Thursday, 18 December 2008

What Science Fiction Writers Have Learned About Predicting The Future of Technology

"Science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross look back at looking forward. You might find a few lessons about encouraging innovation in your own company. " says this article on the CIO website. Of course, it is good to remember that sci-fi is often as much about commenting on current society as it is predicting the future of technology, all wrapped up an exciting story, but that has always been the glory of SF.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Skylark of Space

"With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne – and almost no other writer – it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work." – Frederik Pohl

Do not expect the technological accuracy of hard science fiction or the social commentary of soft SF; this is Space Opera, adventure on a grand scale. In Skylark, the men are real men, the women are real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri just do not stand a chance. The hero, Dr Richard Seaton, is a 6’5” son of a lumberjack, champion marksman, unbeatable tennis player, conjurer supreme, government chemist, and certified genius. His sidekick, Martin Crane, is a handsome millionaire technical wizard. Dick’s fiancée is the beautiful Dorothy Vaneman, a virtuoso on the violin and frankly an airhead. The villain of the piece is Dr Marc DuQuesne; you can tell that he is evil because not only does he have black hair but he also has a foreign name!

The prose is regularly purple and over blown, but it has a childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder. Doc Smith’s heroes are heroes and thus behave heroically: ‘Their hands met in a fierce clasp, broken by Seaton, as he leapt to the levers with an intense: “Well, let’s get busy!” ’ Doc Smith can also write, seemingly without irony ‘[Seaton] lifted his powerful, but musical, bass voice… He sang lustily, out of his sheer joy in being alive, and was surprised to hear Dorothy’s clear soprano, Margret’s pleasing contralto, and Crane’s mellow tenor chime in from the adjoining room.’ Skylark is full of rich language that is ripe for parody, yet transcends such bass ignominies. It will never be accused of being literature; it is too self-mocking for that.

Please do not be put off by thinking that the characters are all cardboard thin, true though this is, as they are all gloriously larger than life. Skylark is not subtle, it is a rollicking rollercoaster adventure populated by characters of epic proportions: all clean-shaven and square of jaw.


The plot, what there is, revolves around Dr Seaton’s surprise discovery of a controllable process to release the intra-atomic power of copper, leading to his creation of the eponymous space ship. Meanwhile, gangsters lead by his lab colleague Dr DuQuesne first steal the plans and intending on blackmail kidnap Dorothy. Their plans go awry and they find themselves heading off into deep space with Dick and Martin in hot pursuit. Following the rescue, the intrepid travellers find themselves on a prehistoric world, then one of hostile disembodied intelligences, and finally on a world populated by beautiful, friendly, green, humans who are engaged in a war of extermination. Dick saves the day, marries his girl and returns home in triumph.


Dr Edward Elmer Smith PhD, a food chemist, started writing Skylark in 1915 at the insistence of a friend, Lee Harkins Garby, who said that he should write up his ideas about space travel. While he had no trouble about writing about a character that is remarkably similar to himself, though presumably exaggerated, he struggled so much to write the female parts that he asked Lee to help. This she did, providing the romantic passages in the book. The work was finally finished in 1920 but proved so radical that no publisher would touch it. It was not until 1927 that Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine specialising Scientific Romances, agreed to publish it. Interestingly, Skylark shared the edition with the first Buck Rodgers story. Its time had come.

Skylark exhibits many of the prevailing attitudes and scientific understandings of the period just after the First World War that have now falling into disrepute. One of the most noticeable is that Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, published only 10 years before Smith started to write Skylark, had not been fully accepted by the scientific establishment. This enabled Smith to propel his spacecraft faster than light: “the Skylark flew through the infinite reaches of interstellar space with an unthinkable, almost incalculable velocity – beside which the velocity of light was as that of a snail to that of a rifle bullet; a velocity augmented every second by a quantity almost double that of light itself.” Similarly, Smith generally bases the physics on the assumption that the theory of Ether, the substrate of the universe, was correct.

To the modern reader, Skylark’s most distasteful aspect is that of eugenics. This is the belief in intervention in human hereditary, encouraging the breeding by strong health people and discouraging that by those deemed genetically defective, possibly even by forced sterilisation. Eugenics was a widely held and popular belief until the Nazis took it to its logical conclusion in the holocaust. This tied in with prevalent views on total war, which held that there were no innocent civilians; all were targets and combatants. The majority of the aliens in Skylark held the view that genocide was the only way to win a war; a move generally stopped by Dick Seaton, at least for human races. Genocide of chlorine breathing (and therefore irredeemably evil!) races was viewed as quite necessary and was a repeated theme in the series of books.

