Author Archive

Genre for Japan


You may have seen it mentioned on Twitter (by Neil Gaiman, no less). You may have seen it mentioned on Facebook or on various blogs. But this week – until Sunday April 3rd, in fact – Genre for Japan is running one heck of an online auction to raise funds for the British Red Cross Japanese appeal, in the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsnunami that struck that country three weeks ago.

Genre for Japan is a collective of authors, editors, publishers, bloggers, reviewers, and people just wanting to help out, who have organised 137 incredible lots of science fiction, fantasy and horror-related items. From signed ARCs, to guest appearances in novels, to writing critiques by professional writers and editors, there is, as the saying goes, something for everyone.

But enough gabber from me. I’ll let them take over:

Genre for Japan is a charity auction designed to raise money for the victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We are using JustGiving to donate money to the British Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Appeal.

Responses to our plea for donations have been more generous than we could have hoped – we now have over one hundred fantastic items up for auction!

Now all we need is for you to get your wallets out and bid, bid, bid!

There is a full list of the items here, or you can browse the items by categories on our front page such as artwork or signed copies.

The auctions will close at midnight on Sunday 3rd April. Bidding will take place in the comment boxes on the website. Winning bidders will be notified by e-mail after bidding closes. A full list of auction rules has been posted on the website.

Some of the prizes include:-

  • One year’s supply of books from Tor!
  • Editing/critiques from professional authors and editors!
  • A character named after you in soon-to-be-published novels by Al Ewing, Adam Christopher, Suzanne McLeod or Jon Courtney Grimwood!
  • Limited-edition cover art from Solaris Books and Gollancz!
  • Custom sketches from comic artists and manga artists!
  • Signed books from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett!

Bidding opened on Monday, and pledges have already reached nearly £7,000 ($11,300). And word is that more lots are going to be added this week.

There are no geographical restrictions on bidding or on the auction items, although you need to bid in British pounds Sterling. Just grab your favourite currency calculator, like this one, and convert your bid before posting. Bidding ends at midnight BST on Sunday April 3rd – that’s Saturday 2nd April at 4pm West Coast US, 7pm East Coast US.

It’s a marvellous cause and the generosity of the SF community has been amazing – not only in the bids pledged so far, but in the incredible collection of items on offer. Ever wanted to own a bestselling fantasy author for two days? Or pick up a signed Terry Pratchett ARC from the author’s own library? Now is your chance. Please give generously!

For more information, their website is: http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com, and they are on Twitter as @genreforjapan. If you want to donate something to auction, it’s not too late – email the team at genreforjapan@gmail.com.

Happy bidding!

The great Escape Pod Lovecraft readalong


I’m a fan of Howard Philips Lovecraft. In fact, he’s my favourite (deceased) author. Perhaps unusually for someone of my age, I didn’t actually come to him through the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which seems to have been the main route of discovery for most people. In fact, I was introduced to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos through Doctor Who, specifically the Virgin New Adventures.

A couple of years after Doctor Who was originally cancelled in 1989, the Virgin publishing group acquired the rights to publish original, novel-length Doctor Who fiction. With no television revival on the cards, this was a godsend for fans. The New Adventures initially promised stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen”, and to start with this mainly meant a slightly disconcerting touch of nudity, sex and violence. But after a while the range settled down and produced some of the best Doctor Who stories in any form. It’s hard to believe the first volume, Timewyrm: Genesis came out twenty years ago this June. It’s even harder to believe that Paul Cornell’s first ever published novel, Timewyrm: Revelation came out twenty years ago this December. Paul wrote another five New Adventures novels, one of which – Human Nature – he adapted into one of most well-regarded episodes of the current TV series in 2007.

One of my favourite New Adventure novels was All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane. This novel is quite remarkable – not only is it a Sherlock Holmes crossover, but it’s also a story in the Cthulhu mythos. But more than just having the Doctor joining forces with Holmes and Watson to battle the Old Ones (and, let’s be honest here, doesn’t that sound like the most outrageously awesome story idea ever?), it went further by implying that a variety of creatures from the original television series – mostly the weird, nebulous sort like the Great Intelligence and the Animus – were actually part of Lovecraft’s pantheon, applying names familiar to Lovecraft fans to these TV monsters. All-Consuming Fire was just the start – from then onwards, various writers wove Doctor Who and Lovecraft together, further embedding the original TV series in the mythos. For such an extensive contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s amazing it is almost entirely overlooked by Lovecraft fans.

From there I was hooked on Lovecraft. This was 1994, before the internet, before Amazon, when things went by snail mail and everything was slow. Acquiring Lovecraft stories or books was difficult. They were out of print, or at least unavailable in New Zealand. I found a couple of ancient paperback anthologies in a used book store, but one was mostly material attributed to Lovecraft but really mostly written by others, including August Derleth, while the other was a strange collection of his, shall we say, crappy stories like The Cats of Ulthar and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

It’s all different now, of course. Lovecraft died in 1937 so all of his writings are in the public domain. I have a set of Arkham House hardcover anthologies, but you can download everything he wrote for free. Fifteen years on from when I was first introduced to Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and Yog-Sothoth, not only have I read everything he wrote several times over, but his name is spreading as a master of 20th century American horror.

