Tag Archives: solaris

In Search of the Archetypal Spacer: guest post by Gareth L Powell

The figure of the lone space pilot is a recurring one in my experience of science fiction—an image to which I pay homage in my latest novel, The Recollection (Solaris 2011)—but where did this image come from, and what is its attraction?The Recollection by Gareth L Powell

Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek on a black and white TV in my grandparents’ house in Somerset. I enjoyed the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew, but couldn’t help feeling that they weren’t really achieving anything. They seemed to just be aimlessly flying around, getting into trouble each week.  And then along came Star Wars and Han Solo, and I realised that sometimes, getting into trouble could be the whole point.

Han was a smuggler and a pirate; he was lazy, selfish and won his captaincy in a card game. In short, he was the opposite of the hard-working Kirk; and every boy in my school playground wanted to be him. Although Kirk often rebelled against his superiors, he still fought to maintain the chain of command and preserve the Federation of Planets. In contrast, Han existed on the disreputable fringes of a Galactic Empire—an empire he would eventually help to bring down. Where Kirk and the Enterprise stood for honour, personal integrity and heroism, Han and the Falcon symbolised freedom—the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, as long as you could stay one step ahead of the wolves barking at your airlock door.

A few years later, I discovered the computer game Elite, which I played on a borrowed BBC Micro computer. In the game, the player takes the role of a space trader jumping from planet to planet, trying to achieve the titular “Elite” combat rating, and trading various goods along the way in order to pay for fuel and ship upgrades. By today’s standards, the game’s graphics are laughably simplistic; but back then, the simple wire-frame renderings of planets and starships left plenty of room for my imagination to fill in the blanks. When the computer was returned to where it had been borrowed from, I turned my attention to a role playing game called Traveller in which, as with Elite, the characters existed in, and moved through, a vast universe of inhabited planets.

These early experiences influenced my later tastes in fiction, giving me a nostalgic soft spot for scoundrels such as John Truck, the amoral loser in M. John Harrison’s Centuari Device; Beowulf Shaeffer, the freewheeling tourist in Larry Niven’s Known Space series; and Lorq van Ray, the doomed renegade in Samuel R. Delany’s classic novel Nova. Rather than enjoying the heroics of Star Trek, I now watched and empathised with Dave Lister’s plight in Red Dwarf, as the only human rattling around a spaceship the size of a small town.

As I got older, my tastes broadened, and I began to see my attraction to these fantasies for what it was: a desire to shut out the rest of the human race, to gain control over my own fate and avoid the adult world of work and financial responsibility for as long as possible. While at the time, such escapism may have seemed juvenile and destructive, I quickly realised that it was this same escapist urge that allowed me to play in my head, inventing the characters and settings for the stories I was beginning to write.

To me, as a writer, archetypal spacers exist apart from society. They are freewheeling freebooters who do not subscribe to the laws and constraints of society, and yet cling to their own—sometimes warped—moral codes. They are wanderers, criminals, gamblers and tourists with world-weary stares. They’ve drunk in every bar from here to the Core, and they’ve seen things most people wouldn’t believe; and once you know where to look for them, you start seeing them everywhere.

You can find them in the crews of the “lighthuggers” that ply between the stars in Alastair Reynolds’ novel Revelation Space. Known as “ultras”, these men and women are distanced culturally and temporally from the rest of humanity by the effects of relativity. Travelling close to the speed of light, they experience only months of subjective time, while decades pass in the outside world.

You can find direct descendants of Han Solo and John Truck in handsome trader captain Joshua Calvert, whose swashbuckling exploits and sexual adventures light up Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy; and in Mal Reynolds, an honourable malcontent whose struggles to  stay one step ahead of the law, keep his ancient starship airborne and his ragbag crew fed, form the narrative of Joss Whedon’s aborted TV series Firefly.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, I paid homage to the archetypal spacer while writing my novel The Recollection, by introducing the central character of Katherine Abdulov, the estranged daughter of an interstellar trading family. Alone and penniless, Kat has to eke out a living from world-to-world, alone with only her ship, the Ameline, for company. I tried to make Kat as original as possible. To me, she’s a living, breathing individual with her own history and foibles; but in her grease-stained fatigues, she’s also an affectionate acknowledgement of the scoundrels and adventurers to have gone before; and the creation of a writer tipping his hat and making the most of his influences.