As one review so succinctly put it, the four Skylark books can be summarised as:

  1. The Skylark of space – Seaton builds a spaceship and has a big adventure
  2. Skylark Three – Seaton builds a bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure
  3. Skylark of Valeron – Seaton builds a even bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure
  4. Skylark DuQuesne – Seaton builds a even bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure

The Skylark series was so groundbreaking, or possibly ignorant of the conventions, that Smith named the sequel “Skylark Three”. While this is quite logical, it has been know to cause confusion even among publishers.

Skylark DuQuesne was nominated for the 1966 Hugo award for best novel, loosing to Frank Herbert’s Dune.


E.E. “Doc” Smith is hailed as being the creator of both interstellar science fiction and of the Space Opera sub-genre. His visions of epic space battles by the greatest of heroes against the evilest of villains inspired many great SF writers through the 20th century, eventually leading to its eminent descendant Star Wars. This is were it all began, boldly going to galaxies far far away, seeking out new worlds and ways of writing SF. Skylark’s faults may be many, but they are forgivable. If later works seem more refined, it is because this is the mother lode. Forget characterisation and realism: just hold on tight and enjoy the ride. All aboard?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Award Winning SF Novels

The Hugo Awards are decided by the members of the World Science Fiction Society. The Nebula Awards are similarly determined by the active members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Both present prizes for the year’s best novel (40,000 words or more), novella (17,500 to 39,999 words), novelette (7,500 to 17,499 words) and short story (fewer than 7,500 words). They also give prizes for associated works such as dramatic presentations, and related works.

If we consider just the prize for the best novel, Lois McMaster Bujold is the clear leader with 6 Hugos and Nebulas to her name. Lois is followed by Joe Haldeman, Robert Heinlein and Ursula K Le Guin with 5.

You can find out more about the awards at and

Hugo Awards Nebula Awards
1946 The Mule Isaac Asimov
1951 Farmer In The Sky Robert A Heinlein
1953 The Demolished Man Alfred Bester
1954 Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
1955 They'd Rather Be Right Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
1956 Double Star Robert A Heinlein
1958 The Big Time Fritz Leiber
1959 A Case Of Conscience James Blish
1960 Starship Troopers Robert A Heinlein
1961 A Canticle For Leibowitz Walter M Miller
1962 Stranger In A Strange Land Robert A Heinlein
1963 The Man In The High Castle Philip K Dick
1964 Here Gather The Stars Clifford D Simak
1965 The Wanderer Fritz Leiber Dune Frank Herbert
1966 Dune Frank Herbert Flowers For Algernon Daniel Keyes
Babel-17 Samuel R Delany
1967 The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Robert A Heinlein The Einstein Intersection Samuel R Delany
1968 Lord Of The Light Roger Zelazny Rite Of Passage Alexei Panshin
1969 Stand On Zanzibar John Brunner The Left Hand Of Darkness Ursula K Le Guin
1970 The Left Hand Of Darkness Ursula K Le Guin Ringworld Larry Niven
1971 Ringworld Larry Niven A Time Of Changes Robert Silverberg
1972 To Your Scattered Bodies Philip Jose Farmer The Gods Themselves Isaac Asimov
1973 The Gods Themselves Isaac Asimov Rendezvous With Rama Arthur C Clarke
1974 Rendezvous With Rama Arthur C Clarke The Dispossessed Ursula K Le Guin
1975 The Dispossessed Ursula K Le Guin The Forever War Joe Haldeman
1976 The Forever War Joe Haldeman Man Plus Frederik Pohl
1977 Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang Kate Wilhelm Gateway Frederik Pohl
1978 Gateway Frederik Pohl Dreamsnake Vonda N McIntyre
1979 Dreamsnake Vonda N McIntyre The Fountains Of Paradise Arthur C Clarke
1980 The Fountains Of Paradise Arthur C Clarke Timescape Gregory Benford
1981 The Snow Queen Joan D Vinge Claw Of The Conciliator Gene Wolfe
1982 Downbelow Station C J Cherryh No Enemy But Time Michael Bishop
1983 Foundation's Edge Isaac Asimov Startide Rising David Brin
1984 Startide Rising David Brin Neuromancer William Gibson
1985 Neuromancer William Gibson Ender's Game Orson Scott Card
1986 Ender's Game Orson Scott Card Speaker For The Dead Orson Scott Card
1987 Speaker For The Dead Orson Scott Card The Falling Woman Pat Murphy
1988 The Uplift War David Brin Falling Free Lois McMaster Bujold
1989 Cyteen C J Cherryh Healer's War Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
1990 Hyperion Dan Simmons Tenau: The Last Book Of Earthsea Ursula K Le Guin
1991 The Vor Game Lois McMaster Bujold Stations Of The Tide Michael Swanwick
1992 Barrayar Lois McMaster Bujold Doomsday Book Connie Willis
1993 A Fire Upon The Deep Vernor Vinge Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson
Doomsday Book Connie Willis
1994 Green Mars Kim Stanley Robinson Moving Mars Greg Bear
1995 Mirror Dance Lois McMaster Bujold The Terminal Experiment Robert J Sawyer
1996 The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson Slow River Nicola Griffith
1997 Blue Mars Kim Stanley Robinson The Moon and The Sun Vonda N McIntyre
1998 Forever Peace Joe Haldeman Forever Peace Joe Haldeman
1999 To Say Nothing Of The Dog Connie Willis Parable Of The Talents Octavia E Butler
2000 A Deepness In The Sky Vernor Vinge Darwin's Radio Greg Bear
2001 Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire J K Rowling The Quantum Rose Catherine Asaro
2002 American Gods Neil Gaiman American Gods Neil Gaiman
2003 Hominids Robert J Sawyer The Speed Of Dark Elizabeth Moon
2004 Paladin Of Souls Lois McMaster Bujold Paladin Of Souls Lois McMaster Bujold
2005 Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke Camouflage Joe Haldeman
2006 Spin Robert Charles Wilson Seeker Jack McDevitt
2007 Rainbows End Vernor Vinge The Yiddish Policeman's Union Michael Chabon
2008 The Yiddish Policeman's Union Michael Chabon

