Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Revenger word cloud







We're still a month out from publication of REVENGER, but early word is starting to creep in and I'm anxiously waiting to see what the world makes of it.

Goodreads has a slew of reader responses - hop over to:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28962452-revenger?from_search=true&search_version=service

and you can read these observations.

Amazon.co.uk also have some early reader reviews:

https://www.amazon.co.uk

Meanwhile, Starburst magazine carried the first print review that I'm aware of, which you can read in its entirety here:

http://www.starburstmagazine.com/reviews/book-reviews-latest-literary-releases/15956-revenger

In the review, they say: "On the one hand, Revenger is definitely worth a go for space opera fans and followers of Reynolds. Yet even if your tastes are a bit more down to earth, the book is still a must-read as it is an unexpectedly personal and emotionally-driven tale of determination and retribution - with some great twists along the way and a gutsy heroine who will appeal to fans of young adult literature."

Which raises the fair point - is this a Young Adult novel or not? I suppose my answer would be kind of, sort of, not sure really, but what it is - I hope - is a straightforward SF novel that also happens to be accessible, and perhaps accessible to somewhat younger readers, in the same way that I was able to approach books like NOVA and DUNE when I was in my mid-teens. The central protagonists of REVENGER are both on the cusp of adulthood, but they're certainly not children, and the question of their legal identity as independent adults is one that rises in the early chapters of the book. I also wanted to write a book that was fun, colourful, fast-paced, with lots of danger and excitement and larger-than-life characters - a sort of TREASURE ISLAND in space.

It's certainly a shorter book than some of my other novels, coming in at 140,000 words, but that's still lengthy by some standards and in my mind it only reflects a general desire to write more economical books, one that I've been trying to enforce on myself for some while (and often failing, as I'm more than willing to admit). The sheer fun I had in doing the Doctor Who novel (around 110,000) was certainly part of that process, but I also appreciated the energy and pace of Joe Abercrombie's HALF A KING, and I was strongly motivated to try something similar, but in an SF vein. And yes, Joe's book is supposedly YA but I read it with perfect enjoyment as an adult and I never once felt I was being talked-down to. None of this precludes me writing something huge and sprawling again in the future, indeed I'd be surprised if I didn't, but for now I'd like to hold myself to the discipline of a shorter word count.

Meanwhile, for your edification, I offer the Word Cloud above, courtesy of:

http://www.wordclouds.com/

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Royal Society science books




Today sees the release of the shortlist for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book prize for 2016, for which I was one of the judges. The shortlisted titles are:

The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)
The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (Head of Zeus)
Cure by Jo Marchant (Canongate)
The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (Granta)
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bodley Head)
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

It was a pleasure - and a considerable challenge - to whittle the initial set of books down to these six excellent volumes. Without patting ourselves on the back too much, I think the judging panel (under the able guidance of Bill Bryson) managed to come up with a healthy selection of topics, ranging from the history of science to the most cutting-edge developments in genetics. While we had to let go of many rather wonderful titles - and each of us championed individual books that did not necessarily find favour with the other judges - we nonetheless arrived at a very encouraging consensus pretty early on in the discussion. That said, the hard work is still ahead of us, in that we have to select a winner from these six - it won't be easy.

The Guardian has a short article about the selection:

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

REVENGER - two sketches and an excerpt

REVENGER will appear in a little under six weeks, so I thought I'd post another excerpt and a couple of sketches from my working notebook.

In the extract, the two recently hired sisters - Fura and Adrana Ness - are getting their first taste of working in the Bone Room of the sunjammer Monetta's Mourn.







Cazaray spun the wheel that opened the door to the bone room.

‘Go in,’ he said quietly. ‘Just don’t touch anything – for now.’

Adrana went in first. I followed on her heels, taking care never to lose my hold on the wall. Cazaray came after us, then closed the door, turning the inner wheel so that it latched itself tight against the frame.

It was quiet in there. I couldn’t hear anything of the life-support system, nothing of the sail-control gear – the occasional whirr and whine of its winches and pulleys had become familiar since the sails were run out – nothing of the usual clamour and chatter of the crew.

The room was a sphere, about fifteen spans across, and the skull was floating in the middle of it like the main exhibit in an art gallery. It was trussed up in a kind of bridle, a frame made up of metal bars and struts, and this bridle was fixed onto the walls by dozens of springs.

‘Quieter and stiller we hold her, the better,’ Cazaray said. ‘Trig’s damped the ions, and that helps, but it would only take a jolt to rattle something loose.’

