dream so we won’t go into any more details except to say it involved a human-pig hybrid. The hard bit, as ever, was turning that seed into a narrative of some sort, and in the process the story became about the transformation of a human into a pig. (Sidenote: I remember being quite pleased with myself, at that presumptuous age, for coming up with a title that reverses Animal Farm, in which pigs transform into humans, just as my story reverses that transformation. Doesn’t seem quite so clever now.)

Gibbons, my second published story, appeared in another UK magazine: The Third Alternative – still going, under the new title Black Static. Its origin is also unique in this list, in that it comes from my own direct, personal experience. In my early twenties I spent three months in Borneo, finding, following and sound-recording gibbons in a remote part of the rainforest. In hindsight, as you might expect, it was a powerful, rather formative experience in various ways (including career-wise, since it would later result in me getting a job that sent me to many other unusual, out of the way bits of the world), though at the time – as with many such experiences – I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. What did imprint itself on my mind even then, though, was the potent atmosphere and character of the place. It took years for the story that gave voice to my impressions of the Bornean rainforest to take shape, but Gibbons was the eventual result.

Winterbirth, and the Godless World trilogy of which it is the first part, has a messy kind of idea-origin. I knew I wanted to try writing novels, and I was instinctively interested in the possibility of a fantasy trilogy. I needed an imaginative nudge of some sort to get the process of world, character and story development going, and it came from the TV, in a way. This was way back when the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia in particular, were in post-Communist meltdown and filling our TV screens and newspapers with stories and images of horrendous and cruel violence. Because I was even then a history nerd, I knew a lot of what was happening was the indirect fruit of bitter rivalries, enmities and events that went back many, many hundreds of years, and I was struck by the thought that it might be interesting to write about a fantasy world similarly torn apart by long-suppressed, half-hidden enmities that were somehow allowed to re-emerge.

Now, that initial idea got considerably complicated and diluted by the aforementioned process of world, character and story development. It provided the impetus for the process, but was itself changed and elaborated by it. Such things happen, once you get into the flow of turning a small spark into a fully fledged fire. But that’s what ideas are for really: they start the process, but unlike a chemical catalyst, they don’t have to survive that process unchanged.

Beyond the Reach of His Gods is a short story that appeared in the anthology Rage of the Behemoth, from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Much to my delight, it’s since been reprinted in the excellent online magazine Lightspeed, so you can read the whole thing for free over there if you like. This was the first time I’d been invited/commissioned to write a story for an anthology, and the brief was highly specific: heroic fantasy involving a giant monster set in one of several specific environments. I had no pre-existing ideas that fitted the bill (hardly surprising!), so the idea for this story had to be kind of ‘forced’. Except it came to me very easily, very quickly and very completely. I’ve no idea how that happens, but now and again it does: I just looked at the brief, thought about it for a bit, and the setting, characters, monster and the basic skeleton of the plot just turned up in my head. Very nice, and forunate really, since I would probably have turned down the invitation had things not bubbled up so easily, and had the story they suggested not struck me as being fun to write.

Flint was another short story for an anthology – Speculative Horizons, from Subterranean Press, edited by Patrick St-Denis. Again, I was asked if I would contribute, but this time there were no prescriptions regarding subject matter or even specific genre. So I pulled out a partially developed idea I’d been keeping on a mental shelf for ages, and used this as the opportunity to turn it into an actual story. That idea had its roots in my non-fiction reading: books like The Golden Bough, After The Ice and Shamanism. In learning and thinking about early magical beliefs, hunter-gatherer societies and the deep, deep past of human society and imagination, it struck me that a Stone-Age shaman would make an interesting central character for some kind of story. I knew very early on that his name would be Flint, but much of the detail of his adventures only got filled in when Patrick asked me if I fancied writing a story for his anthology …

The Edinburgh Dead has a very clear and fairly simple idea-origin. Having grown up in Edinburgh, and living there again now after a good few years away, I know a lot about its history and geography. Mind you, even people who’ve never been here have heard of Burke & Hare, the infamous baddies who murdered a lot of people so that they could sell their corpses to lecturers for dissection in anatomy classes in the early 19th century. For whatever reason, one day while musing on Edinburgh’s rich and complicated history, I just asked myself: ‘What if there were other people around back then, who wanted corpses for a different kind of experiment?’. From that question, after a good deal of research and the addition of a good many other influences, the whole novel emerged. And, inevitably, Burke and Hare stayed in the mix as characters in the story.

