Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Greatest Game of All – a story of love and test-tubes by Keith Brooke

The Greatest Game of All by Keith BrookeJust published: a standalone ebook edition of one of my favourite back-list stories, “The Greatest Game of All”. It’s a love story, a near-future drama, an exploration of one man’s insecurities… with test-tubes. The ebook includes an afterword about where the story came from.

At first I believed her in her proclamations of love. I couldn’t believe her when she promised it would last forever, but sometimes I thought Maybe.

Once, when she told me in the throes of orgasm that she would always love me, absently I said, “Will you really?” She looked at me, hurt, eased her grip on me and turned away. Why was she angry? If her words were true she should have reassured me, she should not have been so hurt.

She signed the contract in ’16. She vowed to love me forever and, upon breaching the contract, to relinquish any claim on my property or person, all couched in expensive legalese. I should have been satisfied but I was not. Broken contracts were not unheard of, paper could never seal our bond.

The Greatest Game of All is available from: 

New: Aethernet – the magazine of serial fiction

Aethernet Magazine

Serialised fiction from Tony Ballantyne, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Juliet E McKenna, Philip Palmer, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ian Whates and more. Aethernet, the magazine of serial fiction, launches over the Easter weekend. And yes, I’ll be contributing a four-parter later this year.

Here’s what it says on the Aethernet website:

Aethernet MagazineNowadays, fiction is instantly available. There are many short fiction magazines available for download, you can download a story collection in ebook form and be reading it in under a minute.

Aethernet Magazine aims to satisfy a different need. Aethernet Magazine is aiming to reintroduce the pleasures of delayed gratification. Aethernet Magazine stands for the slow burn, the building excitement of waiting to see how a story plays out. We want to reintroduce the pleasure of the cliffhanger ending; the gradual reveal on lives building up to a bigger picture; the leisurely float down the river leading to some mysterious destination.

Our stories are presented over time. Aethernet Magazine is here to help you rediscover the pleasure of anticipation…

Aethernet Magazine will run for 12 issues. The first issue will go on sale on 30th March 2013, subsequent issues will be on sale on the first of the month from May 2013 onwards. Aethernet Magazine will be published as an ebook in mobi, epub and pdf formats.

Find out more:

Battle of the books

It’s not often you come across a new and interesting way to explore books, and for all I know this has been done before elsewhere, but the Fantastic Reviews blog’s Battle of the Books is fascinating.

The premise is this: take 16 books, pair them up, and then for each pair read the first 25 pages; out of that pair the winner is the book the reviewer most wants to continue reading at that point. In the next round we’re down to four pairs and the cut-off point is 50 pages; then in the semi-finals the cut-off is at 100 pages; and finally the last two standing are judged overall.
Harmony by Keith BrookeAt first sight this is a bit of fun, lifting a game-show format and applying it to reviewing. But the reality is far more than that. For the successful books you have a step-by-step extended review, picking out various aspects of a book as they emerge, giving a wonderful insight into the reading of that book as it unfolds, rather than a review written with hindsight. It also provides a very interesting angle for each review; in the most recent entry, for example, my own Harmony (as published in North America; UK title alt.human) is up against China Miéville’s Railsea. Naturally enough, the focus is on how the two books portray the weird and, as the reviewer says, nobody does weird better than China. Earlier rounds have focused on the reader’s engagement with characters and a book’s sheer unputdownability (that is officially a real word: I just told my spellchecker so).

As a writer this whole process has been fascinating; for the reader it should be equally so, although as with any detailed review there’s the danger of spoilers, particularly in the later stages of the battle.

And as an aside, even after around 25 years as an author, it still surprises me when someone really gets one of my stories. That the reviewer in this contest gets Harmony so well is fantastic; that this comes in the week leading up to the announcement of this year’s Philip K Dick Award winner really brings it home. It’s not so much that I’m suddenly thinking I’m in with a shot (Harmony is one of seven on the shortlist, so I have around a 14% chance), but simply that it’s finally, after all this time, starting to sink through my thick skull that there are people out there – like the team at Fantastic Fiction, like the PKD judges – who really do get what I’m doing.

