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A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner

Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979, 252 p.

A Double Shadow cover

I picked this up at the same time as The Infinite Cage. It’s of similar vintage.

A Double Shadow is Turner’s only SF novel. He was (is?) mainly a poet.

The book is a strange one, discursive and at times dense, quite often telling rather than showing, to the detriment of characterisation. The main body of the novel is set on a terraformed Mars, with its smaller moon Phobos turned into an auxiliary sun. Here, humanity is divided into Normal humans and the Bloods or Cocks among whom there are three sexes (one hermaphroditic.) The set-up before this is strange, though, being a foreword narrated by a man during the time in which the terraforming is taking place who tells us he is the author of the subsequent novel – into which he occasionally interjects his authorial presence.

The internal novel has characters with names like Chrysanthemum, Narcissus, Hermes and Cleopatra but these do not seem to signify anything. As to the plot, at a theatre performance Narcissus is insulted by some remarks about his performance that he and others hear Michael has made to his wife Snow. The upshot is that a “status war” is declared between the two, where they have to go around gathering support to undermine the other’s position. To this end Michael and Snow climb Olympus Mons (here called Nix Olympica, as it used to be before Mariner 9 showed it was a volcano) while Narcissus and Cleopatra cruise the Martian canals. There is a thesis to be written about the attraction SF writers have for both of these endeavours – especially the canals. That notion seems to have become so embedded into the human collective psyche that it must have expression on every possible occasion.*

In the volcano’s caldera Michael and Snow meet the goddesses who rule Mars in the sense of umpires. One of these, Aphrodite, intervenes in the status war to tragic effect.

The final climactic Cockfight is almost literal – the antagonists strap on wings and spurs and hack at each other – and occurs in the Great Canyon of Coprates, more usually known nowadays as Valles Marineris.

File this one under historical curiosity.

*Mea culpa. My first published story The Face of the Waters centred on the construction of such canals and the possibility of climbing the volcano. When I questioned him (apropos his “Plenty” books) on this general need for there to be canals on Mars Colin Greenland said, “It’s the best bit.”

Best of 2012

Vector, Spring 2013

Last week the latest edition of Vector, the review journal of the BSFA, dropped through the letter box.

The spring issue is traditionally the one where its reviewers say which books most impressed them in the previous year.

I was a bit surprised, then, to find Ian Sales including my novel A Son of the Rock in his list. It was after all published in 1997.

He says it’s, “the sort of character-led, considered and very British SF which rarely seems to be published these days.”

That’s going straight onto the “Praise for A Son of the Rock” part of the Buy My Book page in my sidebar.

I know Ian only read the book recently – he reviewed it here, in a post published in January this year, but his review wasn’t overly extravagant.

I am therefore now extremely chuffed.

Politics in SF

There was an interesting article by Adam Roberts in yesterday’s Guardian Review about the two contrasting political strands in SF.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on the Guardian website – neither by searching for Adam Roberts nor for, “Who owns the political soul of SF” (Yes, the article’s title did have a missing question mark.) It is probably there somewhere, though.

By and large the article focused on the differing attitudes to the “other,” taking as its exemplars of either breed, Iain M Banks and Robert A Heinlein. (Ever since I worked out his political allegiances – see below – I always perversely liked to think of him as Roberta Heinlein as I’m sure that would have annoyed him.)

The gist of Roberts’s piece was that lefty SF tends to be inclusive and heterogeneous on encountering the alien, whereas right wingers reach for the ammunition. (I paraphrase, but not much.)

Aside:-
I remember well reading Heinlein’s short story The Roads Must Roll wherein as the principal mode of travel people are conveyed by moving walkways. Those who work on the system throw a spanner in the works. Heinlein overstates the case by making this sabotage rather than something more peaceful and, as the story’s title suggests, comes down firmly on the side of the owners and users. Despite Heinlein’s intentions, while I was reading it my sympathies were fully on the side of the workers who to my mind were being exploited. I realised then that as far as Heinlein would be concerned there was something wrong with me, I was less than human. My dignity (and those of honest toilers) did not compare with his dignity.