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Analysis

The Road - An Analysis


From the back cover: A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is grey. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food and each other. "The Road" is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer and 2006 James Tate Black Memorial prizes


Faith, Hope & Charity

The world is dead, nothing grows, the very air is poisoned with dust and ash, yet the Man and Boy press on in faith. They hope that they will find food, warmth, the sea, the good guys, life. Contradictions abound: they find bounty in the cold and barren sea; the Boy finds faith and shelter after the man’s death; the Boy offers succour to those he meets but the Man refuses; their only sustenance is the charity of blind chance and treasure troves. Hope where all is hopeless; faith that the flame that they carry will find a destination; and charity at the end.



Nothing grows and the whole food web has collapsed. The Man and the Boy only survive through luck in finding food before anyone else. Ironically, they are reduced to primitive hunter-gatherers: the only hunting is other humans and the only gathering is tinned food. Neither are sustainable.


Much in hidden in The Road. The Man and Boy hide their night time fires from hostile eyes and search for food hidden where none have found it before. Their destination is hidden and only hoped for. The destruction of the world is hidden in the past and the Man’s lack of understanding and the Boy’s indifference to the world he was born too late to see. Some things in hiding are treasures, like the real coffee in the survivalist’s bunker. Some things, such as the cause of the apocalypse, are hidden because they are irrelevant to survival in the present.



Fire destroyed the world. Fire keeps them warm at night and cooks their food, but it must be hidden from others on the road who might steal their meagre rations and lives. The Man and Boy are carriers of the metaphorical fire, but for what? Is it goodness, civilisation, faith, the spirit of man, of God?

The Shopping Cart

Apart from their emergency supplies held in backpacks, they carry all their worldly goods in a supermarket trolley. Where they are reduced to savaging rusty tins, when money has no meaning, they use a symbol of rampant consumerism and commercial choice. It is no wonder that the wheels are falling off.


All is dust and ashes. The dust of civilisation lies heavy on the ground and on those still clinging to life. It chokes the waters and poisons the survivors.The Man and Boy cannot shake the dust from their feet but can only mask their nostrils.


Life has (apart from birth) no beginnings and (apart from death) no endings. It only have events in the middle. There are no chapters but there is punctuation. As they say, “Life goes on”. The Road is lifelike, which is one of its many ironies, as nearly everything is dead. There is no beginning, though we see fragmentary and unexplained flashbacks to the events that caused the world to die and thus put the Man and the Boy on this journey. There is an end for the man, though this has been signposted throughout. And there is an end of the journey for the boy, which possibly gives hope in this hopeless world. “The road goes ever on”, as does life in this dead world. But the road reaches the sea and finds that it is as dead as the land. And the survivors are reaching the end of the world too, as the supplies of tinned food are running out. Let’s face it, cannibalism is not a long term survival plan. The Road is rich in irony. The Man and Boy carry “the flame” in a world destroyed by fire. They find food and shelter in a hideout left by a survivalist who did not survive. They meet a prophet on the road who says that there is no God. The prose is beautiful poetry describing a world of grey ash. The Man is one of the good guys who kills the first person he talks to and almost certainly kills the last in his mission to save the Boy. The road goes on, as must life


The Road is beautifully written; it is often more poetry than prose. Sometimes this means that clarity is sacrificed for the language, or perhaps the meanings have to be thought about and teased out – your choice. Critics and reviewers have argued over whether it is science fiction, horror, parable or speculative fiction. They have dissented over whether the end of the world was nuclear, meteor or the second coming. They all agree that The Road is a magnificent piece of literature, worth of the Pulitzer Prize and more.

