The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, June 23, 2011

News about stories

My short story 'Earth Hour' is now available to read at And my short story 'Sidewinders', in The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories has been nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Both of these stories can be seen as 'pilot episodes' for novels that I may write in the future (and that, in some other present, I already have).

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Why concrete smells like victory

Some time in my early teens, i.e. around 1970, a friend's family had to move house. They'd lived until then in a tenement flat which I recall dimly as maybe a little cramped for two parents and two boys, but perfectly respectable and comfortable: the father was a train-driver and the mother a housewife with a part-time job. But the building was being knocked down because a big new container port was being built just across the street. They moved to a maisonette in a newly-built block a couple of miles away, where blocks just like it were spreading up and over the hill. That Saturday, I helped them move, lugging chairs and boxes down the old stairs and up the new stairs time after time, and enjoying the van rides in between. The estate had a fresh raw feel: new-laid turf, new-planted beds, and the stairwell smelled of concrete. By evening the move was complete, more or less, and I suppose I had a cup of tea amid the cardboard boxes and went home. The next time I visited, everything was in place and it was great: bright and airy, with wide windows and central heating and wall-to-wall carpets and room, and probably rooms, for everybody.

The stairwell still smelled of concrete. There was plenty of green space around, but you knew that the new housing had just been built where a year or so before there had been nothing but green space, grass and gorse. For me at that age there was a thrill in the thought that this hectare or two of habitat had just been hacked out of raw nature. That increment of suburban sprawl felt like a frontier.

In the past few months I've seen documentaries about that time - a series about Scotland on film, a piece on Harold Wilson - and remembered what it was like when visible, tangible progress just kept happening. We didn't appreciate it enough, and I think I know why. Millions of people moved out of much worse places than my friend's family's old flat, out of slums and ruins and into new towns and suburbs. For the generation who'd been through the Great Depression and the Second World War - our parents - this and all that went with it was as good as socialism. For them the war was the revolution. This was their victory, this was what they'd fought for. It was their kids who didn't appreciate it.

Some guy who'd grown up in a New Town - it may have been Pat Kane, talking about Cumbernauld - said that it was a great place for young families with young children, and a great place to be a kid. You could scoot out the door on your bike and ride for miles and never worry about traffic, because the pedestrian lanes swooped over and under the roads. The school buildings were new and as bright and airy as high-tech factories and office blocks, which they often looked like. But once you'd grown up a bit and stopped being a kid and became a teenager, the new towns and suburbs had a lot less to offer.

My friend and I and the rest of our clique spent a lot of teenage Saturdays up in the hills above the town, looking down on the new high school and the gigantic IBM factory just a mile along the valley from it, loftily despising those of our cohort whose highest ambition was to move from the one to the other, and to live in one of the little boxes on the hillside. Most of us made haste to live in bedsits and squats and inner-city tenements, until we had kids and jobs ourselves and of course moved out to the suburbs, where ...

I want to breathe that air again and the smell of concrete and victory.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Paging Lucy Stone

Pyr now have a page up for The Restoration Game and it reminds me of how it all began. In September 2006 Carol and I were waiting for a flight, outside Queenstown airport in New Zealand, when we heard several calls over the PA for a passenger called Lucy Stone. We wondered who she was and why she hadn't turned up and who was looking for her.

Carol looked at me and said: 'That sounds like the start of a novel.'

Being a writer, I wrote it down in a little black book.

That incident is not the only one in The Restoration Game that's based on something that actually happened. Here's another.

In the second chapter, 'The Caucasian Heiress', there's a party in a flat in Edinburgh in 1979, which actually happened three or four years earlier, in Glasgow. A very different long conversation took place on that very sofa in the front hall, between me and Carol. I was really taken with her, but Carol was going out with someone else at the time, and I was just getting over someone, and ... that was it, just a long conversation. I felt very down the following day. I only by chance met Carol again in London in 1979, by which time I'd long forgotten the girl at the party. We only realised a few years ago that that party in Glasgow was when we'd first met, when we were both reminiscing and independently and simultaneously realised: 'Oh! That was you!'

And in that same front hall, in a moment of idle curiosity in 1976, I'd opened a dusty brown envelope addressed to a previous occupant (long gone but ... OK, OK ...) and found to my amazement and amusement an Annual Report of the Ural Caspian Oil Company, all of whose holdings had - it said there in black and white - been 'nationalised by the revolutionary government of Soviet Russia in 1919', but which was still issuing annual reports to shareholders (Dividends for the year: £0.00, yet again) and was still holding out for getting the Caucasian oil-fields back.

