Category Archives: neil williamson

A good reading year

A few years ago when I was guest writer at a local university writing class I was asked, “Do you read much science fiction these days?” My immediate response was to say that I only usually read SF when I’m paid to do it. Then I realised that sounded quite bad. What I meant by my answer, and went on to explain, was that much of my reading – in any genre – is dictated by what I’m asked to read for reviews and critiquing, so it’s usually a luxury for me to get to sit down with a book I’ve actually chosen for no other reason than that I want to read it.

I’ve read some fine books this way, and made some lovely discoveries, but I do miss the opportunity to just go off and explore books like I used to many years ago.

Wolves by Simon IngsThis year I’ve managed to find a bit more of a balance, though. Add that to my good fortune in finding some superb review books and the first half of 2014 has provided some of my  best reading in a long time.

One of the highlights was Simon Ings very welcome return to SF with the stylish augmented reality whodunnit, Wolves. My Guardian review of this won’t appear until the mass market paperback edition of the novel appears later this year, but in it I draw comparisons with JG Ballard and Christopher Priest. It’s weird and unsettling, presented in an understated manner that almost sidesteps the fact that it’s an SF novel until everything builds up and all the elements pull together. I’d love there to have been more from Ings over the years, but with this novel alone he’s rapidly playing catch-up.

The Unquiet House by Alison LittlewoodAnother Guardian review book, Alison Littlewood’s The Unquiet House reads like a classic haunted house story that, save for the obvious contemporary elements, could easily have been written at any time in the past hundred or more years. Throughout, Littlewood strikes a pitch-perfect balance between mystery and steady revelation, building anticipation and fear with the kind of verbal brushstrokes you’d expect from Joyce Carol Oates. A master class in haunted fiction.

I reviewed Andy Weir’s The Martian for the Arc blog, and here’s my opening paragraph:

Please indulge me while I get this out of the way at the start: Wow! Andy Weir’s The Martian is an incredibly accomplished first novel. Hell, it’s an incredibly accomplished anythingth novel.

It’s a space survival thriller, cleverly loaded with technological detail and balanced with a jokey first-person confessional narration. A book so full of mathematical extrapolation (just how long will the oxygen etc last?) really shouldn’t be such a gripping page-turner, but it is. This is the kind of thing that hooked me on SF as a teenager, and it’s the kind of book the proves SF is a genre still full of life and potential. Great stuff!

The Moon King by Neil WilliamsonAs well as these three stand-out review books, as I said earlier I’ve been reading more for pleasure, too. In genre fiction, the real highlight has been Neil Williamson’s The Moon King. This is stylish, quirky fantasy at its very best. Beautifully written, full of fabulous imagery and strikingly original, this novel follows events in an island city dominated by the cycles of the Moon in what may be the end days as the machines tethering the Moon to the city’s skies begin to fail. Williamson has written some deft and moving short fiction over the years, but with this novel he’s really hit his stride and this is a novel that should feature prominently on the big award shortlists next year.

Moving away from genre fiction, this year I’ve returned to one of my all-time favourite writers, Roddy Doyle. I started with the free short story, Jimmy Jazz, which picks up the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, former manager of Dublin soul band The Commitments, now in his late forties and trapped into listening to jazz in order to please his wife Aoife. Doyle’s a genius for characterisation and voice, with dialogue that makes me smile like a madman as I’m reading and a particular knack for creating powerfully moving moments that sneak up on you unnoticed until they deliver the body blow.

The Guts by Roddy DoyleThe short story did its job: I went straight out to find The Guts, Doyle’s novel set a year before Jimmy Jazz, telling the story of Jimmy’s battle with cancer as he struggles to keep his music business going in the face of recession. It’s right up there with Doyle’s best work, which for me means it’s among the best novels I’ve ever read.

Partway through reading this, I was slightly taken aback to realise that while I’ve watched the movie several times, and went to see the West End musical soon after it opened, I’d never actually read the original novel of The Commitments. So I bought it, and now I’m partway through reading it, and loving it, naturally.

Still only in July, and I’ve read some absolutely superb books. While I hadn’t exactly fallen out of love with reading, I think I’d become a bid jaded. These are the kinds of books that put the fire back into reading, though: I’m full of enthusiasm again, and that feeds into my writing, too – reading good books makes me want to write them. And read more, of course.