In my own novel A Son of the Rock the narrator, Alan, shockingly encounters the “other” in the shape of an old man. At first frightened, he eventually embraces the strangeness and makes it his own

Clearly, in Roberts’s dichotomy, Alan was (will be? – it is SF after all) – and I am – a leftist.

Sorry about that.

Patrick Moore

So sad to hear the news of the death of Patrick Moore.

I watched the latest episode of The Sky At Night only a week or so ago and he did look frail. It has been obvious for many years now that Chris Lintott was being lined up to take over the presentation duties but Patrick will be sorely missed.

He was one of Britsh TV’s glorious eccentrics – who else in the modern world wore a monocle? – and as well as his scientific credentials he could play a mean xylophone.

His long and productive life was overshadowed by sadness as his fiancée was killed during WW2 by a German bomb and he didn’t wish to settle for what he would have considered “second best.”

As a child I may have been aware of him as a late-night TV presenter (his record for continuously hosting a show will surely never be surpassed) but I certainly remember reading his Science Fiction – from that Children’s Section at Dumbarton Library accessed down the external stairs – where, along with the SF of Captain W E Johns (yes, the author of Biggles; whose WW1 adventures led me to other books coming from the same hands) I gained my introduction to the genre. Blame the pair of them.

Patrick must almost single-handedly have contributed to several generations of British astronomers taking up their trade and won a new set of admirers when he appeared on GamesMaster which is where my own sons came to know him well.

I have a particular debt to him myself as I drew on one of his astronomy books, which contained a reasonably detailed map of Mars that I found fascinating and invaluable, for the background of my first published story, The Face of the Waters.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS: 4/3/1923-9/12/2012. So it goes.

The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers:- update

PS Publishing, 2010. 394 p.

I have progressed halfway through this collection (in which appears my own story Osmotic Pressure) but have laid it down temporarily as I have more time to devote to longer works when I am on holiday. I will review it in full later.

Narration: 1st vs 3rd person

In Saturday’€™s Guardian Margaret Drabble made a comment that she gave up first person narration after three novels because she came to think it a lazy form.

This is (or was) apparently a general view among the literati, that third person narration was more literary, more legitimate, that first person was less worthy, but it’€™s not one I ever shared.

I declare an interest here. Most (if not all) of my published works have been in the first person.

I do make one claim to distinction, though. I am one of the very few people to have written a piece of fiction in the first person plural. That story was This Is The Road, in the anthology New Worlds 3, Gollancz, 1993 – nominated for the BSFA award 1994 – which was also published in translation as “Le Chemin D’Eternité,” in Cyberdreams 7. The only other instance I recall of the use of “we” in a narrative sense was in one of Primo Levi‘s books (for shame, I forget which) about his experiences in the concentration camps.

Granted, third person gives insight into the inner life of all the characters and enables us to know them in the round but all we are told is vouchsafed to us by the author, who by definition knows everything about the character. That can present a problem, for it means that the author has to choose not so much what to tell us but instead what to leave out, or else overburden us with information.

Consider now the first person narrative. Except for the viewpoint character, everything we as readers know about all the other characters in the book is not what is known to the author – who is still omniscient I need hardly add – but merely what is known to the narrator. Everything the reader needs to learn has to be revealed by the narrator’s interactions with, or observations of, the other characters and cannot be told to us directly. To my mind, far from being lazy, that is a much harder act to bring off successfully than merely entering a character’€™s head whenever convenient. This difficulty is perhaps heightened when the chosen first person narrator is unreliable.

In this regard, I would submit that the use of multiple viewpoints each of whom is a first person narrator, while providing a more complex narrative, is a form of cheating.

From her last sentence (see above link) Drabble seems to have altered her view. “It’s the straight true line that’s hard.”

