Monthly Archives: January 2012

New story: War 3.01

Lightspeed, February 2012My latest short story, “War 3.01” is now available in the February issue of the excellent Lightspeed.

This one’s set in the same social-media-saturated near-future as “LikeMe”, which was published in international science journal Nature in December 2010, and it’s a setting that continues to fascinate me. It’s a world where social media has saturated the real world, via augmented reality: everywhere you look, you’re bombarded by messages, alerts, extra information; everyone you meet is accompanied by compatibility ratings and other social data. We might talk about digital natives now, but in this future the digital native generation are the backward ones, falling out of step: this is the time of the ultradigital natives. Indeed, the thought of what this world might be like for a youngster growing up is one of the things that appeals to me, and my next young-adult novel may well be set in a future very like this one. That’s one of the things I love about writing: the way we can keep digging away and exploring in story after story.

Aside: when my first professionally published story appeared, back in 1989, my name appeared on the contents list alongside JG Ballard. In this issue of Lightspeed, I’m listed alongside Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Gregory Benford. Even after all these years I’m still a bit of a fanboy.

Guest post: Worldbuilding… what’s not to like? by Richard Ford

Okay, I confess: I hate worldbuilding! Do I think a map is important in a fantasy novel? No, not really. Should a writer develop their own version of Elvish? Don’t be daft!

Now, before you leap straight to the comments at the bottom in a flurry of righteous indignation to demand how I can claim to be a fantasy writer without a deep and abiding love for all things ‘backgroundy’, let me explain.

Firstly, it’s not that I can’t do worldbuilding, it’s just that other people do it so much better. Having worked in the pen & paper RPG industry for several years, I’ve come across a lot of games with rich, lush backgrounds, created over decades by scores of contributors. How am I meant to compete?

The world of Faerun, in which the Forgotten Realms RPG supplements, computer games and novels are set, was originally devised by Ed Greenwood, but since then he has passed on the mantle to other creators who have gone on to develop its rich history, cultures and cataclysmic events, spanning centuries. Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man was first developed 25 years ago, but has since evolved into a behemoth of a background with scores of codices, computer games and over a hundred novels filling the gaps in the vastness of its space. One of the earliest RPG backgrounds was RuneQuest’s Glorantha, which has had not one, not two, but three ages. Count them! And trust me, I’ve worked on some Glorantha products and may well have let slip some continuity errors. Trust me when I say, the long time fans weren’t happy, but in my defence there’s a hell of a lot to know if you’re new to it.

And it’s not just RPGs. Star Wars now goes beyond the limits of the movies, crafting an intricate Expanded Universe which tells its tales across various media and in various timelines that cover thousands of years. These new stories from dozens of contributors are arguably as deep and abiding as the tales of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, to which anyone who’s ever played computer games in the Old Republic, or read the novels and comics that continue the background well beyond Return of the Jedi, will attest.

Skyrim, the latest Elder Scrolls computer game (number V, I believe) is the latest set in a world that continues to grow and expand as much, if not more, than any novel series or pen & paper RPG you might delve into.

But other novelists manage to build convincing worlds, I hear you cry, you’re clearly just a lazy git.

Well, that’s one explanation, yes. And you’re correct, other novelists do create their own living breathing worlds. Tolkien, the granddaddy of fantasy himself, as well as writing detailed appendices for his seminal works completed a twelve-volume history of Middle Earth (albeit released posthumously) as well as the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and more. George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is as close to a historical novel as you’ll get in the fantasy genre, and Brandon Sanderson has been developing the background for his Stormlight Archive series, starting with the doorstep-sized The Way of Kings (which to my shame I haven’t yet read, but it’s on the list) for the past ten years. Even Joe Abercrombie, who professes to spend little time on background, has still managed to craft a nuanced setting with an ancient and mysterious history.

So your books have no background? No world for us to dive into a swim around, all the while appreciating your worldbuildy unctuousness?

Well, not exactly.