And that’s kind of cool.
Incidentally, it gives nothing away to be posting this: to reach the semi-final against a writer of China Miéville’s calibre, and for my novel to have received this kind of detailed attention, is pretty damned good, in my reckoning. For the results, and the excellent analysis, you’ll have to go to Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Semifinal :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke.

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New titles by Garry Kilworth, Eric Brown and James Everington due from infinity plus

I’m delighted to announce three new titles due soon in paperback and ebook format from infinity plus.

First up is The Fabulous Beast, a new collection from Garry Kilworth. This includes 18 stories, from Anglo-Saxon tales to fantasy, science fiction and horror, by an author described by Punch as “a master of his trade” and by New Scientist as “arguably the finest writer of short fiction today, in any genre.” Some of the stories in this book also featured in Garry’s ebook-only collection Phoenix Man (no longer available). Already available from infinity plus is Garry’s book of memoirs, On my Way To Samarkand, crammed with anecdotes about his farm worker antecedents and his rovings around the globe, as well as his experiences in the mid-list of many publishing houses.

James Everington‘s Falling Over is a wonderfully gritty and compelling collection of stories that tread the fine line between crime, horror and just downright strange. “Beautifully written, evocative, masterful…what shines through these stories is the author’s love of language” (Red Adept on James’s The Other Room).

And infinity plus stalwart Eric Brown returns with a book of the Salvageman Ed stories, rewritten as a single novel. Previously, we’ve brought out eight of Eric’s books, including early novels such as Meridian Days and Penumbra, his landmark collection The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories, the horror and ghost story collection Ghostwriting (which I think contains some of his best writing), and more.

These titles are due to appear from May to July, 2013.

Sad Songs, With Lots Of Drumming – a guest post by Ian R MacLeod

The White Heather ClubYou have to be of a certain age to remember The White Heather Club. Back in the times when the TV was still in just one room in the house and you had to wait for it to warm up, vague grey shapes sword-dancing to tiddildy-dee music or singing about speeding bonny boats was what passed for light entertainment. Not that there was any choice, but it was a favourite in our family, my father being a typically nostalgic expat Scotsman. The first record that was bought for me (rather than that supposed landmark; the first you buy yourself) was a single of Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier, which I remember enjoying a great deal. I also liked the theme tune to The Lone Ranger, which I didn’t then know was Rossini’s William Tell Overture. That, and Perry Como singing his way through the states of the USA (although I didn’t realise that either) in What Did Della Wear?

It’s easy to groan and try to shut the doors on the embarrassing things we thought we liked before we really knew about music. The novelty records and one hit wonders. But they’re there — they’re part of all our heritage — and their influence remains. My co-ordination is poor to this day, but apparently one of my favourite toddler pursuits was to go into the lounge and bang the poker against the coal scuttle and the fire grate; I’ve always been a frustrated drummer. I think I can still just about remember the noisy pleasure of those sessions, and perhaps that rat-a-tat martial drumming was the appeal of Andy Stewart’s song. That, and the solider dying.

Music was played each day on some big old gramophone as we marched into assembly at infants’ school, and again as we stomped around pretending to be dinosaurs or curled up like the seeds of flowers in something called “Music and Movement”. I have no clear recollection of what the music was, but it was “improving” and classical, and I reckon it may well have included some of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the much more jagged Romeo and Juliet. He’s still a favourite composer. There always did seem to be something about classical music that I found interesting. My next “bought for me” single, actually an EP, came from my elder brother after I’d been to see Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which takes its music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I remember being a bit disappointed as we sat waiting for “the tune”… but also how much I liked the nice lady ballet dancer photographed on the cover. One of my pleasures was to dress up in my sister’s old ballet costume, and pretend to be a fairy. I even went to school dressed that way once or twice when the occasion seemed to demand it. In those days no one seemed to worry about such behaviour.