Which is where the Escape Pod Lovecraft readalong comes in. All of Lovecraft’s material is available online, and most of it is pretty short. So, running in publication order (not chronological order of writing), I’ll be reviewing and commenting on his stories. All of them, the good and the bad, the short and the long. The excellent HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast have been running through Lovecraft’s canon for a while now – and they really are worth checking out – but I’ll be giving my take on the stories here.

But… Lovecraft on Escape Pod? Well, while he is often categorized as horror, Lovecraft is really a science fiction author. Cthulhu and his kin may all be monsters with god-like powers, but they’re also aliens. Some are from other planets, some are from other universes entirely. But science fiction it is. Well, let’s call it science fiction horror.

The first story up is The Alchemist, first published in The United Amateur in November 1916. It was also one of the first stories Lovecraft wrote, in 1908, and will be a fascinating place to start. Grab your copy and get reading!

2011 Award Season: The British Contingent


The 2011 awards season is well and truly upon us – it’s an exciting time of year, with all but one of the big awards having released their shortlists, and the SF community engaging in discussion and debate both online and off. I’m sure that there are a lot of us who know some of the nominated people personally, and in some small part we can share what must be a nerve-wracking few weeks until the various award ceremonies are held.

The big award that is still collecting nominations is, of course, the Hugos. Laura Burns has already talked about the Hugo awards, the granddaddy of the lot, perhaps. One great thing about the Hugos, as Laura mentions, is that you can join WorldCon as a supporting member, even if you can’t attend the convention itself. This entitles you to nominating and voting rights, and you get an electronic pack of all the final nominees. I’m mentioning this here again as I did this for the first time last year, and was very impressed. As a UK resident it cost me £25, and I still haven’t finished reading everything that was provided. As well as the opportunity to take part in the Hugo awards process, you get very good value for money!

As well as the Hugos and the Nebulas (summarised nicely by Bill Peters), there are two more major SF/fantasy awards on this side of the Atlantic which have recently announced their shortlists.

The Arthur C. Clarke award, so named in honour of the great SF author and originally founded thanks to a grant from the man himself, is presented each year for the best science fiction novel first published in the UK in the previous calendar year. It is described as the most prestigious award for science fiction in Britain, and is unusual in that it is a jury-judged prize. Six novels are selected from publisher submissions, and the prize itself (the amount corresponding to the year of the award, so this year is £2,011) is presented at a ceremony as part of the Sci-Fi London event in April.

The Clarke awards often provoke intense debate and analysis in the UK. Personally, I don’t think the shortlist ever quite reaches controversial levels, but usually the selection is very interesting and quite unpredictable, with most commentary (at least initially) focussing on what books didn’t make it. Last year’s winner was The City and the City by China Miéville, which went on to win both the British Science Fiction Association award and the Hugo the same year. Miéville also broke the record by winning the Clarke award for the third time with The City and the City.

This year’s shortlist (selected from 54 eligible submissions) is:

Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)

The Dervish House – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)

Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Walker Books)

Generosity – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

Declare – Tim Powers (Corvus)

Lightborn – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

The eligibility criteria  – specifically the requirement for the book to have been published in the UK to quality – have thrown up an interesting result this year with Declare by Tim Powers making the shortlist. While this book was first released in the US in 2001, the first UK edition didn’t come out until 2010, hence it is eligible. Also, Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness is the third book in a trilogy.

The shortlist was released on Friday 4th March, and Clarke award administrator Tom Hunter managed to spare some time to give me his thoughts on this year’s selection:

I’ve spent most of the day tabbing between different web pages, following threads, checking Google alerts, clicking links and generally watching Twitter like the kind of geekily obsessive SF stereotype I am. I spend a good part of my Clarke Award working-life trying to challenge, and the overwhelming conclusion from all of this adhoc research is that people seem to really like this shortlist.

This doesn’t mean that they necessarily agree with all of it, and there’s no rule that says they should, but I think this year people have really seen where our shortlist has come from and the real hard work that’s gone into it on the part of the judges; who I think deserve some real kudos by the way.

Then again, maybe all the goodwill is simply down to it being our 25th anniversary…

Either way, it’s a great result for the Award and a fantastic statement about the health of modern science fiction literature – just don’t ask me to guess the winner, this really is one of those great shortlists where the field is wide open.

The British Science Fiction Association award shortlist was also recently announced, with the award ceremony held at the national science fiction convention (commonly referred to as EasterCon), Illustrious, over the Easter weekend. Interestingly, of the Best Novel nominations, three out of the five BSFA nominees are also on the Clarke award shortlist. Together, the BSFA and the Clarke awards count as two of the ‘big ones’ for the UK. A third set of awards, given by the British Fantasy Society, happen later in the year.

