The Geomancer


Free Ebook: Sean Williams' The Crooked Letter

As you've probably already heard on Boing Boing or SF Signal or Bookspot Central, and as I've already Tweeted and Facebooked:

For the first time ever, Pyr Books is making one of our novels available for free as an eBook. Sean Williams' The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm: One is available now, in its entirety, as a PDF.

When mirror twins Seth and Hadrian Castillo travel to Europe on holidays, they don’t expect the end of the world to follow them. Seth’s murder, however, puts exactly that into motion.

From opposite sides of death, the Castillo twins grapple with a reality neither of them suspected, although it has been encoded in myths and legends for millennia. The Earth we know is just one of many “realms”, three of which are inhabited by humans during various stages of their lives. And their afterlives...

In the tradition of Philip Pullman and Ursula K. Le Guin and inspired by numerous arcane sources, the Books of the Cataclysm begin in the present world but soon propel the reader to a landscape that is simultaneously familiar and fantastic.

See why SFFWorld said:

"[E]xplores the nature of life, death, and reality. Big subjects, but with the precision of an archaeological expert, Williams is more than up to the task. There is a lot to admire in Williams' epic fantasy, the wide range of global religions and myths of which his afterlife is comprised, to the characterization of the protagonists. The story has the mythic resonance of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods, the dark fantasy/horror one might associate with something like Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga, the multiple universes/realities of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, and the strange, weird creatures one might associate with China Miéville’s Bas-lag novels. Williams imagined world is equal part those novels which preceded his, but fortunately, there is enough newness to both the approach and vision to make this the work of a singular vision...." [R]eading many of the other titles Lou Anders has published with Pyr, I shouldn’t have been surprised with both the quality of the writing and the breadth of Williams’ imagination. Like a lot of the other books published by Pyr, Williams captures what makes a tried and true genre like Epic Fantasy so popular and enjoyable of a genre and spins a tale with his unique voice. This is the type of book you finish and can’t wait to read the sequel."

Download your copy here, and thanks for helping us spread the word!


Too Much Pyr News to Keep Track of!

You go out of town for a week, and look what happens:

Ian McDonald's Brasylhas made the short list for the Nebula Awards!! Meanwhile over on Boing Boing, fellow-nominee Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) reviews Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days:
"Ian McDonald is one of science fiction's finest working writers, and his latest short story collection Cyberabad Days, is the kind of book that showcases exactly what science fiction is for. ...Cyberabad Days has it all: spirituality, technology, humanity, love, sex, war, environmentalism, politics, media -- all blended together to form a manifesto of sorts, a statement about how technology shapes and is shaped by all the wet, gooey human factors. Every story is simultaneously a cracking yarn, a thoughtful piece of technosocial criticism, and a bag of eyeball kicks that'll fire your imagination. The field is very lucky to have Ian McDonald working in it."
And Nick Gevers interviews McDonald on SciFi Wire:
"The title Cyberabad Days is a deliberate echo of the Arabian Nights. The stories are fairy tales of New Delhi. River was an Indian—novel, fat, many-voiced, wide-screen; Cyberabad Days is tales. Mumbai movies tell stories in ways that challenge our Western aesthetics and values. They're not afraid of sentiment, they're not afraid of big acting, or putting in song and dance, because Bollywood cinema's not supposed to be a mimetic art form. It's not about realism—that most pernicious of Western values—it's a show."
On io9, Charlie Jane Anders interviews Infoquakeand MultiRealauthor David Louis Edelman:
"I began with a vision of a futuristic world, and worked backwards to figure out how everything came together. Most of the backstory came about when I was writing the early chapters of Infoquake and just started randomly filling things in. When I'd get stuck writing the story proper, I'd just spend some time writing background articles. This kind of thing has always been attractive to me. I was the kid who bought AD&D modules just because I liked to read them, even though I didn't have anyone to play AD&D with. I'm the guy who always liked The Silmarillion better than The Lord of the Rings."
On the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast episode 75, host Shaun Farrel interviews End of the Centuryauthor Chris Roberson! Here's the direct download link. (And, as a reminder, here is part one and part two of my massive piece on Roberson's entire career. Part two wasn't up when I left town.)

These guys are making it hard for me to get caught up!


Publishing is dead (apparently)

The most recent issue of the London Review of Books contains, amongst its usual slew of interesting and stimulating reviews, this article by Colin Robinson bemoaning the contemporary state of publishing, bookselling and, indeed, writing itself. Some of it is old news: the end of the UK Net Book Agreement was a disaster (personally I'm no so sure); bookstores are losing custom to Huge Supermarkets and the internet (again, I'm not so sure) and publishers can't make any money ('Books have always been a low-profit item and in recent years margins have been shrinking even further. Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. ... [After other costs] the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion, rent and office expenses, wages – and profit.') But by the end of the piece, Robinson wanders into some genuinely grumpy old man territory. The real problem with publishing, he argues, is that everybody wants to be a writer and nobody wants to read:
But there is a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet. Electronic communication has generally made life easier for writers and harder for readers. Text is simpler to produce on computers, easier to amend and spell-check, and a breeze to distribute. No one can be more conscious of this than editors, who are now deluged with manuscripts, attached with consummate ease to letters explaining that if this particular book is not of interest, several others, perhaps more appealing, await on the author’s hard drive. But how does this technology serve the reader? For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around. Worse, the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.