BlogHop: Three Things I Don’t Write (and Three Things I do)

First, a background note:
This is one of those blog hop things where one writer makes a blog post and tags others to follow on with a post on the same subject. In this case, I was tagged by Neil Williamson, a writer I’ve long-admired and whose fabulous novel The Moon King is just out. Also tagged in Neil’s post were  Chris Beckett and James Everington, so I’m keeping excellent company.

So… what are three things I don’t write? This is actually a tough one, given that I write in many different genres under a few different pen-names.

  1. What I’m asked for.
    One of my favourite things is to be asked to write something specific – a story for a themed anthology, a feature on a particular subject. But I always want to do things differently. Hell, my first reaction when Neil asked if I’d like to write this blog piece was to wonder how I could subvert it and write something completely different. Don’t get me wrong: I can and do hit the brief when required, and like almost any writing project I enjoy doing so, but my inclination is always to look for another direction. I could dress this up in all kinds of ways: if you’re writing for a themed anthology, for example, it makes sense to write that story that just hits the brief but is totally different, rather than one of the many that hit the brief comfortably, and predictably. So is it a deliberate career strategy? God no! It’s a gut thing, an instant reaction that has often served me well; the career strategy is to then step back and judge whether to trust that instinct or rein it in.
  2. The same story, over and over again.
    Years – decades! – ago, one then-prominent anthology editor told me about a dinner party he’d just attended with other then-prominent anthology and magazine editors. They got to talking about the new wave of writers emerging at the time (this was late 1980s or early 1990s, when the Interzone generation were starting to get lots of attention). They discussed various names and when mine came up, this editor said that what he really liked about me was that whenever he got an A4 envelope with my return address on it (that shows how long ago this was), he never knew what was going to be inside. He meant this in a good way, not a creepy-stalker way. He explained that every story I sent him was different to the last; the others around the table agreed that this was so. Career strategy? Again: God no! A career strategy would have been to hit a trope and hit it strong, not keep flitting around between all the multitude of things that interested me. A career strategy would have been to accept that huge offer I received from a leading US publisher to write a sequel to my first novel (military SF), rather than insist on following my muse and writing a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy
  3. Poetry.
    Sorry, I know this reveals my inner heathen, but I just don’t get poetry, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes, when poetry is being read, it works for me. I love John Hegley’s work, for instance, but that’s probably more because it’s funny and comes close to stand-up comedy; I’ve enjoyed Martin Newell’s work, too, for similar reasons (he lives in the same village as me, so I’ve heard him read a few times). At least when poetry is being read I have someone controlling the pacing for me; if I’m reading poetry myself I think I rush, as if I’m reading prose, and I don’t give the words the space and time they need. Music works far better for me: I understand lyrics, and I write songs because when poetry is tied to music I can get my head around it – the words are paced for me. But poetry in its own right? I don’t get it, and so, however much I’d like to, there’s really no point in me trying to write any.

And now for three things I do write:

  1. Scenes that not only make the reader squirm and wonder where the fuck they came from but which do the same to me.
    My virtual reality novel The Accord had several such scenes, one of which actually prompted one of my writing students to stop me in the street and, with a somewhat aghast look on his face, ask me what was wrong with my head; he meant it as a compliment. The premise of the book is that what is, in effect, a VR heaven has been created where you are uploaded on your death and are then immortal; in a world devastated by climate change and resource shortages, there’s a scene in a refugee camp where a VR team is recording people’s personas so they can then be uploaded when ready. A mother waits until her little daughter has been recorded and then, as calm as anything, murders her child in front of everyone so that the girl will not have to wait. I didn’t see that scene coming until it unfolded before me, and I could barely type fast enough to keep up. When I finished writing the scene I was exhausted and spent and had no idea what had just happened. There are other far more extreme mind-fuck scenes in that book, and I still don’t know where they came from. What they do have in common is that they take a premise and extrapolate it as far as possible. And then some. As far as I’m concerned, hitting those scenes are as good as the writing process can ever be.
  2. Certain tropes I never thought I’d tackle.
    This year marks 25 years as a professionally-published writer for me. Passing 20 years and then approaching 25 seemed to trigger something; that and editing a book about the sub-genres of SF for Palgrave Macmillan. These things made me aware of which genre tropes I’d tackled, and which I’ve avoided. And they made me wonder why. Three big ones stood out: aliens, alternate history and time travel. I could have taken this as a challenge to go ahead and write about these subjects, but I didn’t. Not consciously, at least. Subconsciously, however, it seemed to set the what-if? part of my mind working. I didn’t write aliens because I couldn’t make them convincing enough for me to last the duration of an entire novel. I didn’t want to write aliens that were merely humans in rubber suits, but then if you write something truly alien how do you get inside it enough to find any kind of story we can relate to? I didn’t do alternate history because I don’t have enough historical expertise to either come up with the inspiration or make it credible. I didn’t do time travel because, well, it’s all been done before, hasn’t it? So that what-if? part of my mind came up with Harmony, a novel crammed full of aliens in what was to me the ultimate alternate history, addressing the Fermi paradox as an added bonus; that it was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award was an added added bonus. And Tomorrow, a time travel story that goes to town with the whole concept as a bunch of teenagers struggle with destiny and a future that nobody in their right mind would want.
  3. Horror.
    I’ve included this, at least partly because it’s a bit of a surprise to myself, so maybe it will be to whoever reads this, too. A little context… Back in the early days my output was probably fifty-fifty between horror and other genres. My first novel was SF; when I finished the first draft of that I was on such an adrenalin rush that the very next day I started an unplanned horror novel. That second novel never sold, but I think it shows at least that my attentions were divided. My short fiction included a lot of horror, enough to later be gathered together in the collection Embrace. But then it kind of tailed off. I was finding more success as an SF author, and that seemed to feed the part of my brain that came up with ideas: as SF took up an increasing proportion of my time, so more and more of the new ideas were SF, too. Looking through my bibliography, I see that my last published horror story was “Embrace”, back in May 2004. (As a sidenote, most of my teen fiction as Nick Gifford was dark stuff, but even there, the most recent horror novel came out in 2005.) But recently things have changed again. I’ve returned to full-time writing and for one reason or another my short fiction has turned to horror, once more. I’ve just sold a horror story I’m particularly pleased with to Postscripts, and the next thing I do after drafting this blog post will be editing another new horror tale, a particularly creepy piece where I’ve tried to make a modern office a dark and scary place. Given some of the places I’ve worked, perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch, but hey.

Passing it on

To keep this blog hop going, I’ve asked three more fabulous authors to tell us three things they write about, and three they don’t: Kim Lakin-Smith, Stephen Palmer and Mike Revell. I’ll link to their pieces when they’re up.

 

 


Grumpy Old Writers, or The Grampa/Grandma List: promising speculative fiction authors over the age of 40

It started with a tweet in response to the publication of Granta’s Best Young Novelists list for 2013

It is the most shattering experience of a writer’s life when he wakes one day and says quite reasonably, I will never make the Granta list.
@davidmbarnett

For, alas, if a writer is past the age of 40 he or she is deemed too old to be promising.

Some of us would set that benchmark differently. Far too many years ago, for example, I had to ask the editors of Interzone to stop referring to me as a ‘promising young writer’ as I had turned the grand old age of 30.

But then seven years later I was suddenly young and promising again: back in 2003, in my YA guise as Nick Gifford, I was on Waterstones’ list of bright young things, aka Faces of the Future (sneakily published a few weeks ahead of Granta‘s list for that year).

So, to narrow down the criteria… For an alternative list we’re looking for promising writers over the age of 40. Or 30. Or something in between. Let’s say 40 – that’s Granta‘s glass ceiling, so let’s re-use it.

Genre? Well much as I’d like to set no such limitations, let’s face it: I know far more about genre authors than I do about the lit’ry mainstream, speculative fiction authors in particular. Even then, there are lots I’d be likely to miss out, purely through my own oversight.

Nationality? I’d rather not, but it’s convenient, so as I’m UK-based let’s keep it local by sticking to authors who are based here, published here or have some other strong claim to being promising in the UK.

But then, as the Twitter exchange developed, we started referring to Grumpy Old Writers.

Woah, there!

Stamping down on the danger that we would branch into two rival lists almost as soon as we’d got started, let’s merge the two, and here are our criteria:

Promising speculative fiction authors with a UK presence, 40 or older, who I’m aware of and haven’t momentarily forgotten to include, and able to be grumpy about all these young upstarts invading our turf.

So who gets onto this list of significant oldcomers?