Best Novel

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)

Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)

Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)

Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)

Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.

Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.

Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40

Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other

Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot

Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle

Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)

Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)

Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)

Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)

Joey Hi-Fi –cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)

Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21

Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

Voting on the BSFA awards is open to all members of the BSFA and of EasterCon, with advance votes due by 18th April and on-site ballot boxes available at EasterCon itself.

The shortlists so far announced show, I think, that 2010 was a pretty strong year for genre fiction. Certainly some of the novels released in 2010 I now count among my favourites, periods. All that is left is wait for the Hugo shortlist to be announced. And I’m looking forward to that very much indeed.

Superheroes II: Metropolis, we have a problem


Hello 2011! I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday and are ready for a kick-ass year… wait, it’s halfway through January already? Oh boy. But hey, this year is an odd number, and a prime one at that. That’s got to be a good sign. Right? Right.

My last post about superhero prose fiction seemed to generate a few comments, not only here but also over at io9 who were kind enough to reblog it. I made a lot of omissions, some glaring, and I knew I would. I’ll return to the subject of superhero prose fiction later on where we can talk properly about examples of the genre. In that post I missed a lot of titles (Playing for Keeps, Brave Men Run, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards, Union Dues, In Hero Years, I’m Dead, to name just a few), but only because I don’t think these are (or were) signs particularly of a forthcoming movement towards superhero prose fiction. As I said last time, superhero prose fiction has been around almost as long as superhero comic fiction has been, possibly starting with The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther from 1942 (the plot of which, involving ghost ships and Nazis, sounds awesome). While it’s probably impossible (and foolish) to try and generate a comprehensive list of superhero prose fiction, we can at least take a gander at some prime examples of the genre a bit later. As it happens, my prediction might have been right up the wazoo anyway, as it looks like the YA dystopia is shaping up to be the Next Big Thing. I might be wrong but it seems to me that the vampire/werewolf trend originated in YA books too, before influencing more adult-oriented works. Although I’m not quite sure where the fashion for zombie originated – is there a YA zombie series that I don’t know about?

Anyway, I wanted to touch on superheros again for a moment as there is something that has been bugging me recently. NBC’s new superhero TV series The Cape has started, as has the Cartoon Network’s latest DC universe animated series, Young Justice. The fact that they both debuted at more or less the same time is just coincidence and not particularly relevant, but it does serve to illustrate a little problem I – a comics fan and superhero write –  have with the genre.

Live-action superheroes just don’t work.

Uh-uh. Hold the hate mail and move the mouse away from the comment button. Let me explain.

The Cape is attempt – one of the first, I think – at creating an original, made-for-television costumed superhero. Costumed is the key here, although it’s probably unfair to single out this one particular issue with The Cape given that it really is the least of the show’s problems (which, off the top of my head, include the title, the premise, the cast, the characters, the plot and the writing… but other than that it’s pretty great, no?), but it does illustrate my point. Vince Faraday, aka The Cape, looks immensely silly when dressed up as the superhero. Okay, the suit is assembled from bits and bobs from the Carnival of Crime (yes, the Carnival of Crime) and based on a comic book character beloved by his son (although not a comic book written like I have ever read, although I suppose Vince was adding in the exposition and description himself when he read an issue to his son in the first episode). But… no. It’s impractical and is looks silly.

So what’s new? This is comic book stuff, right?

Actually, yes it is. The Cape would work fine as a comic book, assuming it was written by someone who knew what a comic book was (unlike the writer of the TV series it seems). The bits we see of the actual (fictional) comic in the TV show looks okay. And superheroes in cloaks and hoods are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s plenty of scope for dramatic flowing fabrics.

It’s perhaps telling that other, more successful television superhero shows have neatly avoided the problem of silly costumes by not featuring them at all. Everyone in Heroes was in civvies. The other currently screening superhero TV series, No Ordinary Family, likewise has avoided comic book cliche, visually at least, even if the central premise of the story is as old as the hills. Misfits, that UK subversion of televisual superheroics clad our anti-heroes in the orange jumpsuits required by their community service, and even cracked a joke about traditional superhero costumes in one memorable scene from the second series. Notably, when a costumed superhero does appear, things start to get creaky, because it’s a guy in a silly suit (although they didn’t do that bad a job). Looking at earlier examples, The Flash was stuck in a bizarre muscle suit in 1990, and the less said about the 1997 attempt at a live-action Justice League of America, the better.