Rogue Trooper, the comic I’m writing for IDW (first issue in comic shops and on Comixology on Feb 26th!), is a different kettle of fish, idea-wise. This is a pre-existing character and milieu that I was asked to re-imagine. So the ideas required are of a different kind: what games can I play, what details can I add or subtract, what themes can I develop, with this already-established character? Those kind of ideas just come from looking at what’s there already, thinking back or re-visiting all the previous Rogue Trooper stories I read as a youth, applying my personal instincts as a writer to the property. To be honest, lots and lots of possibilities presented themselves to me as soon as I became aware of the opportunity, so it wasn’t too difficult. When someone else has done the hard work of creating a strong character, setting and framework, riffing on it is pretty straightforward (at least in terms of ideas, if not execution; believe me, I can now say from personal experience that writing comics is not straightforward or effortless!).

The Free will be published this October by Orbit, and it’s kind of fitting that it comes last on this list because in one sense it’s an extreme example on the original idea front. This book, alone of all the fictions on this list, has shed its originating idea like a snake shedding a skin. Literally no trace of the idea to which it can trace its roots remains in the novel that will be published. Weird, huh? Anyway, one day – or night, I think perhaps I was trying to go to sleep – a scene just popped into my head. In an underground cavern, someone discovers a prisoner, trapped in a huge cage. That was it. This was way back when I was still writing the Godless World trilogy. I had half a notion I might try writing another trilogy after I was finished with that one (a notion I soon thought better of!), and that single, unformed scene became the seed from which I gradually grew the outline of a whole plot, world, magic system, characters – I didn’t have a full trilogy worked out in detail, but I had a lot of stuff churning around in my head.

Except, I wrote The Edinburgh Dead instead. But the story-stuff that had sprung from that single imagined scene kept stewing in my thinking parts, and kept changing. In the plot I’d loosely imagined, there were a set of secondary characters – mercenaries – who struck me as interesting. To cut a long story short, I ended up pitching an idea focused upon them to the publisher as a stand-alone novel. The Free. The world in which they operate is not the one I dreamed up for that trilogy; the magic system is utterly different; there’s not a single character who has survived from my earlier musings into the text of the The Free; at no point does anyone even go underground, let alone discover a subterranean chamber with a caged prisoner in it. (But who’s to say what might happen, should I ever write any more stories about The Free?)

So there you are. I get my ideas from dreams, from personal experiences, from current affairs, from history, from commissions, from non-fiction books, from other people’s creations, from random scenes popping into my head. And I could add, in respect of fictions I’ve thought about or am currently pondering, which may or may not ever see the light of day: I also get them from idle reflections on the under-use of particular mythical creatures in fiction, consciously setting myself the challenge of coming up with an idea for a TV/radio series, writing tasks based on a single word set by tutors on a short course I did many years ago, looking at maps, etc. etc.

All seems clear enough. Question answered.

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A smart chap called Valerio Amaro combined his two passions – Lord of the Rings and advertising – into a nice little tumblr in which phrases from LotR are used as advertising slogans. I like them all, and you should check them all out here, but here’s a couple of favourites:

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Aaaand I’m back on the blog treadmill after a festive break that ended up being a bit longer than intended. Busy, you know. Holidaying, working, thinking up new stuff. Got plans and hopes for 2014 – as I hope you all do, too! – but more on that another time.

Holidays mean holidaying, of course, but they also mean reading and watching, especially over Xmas/New Year. So here’s a quick summary of how some of my time got itself occupied while I’ve been keeping a low profile round here.

Reading first.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is something I got to later than most other folks with an interest in this kind of stuff, but courtesy of a well-judged Christmas present, I read it in the last week of December. Fascinating, for those of you with a longing to see what was wriggling under the rock of all those superhero comics that overtook the medium in the US in the second half of the last century. The lasting impression I’ll take away is of a company, and to some extent an industry, that was winging it most of the time, populated by big, often abrasive personalities, riding momentum without the time or inclination to pay much attention to what – or who – got trampled along the way. It’s kind of a feverish vision, but I’m glad to report it hasn’t put me off the idea of dipping my own toes into the comics waters.