As a fantasy writer you’ve got to at least develop a cursory background, even if your world is just a mirror for the one we live in. My first novel Kultus is set in the steam-powered metropolis of the Manufactory, although there is a world beyond its walls. With steampunk you’ve already got some recognisable aspects, some tropes that are familiar to the reader and some technological aspects that are at least similar to our own. Still, I think I’ve at least created a living world, even if I haven’t laid it out for the reader like a smorgasbord of historical events.

With epic fantasy on the other hand, which generally takes place in a medieval era of technology, you do have to develop a deep history, magic system, economy, etc. And here lies my problem – I’m currently writing a stonking great trilogy of the most epic of epic fantasies!

So what are you going to do? It’s going to be terrible! A shallow two-dimensional shell of a series!

Piffle and tosh I say!

It’s not just that other people do it so much better, that I’m not ready to flagellate myself for my lack of worldbuilding proficiency. At the end of the day books are about characters! Contrary to what you might have heard, characters are the foundations around which a novel is written. In fact they’re more than the foundations, they’re the bricks and mortar. Maybe even the roof too.

Background is merely window dressing, it’s the context within which you’ve created the book, but it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all. You can have a great novel with poor worldbuilding as long as the characters are living breathing people who leap out of the page and grab you, pulling you into their adventures and making you care for them. A world can be as rich and detailed as you like, but if the characters are two-dimensional, if you couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they live or die, the novel is ultimately doomed!

Saying all this (and at the risk of contradicting myself) the best novels in the genre are the ones which combine a strong, developed, fictional universe with strong, developed characters. And in many ways, these two things work hand-in-hand.

From my own experiences I’ve found that a world will develop organically around your characters and plot – which should always come first. When you’ve got a character who’s lived a life (at least in your head) you need to know where he’s been, what he’s done and who he’s done it with. That’s not to say you need to know the thousand year history of your world, but at least an idea of your characters’ experiences is crucial to building their depth.

So will I be developing the world for my epic fantasy? Will I be building its cultures and races and cosmology? You bet your britches I will. But I probably won’t beat myself up if I haven’t detailed who the king’s great, great grandfather was or what his capital city was called a thousand years ago. These are things that can be firmed up during the writing, and if the reader doesn’t need to know, then I don’t have to tell them. All they need to know about is the characters, and they should want to follow them through the story.

Oh, and they need to love them too… or at least love to hate them!

Richard Ford’s Kultus was published in October 2011, and is available from:

Not a resolution

I don’t do new year resolutions.

If something’s worth doing, or worth changing, I don’t see the point in waiting until an artificial, annual point in the calendar. I do it now, or as soon as is practical. Why wait?

So this isn’t a new year’s resolution post.

The start of a year does trigger that whole looking-back / looking-forward thing, though, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

For me, 2011 was a productive writing and publishing year. I got back into writing short fiction, with a story in Postscripts and another one sold and due soon in Lightspeed. I want to do more short fiction, and have plans for the coming months.

I delivered two books in 2011.

Next year’s novel, alt.human, was mailed to Solaris on 30 December, a whole day ahead of deadline. Like my Postscripts story, this is a broad-canvas core-SF story crammed with aliens, a topic I’ve steered clear of for years – largely because I’ve rarely been able to take them seriously enough for the duration of a story. Not that I don’t believe in aliens; it’s more that I struggle with portrayals of the alien – they’re either men in funny suits and therefore not aliens at all, or they’re a genuine attempt to portray other and therefore hard to engage with in a story. alt.human is my attempt to address these problems while still writing a story very closely tied to a small group of people – it’s a human story of the alien, I guess. Oh yes: it’s my take on the Fermi paradox, too.

The other book I delivered was the non-fiction Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the sub-genres of science fiction. All the loose ends on this one were finally tied up in December, and it’s due out in a few weeks. It is pretty much what the the title suggests: an overview of a dozen SF sub-genres, each chapter written by an author associated with that field. So we have Kris Rusch on alternate histories, Jim Kelly on cyberpunk and what followed, Al Reynolds on space opera, and so on. The book has a great line-up, and it was a lovely thing to put together.