Further Reading

The Guardian - The Road To Hell
The New York Review of Books - After the Apocalypse
The New Your Times - The Road Through Hell, paved With Desperation
SF Gospel - Cormac McCarthy's The Road
Washington Post - Apocalypse Now
SFBK original posting


  1. best use it as reaction mass
  2. pot boiler suitable for the space port
  3. ok
  4. a good book
  5. genre defining classic that other books will orbit around
***** It won the Pulitzer!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Book Club archive

I have been asked a few times for a complete list of our books to date and here they are. One day they might all get a write-up.


Frank Herbert

Spice gives long life; without Spice, space travel is nigh impossible; Spice is the most valuable substance in the universe, but can only be found on one planet. Dune, a planet without water and without mercy, where empires rise and fall. And on this God-forsaken land a new messiah is rising. Winner of the 1966 Hugo and Nebula awards


Isaac Asimov

The time is a future century, in the days of the Julactic Empire – a society of a million worlds throughout the Milky Way. The Old Empire is crumbling into barbarism and Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists see before them only the despair of thousands of years of anarchy, unless they can create a new force – the Foundation – dedicated to art, science and technology – the nucleus of a new empire…

Read the book club analysis here

2001 a space odyssey;

Arthur C Clarke

On the ancient savannas of Africa, an alien black monolith sparks intelligence into a group of apes, leading to violence and the rise of humanity. Buried deep in the Luna regolith, a magnetic anomaly leads astronauts to discover a black monolith that reacts when exposed to sunlight. En-route to Jupiter to examine another monolith, artificial intelligence descends to madness and one crew member discovers just how far human evolution can go.

The Swarm;

Frank Schätzing

Something strange and terrible is happening deep in the oceans. Tides and currents are shifting, normally peaceful creatures are attacking, ships are sinking, fishermen drowning. The world ecology is in crisis… and this is just the beginning. Led by the claret-loving Norwegian Sigur Johanson and the Inuit whale expert Leon Anawak, a motley group of scientists find themselves in a race against time to prevent a global cataclysm – and to head of those who want to exploit it in their own pursuit of power.

Ender’s Game;

Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is Battle School’s latest recruit. His teachers reckon he could become a great leader. And they need one. A vast alien force is heading for Earth, its mission: the annihilation of all human life. Ender could be our only hope. But first he has to survive the most brutal military training program in the galaxy… Winner of the Hugo (1986) and Nebula (1985) awards

Mortal Engines;

Philip Reeve

London is on the move again. The city has been lying low, skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. The town moves off after its quarry as events within the walls begin to take a sinister turn… Winner of the 2002 Nestle Smarties Book Prize Gold Award and Blue Peter Book of the Year 2003

American Gods;

Neil Gaiman

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’ wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break. Winner of the 2002 Hugo, Nebula, SFX Magazine and Bram Stoker Awards, and the 2004 Geffen Award

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;

Douglas Adams

One Thursday lunchtime the Earth gets unexpectedly demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this seams already more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just begun, and the galaxy is a very strange and startling place.

Revelation Space;

Alastair Reynolds

Nine hundred thousand years ago, something wiped out the Amarantin. For the human colonists now settling the Amarantin homeworld Resurgam, it’s little more than academic interest, even after the discovery of a long-hidden, almost perfect Amarantin city and a colossal statue of a winged Amarantin. For brilliant but ruthless scientist Dan Sylveste, it’s more than merely intellectual curiosity and he will stop at nothing to get at the truth. Even if the truth costs him everything. But the Amarantin were wiped out for a reason. And that danger is closer and greater than even Sylveste imagines…


Stephen Baxter

Sisters matter more than daughters. Ignorance is strength. Listen to your sisters.
As the light of the Roman Empire gutters and fails one woman begins a remarkable quest to protect her family. It is a quest that will last 2000 years and threaten everything we know. In present-day England George Poole is looking for his long-lost sister. It is a search that will take him to Rome and into the heart of an ancient secret: a secret that holds a terrifying truth for all our futures.


Eric Brown

It takes an alien race to show us our humanity When a mysterious alien race known as the Kéthani make contact with the people of Earth they bring with them the dubious gift of eternal life. These enigmatic aliens will change the course of the human race forever but also touch people’s lives on a personal scale, not least in a small town in the English countryside. But do the Kéthani have a hidden agenda and will the human race choose the evolve or turn in on itself in the face of this momentous revelation?