This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.
This seems screwy to me. A wealth of people interested in writing is surely a symptom of the rude health of literary culture rather than anything else. More to the point, nobody can be a writer unless they read ... I'd estimate I read two to three hundred books (a good proportion of which I buy full-cost from bookshops) for every one I write. Besides, how this connects with the perennial success of celebrity-authored books (which have always been with us) is unclear to me. Why is Robinson getting so het up? Is it because he doesn't know how to fold cardboard boxes?


How Soon is Now?

I'm a slow reader. I'm a slow writer too, but that's a different post altogether --no, I'm a slow reader. Part of it's time constraint, much of it's to do with what I want from a book. To me reading isn't a progession of events, it's a senory wash; every part of the imagination is engaged, verbal, visual, empathetic, olfactory. Reading is a virtual reality that's entirely personalised to you. It’s not about where you get to, --we all know what that is; the end, the last page, the final period, no more story and we’re all headed for that one way or another; it's how you get there. It's not a train-track, it's a terrain. I like to take time to explore the landscape in my head, maybe stay a while, set up a little bivouac, camp out

Nicholas Carr wonders in the The Atlantic if the online world is changing the way he reads. What interests me here is not so much the dwindling of attention spans, as what I call 'nuggeting' --scanning only for the important points, the catching points where the eye and the brain latch on to information --a point of change or transition or a contrast. Nugget to nugget, getting the eye-kicks in at the required bpm. I wonder if that's what the commentariat mean when they say 'the storyline did not engage me' --the nuggets, the changes, the beats didn't come fast enough. I think it's a sad and bad thing. If we're exposed to only what stimulates, it deadens the response. Reading isn't only about finding out what happens next. Why hurry to the end? Take your time. There's plenty to enjoy on the way.

Carlo Patrini founded the Slow Food movement in protest against the opening of a McDonald's at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Slow Food is good food, cared-for food, food prepared and partaken with thought and time. Fast food is merely nutrition. I'm quite a fan of this way of thinking, with the implication in Fast Living that every moment must be validated by productive activity and accounted for to your peers. What do you mean, you spent a day cooking a single dish? You could have been at the gym/blogging/working/doing something valid. I've cooked things that take days to come together. I have a glorious Neapolitan recipe for ragu which takes a day and a night, and that's before eating time. If the 'now' of eating a burger hand-meal is twenty minutes, I've stretched the 'now' of ragu or 'Shoulder of Pork Donnie Brasco' --from the River Cottage Meat Book: you stick in the oven and' fuggedaboutit' for twenty four hours. Serve with old wine or better still, single malt at least twelve years cask aged. Whiskey is a drink of the long now.

Then there are slow sports. The whole 20Twenty cricket phenomenon has hit the headlines with the scandal around Sir Allen Stanford and his absent 8 billion, and the news series of the Indian Premier league looms on the horizon. The idea of 20Twentyis that it can played in ninety minutes in fast, action-packed stadium game, rather than drawn out over three or four days in a Test Match. What’s not to like about a sport that takes days to play and then can end in a draw if it rains?

Let’s walk a little more slowly now. In the 10th century Church of St Burchardi in Helberstadt in central Germany, the longest musical performance began in 2001. It's a piece by the late John Cage, Organ2/ASLSP --AsSLowaSPossible. It's written without any tempo instructions, so you can take it any pace you like. It was originally a piano piece but transposed for the organ, which can hold a note indefinitely -- as long as the key is pressed and there's air in the pipes, music will sound—it best iterates the meaning of the title. This performance of Organ2/ASLSP will end on September 5th 2640. It will take 639 years to play. The number was chosen because that is the number of years since the first organ was built in the Church and the start date for the performance. Weights are placed on the keys and pedals, pumps maintain an air supply. Only the first six notes have been played, the first two and half years were in total silence. There are only four pipes in the organ, more will be added as they're needed. The organ will be rebuilt around the music. --there are notes that won't come into the score for decades, even centuries. Notes always change on the 5th of a month, when they do, the church is always filled. It's multi-generation, long now task. I like the thought of families of musicians who, three, four hundred years from now, and still only part of the way into the music, will once or twice a year move a weight, add a pipe, attach a pedal. It's a commitment to a future. And then, on September 5th in the 27th century, the organ will finally fall silent.