After that, up through infants’ and on into secondary school, music, and dressing up, took a back seat. I had no great interest in what was becoming the “Top Ten”, but listened as most kids then did to Junior Choice on the BBC Radio’s Light Programme. I enjoyed songs such as The Little White Bull and The Ugly Bug Ball because they told a story, and particularly liked Puff the Magic Dragon, because it ended so sadly — “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…” But my two biggest favourites were Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Great songs by any standard, and both filled with sad yearning. I suspect that this was the first music to make me cry, and to realise what an oddly glorious feeling that was.

A still from SnodgrassMy elder sister, meanwhile, had noticed this group called the Beatles, and I was very happy to dance along with her to the singles she bought and played on our new radiogram that sat in the lounge on the far side of the fireplace from the telly. Jolly, melodic stuff, and Mum and Dad liked the Beatles as well. In fact, everyone seemed to like the Beatles. But that very likeability made me wary. That, or perhaps their songs simply weren’t sad enough, and lacked the right kind of drumming. But I played Rain on the B side of Paperback Writer often, fascinated by the hypnotic way it drawled and jangled. My elder brother’s tastes went in the direction of Harry Secombe and Andy Williams, but there was one track on an LP of his that I also played and played. It was from an “original cast” (i.e. – not the people from the movie) recording of West Side Story, and was called The Rumble — a modern ballet piece, all jagged angles and mis-shaped chords. Then, and now, it struck me as fresh and sharp and brilliant.

School, being school, still involved random bits of exposure to music. We even used to get so-called “music lessons” each week for no reason any of us could understand, least of all the teacher. Still, one day he set about demonstrating the capabilities of his nice new stereo by playing us a surprisingly lengthy piece of classic music. To his credit, he explained how this symphony started sadly because the composer had had to travel to America without his family, and how it might help if we imagined him arriving on a big steamer into New York harbour, and to try to feel his spirits lifting as he sees the city skyline. I thought this was fabulous stuff, a story told in sound. And there was this churning sadness, those slow drums rolling…

A week or so later, I bought my first record with my own money, an LP of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the music was even more fabulous than I remembered. In those carefree days, and I and most of my mates used to go home for lunch from our secondary school. As everyone else was out, I’d take my white bread and mashed banana on a tray into the lounge, turn on the radiogram, and let this music flow around me. This is it, I thought. This is something that I love. The sixties had moved on, and my mates were also buying records of their own. Not classical LPs, but singles from the charts by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and Sonny and Cher. I didn’t have any problem with much of this — I watched Top of the Pops just like everyone else — but at the same time I was happy to tell them that it was all a bit… well, simple.

So there I was, my head in the clouds and following on Dvorak with Holst’s Planet Suite and a compilation called Classical Fireworks which wasn’t quite on the same level. No easy decisions, seeing as LPs cost a lot. I liked being different — I liked liking stuff that other people didn’t know or understand or care about. As the radiogram had to remain in its sacred place in the lounge, I was also regularly inflicting my music on the rest of my family, or being told to turn it down, or evicted so they could watch telly. The Beatles, meanwhile, had gone a bit odd, and my sister seemed to have lost interest in them. Another of my random musical experiences at school was when our geography teacher took it upon himself to play their new LP called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of telling us about towns of the Potteries. I can remember hearing Lennon singing For the Benefit of Mister Kite, and thinking it was strange and wonderful, and like nothing I’d ever heard, least of all She Loves You and those other sugary hits. Not that I bought the record, of course. After all, I only bought classical stuff, didn’t I?

I had the radiogram in the lounge mostly to myself now, as my bother had left to get married and my sister was off at university, and my Dad only had a Black and White Minstrels LP and some Scottish pipes and drums stuff he played at New Year or when he got sentimental. When my sister returned with a boyfriend in tow, they were gracious enough to take me with them to see a film called 2001 A Space Odyssey, and my world was changed. Partly, of course, because of the look of the film, and the mystery of whatever story it was telling, but at least as much because of the music. Not just the iconic stuff by the two Strausses, brilliant though that was, but the other, weirder, pieces. When I played one of my mates some Ligeti from the 2001 soundtrack, I remember him commenting that he would, genuinely, rather listen to Mrs Mills on the piano. Which was great as far as I was concerned. More of this strange and wonderful music left just for me.