From end to end the skull was about as long as my sister was tall – about eight spans. It was the colour of a bad tooth, rotten to the root. It wasn’t anything like a monkey skull. It was stretched out, all snout and jaw, more as if it had belonged to some giant horse than a person. It was made up of lots of parts, joined together like a sort of puzzle. A dark fissure ran across it, stitched together with a ladder of little metal sutures. Whoever had done that had worked a long time ago, and with care.
The skull had also been drilled and tapped in many places. Slender probes and wires had been pushed through the bone into the not-quite-emptiness within.

‘Tell me what you know,’ Cazaray said, never raising his voice above a murmur.

‘It’s old,’ I answered.

‘How old?’

‘No one knows,’ Adrana said.

‘Good answer. And it’s the truth, too. They were finding skulls in the Sixth and Seventh Occupations, but whoever left them must have been through these parts a lot earlier than that. They don’t fit the morphology of any of the aliens we know about today, not the Crawlies nor the Stingtails or the Tuskers. Some people who ought to know better think they come from dead Bonies or Bug-Eyes, but I’ve seen enough of them to know that can’t be true. My guess is that the coves who used to own these bones died long before people got going. It was some other aliens who left the skulls here, and they used them just the way we do, like a kind of squawk.’

From opposite sides we peered into its mysteries.

‘It’s not empty,’ Adrana said. ‘There are little lights, flickering on and off.’

‘Whatever mind was in that skull,’ Cazaray said, ‘it’s long gone. There’s no grey, no brain tissue. If ever there was. But the machinery that was in that brain, it’s still there. That twinkly stuff still twinkles. Still doing something. What, we don’t know. Trying to regain contact with others of its kind? Trying to send signals back home, to whatever part of the Swirly they came from? Singing an endless song of death? No idea, and best not to dwell on it. What matters is what we can do with those patterns. We can imprint our own messages on them, treat them like carrier signals.’ He nodded at the equipment racked around the walls, all neat and clean and organised. ‘That’s what all this hardware is for. And it’s a Bone Reader’s job to send and receive those imprinted messages. The skull won’t work for everyone. Doesn’t even work for me some days. But you have the lamps for it, I think. Ready to try?’

I was about to answer, but Adrana said the word first. ‘Yes.’

‘Behind you. That apparatus hooked onto the wall. Slip it over your head.’

It was a bony metal contraption, halfway between a crown and a torture device. She settled it over her scalp, pushing hair out of the way. A pair of metal muffs folded down over her ears, and there was also a kind of visor that could be pulled down over her eyes.

‘You too, Arafura,’ Cazaray said.

I unhooked my own apparatus and fiddled it onto my head, not as prettily as Adrana had done.
‘That’s the neural bridge. None of this works without the bridge. To speak to the skull you have to mesh with its expectations. The messages come through almost subliminally – it’s like catching a whisper on the wind. The bridge is the focusing device, the amplifier.’

‘I don’t feel anything,’ I said.

‘You’re not plugged in yet. Draw the contact wire from the bridge. Reel it out, all the way.’

The wire was an insulated spool, running into the left side of the bridge. It ended in a little nub.
‘You can hook the wire into any of those probes on the skull, or you can splice onto one of those wires. Gently does it. Normally one connection is sufficient, but you can hook into multiple contact sites if you’re chasing a weak signal. There’s a splitter on the wall.’

Adrana was bolder than I, but even she hesitated to make the final connection. I shared her misgivings. I could not help but feel there was going to be some kind of psychic jolt, like an electrical shock, as soon as the contact was made.

I thought of Garval, tied to her bed.

‘It’s all right,’ Cazaray said gently. ‘Just do it. No one gets the full rush the first time. What happened with Garval . . .’ He shook his head, clearing the thought. ‘You’ll be lucky to pick up anything, even if you’ve got the talent.’

I picked a probe near the open eye socket and clicked the wire home. Not caring to be second, Adrana made her own connection almost simultaneously. The skull bounced lightly on its springs for a few seconds, before the motion ebbed away.

We looked at each other across the skull, daring each to feel the first twinge of contact.

‘When we’ve had a little more experience, when you know where the probes lie, you’ll prefer to work in darkness. Now, empty your minds. Let your senses drift. I’ll be silent.’

There was nothing.

I guessed there wouldn’t be any sense in holding my breath – I couldn’t have kept that up for long – but still I tried to become quiet in my head, ridding my mind of everything, becoming a room with an open door.

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to wait.

Adrana was waiting as well. Our eyes were averted, looking down, but every now and then one of us couldn’t resist glancing at the other, to see how they were doing. Once or twice our eyes met, and the silliness of that moment made us glance quickly away, until the impulse to look built up again and we ended up doing exactly the same thing.