Gareth L Powell is the author of the novels The Recollection and Silversands, and the acclaimed short story collection The Last Reef. He is a regular contributor to Interzone and his work has appeared in a number of recent anthologies.


It’s for kids, right?

Just because it has a teen protagonist, it must be a book for teenagers, right?

I was quite surprised when one or two people said that about my 2006 novel, Genetopia. Yes, the protagonist was in his late teens, but the the novel pulls no punches (not that teen fiction necessarily should pull punches, of course), and to me was definitely for an older audience.

SF and fantasy have a long tradition of using younger protatagonists, so I don’t think that should define the categorisation. My protagonist in Genetopia may have been young, but he was a young man, not a kid; his environment forced kids to grow up more quickly, and his own story meant he had to be mature for his age. Genetopia is a story about adults doing adult things.

This set me thinking about my current novel, alt.human: some of my lead characters are teenagers in this one, too, but again they’re in a world where kids grow up tough and they mature way beyond their years in our terms. Also, it’s about things like the Fermi paradox and our understanding of what is, and is not, human – not really the kind of thing I’d tackle in a teen novel (the former, at least – probably all of my novels are to some extent about the latter).

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie - a fantasy novel by Keith BrookeThe Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie is another example of where my work crosses over these boundaries. The novel grew from a short story about kids but which was very adult in tone. I did start the novel with a younger audience in mind, but as soon as I got writing I knew that this was another novel where I was using younger protagonists to explore adult concerns.

I’m struggling here to justify the difference. Frankie is about loss and grieving, about bullying, about the power of the imagination and the nature of fantasy, about everything having a price… all ripe for exploring in a teen novel. And yet I found something ineffable about that combination, and about the way I was writing about these ideas, that made Frankie more of an adult story.

The novel’s reception shows how difficult it is to categorise. It has been reviewed as adult fiction, and as teen fiction; I’ve had fantastic responses from adults, but also from younger readers.

Maybe I shouldn’t care, as long as it’s finding an appreciative audience.

As a professional writer, though, I do need to care. Publishing works in categories, and my kids’ fiction is handled in very different ways to my adult work. I need to understand what it is that I’m writing if I’m to market it appropriately.

So… my current novel, alt.fiction: it features some younger characters, so it’s for kids, right? Of course it’s not. It’s my take on trad SF, exploring mature ideas in an adult way. And what’s more, it’ll be on the shelves in the grown-up part of the bookstore. So there.

Blatant plug:

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Print formats are also available through these links.

The original story that led to Faraway, Beside The Sea, is also available in a dirt-cheap ebook version.

Both of these are published by Newcon Press. For grown-ups.

Solaris Rising

Solaris Rising

I was very excited a few days ago to see the contents list for the anthology, Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates. As well as including my latest collaboration with Eric Brown it includes stories by:

  • Ian McDonald
  • Dave Hutchinson
  • Paul di Filippo
  • Ken MacLeod
  • Tricia Sullivan
  • Stephen Baxter
  • Stephen Palmer
  • Adam Roberts
  • Lavie Tidhar
  • Jack Skillingstead
  • Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom
  • Steve Rasnic Tem
  • Ian Watson
  • Pat Cadigan
  • Richard Salter
  • Jaine Fenn
  • Alastair Reynolds
  • Peter F Hamilton

That’s one hell of a mix of established stars, rising names and fine, but overlooked, authors. As the publishers say, “…that’s 19 stories by a host of the most talented SF writers around,” and it’s one of the strongest line-ups I’ve appeared in.

Solaris Rising will be released in November both in paper and e-formats, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

alt.human cover

alt.human by Keith Brooke (Solaris, 2012)I’ve just seen this cover draft for my 2012 novel alt.human. I love it! Not only is Adam Tredowski’s artwork really striking, but it also manages to capture the drama and gritty atmosphere of the novel.

This is all the more impressive because Adam’s only had my rather brief description of a few scenes to work on, and I’m only a third of the way through the novel so far.