The prime example is The Dark Knight. I’m a Batman fan and I love this film… but Batman himself is a bit silly. When he sticks to the shadows like he should, no problem. But there is one surprising scene where he terrorises The Joker in a police interview room. A brightly lit police interview room. The Joker here looks amazing, as tailor-made purple suit aside, he is just wearing clothes. But in the glare of the fluorescent strips, Batman looks very, very silly. An interesting experiment in creating a more comic book-like Batman is the fan film Batman: Dead End, which features a Batman in grey spandex fighting… erm, aliens (as in Aliens aliens). Okay, so the story is a little odd, but Batman looks pretty good. However, sticking an actor in skintight lycra causes all sorts of problems with movement, result in the need for careful choreography to avoid unsightly creases and bulges. The forthcoming Green Lantern film is avoiding this by using an entirely CG costume, but from the trailer it looks a bit peculiar (although it would help if the eyes of the mask were whited out, like in the comic).

Of course, I’m generalising. There are exceptions. Marvel seem to be doing a better job. Iron Man looks amazing, by virtue of the fact that the suit is hard, metallic, robotic. The best example of successful live-action superhero costuming might be seen in the X-Men films. Here, brightly coloured spandex is swapped for dark leather which looks great and, importantly, moves well, despite Logan’s initial dismissal of the rack of jumpsuits. Spider-man likewise is pretty slick, if a little CG-friendly. Back in DC land, Watchmen too manages it admirably, with the current crop of heroes looking pretty cool while their predecessors, very cleverly, were clad in rather more home-spun costumes. Jonah Hex might have been a train wreck of a film but it looked pretty good, but then Hollywood has a long and glorious history of Westerns and, like the Joker in Batman and everyone in Heroes, the people in Jonah’s world just wear normal, if customised, clothes.

But what’s this got to do with The Cape and Young Justice? Well, Young Justice is better than The Cape in all respects, and is shaping up to be one of the best DC animated series in a long while. But visually, it is just so much better than The Cape. Superheroes just work in animation, which is perhaps not surprising given the ease of transition from static comic book pages to moving animated scenes. The inhabitants of the DCU, at least, have never looked better than in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Any impracticalities or craziness in superhero costume design that just fail in the real world fit perfectly into animation, just as they do on the comic book page. It’s the same when you’re reading prose superhero fiction – as a reader you’re in control of the action, and everything looks just tickety-boo.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as applicable) I’d say The Cape is set for cancellation before the season is out. Hopefully Young Justice will settle in for a long run, but on the basis of the double-length pilot episode, its well deserved. Looks aren’t everything – far from it, in fact – but certainly The Cape is not a great example of live-action superhero design.

Now if NBC were looking for a circus-themed superhero, why didn’t they just commission a live-action series of Deadman?

Superhero fiction: the next big thing?


There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.

Might.

Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway, and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.

So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it? Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.

But… maybe it’s superhero fiction.  I said maybe.

Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.

But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.

The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public telephone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how superhero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.

Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author updated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.

Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my friends, there are signs.

Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.

But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience. Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining example of the genre.

More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of superhero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America, and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note, The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad crime-fighting league?

Anyone? Moving on…

The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.

Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.

So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly, there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to be a superhero.

Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fiction – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.

Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).

Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does explode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).

Am I right? What are your picks for superhero fiction, and what other signs have I missed? Or is this all for nothing, and you really can’t predict forthcoming trends? I’d love to hear your comments!

Apocalypse now


So, you like The Walking Dead, huh? It’s neat, right? An ongoing post-apocalyptic TV series about zombies, based on an award-winning comic. What’s not to love? And fortunately, they’ve done a mighty fine job on the adaptation. This viewer is pleased. Zombies are popular at the moment, cresting at the top of one of those unpredictable waves of fashion. The Walking Dead has come at exactly the right time, whether by design or accident, and all power to it.

But this series fits into another genre, that of the post-apocalyptic. And this is where I have a confession to make.

I don’t like post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic is predictable, formulaic, and easy. There, I’ve said it.

This is, of course, not true. Post-apocalyptic is also hugely popular and always has been, not just with the general public but with discerning genre fans like you and I. It seems that wiping out humanity in some global catastrophe is something that, maybe, we all secretly wish for. I mean, if we were among the lucky survivors, it’d be free reign, right? No work, no more need for money. No more cruelty and tyranny, no more pollution, overpopulation or war.

And of course no people, no family, no friends, no loved ones, and the beginning of a huge struggle for survival against impossible odds in a situation likely to psychologically traumatise even the most hardened survivalist.

So okay, not so neat.

I said I don’t like post-apocalyptic, and that bit is true. Post-apocalyptic is formulaic, simply because the scale of the situation is such that any fiction set after the disaster must follow similar plot lines. The survivors are isolated, and then eventually find each other. Cities are empty or full of the dead (or the walking dead). There is no power, no medicine. Every manmade resource is suddenly very finite indeed. And so on, and so on. Plotwise, most post-apocalyptic stories are more or less the same.