Read the book club analysis here

The Road;

Cormac McCarthy

A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save ash on the wind. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer and 2006 James Tate Black Memorial prizes

Read the book club analysis here

Troll Fell

From the Harper Collins web site
Peer Ulfsson stood miserably at his father's funeral pyre, watching the sparks whirl up like millions of shining spirits streaking away into the dark.
But someone else is also at the funeral. Peer's half-uncle, Baldur Grimsson. Peer watches helplessly as Uncle Baldur sells his father's property and pockets the money. Peer is then forced to move away from the world he knows in Hammerhaven, and live with his two half-uncles at their mill near Troll Fell.
Peer hopes his other uncle will be more welcoming and less ferocious than Baldur, but Baldur is an identical twin, and Grim Grimsson is just as mean-spirited and greedy as his brother. Peer lives a life of servitude, with only the company of his faithful dog, Loki, until he meets spirited Hilde, whose family farm on Troll Fell, and Nis, his uncles' house spirit. Between them, they must foil a plot by the Grimsson brothers to sell one boy and one girl to the trolls who live on Troll Fell. But the Grimssons want riches, and they will do anything to get them. And as everyone knows, trolls are rich… but they are also cunning.
You can find more about the author ketherine Langrish on her web site
Next meeting on October 20th at Anne's new house

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Web site images

Now that I have customised the web site format, I thought that for reasons of copyright and interest, it would be best to list the origins of the various site images. They are all from the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site

Background Stars Young and Old

Galactic or open star clusters are relatively young swarms of bright stars born together near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. Separated by about a degree on the sky, two nice examples are M46 (upper left) 5,400 light-years in the distance and M47 (lower right) only 1,600 light-years away toward the nautical constellation Puppis. Around 300 million years young M46 contains a few hundred stars in a region about 30 light-years across. Aged 80 million years, M47 is a smaller but looser cluster of about 50 stars spanning 10 light-years. But this portrait of stellar youth also contains an ancient interloper. The small, colorful patch of glowing gas in M46 is actually the planetary nebula NGC 2438 - the final phase in the life of a sun-like star billions of years old. NGC 2438 is estimated to be only 3,000 light-years distant and likely represents a foreground object, only by chance appearing along our line of sight to youthful M46.

Text background IC 1396 H-Alpha

Clouds of glowing hydrogen gas mingle ominously with dark dust lanes in this close-up of IC 1396, an active star forming region some 2,000 light years away in the constellation Cepheus. In this and other similar emission nebulae, energetic ultraviolet light from a hot young star strips electrons from the surrounding hydrogen atoms. As the electrons and atoms recombine they emit longer wavelength, lower energy light in a well known characteristic pattern of bright spectral lines. At visible wavelengths, the strongest emission line in this pattern is in the red part of the spectrum and is known as "Hydrogen-alpha" or just H-alpha. Part of IPHAS, a survey of H-alpha emission in our Milky Way Galaxy, this image spans about 20 light-years and highlights bright, dense regions within IC 1396, likely sites where massive new stars are born.

Personally, I think that this looks like a man on horseback holding a bow, but Bea insists that it looks like two dragons. Of course, it could just be a random gas cloud…

Header Eclipsed Moon Montage

After watching this month's lunar eclipse, amateur astronomer Sebastien Gauthier carefully composed this montage of telescopic images of the Moon sliding through planet Earth's shadow. While the deepest part of the total eclipse corresponds to the central exposure, the play of light across the lunar surface nicely demonstrates that the planet's shadow is not uniformly dark as it extends into space. In fact, lunar maria and montes are still visible in the dimmed, reddened sunlight scattered into the cone-shaped shadow region, or umbra, by Earth's atmosphere. For this eclipse, the Moon's trajectory took it North of the umbra's darker core, seen here cast over the Moon's cratered southern highlands. Gauthier's telescope and camera equipment were set up near the Trois-Rivieres College Champlain Observatory in Quebec, Canada.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Burning Chrome, by William Gibson

A collection of short stories first published 1986


Gangsters, double crosses, hustles, hallucinogenics, neural interfaces, virtual reality: elements of the past and future fused together. Burning Chrome is a drug-fuelled, high-tech, rollercoaster ride in the dark. Packed with fragmented sentences and jargon, Burning Chrome is not an easy read, but a compelling one. These stories will not be to everyone’s likening. They are a difficult read, packed with unpleasant characters in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes there is a lesson to be learned, but generally only the winning matters. They are as beguiling as a car crash. In some other books, the future is bright. In Burning Chrome, it may be orange but it is dark and scary. Inhabited with gangsters committing high-tech crimes or bio-terrorism, this is not a pleasant place to be. Gibson’s aggressive poetry is brutally beautiful. The prose is fragmented; quantum. Perception jumps. Vision blurs as if through a drugged haze. Jargon real and invented beguile and bamboozle. Gibson himself, like Philip K Dick, was no stranger to narcotics and his experience is made flesh in these stories. Published in magazines between 1977 and 84, these stories came at the start of the revolution in popular computing and a sea change in science fiction. The cyberpunk stories of Gibson and his collaborators threw out the shiny futures and political dystopias, and brought in a new dystopian vision where mega-corporations and organised crime ruled (though sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference). These stories are not Star Trek, but criminals with computers; lock, stock and two smoking hard drives. The future has brought technology but it has not cured us of the sins of humanity; it has only enabled new ones. This is classic cyberpunk in bite-sized portions.