Then, Stealing Light, by Gary Gibson. Got this on kind of an impulse, because the e-book happened to be (and still is) ‘competitively’ priced one day when I was browsing for an impulse buy. No regrets: a fun, accessible space opera, the first of a series, featuring engaging alien masterminds, bonkers human cultures, an interesting and sympathetic heroine, and a narrative that increases the scale of the action and concepts as it goes along. I’ll be giving part 2 a try at some point (which I guess = job done, competitive pricing).

And here’s an oddity, which I include to illustrate the randomness of some of my interests. River Monsters, by Jeremy Wade. The book of the TV series, in which Mr. Wade goes to remote places and catches large, dangerous freshwater fish. I’m a long-standing fan of the TV version. It combines lots of my interests – wildlife, unusual travel, fishing (yes, believe it or not I used to go fishing now and again in my youth, but no longer) – and I find both the TV and the book refreshingly different and novel, compared to most natural history stuff.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve heard of a lot more animals than most folks (being a naturalist/conservationist by inclination, education and past employment) but even I’d never heard of a Goliath tigerfish until Mr. Wade introduced me to it; and if you’ve not seen it’s teeth, well … check them out. Most surprisingly interesting bit of the River Monsters book, in a way, is the stuff about Jeremy Wade himself. Guy has issues – it’s not only aquatic monsters he has to deal with – and he’s pretty frank about discussing them.

On to the watching.

We’re experimenting with Netflix UK in the Ruckley household. As far as I can tell, the selection of stuff available on Netflix UK kind of sucks compared to what’s evidently available on the US service. But it’s easy and convenient and efficient and there’s still quite a lot of stuff on there. It’s meant I’ve watched more movies in the last month or so than in the preceding three or four at least.

For example: I re-watched Thor (the first one) and Captain America. That firmed up my initial impression: I much prefer Thor as a movie and a spectacle. Did reinvigorate my interest in seeing the imminent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Hot tip here, if you haven’t already heard: there’s rumours floating around the internet, from people who should know roughly what they’re talking about, that Winter Soldier is going to be something a little bit special. As in, seriously good film. Wouldn’t surprise me, because I really, really liked the trailer.

I also re-watched, after years, Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Palmer film. Michael Caine doing much darker, grimier, more realistic version of James Bond. They made three of these films back in the 60s (and crappy sequels much later, which are best ignored), and I like them all. Caine does tremendously under-stated yet magically charismatic and kind of sexy stuff here, working with a nice script. They just don’t make films like they used to, do they? You should check them out, if the idea of the young Michael Caine doing this kind of thing appeals:

And I watched, for the first time, Battle Royale. Holy cow. That, let me tell you, is … different. Difficult to explain just how fascinating I find it, beyond saying that just as I’m captivated by the strange things manga offers that Western comics don’t, so Battle Royale is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any US/European production. The sensibility, the preoccupations, the humour, the hyper-acting. The wonderful composition of some of the images. The bonkers violence. It’s kind of unique, and feels very, very Japanese. Extraordinary. Not sure what else I can say about it, really.

Oh, I know what else I could say: It’s crying out to be watched in a double bill with Lord of the Flies.

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Saga of the Exiles

I found out the other day, entirely by accident, that Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles is out (in the UK – not in the US, I think) in new editions.  Not before time, if you ask me.

I adored – I don’t think that’s too strong a word, but it was a long time ago so who knows? – this series when I was a teenager.  I definitely really, really liked it.  It’s many years since I read it, so I can’t be 100% certain what I’d make of it now, but for the sake of argument let’s take the word of the young me: it’s great.

I confess, I don’t like the new covers – that dark, fiery one at the top – nearly as much as the elegant original ones I bought way back when (that blueish one down below).  Something about the new ones looks a bit … I dunno, generic?  Uninformative?  Those old covers had a hint of class and exoticism and teasing fascination about them, I thought.

Anyway, leave that aside.  The contents are what matters, right?

In the 22nd century, we invent time travel.  Hooray!  Unfortunately, it basically consists of a strictly one-way gate back to Earth’s Pliocene era, six million years ago.  Not so Hooray.  There are those willing to take a one-way trip to the distant past, though, so a steady trickle of adventurers and eccentrics begins to flow back into prehistory.  The four book series recounts the strange and complicated tale of what they find there and the dramatic effects their arrival has.