I should point out here that I’m no expert. I have friends who are very dedicated followers of end-of-the-world stories, and no doubt about now they’re ready to put their keyboards through the computer screen in frustration. But hear me out. Post-apocalyptic may suck, plotwise, but where it really shines is in characterisation. Possibly more than any other genre, post-apocalyptic depends upon strong characterisation. Because if all the plots are the same, or similar (and I’m talking pure plot here, which is different to story and situation), then all you have left are the survivors. And it is how the survivors act in their new environment that makes the story. I’m not saying that characterisation is unique to the post-apocalypse, far from it, but I am saying that if you’re about to write an epic tale of an empty world, you’ve got to be prepared to engage the reader with some very, very powerful players.

With that in mind, and as a self-confessed post-apocalyptic skeptic, here’s my list of five tales that, to me, are among the best examples of the post-apocalyptic. I’m not just going to regurgitate a list from Wikipedia (and, my heavens, there is quite a list on there), these are personal choices that I think are either great examples of either characterisation or perhaps an unusual or uncommon take on the post-apocalyptic plot. Having just slated the genre for being formulaic, let’s see if there are any stories which break the mould.

Before I continue, there’s also an important distinction to make here between those stories which are genuinely post-apocalyptic, and those which are really apocalyptic. Post-apocalypse, by definition, implies that the menace, threat, disaster, alien invasion, plague, etc, have been and gone. What we are left with is the world and the people left afterwards. Stories like the recent film Skyline, or 2012, or great classics like The War of the Worlds take place while the disaster is unfolding. While the aftermath may be considered post-apocalyptic (although probably not in the case of The War of the Worlds), we don’t see that bit. I’ll admit here I’m going to cheat on one entry in my list below, but only because I think it’s a particularly fine and relatively unknown example.

The Quiet Earth


I’m really sure how well known New Zealand cinema of the early 80s is outside of that country, but The Quiet Earth is well worth tracking down. It tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find the world empty − whatever the apocalypse was (I shall reveal nothing), it actually physically removed the world’s population, so our hero (played by the wonderful Bruno Lawrence) finds himself genuinely alone. With a completely deserted Earth, not even a single corpse in sight, Lawrence carries the majority of the film on his own. It’s a remarkable performance as his character goes from confusion, to exhilaration (with nobody around the world is his oyster… if he wants to drive a giant earthmover through a gas station to see what happens, why not?) and finally to total paranoia and delusion. And after all, if you were the only human being left on the planet, wouldn’t you start to think you were special? The Quiet Earth is out on DVD and I’d recommend you grab it.

The Stand


The grand-daddy of all post-apocalyptic stories, Stephen King’s 1978 tale of the survivors of a super flu which wipes out most of the human population is rightly considered a classic. At an eye-watering 1300 pages, this book is a perfect example of character over plot. Of course, King is known for this, but while the concept of a superflu (one engineered by the military as a biological weapon that is released accidentally) was old hat when King wrote it, the journey of the survivors as they find each other and come to terms with their new world is brilliant. Although the central plot eventually reveals itself − that of the survivor’s journey to Las Vegas to make their stand against an evil that has arisen − how the characters react and cope is what makes this whopping tome a real page-turner. If you haven’t read any King, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Afficiandos think that this is his best work; while I personally prefer ‘Salem’s Lot, if you have any doubts about the post-apocalyptic genre, this will set your mind at rest, as it did mine.

Earth Abides


Twenty-nine years before The Stand was published, academic George R. Stewart wrote his single novel which might be called “genre”. Earth Abides is another that follows the standard post-apocalyptic formula − a super-sickness kills everyone, leaving only those immune to the disease alive − but you can forgive Stewart for this given that it was probably a newer story concept back in the 1940s. Earth Abides might be that one book that I’d take to a desert island, should I be so abandoned. It’s beautiful, moving and sad, and sticks in the mind not just because of the human characters and their journey but because of Stewart’s depiction of the world itself. In Earth Abides, the Earth itself is a character. Rid of destructive humans, it begins to regenerate, reclaiming itself and returning to an earlier pre-industrial (you might even say ‘default’) state. Stewart conveys this in a striking way, with a key motif being the silence of the world. Without humans and their cars, planes, factories and technology, the Earth is mostly silent, the loudest sound being that of a thunderclap. In this quiet Earth, the survivors gather and attempt to reconstruct society but ultimately they fail, instead regressing to a more primitive level of society. This only reinforces the central theme of the book. The Earth abides; humanity does not.

The Road


I’m cheating here. I’m not talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel, one which dominated the responses on Twitter when I put out a call for recommendations. I’m talking about Quatermass creator and master of British science fiction Nigel Kneale‘s one-off BBC television drama from 1963, now sadly lost from the archives and only surviving in script form plus, it seems, one manky photo. Also, it’s not really post-apocalyptic. In fact, it is really pre-apocalyptic. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of an English village shun the road that runs through the nearby woods, for the woods are haunted and people have heard terrible things. As the story reaches the climax, it is revealed that the manifestations on the road are the echo of people fleeing an atomic explosion in the present day, somehow riverberating back in time. The juxtaposition of modern − police sirens, recognisably modern people running in abject terror for their lives − with the old, with the 18th century characters cowering in terror, completely unable to comprehend the sound which we, the viewer, recognise all too well, must have been both brilliant and chilling when it was first shown.