After a couple of minutes of that, I resolved to jam shut my eyes, and not care whether Adrana followed suit.

Cazaray was present, but he made no sound, no observation. Still there was nothing, no whisper on the wind, not even a hint of that wind. Just silence, and the absurd, slowly forming idea that this could and would never work.

I do not know how long it was before Cazaray spoke.

‘Disconnect. Try different probes, a little closer to the base.’

We did as he suggested, this time disturbing the skull much less as the probes went out and in.
I still felt nothing. But for the sake of showing my determination, I floated with my eyes closed, willing something – anything – to enter my head.

‘I think . . .’ Adrana began.

But she fell silent.

‘You felt a contact?’ Cazaray asked.

‘I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t anything. It came and went, like someone standing behind me for a second. A cold presence.’

‘It’s best not to read too much into the first session. The more you want that contact, the more you’re likely to imagine it.’

Despondent, I eased the neural bridge from my scalp, messing my hair back into shape where it had been pressed down. ‘Maybe she was wrong about us, Cazaray.’

‘When I began, I was in here three weeks before I got so much as a twitch out of it. The skull has its moods. It had to get used to me before it was willing to talk.’

Adrana relieved herself of the neural bridge. We uncoupled from the skull and hooked the bridges back onto the wall.

‘Better luck next time, I suppose,’ I said.

‘Luck has nothing to do with it,’ Cazaray answered. ‘What you have is in your lamps, and there’s no mistaking that. You’ll come through, and those bones will talk.’ Then he moved to the wall and retrieved one of the bridges for himself. ‘Normally it’s best to work alone. But you can watch, if you like.’

‘I thought it was getting harder for you,’ Adrana said.

‘It is.’

Cazaray put on the bridge, adjusting it until it was a tight fit over his blond locks, then spooled out the contact wire and slipped it into several probes in succession, concentration making a mask of his face until something eased and he gave the slightest of nods, followed by a half-voiced: ‘I have it. It’s faint today, so you shouldn’t worry about not feeling anything.’ Then he started babbling. His eyes were open, but they had begun to roll up under his lids. We caught words, phrases, but never the whole of it. ‘Down to the Sunward processionals . . . two orbits beyond the Dargan Gap. Opening auguries for the Jewel of Sundabar. Fire Witch, dropping sail at Auzar – assistance required. Wedza’s Eye will close in eight days, eight hours.’

More of that. He stayed in that babbling state for two or three minutes, before his eyes snapped back into focus and, like a man waking from a restful sleep, he at last moved his hands to the neural bridge.

‘Did you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ we answered.

‘I don’t always remember all of it. And a lot of it isn’t worth remembering – it’s just noise, certainly nothing Captain Rackamore needs to hear.’

‘And this time?’ I asked.

‘Did you hear me speak of auguries? That’s useful knowledge. Intelligence. Someone else’s idea of where and when baubles will open, and for how long. Knowledge like that can make or break an expedition.’

‘Then why would anyone share it?’ Adrana asked.

‘They don’t mean to.’ Cazaray unplugged from the skull and hung up the neural bridge. ‘We operate alone, for the most part, but there are other ships that we’ll occasionally help out, if they’ve done the captain a favour in the past. Some of the other ships, though, operate together all the time. They’re run by governments, or the private combines. And they have to communicate, to coordinate their efforts. Squawking’s all right – but it’s slow, easily intercepted, and signals don’t always get all the way through the Congregation, especially if the Old Sun’s putting out a storm. The superloom – that’s what we call the system of the skulls – is much, much faster, it’s hard to jam it, and there’s not much signal attenuation.’

‘But you’ve just listened in,’ I said.

‘They take matched skulls, matched pairs of readers, and put them on different ships. But if you’re good – if you’re experienced, and you’ve got a skull that’s especially sensitive in its own right – like this one – then you can catch a rumour of a rumour.’ Cazaray gave a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I make it sound easy.’

I smiled. ‘You don’t.’

‘You said it was hard to jam,’ Adrana said. ‘But you didn’t say it was impossible. What would it take to do that to a skull?’

Her question had been innocent enough. But something clouded his face when Cazaray answered us.

‘Nothing you’ll ever need worry about.’










































Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond



After the disappointment of the confused, incoherent Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond is at least a film that can be enjoyed on a surface level without too many objections. I confess that I'm not a huge fan of the rebooted series as a whole, finding the films to be visually spectacular, excellently cast, genuinely moving and/or funny in places, but otherwise shallow, with gaping inconsistencies in basic plot logic - a failing I also found in the first of the new Star Wars films, which started unravelling in my head almost before I'd got to the carpark.