Then there are the truly long pieces that stand on the edge of Deep Time.
The Clock of the Long Now is a project of the Long Now Foundation an international body dedicated to educating us to rethink our concepts of time away from dangerous and atomising short-termism, which has damaged society, economics and the planetary ecosystem. Think long-term, think longer than your lifespan --a thing that's very hard for us We can contemplate the void before we were born, we have difficulty contemplating the one after us. But the Long Now is science-fictional thinking --it says there will be a future, and more likely than not, a human future. Their simplest outworking of this philosophy is to write all year dates as five-digit: this is the year 02009. The Clock of the Long Now is a project to build a clock that will keep time for ten thousand years. Ten thousand is the period of time since the last Ice Age in which human civilization has developed to its present stare. The clock was first mooted in 01986 (doesn’t that immediately instil a sense of proportion?) by computer scientist Danny Hillis. A two meter tall prototype was installed in the Science Museum on London in 01999, and immediately chimed for the turn-over of the millennium (yes, I know pedants, I didn't build the clock, okay?)
The idea is to build a clock that will reliably run for ten thousand years. It ticks once a year. The century dial advances once every hundred years. Once every a millennium it chimes. The chimes have been designed by Brian Eno (who thought up the expression ‘Long Now’); Neal Stephenson has been involved with the Long Now Foundation and its thinking runs throughout Anathem. The plan is to build a clock on the monumental-scale on a special site at the top of Mt Washington in Nevada, in a series of nested room, where it will run, corrected by position of the sun, for ten thousand years. It will chime for the final time on 31st December 12000. What could power such a clock? The designers looked at various models –it needs to be stable, robust, transparent and repairable using Bronze-Age technology—and they settled on human muscle power. People wind the Clock of the Long Now. I like that. It implies a continuity in human affairs, and continuing dedication. Like the community playing out ASLSP in an old German Church, there’s an assumption of a task –not too onerous—that runs from generation to generation to generation. Dedication, and diligence. I like to try to imagine the winders climbing to the mountaintop and passing through the nested chambers to wind a clock set in motion thousands of years before. In that kind of time frame, you can see the constellations move. Climates change. Biomes sweep across the land.

But in a sense, this new idea is very very old. On the midsummer solstice the sun shines over the heelstone at Stonehenge; at dawn of the midwinter solstice it shines into the inner chamber at the heart of burial mound of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland. These are both clocks of the long now, investments in an unseen and unseeable future. As they say around there, ‘Sure when God made time, he made plenty of it.


Full (Non)Metal Jackets: Blood of Ambrose & Brasyl

Blood of Ambroseby James Enge
Cover Illustration © Dominic Harman
Jacket Design by Jacqueline Cooke

Brasyl(trade paperback) by Ian McDonald
Cover Illustration © Stephan Martiniere
Jacket Design by Jacqueline Cooke


As Good As It Gets

I hate to complain, but here goes. I’m completing the final volume (Prince of Storms) in a big-story-arc series, The Entire and The Rose. Storm is going great except for a recent vexing issue.

I had to write a scene where a heroic figure behaves like a complete ass. (Where was Joe Abercrombie when I needed a coach?) It was in the character’s make-up to respond to the particular circumstances in this way, but he also is tastelessly enjoying being very mean to an old woman. But he’s still got be, you know, kind of heroic too.

This scene had me stumped. Every time I thought about it, I’d gag. I’d never had writers’ block before, but I did now. I was under the weather, had a bunch of non-writing obligations. I had lots of excuses not to write. But everyday day I’m worrying about this scene. Then, when I could procrastinate no longer, I sat down and wrote the damn thing, hating every minute of it. At first.

I fiddled with the first sentence. How does the storm wall look at this moment? Wind blowing? OK, good. Nah, let’s not. Fidgeting done, I sat in one place for an hour and a half and just smoked on this thing. I hardly paused in my typing. When done, I thought the piece was so true for that character, and a pretty good scene. OK, I thought it was a great one.

Afterwards I wondered where the scene came from. Don’t worry, I still don’t know. But there’s this: a scene like that would have been out of my reach even a few years ago. And it’s not that I think I’m such a good writer now. A long time ago I gave up trying to assess my talent, a pointless exercise, plus stupid. No, I think the remarkable thing about the scene was not that I’m writing at the top of the game, but at the top of mine.

I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell interviewed for his book Outliers. Tuning it out, I missed his real point—which I gather has more to do with how successful people rise on a tide of advantages. But in passing he said that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. I reflected how I’ve probably written 1,000 hours/year for the last ten years. And this has resulted in my brain wiring itself to write a scene about a self-sacrificing hero who has a very bad hair day. This ability may seem unremarkable to some. But to me it was a cool insight, and may excuse many of my failings in life. (OK, that goes a bit far.) But as I heard George R. R. Martin say once, those parts of the brain that most people use for normal living, we writers use for making up stories.

I’m not saying this is good. Just that it got me out a jam. And too, if you’re just starting out writing and hating your work: 10,000 hours. 10,000 hours.