Welcome (back) to the club.

Osmotic Pressure

Osmotic Pressure is the story I had published recently. Along with everyone else in Postcripts 22/23 I’ve been reviewed. Since Postcripts 22/23 contains a lot of stories you have to scroll down a fair way to find the bit dealing with “Osmotic Pressure” which ends with, “It’s a good story in terms of character development.”

I sense a “but” after that sentence. I’m happy with it, however. Character development ought to happen in a story. I like to think it’s what I do with my fiction. A strength if you will.

I also recently received my latest mailing from the BSFA which contained their review magazine Vector, wherein was relayed the information that nominations for the BSFA Award are now open.

This is as good a place as any to remind people that Osmotic Pressure is eligible in the short story category.

There is apparently a new rule this year that you ought not to nominate yourself. Would people do such a thing? Tut, tut.

But….

Should any members of the BSFA feel so inclined they know what to do.

Nominations close on 14/1/11.

I’ll shortly start reading some eligible novels with the awards in mind.

The Company I Keep (On Occasion)

Remember that short story I sold a while back?

Well, an unexpected package was delivered by the Post Office on Friday. (Actually the postie left a card and I had to pick it up at the sorting office.)

As I say I had no idea what it was (I hadn’t bought anything from eBay or Amazon for quite a while – and it’s nowhere near my birthday or anything.)

When I retrieved it I saw it was from PS Publishing.

What it contained was the traycased, signed edition of The Company He Keeps, aka Postscripts 22/23, which contains that story, Osmotic Pressure.

As an artefact The Company He Keeps is a thing of beauty, sumptuously produced. The traycase is lined with velvet and comes with green silk ribbon. The dust jacket is sensuously smooth, the hard cover has both back and front illustrations incorporated into it, the paper smells delightfully creamy. (I know another author who always assesses a book’s quality by its paper’s aroma.) I have never before been published in such a beautiful manner.

This is of course the de luxe, collector’s edition but I have no reason to suppose the “ordinary” hardback will be any less carefully produced.

There are several well-known names on the contents page (better known than mine certainly.) These include Lucius Shepard, Eric Brown, Steve Rasnic Tem and Darrell Schweitzer, to name only some.

I’m chuffed beyond measure to be appearing in said company.

In the information bit preceding the story I say, “I had always wanted to write a story with a two word title that was also a scientific concept, preferably Chemistry related. Osmotic Pressure is the result.”

I’€™m delighted it found a publisher.

(Osmotic pressure is the hydrostatic pressure produced by a difference in concentration between solutions on the two sides of a surface such as a semipermeable membrane.)

Partly my inspiration came from James Blish’s Surface Tension, which also has a two word scientific concept as its title.

I must emphasise that I do not claim that my story stands any comparison at all with Surface Tension – which is one of the early classics of Science Fiction – only that Blish’€™s story was one of the influences on its genesis.

In Common Time Blish wrote another famous story with a two word title. So celebrated is Common Time that Damon Knight once published a critique extolling it as an extended sexual metaphor – told in reverse. The metaphor begins (ends?) with a pun. The title, so Knight suggested, is actually Come On Time. His critique was longer than the original story.

Now, if anyone can give me an idea for a story to be called Dielectric Constant; or even Dipole Moment …..

Scottish Science Fiction: An Update

Someone got to my recent blog post by searching in google for scottish science fiction. The Wikipedia page under that heading is woefully inadequate while providing some historical perspective but I found this interesting link to an address by Alan McGillivray to The Association For Scottish Literary Studies which he gave in 2000. He naturally focuses on Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod as the only Scottish SF writers around at that time (though my A Son Of The Rock had appeared by then) and looks forward to the growth of Scottish SF which has, in fact, now occurred.

While reading it I realised that I had unaccountably forgotten to mention in my post the novel But n Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt. This SF novel is singular (and spectacular) in that it is written entirely in Scots. That certainly beat my attempt at Scottish SF into a cocked hat as I wrote/write in English. My apologies to Matthew for the omission.