I haven’t even reached the scene illustrated on the cover, but I’m looking forward to getting there even more now. It’s great when cover art not only captures a story, but builds on it and enhances it as this does.

You might have gathered by now that I’m pleased with this.

Ian Whates interviewed

Ian Whates is an author, editor and Ian Whates: City of Dreams and Nightmarepublisher.  He lives in a comfortable home down a quiet cul-de-sac in an idyllic Cambridgeshire village, which he shares with his partner Helen and a manic cocker spaniel called Honey.  Ian has seen more than 40 of his short stories published in a variety of venues and has two ongoing novel series, the ‘Noise’ books with Solaris and the ‘City of 100 Rows’ series with Angry Robot.  The second volume of each, The Noise Revealed and City of Hope and Despair appeared in early 2011.  Ian has also edited a number of anthologies, many of them through his own NewCon Press.  He is currently the chairman of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), has served as a director for the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and has been one of the key organisers of the Newcon series of conventions in Northampton.


You organise events like Newcon; you run a successful indie publishing company, NewCon Press; you’re so prolific a writer that you have two publishers as a mere one can’t keep up; you edit anthologies; you write short stories… How do you find the time?

That’s a question I often ask myself.  I do tend to work long hours – often ten hours plus on a week day, three to five hours a day at weekends.  The last time I spent a day without doing any work whatsoever was December 25th.  However, I’m not really the martyr that might suggest.  Various factors make this sort of schedule possible.  I work from home, which means no commute.  I simply walk downstairs and switch on the computer.  As you suggest, there is variety.  If I ever get bogged down with the writing, I can generally switch to editing someone else’s work for an anthology, working on a book cover, chasing up an author for a promised story that hasn’t arrived… and come back to the writing with a fresh eye later.  Most importantly, I genuinely love what I do, so although it’s often hard and intense, it’s rarely that much of a chore.

How did you get your break as a writer?

The short answer is through determination, a great deal of hard work and perseverance.  To put that into context, I’ve always wanted to write.   I made an attempt to do so back in the late 1980s, selling half a dozen stories to small press magazines, but that early start was aborted for reasons that don’t matter now.  In the mid-noughties I took stock of my life and realised that if I ever was going to be a writer, now was the time.  I jacked in the rat race and set about trying to establish myself as an author.  I joined the BSFA.  I joined a writers group.  I went to conventions and met authors and industry professionals etc.  Then, in 2006, I began a relentless regime of writing and submitting short stories.  This led to a shed load of rejections but an increasing number of acceptances as well.  By the time I turned my attention to novel writing in 2008, I’d had 30-odd short stories published in various venues, been nominated for a BSFA Award and qualified for SFWA membership.

I then set about writing a novel.  When I mentioned this to the editors at Solaris (who had bought one of my later shorts, “the Assistant” which was itself award nominated), they asked to see what I had, which was just six chapters.  The novel was also enough to secure my first agent, John Jarrold, and my career as a novelist was under way.

Tell us about the Noise series: pacy, action-packed space opera, described by Stephen Baxter as “Unreasonably enjoyable. 24 meets Starship Troopers. If you read Reynolds, Hamilton, Banks – read this.”  What was it about space opera that made you want to write it?

The ‘Noise’ books had an interesting genesis.  Among the short stories I’d written was a loose series of tales set against the background of a centuries-long war in human space.  The idea was to tell the story of a war from the point of view of the ‘little people’ who are caught up in the conflict, creating a collage-style impression of events and consequences without ever actually addressing the war itself as a continuous narrative.  The intention was to pull all these tales together at a future date and create a mosaic novel.

As mentioned earlier, Solaris asked to see the first six chapters of my work in progress, which would become City of Dreams and Nightmare.  It turned out, unfortunately, that this wasn’t the type of novel they were looking for at the time.  They wanted space opera.  They evidently loved my writing, though, and invited me to pitch a space opera idea to them.  The only thing I had was the mosaic novel, so I duly sent them a rough outline of that.

Except this was Solaris, who were then owned by Games Workshop.  They politely pointed out that they already had all the war and military SF they needed.   However, there were several elements in the outline that they liked.