What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk: high-tech and low-life. According to Lawrence Person (sci-fi writer) in his Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto, “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” Gibson originated the term “Cyberspace” in the story “Burning Chrome” and popularised it in his novel “Neuromancer”. “Cyberpunk”, on the other hand, was coined by Bruce Bethke.


Johnny Mnemonic

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories Johnny is a data courier using RAM chips embedded in his head. Unfortunately for him, and several of the other characters, the latest job goes rather wrong…

The Gernsback Continuum

First published 1981 in Universe II. Independent story A photographer sets out to record the surviving examples of futuristic American architecture from the 1930’s and 40’s, only to experience visions of how America might have been if the predictions had come true.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose

First published 1977 in Unearth 3. Independent story Parker’s life is fragmented and revealed like the hologram of a rose he shreds. How much of his memories are his and how much from the immersive ASP machines?

The Belonging Kind

With John Shirley, first published 1981 in Shadows 4. Independent story Barflies sometimes metamorphose and outsiders may just find more than companionship but a whole new life.


First published 1981 in Omni. Independent story In the depths of the solar system, the Highway is the gateway to another dimension. Unfortunately, no one returns sane or alive long enough to tell what they saw; only bringing tantalising glimpses.

Red Star, Winter Orbit

With Bruce Sterling. First published 1981 in Omni. Independent story In the orbiting Salyut, revolution and counter-revolution engulf the crew. Will Colonel Korolev, the first man on Mars, be the last man in space?

New Rose Hotel

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories In Tokyo, a biotech deal goes very wrong for Fox

The Winter Market

First published in the Vancouver Magazine in 1985. Independent story Life and death become confused in the arthouse of neural recordings.


With Michael Swanwick, first published 1985 in Omni. While not directly part of the Sprawl series, it is very compatible. Deke flies virtual fighter planes with his mind, but finds that in winning he can loose more than he bargained for.

Burning Chrome

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories and the origin of the term “Cyberspace” Bobby and Jack raid a gangster’s computer fortress.

Related books

The Sprawl Trilogy are Gibson’s first novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. They share characters and settings with the short stories Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel and Burning Chrome.


Perception, science and society

In many of the stories, the characters interface with the world through a virtual environment. Technology enables and enhances the communication with the world as well as introduces barriers between people: they are simultaneously both closer and further apart. People not want to see the world as it is. Virtual reality or drugged haze, not real reality, is the preferred mode of perception.

Success and failure

A recurring theme is that success and failure are two sides of the same coin.
  • Johnny Mnemonic escapes from the Yakuza assassins, but at the price of remaining for the rest of his days in the Nighttown roof.
  • Korolev, in Red Star, Winter Orbit, sees his friends escape to Earth but he is trapped in space by his handicap and lack of transport. The Soviets won the space race, but ultimately American squatters occupy the space station.
  • In the Winter Market, Lise’s death is not her end.
  • In Dogfight, to win the game Deke betrays, assaults and robs his solitary friend, only to find that winning is pointless without someone to share it with.


Cyberspace & virtual reality

Computing technology is the central theme of most of Gibson’s stories. The characters interact with each other via neural / computer links. They see visualisations of data and carry each other’s memories without understanding.


Rugs – like technology – enhance, warp and hide the real world. Both are man made but only one is socially acceptable.


Science has brought material improvements, but has not changed the human spirit. Criminals use technology to commit crimes impossible in an earlier age.

Bodily enhancements

The natural body is not enough for Gibson’s characters: they have to be enhanced. Molly’s sunglasses are embedded into her face, the Yakuza assassin replaces his thumb with a killing bolas, the Nighttown residents replace their teeth with dog’s, others have grafted muscles, and many have computer plugs into their brains.


Molly’s glasses

Surgically embedded into her face, her vision is sealed from the outside world: mirrored glasses filter her perception. Like so many characters in these stories, technology changes the way that they look upon the world: “through a mirror darkly”

Johnny’s RAM chip memory

The computer memories in his head are inaccessible to Johnny Mnemonic. Technology can enhance our natural capacities without making things better for us.