Not to spoil any surprises (since it’s spoiled in most descriptions of the books online), but it turns out that the Pliocene world awaiting them is not the uninhabited wilderness they expected.  Instead, it’s a battleground between two warring alien races – exiles of a sort themselves – who welcome new human arrivals from the 22nd century as, essentially, slaves and servants.  What follows from that initial revelation is a grand adventure that mixes epic fantasy and science fiction with tremendous success.

I probably would have liked the series just fine for its exotic setting, fun premise and the drama of aliens contesting the rule of prehistoric Europe.  But what Julian May does is to expand and complicate what might have been a relatively simple narrative by making the humans – who they are, why they’ve come back to the past, and what ‘issues’ they’ve brought back with them – much, much more central to the overall plot than at first appears to be the case.  By the time things really get going – on a genuinely epic scale – prodiguously powerful heroes, heroines and villains are wreaking havoc and threatening cataclysm.  It all feels increasingly like a tale of flawed demi-gods acting out roles from deep myth.

Which in a way it is, because much of what’s going on is based on real-world Celtic mythology.  Races, heroes and weapons are all science fictional stand-ins for their equivalents in the mythological history of the British Isles, especially Ireland.  That May makes it all work, fantasy and science fiction running perfectly happily alongside one another, is no small achievement.

(Although I would say, based on my admittedly imperfect memories, that in truth, at root, it’s functionally a fantasy series. The conceits – like the time gateway, and various other elements that show up – might be science fictional, but in style and tone and plot structures it’s more like a modern epic fantasy than anything else. Maybe space opera, I suppose. Doesn’t really matter. It is it’s own distinctive self.)

I’d highly recommend you give this a try, if you haven’t already. In terms of sheer entertainment and immersion, it was one of the highlights of my early genre reading.  In fact, thinking back, I’m pretty sure Saga of the Exiles was one of just two key series that enabled me to make the transition from childhood love of Lord of the Rings to an enduring affection for more modern epic fantasy (the other series was the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, unsurprisingly). 

Those two – the Saga and the Chronicles – were the books I found back then that really satisfyingly answered the question the young me was unconsciously asking: ‘LotR was great, but what’s being published now that’s the same, and good, but different?’  Without Julian May and Stephen Donaldson, who knows?  I might never have made the jump to long-term genre fan. Never underestimate the potential influence of the right book, encountered at the right time.

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Three years ago, almost to the day, I posted here about my favourite extinct animal.  There’s a tiny, tiny chance it’s not in fact extinct, which is why it’s the focus of ongoing cryptozoological hope.

The romantic appeal of the thylacine, for me, is founded on two things.  One, that haunting film of what was quite possibly the very last surviving individual of the species; living out its final, humbled days in a zoo after every other example of its kind had been hounded into non-existence by us humans:

Two, the notion – fostered by numerous and continuing, if not very convincing, sighting reports – that there are still thylacines out there in the wilds of Tasmania. Clinging to a secret existence. I don’t really believe it, but I want to.

All of which brings me to this movie, which has apparently been out on dvd for a while but which I didn’t even know existed until I stumbled across the trailer:

It looks kind of appealing: moody, atmospheric, nice landscapes. It’s got a 70% score on rotten tomatoes, which suggests it might be worth a watch. (Don’t suppose by any remote chance anyone’s seen it and can tell me whether it’s worth renting?)

The reason I was so interested to discover the movie, though, is that a few years back I read the book on which it’s based.  I can’t speak to the quality of the film, but the book … I loved it.  Wonderful.

I don’t read all that much mainstream, literary fiction these days, but The Hunter by Julia Leigh is high on my list of personal favourite novels of that sort, certainly those I’ve read in the last decade. It’s hypnotically simple, sparse, bleak and compelling. It helps, of course, if you’re into wilderness and wild animals – for long stretches it’s about one man, alone in the mountains, on the trail of the rarest animal in the world – but it’s principally about people.

When I read it, I was overwhlemingly reminded of Ernest Hemingway by the simplicity and clarity of the prose. I found it much more absorbing and subtly complex than anything of Hemingway’s I’ve read, though. (Except perhaps The Old Man and the Sea). It’s utterly unlike the vast majority of mainstream fictions. I suppose you could even make a case for it being speculative fiction of a sort, since it is built around a counterfactual assumption: that the thylacine is not in fact extinct.

Either way, I’d highly recommend it, for anyone who wants to see how thematically and atmospherically rich a tapestry a skilled author can weave, in relatively few pages, from simple words.  Like I said, it’s wonderful if you ask me.  Julia Leigh, as best I can tell, has only written one other book since – one that hasn’t received the same acclaim – but honestly, if I’d written The Hunter, I’d be happy to rest on those laurels.  It’s that good.