I mulled this over and decided to carry forward the ideas they were keen on (AI spaceship, intelligent gun, etc etc) and contemplate a story using those elements but set a generation or two after my war.  The narrative would centre on an element from a story that I’d planned but not yet written, an experiment attempted during the war which went disastrously wrong and had now returned to haunt its creators.  I pitched the resultant synopsis along with the first chapter, and Solaris liked it enough to offer me a two book deal on that basis.

City of Dreams and Nightmare might appear to be a bit of a departure for you, a steampunky Peake-y fantasy. Why fantasy? How do you feel about genre boundaries: constrained by the ghetto or inspired?

Not really that much of a departure.  I’ve always written both SF and fantasy and have had several short stories in both fields published.  As for ‘genre’ boundaries, when I was younger they mattered a great deal, but now not so much.  I actually think the ‘City of 100 Rows’ series straddles boundaries, and tend to describe it as urban fantasy with SF underpinning and steampunk overtones.  That pretty much gives me licence to weave anything I want into the narrative and I’ve delighted in doing so.  I’ve been very much inspired by the urban surroundings rather than constrained, though of course Thaiburley is a great deal more than just the City Below, its basement level, so I was able to dip in and out the other 90-odd Rows as well, and, in the second and third volumes, pursue some elements of the narrative in the world outside the city’s walls.

What’s a typical working day for you, with so much to pack in?

‘Typical’ might be pushing it a bit, but… Get up between 6.00 am and 7.00 am.  Come downstairs and turn the computer on.  Over the next hour or so, and fuelled by cups of tea, deal with emails and visit a couple of regular forums, then start writing.

7.45 Take dog for a walk (30 to 40 minutes).

8.30 Make breakfast for me, the dog, and my long-suffering partner, Helen.

9.00 Back to work – writing.

12.30 Stop for lunch.

1.00 Back to work; mainly writing, probably interspersed with some editing or other NewCon Press related matters.

Anywhere between 5.00 and 6.30 (depending on the situation with the writing and who’s cooking the evening meal) stop work.

What part of the writing process do you like best? And least?

The best bit is the writing itself.  I write in a very organic way, with only the loosest of plots.  I generally write a given book’s closing scene when I’m perhaps a third of the way through, because the ending will have come to me very vividly while I walked the dog or ate my breakfast and it simply demands to be written down.  Immediately.  The exciting part is then discovering how my characters got to this final juncture.  I love it when a character surprises me, which might sound a little odd coming from said character’s creator, but it happens all the time.  In one particular instance it was only right towards the end of a novel that I realised two characters were actually the same person.  As soon as I had, it was obvious.  I went back and made one small tweak to an earlier chapter to provide the reader with the hint of a clue, but didn’t necessarily need to.  I don’t believe this was my subconscious shaping the writing so much as the creative process continuing to evolve even as the narrative nears conclusion.

What next?

Well, I’m about to launch two new anthologies through NewCon Press (one of them homage to Sir Arthur C Clarke’s classic Tales from the White Hart), featuring original stories from a raft of fabulous authors – Neil Gaiman, Charlie Stross, Dan Abnett, Stephen Baxter, Lauren Beukes, James Lovegrove, Ian Watson, Eric Brown, Tony Ballantyne, Stephen Palmer, Liz Williams, Adam Roberts etc etc – many of whom I’ve worked with before but some of whom are completely new to the Press.  Then, in the summer, I’m launching a new short story collection by Liz Williams with introduction by Tanith Lee – A Glass of Shadow – and in the autumn a novel by Gary McMahon entitled The End… not forgetting I’m throwing a party at a London pub in July to commemorate five years of NewCon Press.  I’m also co-editing with Ian Watson a new ‘Mammoth’ title for Constable and Robinsons – The Mammoth Book of SF Wars – and putting together a new SF anthology for Solaris, Solaris Rising, due out at the end of the year…

As for the writing, I’m taking a break from the ‘City of 100 Rows’ and the ‘Noise’ books – either of which I could return to in the future – to write something new.  SF again rather than fantasy… and this one will feature a banker as central character (yes, really!).  I’m planning this as a trilogy, the working title for which is ‘Drake’s Dark Dilemma’.  As for describing it, I’m aiming for something akin to Sherlock Holmes meets Firefly.  How close to that I actually get, we’ll have to wait and see.

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