It's the Characters, My Dear Watson

I've temporarily put down Hal Duncan's brilliant-but-dizzying fantasy pastiche Vellum so I can concentrate on reading something that's a little easier to digest with screaming infants in the house. What am I reading? Elementary, my dear Watson! I'm reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Even though I've started the complete Holmes several times, I've never actually made it all the way through. And the more I read, the more obvious why that is: Doyle really didn't have enough material to fill four novels and fifty-six short stories' worth of paper. The plots are fairly trite, the mysteries are sometimes clever but mostly commonplace, the insights into human nature are fairly shallow, and the prose is expedient if unremarkable. (The pacing is good, I'll give Doyle that.)

But there is one thing Doyle had that makes up for all the other shortcomings: he had a frickin' incredible character in Sherlock Holmes himself.

Even 120 years later, the dude is sui generis. He's awesome. Holmes's contention that you can learn everything there is to know about someone by studying the smallest item in their possession -- as he does in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by reconstructing a stranger's history and identity by examining his hat -- is endlessly fascinating. So too his axiom that if you can eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

It's a great reminder that, in mysteries as in science fiction as in fantasy as in any other genre, good characters are the most important ingredient to the story. Doyle has proven that all it takes is one.

(Oh, come on, Dr. John Watson isn't really a character. He has one of the most commonplace names imaginable, he has hardly any distinguishing characteristics besides his war wound -- which moves from place to place depending on the story -- and his dialogue consists chiefly of such insightful statements as "My dear Holmes, you must be jesting!" and "Really, Holmes, I don't see how you could have possibly deduced that." The dude's a foil for Holmes and a surrogate for the reader, plain and simple.)

I find that when I think back on the great stories I've read in my lifetime, SF/F or otherwise, it's generally the characters that I remember. That's why I can barely remember a single plot from the original Star Trek, but I know the triad of McCoyKirk, Spock and Bones like the back of my hand. (Same goes for The Next Generation, though the only truly great character from that show was Picard.) That's why I remember Long John Silver but barely remember Treasure Island. And that's why, for all of J.R.R. Tolkien's insane worldbuilding and linguistic inventiveness, the first thing I think of when I think of The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf leaning on his staff (or Gollum writhing on the ground pining for his preccccccccious).

Ideally, in a great story you have a terrific plot that dovetails with the characters. (See Macbeth and Hamlet.) That's the whole point of a plot in a first place: to test characters' beliefs and abilities, their credos and promises and premises.

That's not to say that you can't have a great story without great characters. I've read most of the great SF novels of Doyle's Brit contemporary H.G. Wells, for instance, but the only memorable character I can recall from the canon is Dr. Moreau. The Time Machine might be one of my all-time favorite novels, but the only character from that book I can remember with any degree of clarity is Weena, the little Eloi woman who gives the Time Traveler a flower. Still, even though The Time Machine is a greater story than anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put to print, I'll bet Sherlock Holmes stays in the popular consciousness longer.

Update 2/19/09 @ 12:39 AM: Fixed the trio of Star Trek characters to Kirk, Spock and Bones. Duh, I knew that.

Two Epic Fantasy Novels Coming Your Way

Two epic fantasy novels, Matthew Sturges' Midwinter and Tom Lloyd's The Twilight Herald (Book Two of the Twilight Reign quintet) are now shipping from Amazon and other online vendors. They should showing up in physical stores in a week or so as well.

Midwinter: Winter comes to the land only once in a hundred years. But the snow covers ancient secrets: secrets that could topple a kingdom. Mauritaine was a war hero. Then he was accused of treason and sentenced to life without parole at Crere Sulace, a dark and ancient prison in the mountains, far from the City Emerald. But now the Seelie Queen – Regina Titania herself – has offered him one last chance to redeem himself, an opportunity to regain his freedom and his honor.

The Twilight Herald: Lord Bahl is dead and the young white-eye, Isak, stands in his place; less than a year after being plucked from obscurity and poverty the charismatic new Lord of the Farlan finds himself unprepared to deal with the attempt on his life that now spells war, and the possibility of rebellion waiting for him at home. The Twilight Herald is the second book in a powerful new series that combines inspired world-building, epic battles, and high emotion to dazzling effect.


An Introduction to Cyberabad Days

Like an establishment known for its fine wine, Mr Ian McDonald needs no bush hung in front of his enterprise to attract eager customers, but when hero editor Lou Anders asked me to write an introduction to Ian's collection of short stories, Cyberabad Days,I was glad to oblige. Here it is.