Survivors


I can’t make this list, self-confessed archive television nut that I am, without mentioning Terry Nation’s BBC TV series, Survivors. Again, the scenario is pure post-apocalypse cliche. Humanity is mostly wiped out by a plague, strongly implied to be deliberately engineered and released by accident. Over three seasons between 1975 and 1979, Survivors charted the journey of the survivors as they found each other and ultimately formed a community. Critics often bemoan the transformation from gritty science fiction survival story to “soap opera”, but I think they’re confusing soap opera with character-driven drama, and this is where Survivors shows its real strength (characterisation, see?). Survivors was remade for a modern audience over two seasons in 2008 and 2010, but here the tired nature of the premise was in full effect, rendering the remake flat and pointless. Survivors should be experienced in all its 70s glory.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth


A sixth entry, mainly because Nigel Kneale’s The Road doesn’t quite count. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was the second appearance of the Daleks in Doctor Who, and was broadcast in six episodes from November 21 to December 26, 1964. Despite the title, this isn’t about an alien invasion. By the time the Doctor and company arrive in a deserted, dilapidated London, the Daleks have been the masters of the Earth for a decade or more. Here we discover that the Daleks first employed a virus to weaken society before arriving in force, and years late the surviving humans are either enslaved or gathered in disparate resistance groups.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is Doctor Who‘s first foray into alien invasion and one of the rare occasions it featured a genuinely post-apocalyptic story. Extensive location work around London makes this story something of a small-screen epic, and to this day it is regarded as one of the best stories of the show’s early years.

There are many more that are worth of this list − as already mentioned, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but also Wall-E, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (perhaps a rare example of post-apocalyptic confined to a very specific place, namely the walled city of Seattle). UK genre publisher Abaddon has a entire ongoing post-apocalyptic series, The Afterblight Chronicles, which are well worth checking out. Like I said I’m not post-apocalyptic scholar so please, nominate your own prime examples of the genre in the comments and teach me a lesson.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have the next episode of The Walking Dead to watch.

The story is king


A friend pointed out to me on Twitter just the other day that as of this week, it is exactly one year since I picked up my first Stephen King book and started reading. That book was Under the Dome, which came out in November 2009, and I was utterly enthralled from beginning to end. As soon as I had finished I set myself the task of reading all of his work, in publication order. A year later and I have only reached The Stand – hey, it was a busy year – but I’m still loving every single word.

As a genre reader and writer, it might sound surprising that I came so late to King’s work. While his career has had high points and low, he is generally considered a master of science fiction, horror, and just plain writing, ably treading the line between vast commercial success and quality content.

But the reason I only came to his gigantic body of work with his latest novel is that prior to this, I was a King snob. Commercial success on such a scale usually meant – so I thought – very poor writing. This is often the case, but it was that foray Under the Dome last November that taught me a very good lesson indeed, one that is second only to the pants* rule.

It’s slightly oblique but I’ll try to explain. That lesson was: everything is about ‘the story’.

Okay? Hold tight. Here we go.

Currently we are continually bombarded with bad news about the publishing industry – about how publishing is on a downward slide, book sales are floundering while editors at the big houses flap to catch the next big trend or play it safe with unadventurous, unoriginal content. The industry is being shaken up by digital publishing and ebooks, while opportunities for new writers trying to get a break are shrinking more and more.

It would be easy, with all of this, to take a very bleak view, and certainly I’m not suggesting that the bad news is not true. If you were of a pessimistic nature you could lament the death of books and of writing as you sob into your cocoa in front of the TV. But there is one thing to remember amid this doom and gloom.

Writing and “the story”, to use some quasi-mystical catch-all, is all around us. Take a look at what you do during the day – strip out the day job (unless you actually make a living writing), the chores, the laundry, brushing your teeth, and look at what you do for entertainment, and what entertains you. I’m willing to bet that most of it, maybe 90%, is “the story”. And “the story” means writing.

There are more TV shows and films now than ever, and certainly in recent years a stonkingly good selection of exceptionally high-quality ones. It’s all “the story” – fiction, written by writers. And everything that surrounds it – special effects, marketing and merchandising, even the actors, producers, directors, crew, etc – are all there to deliver “the story” to us. The world of books is just one tiny facet – there are comics, television programmes, films, and games (video or otherwise). It’s all writing. It’s all “the story”.

Two things really crystalized this for me. Firstly, a couple of years ago I went to a comic convention which featured a host of writers and artists from DC Comics, including their commander-in-chief, Dan DiDio. During a weekend of panels and discussions, one thing became very clear. The DC universe is one giant story, a tale so big and sprawling that it literally covers the walls of several offices in New York. The job of DC is to deliver this to us, and to continue its development before passing the baton to the next batch of creators and producers. The same can be said of Marvel, or Image, or 2000AD, or any comic publisher or endeavour. The scale of it was quite frankly mind-blowing, and I came away from that con with my first suspicions about “the story” and how it impacted practically everything I did and was interested in and did.