But, alarmingly, I found that I now rather liked some of the singles from what was now called the “Top Twenty”. Between buying Richard Strauss tone poems and exploring Karl Nielsen’s symphonies, my secret shame was that I thought some of Deep Purple’s stuff, and Alice Cooper’s, not to mention Cream and the Stones, was actually pretty good. I liked the drumming, and the riffs, and the sense of risk, and the jangling, twisting melodies. And then there was David Bowie. Not because of the way he dressed — my own dressing-up days were behind me — but because of the music. I particularly loved Life on Mars, with its soaring wistfulness, and Space Odyssey, because of Major Tom dying.

Maybe this pop and rock thing had something going for it after all. Not the stuff you heard all the time on daytime Radio One, of course, but by now I was listening to John Peel as I played with my Airfix soldiers on Sunday afternoons, and enjoying a new, different, sense of exclusivity. I never bought singles, but the first rock LP I bought was Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The classical link was obvious, but at least as important was that it came in Island’s cheaper Help series instead of at full price. That, and the cool gatefold cover. But it was great, and I absorbed it with the same edge-of-the-seat enthusiasm I’d had for Dvorak, Richard Strauss and Ligeti. I loved the shrieking, atonal bits where Keith Emerson attacked his keyboard. And then there was the drumming…

Ah! Drumming. It wasn’t something you got much of in classical music. Even Holst’s Mars doesn’t have the same propulsion as Karl Palmer at full tilt. My next LP, and the first live act I saw, was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Drumming aplenty there, and brilliant solo playing. One of my favourite live musical memories is of John McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty trading fours (although I didn’t then know what it was called) on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon. That, and Michael Walden’s thirty minute drum solo. For a long while after that, by now a sixth-former, then a college student, I bought complex jazz-edged rock music, often with very little singing. This was the era of prog rock, and there was plenty of this stuff to go around, although to my mind, as ever a musical snob, a lot of it was still a bit simple-minded. The Floyd, for example, who I liked for a while, at least until the NME laid into them for being lazily commercial. Not to mention Genesis. And as for Supertramp… Actually, I secretly loved my tape of a friend’s Crime of the Century because it was such a sad album.

From here on in, it probably all gets much more predictable. Step forward Henry Cow. Step forward Keith Jarrett and pretty much anything on the ECM label. That, and Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell, along with a slow return to the classical stuff I’d always loved, especially the great, sad, romantic composers, combined with all the folk, ambient and avant guard music I began listening to. Thanks in major part to Richard and Linda Thompson’s brilliantly pessimistic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which starts with a song about suicide and ends with the fabulously bleak The Great Valerio, I finally realised that there was elegance and profundity in seemingly simple music. But probably the last great aha moment in my musical life came when I purchased, for no exact reason I can now remember, a copy of King Crimson’s Red. I already had In the Court of the Crimson King, but, if you discount the great cover and Twenty First Century Schizoid Man, that’s a surprisingly quiet album. I took Red from its sleeve, opened up the record player, which still sat in my parents’ lounge opposite the telly, and played it, and played it, and played it, and played it. Again. And again. I could play it now. In fact, I will…

The prowling thunder of the title track. The jagged, free-form of Providence. Above all, the churning mellotron chords which begin Starless, with that yearning guitar theme and those bleak lyrics about grey hope and sunsets that quitens to a riff which builds over clashing drums until the main theme returns in a howl of saxophones. Complex, intelligent music, played with a ferocious mixture of joy, anger and passion. Maybe it helped that Fripp and his band were imploding. Who knows? To me this is still, and always will be, earth-shatteringly brilliant. I could cry. I am crying. It all seems a very long way from Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier. But then, I always did like sad songs, with lots of drumming.