  1. best use it as reaction mass
  2. pot boiler suitable for the space port
  3. ok
  4. a good book
  5. genre defining classic that other books will orbit around

* * * * Very nearly a cyberpunk genre defining classic, but that crown has to go to Gibson’s Neuromancer

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The current book is The Road, by Cormac McCathy. Next meeting on September 15 at Julia's house


A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is grey. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food and each other. "The Road" is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

Monday, 4 August 2008

How to read Science Fiction

or how to stop worrying and learn to love aliens and spaceships This is from Simon Morden's "How to read Science Fiction" talk at the Greenbelt Arts Festival, August 2006. Because these are his notes, they differ slightly from what he actually said. The list of his ten recommended books is at the bottom of the page. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. ___________________________________________

How to read Science Fiction

A talk given at Greenbelt 2006 by Simon Morden

What is SF?

Science fiction has a many definitions as there are people who want to define it. Wikipedia says that "Science fiction is a genre of fiction in which the story depends (at least in part) upon some change in the world as we know it that is explained by science or technology (as opposed to magic)." Robert Heinlein said that SF was "Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." My working definition of SF is closer to Theodore Sturgeon’s: "A good science fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content." But best of all is Damon Knight’s: "Science Fiction is what I say it is when I point to something and say that’s science fiction." Like most people, we know what science fiction is and what it isn’t. So we’ll stick with Knight’s version.

What science fiction isn’t

It isn’t about squids in space, or rather, it isn’t all about squids in space. Despite my fondness for all things tentacly, SF isn’t all aliens and spaceships. A large proportion of SF never leaves the planet or encounter aliens. Perhaps fully half of the Clarke award books didn’t do either. Out of the six shortlisted books, two had no alien/space content whatsoever. It's not only for scientists. Sometimes I still don’t understand what’s going on, and I have two degrees. But when I was eight I didn’t have any degrees. Some SF is written by and for genre fans who know what a Singularity is, how big a Dyson sphere is, and the problems inherent with grey goo. Most is not – and any good author will take their reader along for the ride, whether it’s the first SF book they’ve picked up or the fiftieth. It won’t turn you into a glasses-wearing übergeek or a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy nut. That is, unless you want it to. Most readers of SF are perfectly normal, and completely harmless.

What science fiction can’t do

It can't predict the future. If science fiction could predict the future, I’d have my flying car by now. Just from the law of averages, some SF predictions have come true, but the vast majority don’t. This is because SF authors don’t use SF to predict the future – they use it to explore it. For the very great part, they don’t like what they find. Ray Bradbury once said "People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it." From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to last year’s Kim Stanley Robinson book, Fifty Degrees Below, SF has sought to warn people about current social trends by extrapolating them into a plausible future. SF is very much a literature of the present. It can't make up for the fact you dropped science at GCSE. Or, "Everything I know about science I learnt from SF books". Whilst you will undoubtedly learn new stuff about science from SF books, you’ll undoubtedly learn new stuff about law from John Grisham books. But the chief part of Science Fiction is that it’s fiction. Writers make up stuff all the time. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to make you believe the untrue stuff as much as the true. In fact, we delight in making the junction between true/untrue as seamless as possible. It won't win the admiration of your friends, family and work colleagues: but at least with the size of some current SF novels, you can hit your detractors with a near-lethal blow. I appreciate that the latest Stephen Baxter doesn’t have the ‘look at me, I’m an intellectual’ cache of Dickens or Proust (in French, of course). But authors very rarely have any input as to what goes on the cover of their book – and book publishers seem to go in for a lurid ‘squids in space’ style of cover art that doesn’t often have anything to do with what goes on in the text. There’s also a lot of snobbery involved – so much so that when an SF book crosses over to the mainstream, there’s a flurry of reviews saying to the effect ‘this is too good to be SF’. Even some authors are involved in this: Margaret Atwood being an easy target here. If The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t SF, we’ll have our Arthur C Clarke award back, thank you.

What science fiction can do

It can entertain you. SF is one big playground. If we can think of a decent reason to do something outrageous, we’ll do it. We can blow up planets and stars, mass thousands of spaceships, change both the past and the future, and even cheat the end of the universe. Jilly Cooper can’t do that for you. It can make you think. One of the biggest unanswered questions is "what if?" Science Fiction is all about "what if?", and SF stories are deliberately told to explore the possibility of, whatever – time travel, genetic engineering, computers in people’s heads, teleportation, what happens when the oil runs out, what do we do if we’re contacted by aliens. If more politicians read SF, we wouldn’t be in half the messes we’re in now. It can give you a whole new set of stuff to worry about. From nanotechnology turning the planet into grey goo, through giant asteroids delivering a civilisation-killing blow to the Earth, to a genetically engineered plague wiping out all life, we have it all. Highly advanced aliens coming to destroy us all. Global climate change. World-spanning repressive dictatorships. Wars without end. Clones. Cybernetics. Intelligent machines. It beats lions and tigers and bears, oh my, into a cocked hat. We also get to pity those poor souls who don’t know what they’re missing. It’s good to feel superior. Science fiction is often smart fiction – sassy, intelligent, forward-looking. And so will you be when you read it.

