Category Archives: Journalism

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The future is queer

I spent most of my youth being told to get a haircut. As a boy of slight build who usually had hair down around my shoulders, I looked a bit too much like a girl for the comfort of the home counties. Society gets angry when gender roles are blurred, precisely because those roles are a fragile act put on with clothes, hairstyles and makeup. If they weren’t enforced, clearly defined gender roles would not exist.

I take comfort in the idea that most of the young men telling others to get a haircut today are rushing home to play at being buxom dark elf warrior maidens in World of Warcraft. Gamer culture has gained a bad reputation for misogyny, but it seems male gamers are more than a little curious about playing out female gender roles. It makes perfect sense. The real world enforces gender roles, but virtual worlds let gamers express the feminine parts of themselves that don’t fit in with their masculine identity.

Read more @ Guardian books.

 

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Are we already living in the technological singularity?

news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”

Read more @ The Guardian

Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream?

Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.

Read more Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream? | Books | theguardian.com.

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THE GOLEM AND THE DJINNI – a masterpiece of fantasy literature

Unforgettable images shimmer from the pages of The Golem and the Djinni. A palace of glass and gold glittering in the Syrian desert. The bustle and heartbeat of New York in 1899, populated with a cast of intriguing characters, two of them creatures of magic. Chava is a golem crafted by a rogue rabbi, her intended master dead and buried at sea, she is free to do as she wills. Ahmad is a djinni, a spirit of fire and of the desert, trapped in human form by a bracelet of iron. Both must confront the same question; what is the price of freedom when you have been created only to serve the will of others? Around this theme Helene Wecker’s debut novel crafts an unforgettable fantasy story. The Golem and the Djinni takes us deep in to the immigrant experience of 19th century America, and the contrasting cultures of Judaism and Islam that meet there. But the grand themes never overwhelm the human story that Wecker weaves from the lives of two quite inhuman characters. Comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell come easily, but Weckers novel achieves a depth of meaning and human emotion that Clarke’s work never truly touched. The Golem and the Djinni is a masterpiece of fantasy literature that readers will discover with joy for many years to come.

Originally published in SFX magazine.

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Forget Iron Man-child – let’s fight the white maleness of geek culture

Fantasy has become a sandbox for immature masculinity. What kinds of stories could we tell if our writers tackled the hard truths of male identity and privilege?

The coming year threatens to be another period of white, male heroism in geek culture. Another summer of superpowered men in the cinema. Another year with only 4% of video games having female lead characters. Another year where a list of 30 hotly anticipated fantasy novels lists only seven by women, and only one by a writer of colour, where a science fiction shortlist with two women out of five is greeted as some kind of victory.

Money is the bottom line in the uniform white maleness of geek culture. The entertainment conglomerates that produce most of this content fear the female geek because they might disturb the profit margins. Boys buy more toys. And so the evil eye of corporate marketing departments is fixed upon them.

Read more @ Guardian books.

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Does the Wheel of Time deserve a Hugo award?

The Wheel of Time began turning in 1990. Initially planned as a trilogy, by the time of author Robert Jordan’s death in 2007 the series had grown to a mighty 12 volumes. Working from Jordan’s notes, Brandon Sanderson added a further three volumes of eternal struggle. This sprawling fantasy epic has gone on to sell some 44m copies in north America alone, with global figures estimated as closer to 80 to 90m. That may be about a squillion times more than every Booker prize winner put together, but The Wheel of Time remains oddly unacknowledged beyond the fans that adore it.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin

Digital nomads are a 21st century counter culture. The choices they take today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.

The global network enables us to react to the world as a whole. – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The center was not holding. But that was a good thing.

It was a world caught in the fallout from credit bubbles, financial collapse and bank bailouts. Of Occupy protests on the streets of our cities and illegitimate wars that disappeared from the news cycle as fast as they had been invented to fill it. It was a world waiting for a recovery that would never arrive. Most of us were trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together as we remembered them being. But others were asking if the way things had been, had ever really been that great.

There was a revolution in the air. We’d packed the world full of laptops, smartphones and iPads and stitched them all together with the Internet. The year was 2013, and our world was bristling with new technologies that were only beginning to fulfill their endless potential. There were seven billion people on the planet and for the first time we could all talk to each other as one global network. There was no rule book, and we were starting to realize that there never had been.

Many smart, creative people were looking at the deal being offered and wondering what fool negotiated their side of the bargain. Students were quitting schools that wanted them to take on crippling lifelong debt. Graduates were saying no to unpaid internships that offered no promise of work. Skilled professionals were quitting jobs that wasted their creative potential. People were selling up, moving out and hitting the road, with only a backpack, a laptop, and a few creative ideas about how they were going to pay the bills. In the 30s they would have been called Bohemians. In the 50s Beats. In the 70s Hippies. Now it was 2013, and people were starting to call them ‘digital nomads’.