Guest post by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod’s “Snodgrass”, a story telling the life of a John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living in Birmingham and working for a while in the civil service will be shown in the UK on Sky Playhouse on 25 April.

Open Road Media will shortly be publishing all of Ian’s novels as e-books. They’re starting with a “Best Of” collection of short stories called Snodgrass and Other Illusions, featuring some favourites from his whole career, a few rarities, and individual afterwords.

For all the latest news visit Ian R MacLeod’s website.


Reviews and the fragile ego

Some of my writing friends tell me they ignore reviews. I even believe some of them.

But how can you not be interested in what readers have to say? Even if it’s a probably unrepresentative sample of readers, the ones who either choose to write down their response or are paid to do so.

Nowadays it’s hard to avoid your reviews even if you do want to. If you use Facebook, Twitter, etc, you’ll find that you’re tagged in posts mentioning reviews, and you can’t help but dip into them.

Now, I’ve been knocking around for a while now, and I’ve been reviewed just about everywhere. Also, I write reviews (most recently for the Guardian and Arc), so I’m aware of the constraints, challenges, complications, etc, that go with the territory.

My own take on reviews of my work is this: yes, I’m interested, but I’ll certainly consider a review’s context, whether it’s a good or a bad review. A good review in a national newspaper is great because it’s a review from a fellow pro who hasn’t necessarily chosen to read your book (although beware the complex relationships in publishing that could sway things one way or another); a good review on a sixteen year-old’s blog is great, too, for entirely different reasons.

Reviewers at all levels get it wrong: I’ve had lots of reviews that get the facts of a book wrong, which is very different to misunderstanding what I was trying to do in a book; those reviews are devalued because of this. And sometimes a reviewer really gets what you’re doing, or even sees depths or angles you weren’t aware of yourself. That’s pretty damned cool.

It’s impossible to separate all this from the usually fragile state of an author’s ego. I’ve written on here before about this, and how sometimes it feels like you’re writing into a vacuum. Why put your work out into the wild if you’re not hoping that people will respond? And how disappointing if there’s just silence? Reviews are one way of gauging this response, albeit an imperfect one.

There’s a context for the response to a review, too. Anyone who’s followed my tweets and bloggery will be aware that I’ve had lots of pretty pissy things affect me, and those I love, over the past few months. I’ve been on meds for depression for much of the last year; my wife’s been seriously ill, culminating in a big operation in January (from which she’s now making a fantastic recovery); one of my daughters has had two long spells of several weeks in hospital. And there have been lots of other, lesser, woes.

This is my context, and after a couple of recent bad experiences in the publishing world I couldn’t help but start to wonder if it was all worth it. When I passed 25 years as a writing pro last year (with two more books out that year), I wrote about this. Quite simply, I was tired and depressed, and writing was taking too much out of me.

This year? Well, a few things have slotted into place. I’m in a better frame of mind (maybe it’s the drugs, but hey); my wife is doing well; my daughter is back out of hospital again today; I’m doing things I like, and starting to get the urge to commit science fiction once again. And on that front, the writing one, it was fantastic to hear a few weeks ago that my novel Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human) had been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award.

And, returning to the subject of this post, reviews… I’ve had some lovely ones in the last few weeks, and that really makes a difference: someone has given you a chance, someone has got what you were doing.

Just to pick out a few examples… picked out the new edition of my novel Lord of Stone (always one of my personal favourites), describing it as “gritty, clever and thought provoking. Well recommended!”

And then, just yesterday a couple of tweets caught my eye.

Andreas Wittwer said:
“alt.human (aka Harmony) by Keith Brooke, one of titles that have been taken off the to-read stack in the past weeks:
– a link which led to a lovely review that said, among other things, “Like with The Accord, I feel that I again have to make a note about the prose. It’s more than just pacing and skillful use of narrative modes, but also that Brooke has something less tangible, a certain command of tone, that few novelists can manage.”