But Star Trek Beyond is probably the best of the three, and a desperate improvement on the second. Once again, I can't find anything to complain about in the casting; all the central roles are beautifully handled by their respective actors, with the recurring parts inhabited with a wonderful conviction, while also bringing fresh touches to these long-established figures. It also, for the first time, felt much closer to what a Star Trek film ought to be like, with a clear narrative line and a strong sense of Starfleet both growing out of and emblematic of a Better Future - and we could certainly use a bit of that optimism now.

The opening sequence - after a comedic episode with Kirk trying to negotiate a peace treaty with some scrappy, puppy-like aliens - is terrific, with the Enterprise docking inside a ridiculously vast Starbase, with some lovely shots of the ship sliding through glassy tubes that penetrate the main living space of the enormous structure. It's also completely bonkers, with several cities worth of skyscrapers folded up into a gravity-defying Escher-like interior landscape, so complexly visualised that it's a fair bet it's going to have to turn up later in the film just to justify the rendering costs. Minor quibbles were starting to circulate at this point: if it's the twenty third century, and this structure has been built anew in space, why is the civic architecture of these buildings so crushingly familiar, as if all the skyscrapers had been transplanted from Toronto, Sydney, etc? Why do the plazas and malls look like they're contemporary civic settings CGI'd into this virtual space? Because they are, I suspect, and perhaps it's no bad thing as the entire sequence functions as a loving throwback to those episodes in the original series where a Starbase would look suspiciously like a 1960s university campus or shopping complex. It did, however, all remind me of the similar alien mall-scape in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Things quickly go awry when the Enterprise leaves the Starbase to respond to a distress signal, which in grand Star Trek fashion turns out to be a trap, and before long we're back into the same "villain with superweapon" plot which underpinned the two previous episodes. But at least the story is well handled this time, cross-cutting between the main groups of characters in a way that was mostly followable and developing a story that, while in no way groundbreaking, at least still feels narratively satisfying by the time you've left the cinema. The main new character, Jaylah, is very good and it would be nice to see more of her in the follow-up, presuming such a thing happens.

So it's a colourful, fast paced action film with some very enjoyable character beats, impressive effects and a plot that does at least withstand superficial scrutiny. What it isn't is a film in any way interested in new ways of thinking about the future. It's put together very well, and it's thrilling in parts, but if science fiction is the literature of ideas, this isn't science fiction.


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Beyond the Aquila Rift is out

Today sees the UK publication of my huge Best Of collection, "Beyond the Aquila Rift" - around two hundred and fifty thousand words of short fiction, plus exclusive story notes. Here's the UK cover:



And here's a link to the Amazon page for the book:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Aquila-Rift-Alastair-Reynolds/dp/1473216362

None of this would have happened without the indefatigable efforts of Jonathan Strahan and Bill Schafer, who worked together to produce the Subterranean Press edition, which eventually appeared a few weeks ago. I am grateful to both of them, and the whole Sub Press team, for their enthusiasm and support over many years. I am also indebted to Gillian and Robert, my editor and agent respectively, for working hard to make it possible to have this near simultaneous release of the UK edition.

Publishers Weekly said:

“This collection of 18 long and short stories by Reynolds (the Poseidon’s Children series), one of the most gifted hard SF writers working today, displays his facility for building fascinating settings and integrating romance and mystery plots into space opera… Readers will greatly appreciate the breadth and variety of this deeply enjoyable collection.”

While Paul di Filippo, writing in Locus Online, said:

"Combining the melancholy fatedness of early George R. R. Martin, as found in Dying of the Light, with the clear-eyed cosmicism of Stephen Baxter, Reynolds gives us a galaxy where the gravity of astronomical phenomena is counterbalanced by the dark energies of the human heart. This collection should stand as a cornerstone of the contemporary SF edifice, showing us exactly how to elegantly fuse those separate but overlapping magisteria."

The complete story selection is as follows:

Great Wall of Mars
Weather
Beyond the Aquila Rift
Minla's Flowers
Zima Blue
Fury
The Star Surgeon's Apprentice
The Sledge-Maker's Daughter
Diamond Dogs
Thousandth Night
Troika
Sleepover
Vainglory
Trauma Pod
The Last Log of the Lachrymosa
The Water Thief
The Old Man and the Martian Sea
In Babelsberg
Story Notes

Quite a lot to get stuck into, and a nice selection of material covering different modes and themes, I think. The Orion cover, illustrated above, is gorgeous, but I'd be remiss in not showing the equally lovely illustration done by Dominic Harman for the Sub Press version. Dominic and I communicated closely during the execution of this illustration, as Dominic was determined to get the lighthuggers just right - and he did.