If you only read one mainstream novel in 2013, I suggest you make it this one.  It’s short, so even if you don’t like it, what have you got to lose?  I’ve already decided one of my New Year’s resolutions – my only one, in all likelihood, because I don’t really believe in them – is to re-read it.

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Five Mount Rushmores

Someone did the Mount Rushmore thing on a podcast I was listening to the other day. You know: pick the four people you would install on your own personal Rushmore if you were carving it to recognise importance in X field. I’ve always quite liked it as a parlour game/meme. So, while staring vacantly into space, or whatever other important writerly task I was carrying out the other day, I idly started musing about my own personal Mount Rushmores. Not just people, though. Books, films, etc. Which I know is impractical, given the difficulties and indeed tediousness of carving 60ft book likenesses into a cliff, but hey ho. It’s just a bit of fun.

A bit of fun I spent far more time than is sensible musing about, mind you. Thing is, these are not necessarily my favourite items from each category (though a lot of them are), let alone the ‘best’. They’re the things that came to mind when I thought: ‘You’re going to memoralise this is gargantuan stone effigy, as an exemplar of its kind. What you going to choose?’ That, it turns out, is ever so slightly, subtly different from favourite, best, ultimate, whatever other superlative you care to apply. I don’t quite how or why it’s different, but it is.  It’s got something to do with being representative of the high points in my personal experience of whatever category is under consideration.  I think.  Maybe.

I do know, as is traditional with this kind of thing, that if you asked me again next week, I’d likely have a whole different set of answers.

Mount SF Books Rushmore

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Not sure definining this as sf is really accurate or informative, but let’s call it that for the sake of argument.

Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller.  There’s something about this book – something I can’t quite put my finger on – that’s captivated me ever since I first read it long, long ago.

Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. More than one book, technically. But my games, my rule-bending.  A crazy ride, that maybe tails off a little bit towards the end, but when I first read it it felt entertaining, wild, inventive in a way none of my other sf reading had for some time.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Arguably the first true sf novel. Arguably still the best. Genius. Nuff said.

Mount Books in General Rushmore

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  I do like a bit of old Russian novelising, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re into it doesn’t get much better than this.  (Though let’s be honest, Crime and Punishment is also rather good).

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.  Short, sharp, to-the-point and very nicely written.  Me like.

Frankenstein by you-know-who.  So good it gets onto two Mount Rushmores.  Nuff said.  Again.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  A close call, but this sneaked in ahead of various other possibilities, by virtue of being short, sharp, to-the-point and very nicely written.  Which I’ve heard somewhere before, I think?  But it also has the merit of being self-evidently ‘important’, saying something potentially profound, while being not only enormously accessible and straightforward but also not at all self-important or too-clever-by-half.

Mount Films Rushmore

Seven Samurai.  Beautiful to look at, thematically rich, laden with atmosphere.

The Godfather. Part I or II, as you like; in fact, both together. Let us not speak of anything subsequent to that.

Bladerunner.  As good as SF cinema ever got; at least I can’t think of anything better off the top of my head.  The plot and acting are all fine, but of course it’s the design and mood that really sticks.

The Graduate? Maybe? I dunno. First three came pretty easily, to be honest, but number four’s a bit harder to pin down. I really like The Hustler. Heck, there’re undoubtedly dozens and dozens of films that I like almost as much as, or more than, The Graduate but I’m blanking on them at the moment.  So The Graduate it is.  Nice music.

Mount Countries Rushmore

I’ve no idea why I would want to put countries up on a Mount Rushmore.  It just popped into my head while I was thinking about other stuff.  I’ve no idea what the criteria are: I think it’s just the places that are lodged, affectionately or impressively, in my memory.

Scotland.  Obviously.

United States of America.  I’m a USAphile.

Malaysia.  I like Indonesia too, but Malaysia gets the nod just because I’ve been there more than once.  That whole part of the world is just astonishing, from a culture, energy, culinary, wildlife, etc etc point of view.

Chile.  I’ve only seen a small bit of Chile (apart from the capital), but it was a good bit: the south.  Wild landscapes unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else.  And by all acounts the rest of the country is astonishing too.  I liked it quite a bit.