Consider Phlebas: Towards A Scottish Science Fiction

Throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s, through the late 60s efflorescence of the New Wave and into the 1970s and 80s a stream of English authors came to prominence in the SF field and had novels published in Britain. To my mind there was a clear distinction in the type of books all these authors were producing compared to those emanating from across the Atlantic and that certain characteristics distinguished the work emanating from either of these publication areas. While Bob Shaw was a notable Northern Irish proponent of the form during this period and Christopher Evans flew the flag for Wales from 1980 something kept nagging at me as I felt the compulsion to begin writing. Where, in all of this, were the Scottish writers of SF? And would Scottish authors produce a different kind of SF again?

Until Iain M Banks’€™s Consider Phlebas, 1987, contemporary Science Fiction by a Scottish author was so scarce as to be invisible. It sometimes seemed that none was being published. As far as Scottish contribution to the field went in this period only Chris Boyce, who was joint winner of a Sunday Times SF competition and released a couple of SF novels on the back of that achievement, Angus McAllister, who produced the misunderstood The Krugg Syndrome and the excellent but not SF The Canongate Strangler plus the much underrated Graham Dunstan Martin offered any profile at all but none of them could be described as prominent. And their works tended to be overlooked by the wider SF world.

There was, certainly, the success of Alasdair Gray’€™s Lanark in 1981 but that novel was more firmly in the Scottish tradition of fantasy and/or the supernatural rather than SF (cf David Lindsay’€™s A Voyage To Arcturus, 1920) and was in any case so much of a tour de force that it hardly seemed possible to emulate it; or even touch its foothills.

David Pringle noted the dearth of Scottish SF writers in his introduction to the anthology Nova Scotia where he argued that the seeming absence of Scottish SF authors was effectively an illusion. They were being published, only not in the UK. They (or their parents) had all emigrated to America. Though he has since partly resiled on that argument, it does of course invite the question. Why did this not happen to English SF writers?

It was in this relatively unpromising scenario that I conceived the utterly bizarre notion of writing not just Science Fiction but Scottish Science Fiction and in particular started to construct an SF novel that could only have been written by a Scot. Other novels may have been set in Scotland or displayed Scottish sensibilities but as far as I know I’€™m the only person who deliberately set out to write a novel of Scottish SF.

It could of course simply be that there was so little SF from Scotland being published because hardly anyone Scottish was writing SF or submitting it to publishers. But there were undoubtedly aspirants; to which this lack of role models might have been an off-putting factor. I myself was dubious about submitting to English publishers as they might not be wholly in tune with SF written from a Scottish perspective. I also thought Scottish publishers, apparently absorbed with urban grittiness, would look on it askance. I may have been completely wrong in these assumptions but I think them understandable given the circumstances. There is still no Scottish publisher of speculative fiction.

With Iain M Banks and Consider Phlebas the game changed. Suddenly there was a high profile Scottish SF writer; suddenly the barrier was not so daunting. And Phlebas was Space Opera, the sort of thing I was used to reading in American SF, albeit Banks had a take on it far removed from right wing puffery of the sort most Americans produced. Phlebas was also distant from most English SF – a significant proportion of which was seemingly fixated with either J G Ballard or Michael Moorcock or else communing with nature, and in general seemed reluctant to cleave the paper light years. Moreover, Banks sold SF books by the bucketload.

There was, though, the caveat that he had been published in the mainstream first and was something of a succès de scandale. (Or hype -€“ they can both work.)

[There is, by the way, an argument to be had that all of Banks'€™s fiction could be classified as genre: whether the genre be SF, thriller, in the Scottish sentimental tradition, or even all three at once. It is also arguable that Banks made Space Opera viable once more for any British SF writer. Stephen Baxter'€™s, Peter Hamilton's and Alastair Reynolds's novel debuts post-date 1987.]