America Is Not The Only Planet
Paul McAuley

According to William Gibson, the future is already here -- it’s just not evenly distributed yet. A cursory glance at recently published science fiction shows that depictions of the future aren’t evenly distributed either: the majority of science fiction depicts futures dominated by American sensibilities and cultural and economic values, and inhabited by solidly American characters. Sure, there have always been writers like Maureen McHugh and Bruce Sterling, and more recently Nalo Hopkinson and Paulo Bacigalupi, who have embraced a broader, global view of the future, but the default mode of science fiction is that of American hegemony, and an assumption that the values of Western late-stage free market capitalism will endure pretty much unchanged even unto empires flung up around the farthest stars. This isn’t surprising, because modern science fiction was invented in the USA in the 1930s, and the USA is still the dominant market place for written science fiction, and it’s the major producer of science-fiction television shows and movies, too). But even before the ill-advised War on Terror and the global economic crash, it’s been clear that although the twentieth century can legitimately be called the American century, in the twenty-first century the nexus of technology-driven change and economic and political power will almost certainly be located elsewhere. In China or India or Brazil; maybe even in Russia or Europe, if those old powers can shake off the chains of history and truly reinvent themselves. But most definitely not in the USA.

British science fiction writers have a long tradition of filtering the memes and tropes of modern SF through their own cultural viewpoint; they’re the aliens in the Yankee woodpile. In Arthur C. Clarke’s space fictions, British astronauts drank tea and fried sausages in their lunar excursion vehicles, showed the heir to the throne how to jockey rockets into orbit, and returned alien artifacts to the British Museum rather than the Smithsonian. The New Worlds’ crew turned their backs on the Apollo programme and dived into inner space. And the Interzone generation of writers infused the heartland dreams of SF with a globalized ethos: the future as London’s babylon, a vibrant, sometimes frictive patchwork plurality of cultures -- Somalis in Kentish Town, Bangladeshis in Brick Lane, Turks in Green Lane, Congolese in Tottenham Hale, and so on and so forth -- writ large.

Ian McDonald, to get to the point of this introduction, was in on the globalization of science fiction right from the beginning of his career. His first novel, Desolation Road, mapped Bradbury’s Mars onto Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; later novels and stories featured Africa as a venue for transformative biotech and alien invasions; all showcased his ability to use cut-ups and mixmastered imagery appropriated from the vast storehouse of science fiction and the vaster stores of the happening world to create vivid bricolages crammed with eyekicks, to do the police in a variety of voices. River of Gods, widely praised and nominated for all kinds of awards, was a significant evolutionary leap in his game. Set in an epic, complex, and richly detailed depiction of a near-future India split into competing yet interdependent states, its narrative is likewise split into a multiplicity of viewpoints, detailing from a variety of perspectives the attempt by a community of artificial intelligence to win legitimacy and freedom either by reconciliation with or independence from their human creators. The stories collected here share the same setting as River of Gods. History runs like a river through them, yet they are closely focussed on the dilemmas of people caught up in the currents of social and technological change: a boy who dreams of becoming a robot-wallah, fighting wars via remotely-controlled battle robots, is given a sharp lesson in the real status of his ultra-cool heroes; a young woman who was once feted as a god tries to find a new role in a world where AIs are the new deities; the marriage between a dancer and an AI diplomat is overshadowed by the growing hostility between the human and machine spheres. McDonald’s characters are vividly and sympathetically drawn; his prose is richly infused with a rushing immediacy; the exoticism (to Western sensibilities) of India’s crowded and chaotic cities and her rich and ancient and complex mythology infuse and complement and transmute the exoticism of a future as rich and bewildering and contradictory as our present, a hothouse venue of technological miracles teetering on civil war and every kind of social change. Unlike the futures of default-mode science fiction, conflict is not resolved by triumph of thesis over antithesis, but by adjustment, adaptation, and accommodation. In McDonald’s Bollywood babylon, history is in constant flux, always flowing onwards, never staying still, yet preserving in the shape of its course certain immutable human truths. Things change; yet some things remain the same. The future of this clutch of fine stories is only one of many possible futures, of course, but it as exciting and challenging and humane and self-consistently real as any of the best: we can only hope that we deserve one like it.


Pendleton Ward's The Bravest Warriors

Longtime visitors to my blog, the Interminable Ramble, may recall me saying that Pendelton Ward's "Adventure Time", which I've raved about repeatedly, is probably one of the greatest things ever. Currently in development as a series for Cartoon Network, the original short recently aired as part of Nick's Random Cartoons show. Also featured on Random Cartoons a few weeks later was another Pen Ward short, one I'd not seen before but which I enjoyed almost as much as "Adventure Time." Now, thanks to the good folks at Cartoon Brew, "The Bravest Warriors" is up at YouTube and all of you nice people can enjoy it, too.

The Final Cover for AGE OF MISRULE: BOOK 1!

It's done. Here's my final cover illustration for the forthcoming Pyr edition of Mark Chadbourn's AGE OF MISRULE: BOOK 1 / WORLD'S END, the first of a spectacular epic fantasy series that debuts in the US this May. Blogs and websites all over the net have displayed a preliminary version of my cover illo that was provided for solicitation purposes. The version you see here is a first look at the final, finished illo you'll see on the books when they release.