Mount TV Series Rushmore

The Wire.  No contest.  Best TV series ever made.  I haven’t even seen all of it, and I know that much.  Debate neither necessary nor permitted.

And you know what?  After The Wire, I couldn’t think of a single other series that I’d obviously put up there.  That’s ridiculous, because I’m sure there’ve been other series that I completely adored at the time of watching, but I honestly can’t think of a single one that’s an obvious candidate for sculptural immortality.  I do know none of them are as good as The Wire, though, so I guess it’s OK; my TV Rushmore has but one carving upon it, but it’s a good one …

A mere four days late, it’s time for … Moving Pictures on a Friday, on a Tuesday.  No point in being overly literal about these categories, I say; go with the flow.

A friend of mine was a point of light in this rather crowd-sourced performance, called Speed of Light, during the recent Edinburgh festival.  It’s a fun show, made by the context: a big dark hill, with an illuminated Edinburgh as the backdrop.  Especially cool: the point just over a minute in when fireworks start erupting from the Castle (a fortuitous part of an entirely unrelated show):

And in other news: if, a couple of weeks ago, you had asked me whether I had read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I would have unhesitatingly, confidently said ‘Yes. Liked it quite a bit. Literary fiction with an SF spin. Jolly good.’ Then I saw this trailer, and I was befuddled:

It looks like a pretty interesting, ambitious, thoughtful bit of sf movie-making. And it bears almost no relation to my memories of the book I thought I had read. Now, those memories are decidedly vague, more to do with the overall tone and feel of the book than its details, but even so it’s amazing how little overlap there is between them and the content of the trailer.

What am I to make of this?  Have the film-makers produced what you might call a ‘loose’ adaptation, working some kind of transformation on the source material?  Have the trailer-makers gone nuts and cut together a completely misleading (though really quite interesting) advert for the film?  Or, as seems more likely, is the problem at my end?

I guess it’s possible that I got completely the wrong end of the stick about the book when I read it, and consequently have an accurate memory of a completely inaccurate impression of it.  I don’t think that’s the answer.  It’s also possible I’m an idiot, and have never actually read Cloud Atlas.  Maybe I saw it at the time and thought ‘I really should read that’, and the progressive degradation of my brain has somehow convinced that I did in fact read it, and enjoy it, and formed an opinion about it.  Yikes.  I wish I could be absolutely certain that’s not the answer … but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Most likely, though, seems that I’ve forgotten far more than I would have thought plausible about a book I have indeed read, and enjoyed.  That seems a pity, if true.  Has my head space reached saturation point, where stuff – even stuff that’s worth remembering – is getting squeezed out to make way for new stuff?  It’s not just book-reading, but experience in general: if something has given me pleasure, I want to be able to remember it.  Is an unremembered pleasure worth as much as a remembered one?  Does it even exist, as an experience, if I’ve forgotten or misremembered it?  Memory.  It’s not a simple thing.

Anyway.  Cloud Atlas.  Good book.  I recommend it, to anyone who likes literary fiction with an SF spin.  At least I think I do.  Not really sure.

I discovered a couple of interesting things from a recent episode of the often interesting Coode Street Podcast.  Both of those things relate to one man; a man of some significance in my childhood.  Alan Garner.  The wonderful Alan Garner, I’m tempted to say.

A step back.  Four authors – setting aside Tolkein for now, who rather goes without saying  – four authors whose  fantastical works made a lasting impression on me as a young child: Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, C S Lewis, and Alan Garner.  All of them hitting some sort of sweet spot in my open, pliable child’s mind; immersing me utterly in their magical worlds.  Setting me on a path, perhaps, that I’ve never strayed too far from as the (too many!) years have passed.

Of those four, Cooper and Garner probably left the most indelible imaginative mark upon me.  I remember vividly not so much every detail of their books – it’s many, many years since I read them, after all – but the experience of reading them.  It was a powerful, transporting, absorbing experience of the sort that becomes progressively rarer, at least as far as reading is concerned, as we age.  Those two in particular, I think, because the fantasies they wove were located and entirely, richly rooted in the landscapes and myths of the land I was growing up in.

I don’t know, because I don’t really read them, but I wonder if the children’s and YA fantasies of today encourage children to see the world around them – not an imagined, impossible world, but the one right there, outside their window – with new eyes, to think about it in new ways, to populate it, in their own imaginations, with stories of wonder, of possibility, of magic.  To look outward, and deeper; see, with the mind’s eye, beneath the surface.  As Alan Garner did for me, way back then.

