Monthly Archives: February 2012

Clockwatching

Like most self-published ebook authors I’m constantly engaged in a struggle against an obsessive need to check my sale stats – or clockwatching as I call it. I strive to avoid checking more than once a week since my mood can crash if I fail to sell anything in a 24 hour period. Nuerosis comes with the territory when you’re endeavouring to write stuff for which people may actually part with money so logging in to my sales report every five minutes really isn’t healthy. However, during my last permitted period of obsession I sat down to calculate just how many books I would have to publish in order to generate enough income at the current rate of sale to keep myself in the luxuriant style to which I’m accustomed. Turns out, once taxes are factored in, I need to publish 30 books. Pshaw! Easy you might think. However, it took me the best part of six and a half years to write my first book. At that rate I should make it to full time writer status by the age of 237.

To anyone worried that the above post means the sequel to Blood Song won’t be out for another six and a half years – all I can say is I intend to be writing pretty much every day from 1st April to 31st July after which I may have a first draft, if I don’t die in the attempt. If you like my work and want the sequel to appear as quickly as possible, I will be spurred to greater efforts by good reviews on Amazon or your bookseller of choice – and of course more sales, despite the fact that I’ll only be checking once a week (or once a month if I can manage it).


Stuff I Like: My Top Ten Sci-Fi Novels

The following list is likely to change by next week, but for now, my favourite ten sci-fi novels (in no particular order).

Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Or The Canterbury Tales – the Space Opera. A collection of linked stories related by disparate pilgrims to the mysterious, time-twisting planet Hyperion. This is the first volume in Simmons’ epic duology relating the cataclysmic fall of a galaxy-spanning human civilisation linked by a wormhole network. Themes of religion, war, colonialism and paternal love are explored via compelling characterisation and expert plotting. I just wish I knew what the Shrike is…

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Haldeman draws on his own experiences as a Vietnam veteran to imagine a memoir of humanity’s depressingly inevitable war with the first alien race it encounters on venturing into the stars. The time-dilation effects of faster-than-light travel make the experience of war a millennia-spanning nightmare of combat and continuous technological and social change for the narrator. A bleaker ending might have made this the All Quiet on the Western Front of Science Fiction, but still a remarkable achievement.

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Novel zero for what became known as Cyberpunk. The sheer amount of critical verbiage heaped upon this book over the years has somewhat obscured the fact that it is, in essence, a hugely enjoyable, fast paced, future-crime thriller (with ninjas). You do need to engage your brain to fully appreciate Gibson’s vision of a net- dominated dystopia, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

Use of Weapons by lan M. Banks
Possibly the darkest of Banks’s Culture novels. Former rebel general Cheradenine Zakalwe is recruited by Special Circumstances to perform a variety of morally ambiguous interventions in the affairs of potential future member-worlds to the Culture. Bleak, entirely unsentimental and featuring a trade-mark Banks twist, this is a compelling read. Just don’t expect flowers and rainbows at the end.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Richly detailed and featuring one of the most compelling central characters in sci-fi history in the figure of the messianic Paul Atredies. Herbert’s hugely influential epic plays out on a grand scale as feuding noble houses vie for control of the all- important desert planet Dune. Political intrigue, war and religion in the far-future, what’s not to like?

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
If you thought Avatar was an original story (did anyone?), think again. American Civil-War veteran John Carter takes refuge from some injuns in a cave and finds himself transported to Mars where he falls for a martian princess and fights a desperate battle to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Sound familiar? Burroughs’ elegantly efficient prose is a joy, although modern readers may find the commie-bashing allegory that is the Green Martians a little simplistic. Fingers crossed the movie doesn’t suck.

Broken Angels by Richard Morgan
Body-hopping secret agent Takeshi Kovacs traverses a less-than perfect pan- galactic future where identities can be recorded and transferred from one genetically engineered ‘sleeve’ to another. The second novel from the master of SF-noir is an intelligent high-tech actioner expanding the world first seen in Altered Carbon. High-tech weaponry, military jargon and firefights abound, but there is an important question arising from all the carnage: does identity have any meaning or even worth when it only exists as data?

Vurt by Jeff Noon
The book that generated an upsurge in US sales of the Manchester A to Z as American readers puzzled over the plethora of streetnames in Noon’s utterly compelling urban sci-fi. Noon presents a near-future society where gene-enhanced dogs are sentient and high-tech ‘feathers’ offer addictive virtual experiences. Featuring a cast of underclass youths feeding their feather addiction through crime, this could be seen as a sci-fi take on Trainspotting, if it wasn’t a hundred times better.

Voyage by Stephen Baxter

The only alternate history title on the list. Baxter draws on meticulous research to weave a convincing narrative of what would have happened if NASA had attempted to put on astronaut on Mars instead of building the great white elephant that was the Space Shuttle. A fascinating slice of speculative fiction for anyone still pining for the flying cars and moon-bases we were promised.