At some point in mid-2013, I realised I was one of them. More and more of my working life fitted into my laptop. One day, I realized I could pack up the laptop, go anywhere in the world I wanted and take my work with me. I spent the summer in France and then decided I wanted to go further. The nomad network was buzzing about Chiang Mai, a small city in the northern highlands of Thailand, and the district of Nimmanhaemin, that had somehow become a mecca for digital nomads. I was writing a book, and because I could do it anywhere, I decided to do it there. I didn’t even know what I wanted to find, so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.

Continue reading at The Ascender.

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The Indie Sci-Fi Revolution

In late 2012 Hugh Howey was an unknown writer of science fiction, even to most dedicated science fiction readers. And yet he had sold over 250,000 books, optioned film rights to the legendary Ridley Scott, and agreed a six figure book deal with major publisher Simon & Schuster. All this before his dystopian sci-fi novel had even, in traditional terms, been published.

Howey has gone on to become the poster boy for a small but quickly growing band of sci-fi and fantasy authors who are independently publishing their own books, and making a small fortune in the process. These ‘indie authors’ are surfing the crest of a wave driven by the rise of the e-book, the smartphone and the Amazon Kindle. And the popularity of the sci-fi & fantasy genres is putting them at the cutting edge of the revolution.

Sci-fi and fantasy writers have always had an air of mystery. Men and women in high castles sharing their outlandish visions of other worlds. We know them by their attention catching names; Issac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville. Or the enigmatic middle initial employed to give that air of mystery; Arthur C Clarke. Robert A Heinlein. Iain M Banks. J R R Tolkien. Their books are proclaimed as winners of the Hugo or Nebula awards, as though the powers of the universe had decreed that you must read these books.

These mysterious authors and their wondrous stories fascinated a generation of young sci-fi and fantasy fans, growing up in the sprawling suburbs and grey cities of the mundane world. Through the decades sci-fi evolved as more than just B-Movies and pulp fiction, but as part of an escapist counter-culture. It could be hard to find. Books had to be hunted out in the back rooms of 2nd hand bookshops. Finding a stash of Analog or New Worlds magazines at a car boot sale in Bracknell was the geek equivalent of striking gold. And many sci-fi fans held the same dream, that one day it might be their middle initial gracing the cover of a sci-fi novel. A dream that, until very recently, seemed nigh on impossible.

And then came the internet.

In the land of the technically incompetent, the semi-HTML literate geek is king.

Sci-fi culture had already grown to embrace comics, role-playing games and video games, and a rapidly multiplying number of film and television franchises. But with the internet came the realisation that, even if you were the only sci-fi geek in your family, school or entire town, you were not alone. There were thousands and even millions of geeks, all over the world, and now they could talk to each other. And sci-fi fans didn’t just populate the internet with Star Trek sites, they were building the technology of the web itself itself. In the land of the technically incompetent, the semi-HTML literate geek is king. And geek culture took to its new status with gusto.

Sci-fi and fantasy writers now have a celebrity status that reaches far beyond sci-fi fandom. Neil Gaiman isn’t just a rockstar writer of kick-ass fantasy, he’s the leader of a tribe of 1.8 million Twitter followers that makes him one of the best known entertainment brands in the world. Cory Doctorow doesn’t just write groundbreaking visions of the near future, he’s influencing the world of today as a leading voice of tech culture. Being a sci-fi writer is now seriously cool, and seriously big business. And tens of thousands of people are after the job.

Until very recently, getting a gig as a sci-fi writer meant penetrating the labyrinthine world of sci-fi publishing. The major sci-fi imprints like Del Rey, Tor, Gollancz and Orbit have been gatekeeping what does or does not reach the shelves of major bookshops – and hence the imagination of most readers – for many decades. Some argue that those gatekeepers ensure quality in pursuit of creativity, others that they stifle diversity in pursuit of profits. The truth is probably equal parts of both. But the gatekeepers have lost control of the gate, and a mob of ambitious wannabe sci-fi writers are pushing their way through.

In early 2010 Amanda Hocking was a struggling, unpublished writer living in a tiny apartment in Minnesota when she chose to self publish one of her completed manuscripts. Amazon’s independent publishing platform Kindle Direct Publishing had then been active for just over two years. But the platform, which allows writers to self publish an ebook to anyone with a Kindle device for up to 70% royalty, was still unproven. Hocking uploaded her first book to the Kindle store, the Twilight inspired urban fantasy Switched, expecting only to earn a few hundred dollars to pay outstanding bills. Six months later Hocking had sold 150,00 copies of her Trylle trilogy, and is now estimated to have earned over $2.5M from Amazon ebook sales alone.

The time and discipline required to write a great book are still beyond all but a very few.