I wouldn’t have articulated or understood it this way at the time, but he was one of the first to introduce me to the idea that the world in which I lived could be seen as the abode of myth and magic, of deep story and deep time.  That is a gift worth the giving.

He gave it to me most potently in the form of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.  The latter is a direct sequel to the former, but to the young me seemed decidedly, and interestingly, darker and more menacing.  Together, they must be amongst the most important and influential children’s fantasies ever written; they’re certainly amongst the best, if you ask me.  Then, when I was a only a little older, he showed subtler, more troublingly real kinds of magic and myth to me, in The Owl Service and Red Shift, which I guess nowadays would be called YA, but are perfectly suitable for not-so-young adults too.

All of which is by way of explaining why I found the two things I heard interesting.

First up, Alan Garner is getting a 2012 Life Achievement World Fantasy Award.  Seems like an eminently good idea to me.

Second up, and this surprised me a good deal more: a third and final book in the (as it turns out) trilogy started with Weirdstone of Brisingamen is being published in just a month or so.  It’s called Boneland.  Wow.  Its two predecessors were published over forty years ago!  I’m utterly fascinated, because I find it difficult to imagine him writing in quite the same style and voice, or with quite the same sensibility, after so many years and in such a changed world.  But who knows?

Either way, it might make now a good time to give a gift to any children you know, as Alan Garner – and my parents, who no doubt bought me the book – did for me all those years ago.  Let them try The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  You never know, it might change their minds.  In a good way.

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As previously noted, I’ve developed a minor fixation with finding interesting, good value stuff lurking in the recesses of the Kindle store since I acquired the e-reading habit.

Here’s an update on recent discoveries.  As before, these are treasures found in the UK Kindle store, which may or may not be similarly keenly-priced in the US (but probably are, I’d guess).

Having read and enjoyed Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, I grabbed his Hardwired for a fairly modest £3.25.  It’s a cyberpunkish novel from 1986, and it’s good fun.  Didn’t wow me quite as much as Aristoi, but well worth the read.  The basic set-up, of a rather anarchic, balkanised Earth left behind by the all-powerful corporations who have relocated into orbit, is very strong, and a lot of the action sequences are done well.  Recommended.

Shadow Unit (currently a mere £0.72 for the first volume, rising to less than £2 for subsequent instalments) is utterly fascinating, and something that could only really be done through digital publishing, I suspect.  A team of authors, led by Emma Bull and in the first volume including Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, got together to produce tales of an elite team of FBI detectives who work on paranormal cases.  It’s a deliberate, meticulous attempt to reproduce the effect of a TV series in prose, and I was downright startled by how successful it is in that.  It borrows its structure and tropes straight from serialised crime drama, and is so absurdly perfect in mimicing the tone and feel that it’s almost disorientating.  Very, very clever.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online short story magazine, and probably my favourite source of podcast fantasy fiction.  Although the stories are enormously varied, it’s got a definite house style: high quality prose telling tales that are set in imaginary worlds and have definite beginning, middle and ends.  No ‘mood’ or snapshot pieces, on the whole; just well-told, imaginative stories in which stuff happens.  So although I haven’t read them all, I feel pretty confident in predicting that The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One, which contains fourteen stories for just £1.53, will be a safe purchase offering excellent value.

Leaving speculative fiction behind, here’s an example of the kind of thing I would never have stumbled across but for the advent of e-reading. Crossfire: An Australian Reconnaissance Unit in Vietnam is currently priced at £1.79, and worth checking out for anyone interested in getting another, subtly different angle on that whole messy war.  It’s main focus is on the experiences of a young man who had the misfortune to spend a lot of time, along with a small, tight-knit group of colleagues, doing advance reconnaissance in southern Vietnam.  The writing is competent, if unremarkable, and there’s not much that’s really revelatory, but it’s quite effective in conveying the day-to-day horrors and tedium of that kind of combat.  I was particularly struck by the horrific effect, both phsycial and psychological, of the ubiquitous mines and booby traps, which was eerily reminiscent of more recent and equally messy conflicts.

And finally, a freebie.  For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you can get South, the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica, written by the man himself.  Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say things go fairly spectacularly wrong for the expedition, and it becomes a tale of understated but nonetheless astonishing endurance and survival.  Adventuring and heroism from a bygone age.


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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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