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton

The first volume in the Night’s Dawn trilogy ensured Hamilton’s place in the first rank of space opera authors. As much a horror-novel as a fast paced action-filled saga, we are treated to a vision of an advanced human future where the ultimate question is finally answered: what happens when you die? The answer? Suffice to say, it’s not good.


Stuff I Like: Dead Space

I’m always a good while behind the times when it comes to games, often picking them up a year or more after release. I tend to regard them as a treat, a reward for completing a story or finishing a draft, to be indulged only occasionally due to the huge amount of time they suck up. My most recent gaming reward was Dead Space (Visceral Games 2008).

Ah Space, cold empty space, where no one can hear you scream, or dismember astrozombies with a variety of power tools. The isolation, paranoia and inherent danger conjured by the human imagination when considering future sojourns across the inky blackness between worlds has long been a staple of horror based science-fiction. Films like Alien and Event Horizon envisage a uber-industrialised future where technology reliant humans are almost defenseless against unforeseen alien threats. Dead Space occupies the same aesthetic template, a future of deeply shadowed walk-ways, harsh fluorescent lighting, brutally functional technology and cavernous interiors.

Players are cast in the role of Isaac, an operative on a search and rescue ship sent to investigate the sudden loss of communication with the gargantuan mining vessel Ishiguro. It should come as no surprise that BAD THINGS have happened aboard the Ishiguro and Isaac is soon plunged into a battle for survival. Guided by two bickering and distrustful fellow crew members who may, or may not, know more than they seem, you fight your way from one corpse strewn deck to another, completing repair missions and dispatching hordes of former crew members now transformed by an alien contagion into ravenous rage filled monsters dubbed necromorphs (because ‘space zombie’ is a little cheesy).

As you would expect in this type of game various weapons are on offer, each wreaking a different type of carnage. My favourite is the power saw, useful when selectively dismembering attackers or cutting them off at the knees with a single shot. There’s also the stasis field, with which enemies and malfunctioning ship components can be placed in slow-mo time warp, and the Kinesis module which allows you to interact with useful objects, ah la the gravity gun in Half-Life. The action is also enlivened by Isaac’s repeated forays into micro-gravity environments or the airless exterior of the ship, where you are obliged to engage in dizzying jumps from one surface to another with a constantly shifting sense of up and down.

Where Dead Space succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of unease and desperation. The gore is graphically rendered, at least on a PS3, and body parts fly around with happy abandon taking full advantage of the physics engines available to modern game developers. Whilst those less attuned to the horror-survival genre may find this level of splatter prurient or excessive, it certainly adds to the impression of constant threat that pervades the game. Equally disturbing are the occasional encounters with crew members driven mad by the horrors they’ve witnessed. In one scene a doctor cuts her own throat as you watch helplessly from behind a glass wall. In another, you find an insane woman weeping in a corridor. She just stands there wailing in terror, not reacting to your presence and there’s an uncomfortable moment as you consider using your plasma cutter to put her out of her misery. Heightening the sense of knife-edge survival is the fact that Isaac is rarely at full health, often shambling along and groaning in pain, and frequently has barely sufficient ammunition to complete the next objective. Whilst this ensures a challenging gaming experience it can also bring some levels close to crossing the line from difficult to pointlessly annoying and repetitive. There are only so many times to you can saw a particularly nasty space-beastie into bloody chunks, only for his hitherto unseen mates push you in a corner and tear you to pieces, before it starts to grate.

This aside Dead Space is highly recommended and the sequel tagged as high priority on my Lovefilm list.


Writing news

Just finished the first draft of A Hymn for Gods Long Dead, the third in my Slab City Blues SF-noir series, set on a crime-ridden orbiting slum about two hundred years from now. I intended this one to be about 8,000 words but ended up with a 34,000 word novella which may grow even more in rewrite. I hope to get this published via the usual ebook outlets by mid-March, other commitments permitting. I’ll be putting it up as both a stand-alone ebook and as part of a collected Slab City Blues anthology – both for $0.99. The first two stories will still be available as free ebooks on Smashwords, B&N, Kobo, etc, but not on the Amazon Kindle store since they only permit publication of free books via their silly KDP Select thingamajig.

Once this is out of the way I face the looming mountain to climb that is Tower Lord, the sequel to Blood Song, Book One of my epic fantasy series Raven’s Shadow. Blood Song came in at 220,000+ words after rewrites and I expect the next one to be of similar length, a prospect which fills me with equal parts dread and delight.


Stuff I Like: the Works of David Gemmell

Once upon a time a lonely nineteen year-old, recently moved to a grimy and unforgiving London, walked into a sci-fi bookshop and picked up a copy of Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell. Twenty years later that nineteen year-old, increasingly rich in body weight and increasingly poor in hair, is the proud owner of every Gemmell book published and deeply sorry there won’t be any more.