The roster of authors joining Amanda Hocking in the ‘Kindle Millionaires’ club has grown steadily. Fantasy author J.R.Rain has sold a reported 400,000 books through the store. Between them Tina Folsom’s 14 paranormal romances have sold over 300,000 copies. B V Larsen and H P Mallory, both prolific authors with dozens of novels for sale, have reported sales of over 200,00 copies each. Brutal economics underly the massive popularity of the Kindle platform with indie writers. With a 70% royalty, compared to as little as 5% offered by major publishers, writers stand to keep much more of the profits of their labour.

Tens of thousands of indie writers are now flooding the Amazon store, and its competitors; Apple iBooks and Kobo, with a tidal wave of indie published sci-fi books. A recent hunt for quality self-published sci-fi books conducted by The Guardian received over 800 recommendations, but found only 5 worthy of publicising to readers. Self-publishing an ebook is technically within the reach of almost anyone who wants their share of stardom, but the time and discipline required to write a great book are still beyond all but a very few.

But for those who can, indie publishing may now be the first choice for talented young writers. At least Hugh Howey believes so. “Self-publishing is the best way to launch a career.” Claims the worlds bestselling indie author. Rather than spend years whooing agents and editors, writers can now get their best work directly to readers. “Your books never go out of print. Both the ebook and the print on demand book will be available for decades. And you own your work forever.”

Howey’s words reflect the attitude of many indie writers, for whom self publishing is as much about taking and keeping control of their own creativity as it is about becoming the next Stephen King. But Howey is clear that in the age of indie publishing, it is readers who chose the sci-fi stars of tomorrow. “You will be responsible for connecting with readers, for promoting your works, for answering emails, for all the things that give your work a fighting chance. If you aren’t interested in doing these things, self-publishing is not the way to go.”

Originally published in SFX magazine.

Thanks to Hugh Howey for his contribution.

My Top 5 Picks of Indie Published Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels

Wool by Hugh Howey
Mankind clings to survival in underground Silos, where dystopian government rules and justice is harsh. But is the world above all that it seems? Gritty storytelling built around a classic Hard SF concept.

Switched by Amanda Hocking
Wendy Everly is just an ordinary young woman, until she meets Finn Holmes and discovers her true royal heritage. Fans of Twilight will enjoy this urban fantasy saga.

Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
Epic fantasy may have gone to the dark side, but Thief of Swords drags it back to the more light hearted and humorous side of sword & sorcery.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
A group of astronauts marooned on the Moon, a forgotten Nazi artefact and a quest through parallel dimensions, all wrapped up in classic golden era sci-fi style. What more could you ask for?

The Vorrh by Brian Catling
Bakelite robots lie broken – their hard shells cracked by human desire – and an inquisitive Cyclops waits for his keeper and guardian, growing in all directions. A classic of weird fiction praised by the great Alan Moore himself.

Kitchener’s coin will fuel the fantasies of UKIP

Liberal Britain’s complacent attitude to its own colonial history is a gift to the nation’s resurgent far right.

First published at New Left Project.

Symbolic issues are fiercely fought over by politicians because they matter. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the decision by the Royal Mint to place Lord Kitchener’s head on the new £2 coin got its political stamp of approval from the standing Tory regime before it was announced to the public this week.

No doubt Lord Kitchener’s pivotal role in the development of the concentration camp was raised at the relevant committee meetings. The Germans horrified the world with the strategy of confining and starving the women and children of an enemy population, but it was the British who deployed it to brutal effect in the Boer War. Kitchener’s actions in South Africa saw an estimated 26,000 innocent women and children die of disease and starvation in these camps.

That alone would seem sufficient to keep Kitchener from being honoured on our coinage. The iconic ‘Your Country Needs You’ recruitment poster that made Kitchener’s moustachioed visage famous played a pivotal role in luring a generation of young British men to their deaths in the trenches of the Western Front. They were told it would be over by Christmas, but Kitchener knew better. He had seen wars of barbed wire and machine gun, and drove the recruitment of the nation’s largest ever army to feed in to the meat-grinder of mechanised warfare

Liberal Britain has been slow to muster a response to the new £2 coin. Fantasy writer Juliet McKenna’s blog post on the subject is an informative insight in to what leads otherwise perfectly nice people to consent to a war criminal on their coinage. World War One, in McKenna’s assessment, has been safely rewritten as a Very Bad Thing. Everyone has seen Blackadder and read Michael Morpurgo. We don’t need to worry about representing a hero of colonialism on our coins, because everyone will view the image through the pacifist tinted worldview of liberalism.