The second moment of realisation came earlier this week, when I was fortunate enough to attend a small gathering of Doctor Who fans who were hosting an informal interview and Q&A with Daphne Ashbrook, co-star of the 1996 US/UK TV movie with Paul McGann, currently visiting the UK. I’m a Doctor Who fan, I’m happy to admit, but I’ve always had difficulty with the TV Movie. This ‘difficulty’ has evolved from outright denial and upset (hey, I was a sensitive teenager in 1996) through to grudging acceptance of the production, so long as I didn’t actually have to watch it. So driving for an hour to see a co-star I wasn’t particularly interested in talk about a production I didn’t particularly care for seemed, beforehand at least, a bit of a chore. But, what the hell. When was this opportunity going to come up again.

Of course, it was a marvellous evening. Daphne was a delight, and kept us entertained for close to two hours on the ins and outs of her impressive career (come on, forget Doctor Who, she was in Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; hell, even Murder, She Wrote). It was a revelation, especially when I realised that large parts of her lively discussion were her relaying to us the plot of these various shows, so we could have a better understanding of the role she played in each.

There it was. “The Story”. As an experienced actor, Daphne’s job is to deliver “the story” to us.  And “the story” means writing, plain and simple. Storytelling. Writing. Same thing.

So what’s the magic advice I distilled from all of this? Give up on the novel and try a screenplay? Not at all.

My advice is to realise that “the story” is everywhere, and like the guys from Pixar keep saying, “the story is king”. With this in mind, and knowing that writing is a never-ending quest to get better, it’s our job as writers to absorb as much of “the story” as we can. This means reading outside of our comfort zones and genres as well as within them – if I didn’t decide to try Stephen King I would never have discovered his extensive, and quite wonderful, back catalogue. When I was prepping to write a detective noir novel, I decided to bite the bullet and read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Whammo, the whole world of pulp detective fiction was opened to me.

One often-quoted piece of writing advice is to not just turn off your television, but to get rid of it entirely. Stephen King himself goes off on this in On Writing. A lot of writers follow this advice to the letter and do very well indeed. But personally I think this is missing the point, because between the inane loops of twenty-four hour news, reality shows and quizzes, the blowhards that King describes so well in his memoir of the craft, there is some damn good stuff on, be it a television series (old or new) or a film (old or new). So if “the story” is about writing, then by picking and choosing carefully and by not letting it become a time-sink (and that really is where the danger lies and the advice stems from, I think), you can watch, enjoy, and learn from some very, very good examples of the craft.

“The story” is everywhere, and where the story is, you’ll find writing. That will never, ever go away, no matter what weekly slice of negativity comes from the traditional publishing industry. The world needs writers and always will, because our whole lives are based around storytelling.

Read books. Watch TV. Go to the movies. But importantly, read something you might not have thought you’d like, and watch a film that isn’t quite the genre you are interested in. At worst, you’ll absorb another little slice of “the story” that you wouldn’t have otherwise and you’ll learn something from it. At best, you’ll discover something new and wonderful and whole news worlds will instantly become available.

And then think about it, and learn from it, and write.

* The pants rule is pretty simple and surprisingly effective: when writing comes up on your schedule, make sure you are up and doing and dressed. Don’t write in your pyjamas, don’t write in your slippers, no matter how appealing or comfortable it may sound. By “pants”, I mean trousers (not, as British people use it, as underpants… stop sniggering at the back there!), but that’s just a metaphor for being prepared and ready to write. The more prepped you are – showered, shaved, dressed, in a nice pair of shoes – the better your writing. If you want writing to be your job then act like it. Put on a nice shirt, or skirt, not just your comfy “at home” clothes. You can put those on when you’ve finished your job. In fact, the more formal you make it, the better you tend to feel (although I can’t imagine what happens to your writing if you turn up at your desk in full evening wear or a ball gown… I must give that a go sometime). Try it. It works!

From the darkest corners, the voices can be heard


Y’know, Halloween has always felt like the perfect time for storytelling. Whether it is ghost stories by the campfire, or Hammer horror from the comfort of your own living room (my personal preference), its just the perfectly obvious season for the supernatural and scarifying. While it has ever been thus for people like you and me, it seems to be catching on in the mainstream too. AMC’s zombie TV series The Walking Dead, based on the Eisner award-winning comic book series from Image, premiered to their biggest debut audience ever at 5.3 million viewers. Seasonal television is an American staple (perhaps less so here in the UK), with even series like the surreal college sitcom Community playing quite brilliantly with the zombie genre just a couple of days before.

Halloween also saw the launch of a new, free online podcast magazine and website, showcasing the best in genre short fiction. Dark Fiction Magazine is the brainchild of Sharon Ring and Del Lakin-Smith, two names familiar to the UK genre scene. Their stated aim is to produce a monthly short fiction podcast magazine, featuring at least four short stories in each issue focussed around a distinct theme.