David Gemmell was a former journalist turned fantasy author who penned 33 books, acquiring a global legion of fans and the distinction of having reinvented the genre of heroic fantasy. Beginning with Legend in 1984 Gemmell’s books were fast-paced tales of conflicted and often deeply flawed heroes usually engaged in seemingly unwinnable battles against impossible odds. In Legend we find aging but still mighty axe-wielder Druss and a motley band of cohorts attempting to hold back the tide of the Mongol-esque Nadir at the multi-tiered fortress of Dros Delnoch. The world of Legend, explored in subsequent books under the umbrella of Drenai Tales, contains many staples of heroic fantasy such as magic, quests and a cod-medieval social structure, but can also be read as an alternative history of Europe during the Mongol invasions. This willingness to borrow from history would be a continuing theme throughout much of Gemmell’s work, most notably in his Rigante saga, essentially an alternative history of Celtic Britain from the time of the Romans to the rise of Oliver Cromwell.

Whilst history and fantasy literature are obvious influences on Gemmell he was also clearly a fan of the western, as displayed in Knights of Dark Renown, a tale of chivalric heroism versus vampiric evil which owes as much to the Magnificent Seven as it does to Mallory or Stoker. However, Gemmell’s most effective exploration of western themes is to be found in Wolf in Shadow, the story of post-apocalyptic gunslinger Jon Shannow. Dubbed the Jerusalem Man due to his obsessive quest for the now fabled biblical city where he imagines he will find peace after a lifetime of violence, Shannow ranges across a future earth where geological upheaval has reversed the position of the world’s oceans. Shannow is a gun for hire isolated by his fearsome abilities with the antique six-shooters he carries, cleansing settlements of marauding outlaws before being politely asked to move on. However, the advent of the Hellborn, an army of Satan-worshippers intent on conquest and human sacrifice, places Shannow at the forefront in the war of salvation, rediscovering his humanity in the process. Distinguished by a wonderfully sombre ending, Wolf in Shadow is, in my opinion, Gemmell’s finest book, diminished only by a couple of unnecessary sequels.

But it was in the world of Greek history and legend that Gemmell was to find his greatest critical and commercial success. In Lion of Macedon Gemmell explored the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens through the eyes of real-life historical figure Parmenion, destined to become chief general to Alexander the Great. Gemmell apparently intended to write a purely historical novel but was persuaded by his publisher to include some fantasy elements as a sop to loyal readers, such as the magical sipstrassi stones that first appear in Wolf in Shadow, as do the immortal survivors of fabled Atlantis. Whilst this could be seen as a flaw in an otherwise fine example of historical fiction it did form a basis for the follow-up Dark Prince, a rich blend of history and fantasy that offers a magical explanation for the often capricious nature of Alexander the Great.

It was in the world of Greek myth that Gemmell’s work found a new level of popularity. Lord of the Silver Bow, the first in a trilogy taking a realist approach to the legendary war between Greece and Troy, garnered positive critical acclaim as well as a much wider readership. The works of Stephen Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell, amongst others, had engendered a renaissance in martially inspired historical fiction and stoked a popular appetite for more. Placing Aenais, Trojan hero and legendary founder of Rome, at the centre of the narrative, Gemmell drew on serious scholarship to paint a convincing picture of an ancient eastern-Mediterranean world torn by a trade war between two regional superpowers. In this decidedly non-Homeric version of events, the gods are invisible, the supernatural makes only a brief appearance and Helen of Troy is a minor princess of little consequence. Instead we are presented with a brutal world of clan loyalties and blood feuds where atrocity is countered with atrocity. Aenais is more noble but no less ruthless than his enemies the Mykenes, and the imperially ambitious Trojans under the loathsome and lecherous Priam are scarcely more deserving of admiration. Despite the brutality inherent in the situation Gemmell manages to find humanity amongst the bloodshed, with bisexual priestess Andromacche the compassionate counter-point to an unfolding Balkan war which has more in common with 1990s Bosnia than the bloody spectacle of Frank Miller’s 300.

Lord of the Silver Bow was followed by the equally impressive Shield of Thunder which relates the gradual descent into all-out war between Troy and Mykene. Gemmell had begun work on the final volume The Fall of Kings in 2006 when he died aged 58. The book was completed by his widow Stella, with the aid of Gemmell’s notes, and stands as a fine conclusion to a series that would most probably have propelled him to the first rank of popular authors. His death was a great loss to those of us who love a good story well told but his books are as fine a testament as any author could wish.


Hello world!

Hi, I’m Anthony Ryan, a writer of fantasy and science fiction. Welcome to my blog. This is where I’ll be posting news about my work and generally wittering on about stuff I like. Enjoy.