One of the big improvements for this final version is that I did a much better underdrawing of the god Cernunnos and you can really see the difference when compared to the prelim. Also the little figures at the bottom of the final are more active than they were in the prelim. The drawing of Cernunnos is just plain old pencil on 17"x22" Crescent board, and I'll likely display it at a convention or two later this year, as well as having prints of the final art for sale.

Here's the final front cover design layout with everything in place. Lou and I bantered back and forth a lot about layout decisions. Together, I think we finally got it right. (Special thanks to Diana and Lee for last-second insights.) Can't wait for these books to hit the stores.....they're amazing reads.

How To Create A Buzz About A Book

Not my title, but Lucy Barrett's, in today's Guardian Media Supplement. It's an interesting piece: UK-oriented, but thought-provoking. I'm not sure it's entirely right, though. Barrett says:

A few years ago there was a lot of hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code. Although I had read nothing else by Dan Brown, I too felt compelled to buy it. And I read it avidly. Five years on, I could not tell you much about the plot, but I always thought that if a moment in time like that could be bottled, then publishers all over the world would buy it in crateloads and books could become real brands.

But books are not brands. Or are they? Penguin certainly believes that they could be.

Last year, Penguin signed a new author, Charles Elton. Because it was so excited about Elton, the publisher wanted to do something a little different to the usual press releases and distribution and pricing deals. Because of the nature of the book, a poster campaign would have not been the right solution. So it drafted in BBH - the ad agency behind Persil and Audi - for a project to launch Elton's novel, Mr Toppit. The agency's head of engagement planning, Jason Gonsalves - a man well known in the industry to think outside the usual confines of marketing - took on the challenge. The aim was to take a different approach from the usual run-of-the-mill press and poster ads and instead to create what he refers to as "heat" ahead of the launch.

Elton's novel is about a fictional book called The Hayseed Chronicles. If you read the Times two weeks ago then you might have spotted a full-page ad in the form of an announcement from a fake organisation called The Hayseed Foundation, which complained about the use of the family's name and other aspects of Mr Toppit. It also directed people to a website for a full statement on the matter. If you clicked on it you discovered that had 'crashed', and were redirected to a website dedicated to the book.
'OK,' Barrett concedes, 'so it's not the most amazing marketing idea ever, but it created an unusual buzz around the launch of a book.' I must have missed that particular buzz. Actually, I'd suggest that publishers' PR are continually thinking of ideas like this (better than, often) without needing to pay Advertising Agencies wallopping great fees to think on their behalf. The internet, as Barrett's piece goes on to say, has opened up a lot of low-cost options.

But there's a misthink in the process, I'd say. Citing the Da Vinci Code (a left-field success) isn't the best place to start. Because if we ignore black swans like that title, it's not books that are brands; it is authors. People's reading tastes cluster. If a reader chances upon a title they like they'll mine out the whole seam. This might mean reading all the other titles by that author; or it might be finding as many similar titles as possible. Gollancz have done a good job of plugging into this latter phenomenon with a set of well-chosen 'masterworks' series (they've a very nicely designed Space Opera series coming soon, which even includes a title by yours truly).

One significant SF buzz at the moment is the imminent release of the new China Miéville. The book is called The City and the City, and it looks very interesting; but my point right here is that people are more likely to think of it as 'the new China Miéville', and less likely to think of it as 'The City and the City'. That's how we conceptualise the field.

This doesn't mean publishers should be putting money into marketing their authors as people, of course. Authors as people are, more often than not, mild-mannered desk jockeys. I feel I can speak for pretty much all my fellow word-extruders when I say this. Authors are capable of almost heroic powers of underwhelmability when put on a public platform. But this doesn't matter, because it's not the author as a person readers are interested in (even if they think they are). It's the author's style; the distinctive quality that links an author's books. Bottle that, and market that as a brand, and you'd really be getting somewhere.


Writer's rooms

Inspired by SF-author and all round excellent person Paul Cornell, who posts images of his creative working space here, I've decided to take the plunge and make public a photo of the room in which most of my stuff gets written:

This, as the sharper-eyed amongst you will see, is the inside of a Costa Coffee Shop. It's the Staines Two Rivers branch, to be precise, because that's where I work, mostly (sometimes, for the sake of variety, I sit in other coffee shops in the Staines area). I install myself at a table, shortly after dropping my kids at school, and arm myself with: a large black coffee; my iRiver plugged into my ears; and a laptop that is very specifically not connected to the internet (or I'd spend my time surfing, not writing). The fact of the matter is I find writing at home in my study less productive, because there are simply too many distractions there. The key to getting the writing done is minimising the distractions.

Bonus: check out this excellent navigable e-verson of Roald Dahl's writing hut. Now that's a fine, basic, distraction-free zone.