In the spirit of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ (thanks for that, Mur!), we spoke to Sharon and Del about their new project and what people can expect.

Escape Pod: Thanks for joining us! Let’s start with yourselves – what are your respective backgrounds, and what gave you the idea of starting Dark Fiction Magazine?

Del: I have been working in IT for over 15 years in one form or another and have either run or helped out on numerous websites, so I have my feet firmly in the cloud, so to speak. I’m also obsessed with music, audio engineering and genre.

I launched a podcast in February of last year called WordPunk which covers all sorts of geeky stuff like tech, genre, movies, etc. I had been looking for ways to expand it or cross pollinate with other non-audio based blogs. Sharon ran the idea of Dark Fiction Magazine by me and I was hooked.

Sharon: I got into book blogging a couple of years ago with Dark Fiction Review. From there I moved into working as a freelance editor, mostly on horror novels and short stories. Dark Fiction Magazine was an idea I’d had rattling around my head all summer. Turned out, talking to Del, he’d been thinking along the same lines. And that was it: the coolest partnership in podcasting history was born.

What made you want to make Dark Fiction Magazine a podcast instead of a regular, text-based website?

Podcasts have been around since late 1998, but it was not until 2005 that Apple included native support in iTunes, increasing their popularity massively. These days most people will listen to a podcast in some form, be that a BBC iPlayer Listen Again, an audio book or an internet radio station. So to us, this is the perfect growth medium to launch a short fiction site on. There are many text based short story magazines, and a few audio based ones too, but we saw an opportunity in the market to bring a curated monthly magazine offering high quality genre audio fiction to the masses.

How do you see Dark Fiction Magazine fitting into current landscape of podcasts and free audio fiction? Hugo-winners aside, the UK seems to be lagging a little in the area, with podcasting still dominated by US shows. In particular, free audio fiction in podcast form has been produced Stateside for a long while now – Escape Pod being just one example!

This is a very good question. Both in fandom and publishing, it is a very close knit community. And there are many passionate, selfless people all working together (and apart) to strengthen the community and industry.

When we looked at the current market, we felt that we could add value to the guys and gals already bringing fantastic audio fiction to us. We are UK-centric, certainly, more from circumstance than deliberation, which lets us offer something different and focus more on our audience. We still see ourselves as a global service bringing out stories from authors all over the world.

The liberating thing about being a free service is that the rules of competition and engagement are different. We are not stealing customers from others, as there are more than enough to go round and our service is similar enough to others that any new listener we get is also a potential listener for them. So we are trying to strike that difficult balance of differentiation enough to be intriguing, but not too much where we have nothing to compare ourselves to and align with.

What are your mid- and long-term goals for Dark Fiction Magazine?

To be honest we have been blown away by the positive responses we have had since launch and we are really pleased with how it is going. As for plans going forward, we aim to keep growing our range of stories, authors, narrators and artists while creating a valuable medium for new talent to launch themselves from.

We are also keen to partner with disability charities to ensure their customers get the best access to our free audio stories as possible and we are playing with the idea of expanding the platform into more cutting edge digital experiments. We are all about accessibility, so if there is a way to get great fiction out there, we hope to embrace it.

So, who exactly is Dark Fiction Magazine aimed at? As well as current fiction, will there be readings of old classics? And are you open to submissions or contributions?

Dark Fiction Magazine is for absolutely everyone who loves genre fiction. We’re not tied to one genre or sub-genre, so we’re able to podcast lots of content with broad appeal. Our target audience is anyone and everyone. We hope to get sci-fi readers tuning in to horror episodes; fantasy readers listening in to sci-fi. Too often people stick within their own little reading and listening niches. We’re after a wider audience than that. Good genre fiction knows no boundaries, and neither does Dark Fiction Magazine.

We’re interested in submissions from new and established writers but we would ask people to check out our submissions policy first to see whether their material is eligible for submission.

There may be some classic stories read in time. You’ll have to keep an ear out for future episodes to see which of your own favourites make an appearance!

Del and Sharon, thank-you very much!

Issue 1 of Dark Fiction Magazine is available now, and features stories by Gary McMahon, Sarah Pinborough, Joseph D’Lacey, and Conrad Williams. Authors lined up for future issues include Pat Cadigan, Cory Doctorow, Jon Courtenay, Grimwood, Ramsey Campbell, Rob Shearman, Kim Lakin-Smith, Ian Whates, Lauren Beukes, Mark Morris, Adam Nevill, Gareth L Powell, Jeremy C Shipp, and Jennifer Williams, among others

Dark Fiction Magazine can also be subscribed to on iTunes. Dark Fiction Magazine and its founders are all on Twitter as @darkficmagazine, @dfreview (Sharon), and @dellakin_smith (Del).

Happy listening!