And in another tweet Michael Bround said:
“Wrote a thing about @keithbrooke‘s oddly untalked about (in my circles) #Harmony and #TheAccord
– leading to a review of both The Accord and Harmony, in which he said, “Keith Brooke is a Science Fiction author I never hear anything about. Which is profoundly weird because he is really, really good… If I were going to create a list of ten Sci-fi novels everyone should have to read, The Accord would be among them. I do not understand how this novel isn’t a bigger deal.” And, “Harmony is just another masterful Sci-fi novel that should also be a bigger deal than it apparently is.”

When a writer is looking for a response, when a writer’s fragile ego needs a bit of nurturing… well, it doesn’t get much more rewarding than responses like these.

Eleven facts: the answers

A couple of weeks ago I posted eleven facts about me, all of which were true, apart from the ones that I made up. Unfortunately no one guessed all of them correctly, so the prize goes unclaimed. Here are the answers:

1. I nearly became a chartered accountant, but chose not to because… well do I really need to give all the reasons?TRUE. After graduating, I accepted an offer of a job with a big accountancy firm, but then backed out in order to take a year out and write what would become my first published novel.

2. I’m a distant relative of Walt Disney.
TRUEish. As was rightly pointed out, we’re all distantly related. I should have been more precise. What I meant to say was that tracking back family history showed a very possible link to the old animator, making him an umpteenth cousin several times removed. I don’t know if it’s true, but there’s a family story that two employees of the Disney Corporation turned up on my Gran’s doorstep one day many years ago to check out the link.

3. I used to play in a band and one of my songs was used as the soundtrack for a Carpet Warehouse TV ad.
NOT REALLY: I have played in a few bands (bad lead guitar and atrocious backing vocals), and I have written a bunch of songs, but none of my material has been taken up by CW. Their loss.

4. I was arrested for shoplifting with friends when I was nine years old; one of my friends, whose name I can’t recall, got off with it because he cried when we were caught, but Gavin and I didn’t buckle and got a good telling off, and then we ran away from home to live in the woods.
TRUE. I just treated it as a big adventure. Gav couldn’t face his parents so we ran away and built a camp in the woods. Then Gav got the nerves again and wanted to go home and face the music. We were picked up by the police on the edge of town. Apart from the telling off, nothing really came of it as we were too young to be prosecuted.

5. I once stood for election to the local council, but was heavily beaten.
TRUE. I stood for the Green Party in Colchester High Woods and got something like 87 votes.

6. My fingers used to bend far enough backwards to touch the back of my hand, but now they’re too stiff.
TRUE. I tried to take a photo, but that’s quite difficult to do when you’re bending your fingers back to nearly touch your wrist…

7. I had an operation to remove an extra toe when I was about 18 months old – it had to go because it curled under my foot and made walking painful. If you get me drunk enough I’ll show you the scar. Whether you want to see it or not.
FALSE. Afraid not. I did once run a half-marathon with a broken toe, though. Not that that’s at all the same thing.

8. I am not from Norfolk.
TRUE. I did live there for four years, though, and love the place.

9. Beetroot, yum.
FALSE! Food of the devil. Why would anyone eat something that tastes like slightly sweet, sickly mud?

10. I have a PhD in creative writing.
TRUE. I do indeed. My thesis was on the writing of, and critical response to, my novel Genetopia, which also formed part of the submission. I actually enjoyed the process, and ended up recycling part of the thesis for my chapter in Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the sub-genres of science fiction. (And I’m still gutted that that book never really got any attention: with excellent chapters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, James Patrick Kelly, Paul di Filippo and others, I really thought it stood a chance of at least shortlisting for a BSFA award, but its publication seems to have slipped past most of the SF world.)

11. It has done me no good at all.
TRUEish. As I say, I enjoyed it, and I managed to make use of some of the material in a book chapter, but it hasn’t really done me any good. The intention was to boost my academic credentials (I taught undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing for several years, including what I believe was, at the time, the UK’s only undergraduate course in writing SF), but since getting my PhD I’ve been screwed over for the one lectureship I wanted and haven’t had the opportunity to make any other use of it. It’s quite handy signing into places as Dr Brooke, though: makes me seem all grown up.

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