Secret Services

As a reader and a writer, I have several obsessions, ideas and themes I return to again and again. Multiple realities and alternate histories. Masked avengers and heroic legacies. Immortal swordsmen and gaslit detectives. But one of my obsessions as a reader has been little exercised as a writer, until now.

I've always had a fondness for what I like to call "Secret Services," clandestine government agencies tasked with investigating and policing the supernatural. Last fall, after rereading all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and its related series with its BPRD, and watching with my daughter the first episodes of Jay Stephens's sublime Secret Saturdays (which ironically doesn't make my list, as the Saturdays don't appear to have any connection with the government, clandestine or otherwise), I got a wild hair. I would track down all of the examples of Secret Services I could find on my shelves, and profile each of them on my blog, Roberson's Interminable Ramble.

I figured that it would probably take me a few weeks to get through them all. Ha. Ha ha. Ha.

Now, months later, I've finally reached the end of my completely arbitrary analysis of Secret Services, ending with my own contribution to the list, MI8 as seen in my new novel End of the Century. And here they all are, for your delectation and diversion.
There are a number of other examples that were suggested to me as I went along, which ultimately didn't make the cut--usually because the agencies in question weren't "clandestine" but instead operated in worlds that knew all about them and the existence of the supernatural, or because they were clandestine but didn't have ties to any government. I am positive, though, that there are examples that I've missed, in which case I can only humbly point to that word "arbitrary" above.

If like me you're a fan of this kind of thing, I'd recommend checking out End of the Century, in stores now. And if you prefer immortal swordsmen, gaslit detectives, heroic legacies, multiple realties and the like--well, you might want to check out End of the Century, too, because there's loads of that kind of stuff in there, as well.

Genreville: Ask a Publicist

Over at Genreville, PW's Rose Fox's latest Ask a Publicist column asks, "What Are the Publicity Advantages and Disadvantages of Your Company's Size and Position in the Market?" Our own Jill Maxick kicks off the comments, but there are also responses from Gavin Grant (Small Beer), Corinda Carfora (Baen), Vincent W. Rospond (BL Publishing/Solaris), William Schafer (Subterranean), Vera Nazarian (Norilana) and others.

Here's a sample of Jill's response:
As a small to midsize press, it may be easier for us to establish a unique identity and brand (for many reasons: easier to maintain consistency and control; people tend to be more comfortable being fans of boutique operations rather than multinational conglomerates; etc.). There's less bureaucracy to deal with when making decisions or brainstorming ideas.


Newsarama Interview, Part Two

The second part of a two-part interview with me is up today on Newsarama. In this part, I got to talk some about Midwinter, and here's what I had to say about it:

I always use the catchphrase, "It's the Dirty Dozen with elves." It's story about how every 100 years, there's a winter that comes to the land of Faery. It's the land of summer twilight, where the weather never changes. What makes winter come is a big part of what the story is. We have our main character, Mauritaine, who was a one-time captain of the queen's royal guard. He's been imprisoned as a traitor but now has a chance to clear his name. In order to do that, he's going on a mission where his survival is not a requirement -- only the success of his mission. He and the people he chooses from among the other prisoners to help fulfill his mission cross the country, and we get to see what this place is like and who inhabits it. While all this is happening, there's a war brewing. And all of this sort of comes to a head at the same time.

There's a lot of people hitting each other with swords. There's a lot of wizards on battlefields hurling magical things at each other. There's a romance. And some humor as well.


Short short stories

Over at Boing-Boing they've just called wraps on their 'Undying love in ≤150 characters' competition (the challenge was to write a love poem in no more than 150 characters: "this is a contest where speed and cleverness beat diligence ... remember that spaces and punctuation count"). The results are definitely worth checking out, particularly with Valentine's Day just around the corner.

Reading it put me in mind of conversations I have had with publishers and editors about the increasing plumpness of certain sort of contemporary Fantasy and SF. It is, I suppose, easy to get caught in a feedback loop whereby readers' preferences for Fantasy novels in 1000 (or 3000) page chunks and the desire of publishers (and writers) to give readers what they want reinforce one another, and before long the shelves are stocked with books of baleinic proportions. Publishers I've spoken to take the view that a book should be as long as its story needs, and that most stories don't actually need 1000 pages. Certainly, one of my favourite Pyr titles from last year, Theodore Judson's Martian General's Daughter, generates an epic heft without butting its head on the 300 page ceiling. Some great novels are very long, of course; but the danger is that great length becomes a kind of end in itself, or even a fetish.

Ernest Hemingway once claimed, famously, that the best story he wrote was only six words long: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." A few years ago The Guardian ran a feature in which a bunch of contemporary writers wrote their own six-words stories. In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, and with a view to bringing some original fiction to Pyr-o-mania, I post, below, six six-word SF-y stories of my own. I invite you to add your own six-word stories in comments. And if we get 10,000 of them, I promise to endeavour to persuade Lou to publish them all in a short-short-short fiction anthology.