As luck would have it the inestimable David Garnett soon began to make encouraging noises about the short stories I was sending him, hoping to get into, at first Zenith, and then New Worlds.

I finally fully clicked with him when I sent The Face Of The Waters, whose manuscript he red-penned everywhere. By doing that, though, he nevertheless turned me into a writer overnight and the much longer rewrite was immeasurably improved. (He didn’€™t need to sound quite so surprised that I’d made a good job of it, though.)

That one was straightforward SF which could have been written by anyone. Next, though, he accepted This Is The Road (even if he asked me to change its title rather than use the one I had chosen) which was thematically Scottish. I also managed to sneak Closing Time into the pages of the David Pringle edited Interzone -€“ after the most grudging acceptance letter I’€™ve ever had. That one was set in Glasgow though the location was not germane to the plot. The idea was to alternate Scottish SF stories with ones not so specific but that soon petered out.

The novel I had embarked on was of course A Son Of The Rock and it was David Garnett who put me in touch with Orbit. On the basis of the first half of it they showed interest.

Six months on, at the first Glasgow Worldcon,* 1995, Ken MacLeod’€™s Star Fraction appeared. Another Scottish SF writer. More Space Opera with a non right wing slant. A month or so later I finally finished A Son Of The Rock, sent it off and crossed my fingers. It was published eighteen months afterwards.

I think I succeeded in my aim. The Northern Irish author Ian McDonald (whose first novel Desolation Road appeared in 1988) in any case blurbed it as “€œa rara avis, a truly Scottish SF novel”€ and there is a sense in which A Son Of The Rock was actually a State Of Scotland novel disguised as SF.

Unfortunately the editor who accepted it (a man who, while English, bears the impeccably Scottish sounding name of Colin Murray) moved on and his successor wasn’t so sympathetic to my next effort – even if Who Changes Not isn’€™t Scottish SF in the same uncompromising way. It is only Scottish obliquely.

So; is there now a distinctive beast that can be described as Scottish Science Fiction? With the recent emergence of a wheen of Scottish writers in the speculative field there may at last be a critical mass which allows a judgement.

Banks’€™s Culture novels can be seen as set in a socialist utopia. Ken MacLeod has explicitly explored left wing perspectives in his SF and, moreover, used Scotland as a setting. Hal Duncan has encompassed – even transcended – all the genres of the fantastic in the two volumes of The Book Of All Hours, Alan Campbell constructed a dark fantastical nightmare of a world in The Deepgate Codex books. Gary Gibson says he writes fiction pure and simple and admits of no national characteristics to his work – but it is Space Opera – while Mike Cobley is no Scot Nat (even if The Seeds Of Earth does have “€œScots in Spa-a-a-ce.”)

My answer?

Probably not, even though putative practitioners are more numerous now – especially if we include fantasy. For these are separate writers doing their separate things. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they have over-arching themes or are in any way comparable.

PS. Curiously, on the Fantastic Fiction website, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are flagged as British – as are Bob Shaw, Ian McDonald, Christopher Evans and Mike Cobley – while all the other Scottish authors I’ve mentioned are labelled “€œScotland.”€ I don’€™t know what this information is trying to tell us.

*For anyone who hasn’t met the term, Science Fiction Conventions are known colloquially as Cons. There are loads of these every year, most pretty small and some quite specialised. The Worldcon is the most important, an annual SF convention with attendees from all over the globe. It’€™s usually held in the US but has been in Britain thrice (Glasgow 2, Brighton 1) and once in Japan, to my knowledge. The big annual British SF convention is known as Eastercon because it takes place over the Easter weekend.

Edited to add (6/62014):- Margaret Elphinstone should be added to the list above of Scottish authors of SF. Her first SF book The Incomer appeared from the Womens’ Press in 1987, the same year as Consider Phlebas, but I missed out on it then. My review is here.
See also my Scottish SF update.

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