I had a dark chuckle about this and thought how quaint and yet how telling it was that these shareholders - the capitalist class in the most literal, prosaic, business-like sense - still hadn't got over the Russian Revolution. They were still in the restoration game.

A little over a year later, and quite without realising it, I was in the same game. And that's in the book, too.

Apart from that it's all science fiction. Really.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Onward into the virch

After 'The Vorkuta Event', another dark tale: my short story 'Earth Hour' is (for US readers at least) now available as a Original, and from Amazon Kindle with a notably snazzy cover and a bargain price of all of $0.99 for 5,477 words. [Updated And free to read at from 22 June!]

It's a dark tale because of its two or three gruesome moments, and because of that old inter-imperialist tension trope, but I like to think it's cheerful in its own fashion. It was inspired by stumbling and groping through darkened streets searching for a bar one hot Earth Hour in Sydney, an adventure that gave me bad Ayn Rand flashbacks and had me bending Carol's ear about how I hadn't seen the like since looking for a beer after 7 p.m. in Prague in 1977.

In other news, I've got a commission to write a short story for a special SF issue of Technology Review, about which I am well chuffed.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Curtain call

OK, I lied said 'probably' for a reason. One more poem, which I was still considering before the handover: Pseudoglyphs, by Francis Silva.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Human Genre Project

Peter Arnott, the newly appointed Resident Playwright at the Genomics Forum, is now also the new editor of The Human Genre Project. This online, open-ended anthology of new poems and short prose pieces inspired by genes and genomics has drawn contributions and even some media attention from around the world since its launch two years ago. I'm proud to have initiated it and have enjoyed editing it, and I'd like to thank all those who've contributed material as well as all who've been involved in setting up, publicising and running the site: Damien Noonan (who designed it), Emma Capewell and Alison Caldecott, Claire Alexander and Clare de Mowbray. My fellow writer in residence, Pippa Goldschmidt, was more or less a co-editor in the time we worked together, as well as a fine contributor.

It's always been our intention that editorial responsibility for the site should go to the current writer in residence, and I'm very happy to pass this on to Peter. He'll bring a fresh eye to evaluating contributions, and a new range of contacts and colleagues to solicit contributions from. He already has schemes up his sleeve, so watch this space.

Which is not to say I'll stop twisting arms myself.

Meanwhile, here's probably the last of my choices for the site, Premature Beauty by Stephanie Lynn Keil.

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

The New and Perfect Man

This week I received from PS Publishing my contributor copy of Postscripts #24/25 - The New and Perfect Man edited by Peter Crowther & Nick Gevers, in the sumptuous signed and tray-cased limited edition, an object of extraordinary beauty; a jacketed hardcover is also available.

Truth in advertising compels me to admit that the names of a few of the authors, mine included, are missing from the signature sheets. Suffice it to say that a batch of signature sheets were irretrievably and inexplicably lost in the post between me and the next name on the list. This is all of a piece with the quite remarkable ill-luck that has dogged my own story, originally commissioned many years ago for an anthology of Lovecraftian hard SF called The Cthulhuian Singularity, whose publication encountered eventually terminal delays and ... difficulties, the tale of which is not for mortal tongue to utter. I'm inordinately proud of 'The Vorkuta Event', but the vicissitudes of its publication have often made me mutter darkly about the possibility that the story is actually cursed.

However - all's well that ends well! It's published at last, in stellar company and in a very fine edition, delightfully illustrated. If any brave soul approaches me with a copy, I'll be very happy to sign it.

With my left hand, just in case.


The latest bumper edition of the POSTSCRIPTS ANTHOLOGY - almost 150,000 words in all!

•THE NEW AND PERFECT MAN -- Carol Emshwiller (cover story, Ed Emsh illustration)
•FRIGHTENED ANGELS -- Jeremy Adam Smith
•TO SEE INFINITY BARE -- Rudy Rucker & Paul Di Filippo
•THE DOG PARADE -- Lawrence Person
•THE LAST HERETIC -- Darrell Schweitzer
•WHISPER -- Richard Calder
•CALL ME -- Bob Strother
•SO LOVED -- Matthew Hughes
•EUPHORIA -- Robert Reed
•TRUE BLUE -- Darrell Schweitzer
•ASHES IN THE WATER -- Joel Lane and Mat Joiner
•CHILD OF EVIL STARS -- Anne-Sylvie Homassel
•DR. BLACK, THOUGHTS & PATENTS -- Brendan Connell
•THE ROOM BEYOND -- Ramsey Campbell
•THROWNNESS -- Adam Roberts
•IMAGO -- Keith Brooke

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