Looking forward, I’ve hit that point where, having just delivered two big books, I’m trying to work out what comes next.

One of the big successes of 2011 was the infinity plus e-publishing venture, with around 20,000 volumes downloaded in our first year. This will continue to keep me busy into 2012. We have some great stuff coming up, including Iain Rowan’s debut crime novel, a new Eric Brown collection, more short books in the singles series and more.

In terms of writing, I’m always busy. I’m planning to write another Nick Gifford YA novel this year, and that may be my next major project. I have plans for another big aliens novel, based on my Postscripts story; I need to start outlining that one so I can put together a proposal. And I’ve written a couple of near-future stories based on extrapolations of social media and augmented realities. The first of these was published in the top science journal Nature in late 2011; the second is the story due in Lightspeed. The plan is to write a bunch of these stories that will come together in a kind of mosaic of snapshots of a fragmented, very fluid future. It probably won’t be a full novel, so of course will be a difficult book to place commercially. I might publish it through infinity plus – e-publishing lends itself to these more niche, unconventional items; or I might look for someone else to do it. We’ll see: it’s the kind of project I prefer to let take shape at its own pace, and it could easily change drastically in nature over coming months.

So already I have lots of plans and possibilities. Some of them will happen, some will change, some will be deferred as new projects emerge. That’s one of the things I love about writing, and one of the things I hate. I love following opportunities and inspirations, even as I end up frustrated at all the stories that never get written.

So really, resolutions are a bit pointless for me. The only new year resolution I can realistically make is the same one I always make: I’ll do what I can to ensure that this will be another busy and interesting year! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Old man’s disease

So it’s official… it’s been medically confirmed: I’m getting old. And I’m a bit of a lush.

No surprise to many, I know.

After blood tests this week it’s been confirmed that the pain I’ve had in my foot is gout. My doctor’s first reaction was that I shouldn’t have gout at my age: it’s an old man’s disease. And despite the intense pain (I’ve read medical papers that describe it as one of the most painful forms of arthritis, and comparing the pain to that of breaking a major bone), it’s still something of a joke disease: something a soap opera or sitcom grandad mumbles about from the corner of the living room.

So I’m sitting in the corner of the living room, mumbling about it. Gout.

It’s often a genetic thing, but I don’t think it’s in my family. It’s often an age thing, but I’m not that old! It’s often associated with things like diabetes, but that doesn’t seem to apply either. It’s often related to being overweight, but even though I put on a stone after I did my marathon last May, I’m not really that chubby.

Two remaining causes do apply, though. I tend to eat a pretty rich diet, and I drink. I don’t get slaughtered every night, but I do drink far more than I should. I like it, though. I like a good bottle of wine; I love those evenings when you get a bunch of different single malts out and have a glass of each, savouring the differences between each one. I love real ale, although I shouldn’t really drink it as I’m gluten-intolerant.

And that phrase is going to crop up more and more: “I shouldn’t really…”

I need to cut down on the booze. I need to eat more healthily (I don’t eat junk food – I eat good food, but I just need to eat some different good food); and I need to cut down drastically on some foods altogether. I need to get back on track with my exercise, too, which I dropped drastically last summer when post-marathon slump coincided with having to work ridiculous hours in my day-job.

Lifestyle changes, they call it.

Diagnosis is good: undiagnosed and untreated, gout can be associated with all kinds of nasty problems with kidneys, liver, joints and so on. Now it’s a known quantity. And I feel vaguely reassured that the pain in my foot is actually as bad as it feels (remember that comparison with a major bone-break? I get that every day at the moment).

So really: it’s not an old man’s disease. It’s not a comedy condition.

It’s real, and it’s bloody sore, and I need to do something about it.

Lifestyle changes.

Yes, I’m still trying to convince myself, but at least it’s a start. Just no tittering at the back there, okay?

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