It’s a good thing that Michael Gove is on hand to remind us not everyone likes Blackadder. Indeed beyond the middle class, theatre going world the liberal worldview is very far from universal. Or even widespread. For many Britons, as Gove well knows, any war fought by Britain must be supported as a just war. But the complacency in McKenna’s argument goes deeper still. It assumes that Britain’s imperial history is, indeed, history. That the very same forces of greed and expansionism that lead Kitchener to brutalise the children of  Africa are not still at play. That they did not lead us in to the tragic, futile wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that they do not fuel our powerful—and profitable—weapons industry today. These are not just complacent assumptions. In the face of a resurgent right wing, they are frankly dangerous.

But authors of epic fantasy aren’t the only people content to see a British colonial hero on the £2 coin. A far worse kind of fantasist is cheering at the news. Will the legions of embittered supporters of Nigel Farage interpret Kitchener’s moustachioed visage as a salutary lesson against Britain’s imperial history? For UKIP, the Kitchener coin is a massive victory delivered by a home goal from the liberals they despise so deeply. It is the symbolic return of Britain as world power; the Britain that ruled the waves; the Britain that damn well didn’t let Bulgarians in the country, but sent heroic men like Kitchener out to subdue them by the sword. That’s the nasty fantasy that is UKIPs narrative of our imperial past. And from now on it will be stamped on to every new £2 coin in the land.

How did this come to pass? There’s a whole cabinet of Tory and Lib Dem ministers who might have had a hand in the affair. Who might have stood up for Kitchener? Who has the undoubted rhetorical skills to justify the presence of Lord Concentration Camp on the £2 coin? Who might have argued that Britain should not be ashamed of its imperial history? That much good came from Empire? That traditional values should be respected, and that a Conservative government should not back down from employing nationalistic symbols like Kitchener in the face of potential outrage from the left? To me, all this smacks unmistakeably of Michael Gove. Are you going to let him get away with it?

The sci-fi you will be reading in 2014

Science fiction has arguably been the mainstream of pop-culture since the internet displaced TV at the centre of our lives. The younger, geekier internet audience is living in a weird, complicated world, and sci-fi provides the metaphors that let us talk about it en masse. Young audiences aren’t stupid, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t killing the box office just because it’s the latest teen sensation. It’s how a generation growing up in the ruins of late-stage capitalism are articulating the experience. And SF today is articulating an ever wider range of experiences.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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The Tao Te Ching: ancient wisdom for modern times

Two thousand four hundred years after it was composed, we need the Tao Te Ching‘s lessons in self-awareness more than ever. Little can be said with absolute certainty about the origins of the Tao Te Ching. Consensus suggests it was written around 400BC by one Laozi. Laozi translates simply as “old master” – a hint that the author’s (or authors’) true name has been lost for ever.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Is there a higher purpose to science fiction?

I have been a reader of science fiction for my entire life, picking Arthur C Clarke of my mum’s book shelves as soon as I could read. For the last decade I’ve been a student of science fiction. I’ve read as widely and deeply in the genre as possible, often writing about what I have learned for my regular column in The Guardian. I’ve studied at the Clarion writer’s workshop, and had the good fortune to meet, interview and learn from many of science fiction’s greatest writers. I’ve become involved with the academic discussion of science fiction, at conferences including Weird Council, New Genre Army and The Weird. Today the wonderful team at The Ascender have published my longform essay Rebuilding the World, which brings together many of my thoughts to date on science fiction.

Extract from “Rebuilding the World”.

“It’s not outrageous to think that science fiction inspires science. Captain James T Kirk’s five year journey on the starship Enterprise inspired both the name of the first space shuttle, and some of the mobile phones we carry today were modeled on Star Trek communicators. In the 1980’s the “cyberpunk” stories of William Gibson were an intrinsic part of the emergence of “cyberspace” and virtual worlds. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge is limited to what we know, while imagination reaches into the unknown. As science radically expanded what was known through the 20th century, we needed ever more powerful feats of imagination to guide its development and shape its outcomes. And among the most important products of the 20th century imagination was science fiction.”

At the heart of my essay for The Ascender is a question that I run in to again and again in considering science fiction. It’s a question that has sometimes brought me in to conflict with the wider science fiction community, even as it has helped me find many other like minds in the genre. Is there a higher purpose to science fiction?

We’re used to discussing science fiction in the the context of entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with it fulfilling that role. But science fiction seems to offer something more. It represents a meeting point of the sciences, which are quickly transforming our world, and the arts, which seek to understand the world and our lives upon it. It is, as the esteemed literary critic John Clute so aptly argues, a planetary literature, that has emerged in step with our evolving understanding of our own world. But most importantly, in my view, science fiction represents a powerful re-emergence of the human imagination. That thing which Einstein called “more important than knowledge.”

In Rebuilding the World I try and think about what the higher purpose of science fiction is to me. I don’t think it is a question easily answered, but I do think it is a debate worth having. Does science fiction have a higher purpose? Or should it think of itself simply as an entertainment? If it is a planetary literature, what does it say about our planet? I’d love to know you thoughts.

Read the full essay at The Ascender.