Your eyes are lovely. With wasabi.

‘The sky’s falling!’ ‘Don’t be stu—’

One of these words is poisoned.

A headless man? How last-century!

The one law of robotics. Kill!

The French for six is cease.


Stoning the Cast

I was just reading the latest in the AV Club's excellent reviews of Star Trek: The Series Without a Subtitle, and something occurred to me: old TV shows had a tremendous advantage over modern ones in casting aliens. One of the episodes under review is "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" in which the great Ted ("Lurch") Cassidy plays, not just an alien, not just an android, not just an alien android, but a murderous alien android with an Oedipal complex. He gets lots of good moments in the episode (maybe the best being one in which he demolishes Asimov's Three Laws in about three terrifying seconds). I don't agree with Zack Handlen (the AV Club reviewer) about Cassidy's costume in this episode: one wouldn't expect an ancient android built by nonhumans to be running around in blue jeans or a tuxedo. Another culture's clothes ought to look odd to us: if it were right, it'd be wrong.

But, really, the point I set out to make is: Cassidy makes this role work because he doesn't look or sound like anyone else on the set. (He's the tall guy in this old photo. Anyone who's heard his deep resonant voice isn't likely to forget it--see/hear a multitude of examples at YouTube.) His special effect was who he was.

Likewise, the original Andorian on Star Trek was played by Reggie Nalder. He's quite plausible because, even without makeup, he exuded a certain inhuman malignant intelligence.

Character actors of this sort are a dying breed in modern Hollywood (if they aren't utterly extinct), and there is an oppressive sameness to modern casts. Everyone is about the same height. Everyone is about the same age. Everyone sounds very similar.

The result isn't necessarily bad casting, but it can easily become boring casting. If I ran the zoo were in charge of rebooting the Star Trek franchise, I'd be trying represent a wider cross-section of humanity... and I'd be trying to find some actors who can maybe project a little alienness even before they go into makeup (or the CGI equivalent).


Roberts joins Pyr-o-mania

I was chuffed to receive an invitation from Lou to join the Pyr-o-mania blog, and agreed straight away. In fact both I and my 1970s-prog alter-ego The Adam Roberts Project have signed up. Our contributions will be on the "news, updates, random opinions" side of the brief, rather than the "general information about the Pyr line" side, which we'll probably leave to Lou: but we'll try and keep it interesting. Although, having said that, the most interesting thing I can offer right now is this photo of me with some municipal rubbish bins in the background.


Sturges & Enge: Talk About Fantastic!

Part One of an interview with Matt Sturges, author of the forthcoming fantasy Midwinter,is up on Newsarama. He talks about his comic book work - Jack of Fables, Shadowpact, Blue Beetle, House of Mystery, etc... - as well as his long association with Bill Willingham and Chris Roberson.
It wasn't until I was in college, when my friend Chris Roberson, who is now a novelist and is also the guy who's writing the new Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love mini-series this year, was the person who introduced me to comics. And the things he liked at the time were Legion of Super-Heroes and all the stuff that would become Vertigo. And because the Legion of Super-Heroes, at the time, made no sense to me, I sort of went for the Vertigo stuff.

Not that I didn't learn to love superheroes, but for a beginner, the Vertigo type stories were more self-contained. This was the late '80s, so this was when a lot of great stuff was happening in comics. One of the first things I read was Watchmen, followed by Sandman, then everything Grant Morrison was writing at the time. So those were the books that really formed my sensibilities about what comics could be and should be, and the potential of what you could do in a comic.
Meanwhile, James Enge, whose Blood of Ambrosewe publish in April, is on Rogue Blades talking about the character of Morlock Ambrosius, and the short story "The Red Worm's Way," which forms part of the backstory for the novel and appears in the anthology Flashing Swords Presents: The Return of the Sword.
I did a little fencing in high school, so I have some sense of how some parts of a sword fight might work. On a couple of occasions I’ve walked through part of a fight, just to have a sense of whether the footwork was possible. But I try not to over-identify with my viewpoint character: my job as the storyteller is very different from his.
Both are very interesting guys, set to make a spalsh in fantasy when their respective novels debut in just a few short weeks. Hmmm. Maybe they should read & interview each other?


Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel

Dave Palumbo recently turned in a beautiful painting for Joel Shepherd's forthcoming fantasy novel, Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel (coming out in Fall, 09). I usually wait for the type treatment before debuting things here, but Dave has put it up on his own site, so for those who want an early look, here it is. Nice, huh?


2008, Not Criminalized

Over on SFSite, Kay Kenyon's A World Too Nearcomes in at #7 in Greg L. Johnson's Best of 2008! Which is a good thing, since the sadly-now-defunct Realms of Fantasy wrote last year that, "It would be criminal if this novel didn’t make year’s best lists at the end of 2008.”

And look, the trade paperbackwas just released! Imagine that...