The Grampa List (first draft)
[also, please be reassured that I could be completely wrong here, both about the levels of grumpiness and the age…]

  • David Barnett (has published some interesting stuff already, but destined to make a big splash with his forthcoming steampunkery from Tor)
  • Chris Beckett (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke and BSFA awards, perhaps he’s getting too much attention already)
  • Eric Brown (the perennial professional, like bindweed he keeps on putting out superb stories, occasionally getting lots of attention and then just keeping on plugging away)
  • Jaine Fenn (first novel only appeared five years ago, so definitely in the youngish upstart category)
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood (ooh… controversial: surely Jon’s profile lifts him above the promising category? Well yes, I’d hope that would be most people’s response, but has he really achieved the acclaim he deserves?)
  • Dave Hutchinson (SF stalwart, capable of brilliance, and I wish he’d write more; and he’s promised to keep the grumpiness quotient up if others fall short)
  • Liz Jensen (dark, creepy, slipstream, always interesting)
  • Juliet McKenna (the kind of author this list could have been made for: a top-notch fantasy author who deserves a lot more success than a bunch of other fantasy authors I’m not going to name until you buy me another drink)
  • Jeff Noon (bright young star who went quiet, but now is bursting back onto the scene with an anniversary edition of his classic Vurt, lots of reissues, online experimentation and pushing of limits, and new books, too)
  • Ian Sales (such a fixture on the UK SF scene that most people probably think he’s published more than he has; winning this year’s BSFA short fiction award is surely the start of greater things)
  • Anna Tambour (okay, the link is tenuous: she’s based in Australia but has had much of her work published in the UK; I’ve no idea how old she is; and anyway, I love her writing so she’s on my list – in fact, I like her work so much that I talked my way into writing a foreword for her first book and have subsequently produced ebook editions of two of her books)
  • Jo Walton (too successful already? Perhaps, but much of her success has come in the US – over here she’s one of those who deserves more…)
  • Liz Williams (…as is Liz Williams, a fabulous author who shrugs off genre limitations, and has also published the non-fiction Diary of a Witchcraft Shop)
  • Neil Williamson (like David Barnett, Neil is a genuine old upstart, with some impressive short fiction publications behind him and a much-anticipated first novel due out in 2014)

Because of the rather unscientific approach taken here, I know this list is not comprehensive, hence my labelling it ‘draft’. Who else should be on it? Who shouldn’t? And what would an equivalent list be without the UK-ish restriction, or with some other arbitrary geographical limits?


New: infinity plus quintet

stories by Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle, Neil Williamson, Stephen Palmer and Eric Brown
edited by Keith Brooke

infinity plus: quintetFive stories from top writers of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy and the downright strange, stories from the heart, stories to make you think and wonder.

The stories in this volume are:

“Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth

“Flying to Byzantium” by Lisa Tuttle

“Arrhythmia” by Neil Williamson

“Dr Vanchovy’s Final Case” by Stephen Palmer

“The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived” by Eric Brown

Available from:


Mentions

Nice round-up of the latest infinity plus titles over at Locus.

And a great reader review of Neil Williamson’s The Ephemera at Smashwords (this is our best-selling title at that site): “Williamson is one of the best Scottish short story writers alive today… There isn’t a poor story here.”


New release: The Ephemera by Neil Williamson, with a foreword by Hal Duncan

The Ephemera by Neil WilliamsonNothing lasts forever. Everything is ephemeral.

Time slips by, people change, happiness is fleeting.

Neil Williamson’s collection of bittersweet tales features eighteen stories of impermanence: from the ends of love affairs and the brief sanity of wartime convalescence, to the fading away of old languages and the dying of humanity itself.

An artist communicates solely through a bizarre mosaic, a father and his dying daughter seek hope in plague-ridden Scotland, a London pensioner’s existence is inextricably bound to that of his pet canary, and in the jungles of Borneo a criminal searches for his missing son hoping for reconciliation before the end of the world.

This edition includes four bonus stories, including one written specially for this collection, and each story has a newly-written afterword. Cover by Vincent Chong.

Buy now:
amazon.com (Kindle format, $2.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £2.14)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $2.99)

“Emotionally complex and displaying a keen eye for detail, the stories in Neil Williamson’s collection The Ephemera are a rich and rewarding read from a stylish new Scottish talent.”
— World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff VanderMeer

“Subtle, evocative and compelling, The Ephemera is a collection that shines with reflection and intelligence.”
— Liz Williams


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