The Lettered edition is sold out, but Sub Press still have copies of both the Trade and Limited versions, and if you go for the latter, you'll get the slipcased one with my cover:


Rather pleasingly, this edition also has a fold-out rendition of Dominic's artwork, and splendid it looks as well. Really you can't go wrong with any of them.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Slow Bullets wins Locus award

Although I couldn't be there in person, I was delighted with the news that Slow Bullets had won the novella category in this year's Locus awards, held in Seattle. I've never won a Locus award before, although I did get close with Revelation Space, so this was doubly welcome, especially as I've always found the Locus staff to be excellent company.

Locus has the complete breakdown of results:


Congratulations to all.

And here's a photo (picture by Patrick Swenson) of Jacob from Tachyon Press kindly accepting the award on my behalf:



I wrote a few words for Jacob to say on the night:

"Thank you to all who voted for my story. I'm overjoyed to have won this award, especially for a story
that was written as a personal project over a very long period, with no real idea of what the world would
make of it. Marty Halpern did his usual meticulous job as editor, and I couldn't have hoped for a more
enthusiastic and committed publisher than Tachyon, who did a superb job in making sure the story got
noticed and read. Thank you to Jacob, Jill, Jim, Rick and all at Tachyon for giving the book such an excellent
push. I'd also like to thank those writers, including Michael Bishop, Allen Steele and Michael Swanwick who
were so kind as to provide endorsements for the book. Once again I was blessed to be part of such a welcoming
and generous field as ours. Thank you!"

I can only reiterate that it was a pleasure from the word go to work with such people, and everyone else who had any involvement in the distribution and promotion of the book, including Subterranean Press and the Washington Science Fiction Association.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Why I'm for the UK remaining in the EU

In a very short while the UK will be holding a referendum on the country's continued membership of the EU. At the moment, judged on the polls (which are of course often inaccurate, as with the last general election), things seem to be heading the way of a vote to leave.

I think it would be a great shame were this to happen. As a young scientist, I benefitted tremendously from the freedom of movement allowed within the EU. I'm not talking about my time within the European Space Agency, which is a non-EU organisation, although that experience certainly helped frame my views on European cooperation and integration. But having left ESA in 1994, I was immediately able to take up a two year postdoctoral position at a Dutch university, and I did so with the minimum of hassle and paperwork. Once again I was immersed in a pan-European working environment which I found stimulating and encouraging.

After my postdoctoral position expired in 1996, I found myself unemployed. There were a handful of possible job opportunities back in the UK, but I had grown fond of the Netherlands, and my partner at the time, who later became my wife, had a full-time job. She too had benefitted from freedom of movement within the EU. Disinclined to leave Holland, therefore, I signed on for unemployment benefit from the Dutch state, while continuing to look for work opportunities within the area where we lived. I applied for one job in Delft, working on satellite monitoring of the Earth's atmosphere, but was not made an offer.

Luck eventually intervened, in that I saw an advert in Nature for a newly founded business in Haarlem, which would revolve around developing scientific software for astronomical applications. It seemed right up my street, almost literally so, in that Haarlem was only a short train ride from where we lived near Leiden. I applied for the job and was suitably astonished to learn that the driving force behind the business was an old colleague of mine - and a Welshman, like me, who had settled in the Netherlands. We met for an interview, which went well. While there was a strong prospect of working for the company in the future, though, there was still going to be a few more months of unemployment. I therefore continued to sign on, while going through the motions of looking for work. It was an odd, unsettling time, but - in hindsight - a blessing, because it enabled me to dust off the abandoned manuscript of Revelation Space and finally give it the polish it needed prior to submission. That was early 1997, and the book sold two years later. Those months of unemployment were therefore literally life-changing, and I owe them to the Dutch state and EU regulations on worker's rights.

Many of the arguments for and against membership of the EU seem to revolve around economics, which seems to me to be an extremely narrow metric. Even if we are better off out of the EU, which we probably won't be, so what? This is already a wealthy country, and leaving the EU won't mend the widening inequality between the very rich and almost everyone else. More than that, though, look at what would be lost. Friendship, commonality, freedom of movement, a sense that national boundaries are (and should be) evaporating. When many countries (including the Netherlands) moved to the Euro, it was a joy not to have to pack Guilders, Belgian francs, Deutschmarks, for a simple drive to visit to family in Germany a few hours away. The eradication of visible borders did not lead to a smearing out of regional cultures, but instead it made it much more easy to sample those cultures and gain a deeper sense of European history. I never stopped feeling that living in the EU was a thing to be proud of, and more than ever I am content to think of myself as European before British. I therefore hope that the Remain vote will win the day.