Yes, there are different types of science fiction

SF isn't a monolith - it's a multi-faceted jewel. No, honest... Alternate history – Change on point of history. PK Dick, Man in the High Castle. Almost anything by Harry Turtledove. Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt Cyberpunk – high-tech low-life. Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan Military SF – soldiers in space. Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War, Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game Post-apocalypse – Nevil Shute, On the Beach. Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines. John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids.

Authors of ‘Literature’ who have written science fiction

A brief and inexhaustive list of some literary toffs who've been seen slumming it in the genre gutter: Douglas Coupland – Girlfriend in a Coma Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake PD James – The Children of Men Kasuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

If you like…

Family sagas, try Julian May's Pleistocene Saga. Four books set in prehistoric times plus another three in the future. May's work is fantastically detailed and follows one family through a magnificently epic story. Detective stories – Hardly anyone does SF/detective stories like Jon Courtney Grimwood: his earlier Arabesk books can be followed by his 2005 novel, 9Tail Fox Technothrillers. Is Clancy your man? Then get a load of Alaistair Reynolds' Revelation Space and Pushing Ice. More tech that you can shake a stick at. ‘Literature’. Not straying too far from the shore? The winner of the 2005 Arthur C Clarke Award, Geoff Ryman, will soon land you in deep water. Air is everything a lit book needs to be. Gothic novels your thing? China Mieville is the writer of choice. Look no further than Perdido Street Station and The Scar Politics, anyone? Everyone's favourite Scottish Libertarian Socialist, Ken MacLeod, writes mean SF often with a political riff. Try The Cassini Division, or Learning the World Comedy: Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nuff said.

SF books you ought to read

HG Wells – The War of the Worlds

Wells’ classic novel of alien invasion, published in 1898, has three-legged Martian war-machines crushing the most technologically advanced culture on Earth – the British – with the survivors hiding from a fate worse than death in the rubble of London.

George Orwell – 1984

Orwell’s political masterpiece is set in a dystopian future of Big Brother, Newspeak and thought police. Winston Smith is the lone dissident whose job is to rewrite the past to fit in with the Party’s ideology. First published in 1949, it has had a huge cultural impact in the English-speaking world.

Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth – The Space Merchants

Satire wasn’t born with the election of Margaret Thatcher – Pohl and Kornbluth’s razor-sharp filleting of global capitalism in general and the advertising industry in particular dates from 1953, and shows a future dominated by overpopulation, resource shortages, and an imminent land grab for Venus.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

1953 turned out to be a golden year for science fiction: Bradbury’s gentle, luminous writing illuminates this tale of Montag the fireman, paid to burn books. Disillusion with his homelife, friendship with young Clarisse, and his encounter with a bookhoarder finally turn force him to read. Almost everything by Bradbury is brilliant – but this is the only book he would ever admit to being science fiction.

Frank Herbert – Dune

Forget the slightly dodgy film, Dune is a complex, multi-layered story revolving around a chemical called ‘spice’, which makes space travel possible, and is found on only one planet in the galaxy. Whoever controls the spice, controls the Imperial throne. Throw in human computers, giant sandworms, treason, espionage and healthy dollop of mysticism, and this 1965 book never fails to deliver.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – The Mote in God’s Eye

This 1975 novel of first contact with aliens is not without it’s flaws – the authors are much more concerned with the science and the aliens than they are with the human society they depict – but where they score is with the aliens: the Moties are some of the strangest, most tragic creatures ever to live within a book. The finale is both poignant and full of hope.

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Published in 1975, Vietnam vet Haldeman writes a elegy to his generation: super soldier William Mandella crosses both space and time, and becomes increasingly detached from the civilisation he’s supposed to be defending, until relativistic effects strand him and the surviving soldiers a thousand years in the future.

William Gibson – Neuromancer

With the first sentence of ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’, Gibson crafts a startling and disturbing future where cyberspace (a term he coined, along with ‘The Matrix’) is more real than reality, and it’s where more than information that wants to be free. All the more amazing for having been written on a manual typewriter in 1984.

Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game

This controversial book, first published in 1985, is set in the middle of an interstellar war against the hive-mind Buggers. Children are taken by the military and trained to fight the enemy – and none is more brilliant and ruthless that Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin. The psychological depth and sharp social insight make this book a genre classic.

Greg Bear – The Forge of God

It’s the end of the world as we know it – enigmatic, unknowable aliens have done something to the planet and it’s counting down to disaster. Humanity, however, is not friendless. This is wide-screen, effects-laden fiction, and it gave me memorable and terrifying nightmares. Well worth it, I say! (1987)

Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

The Sparrow was the winner of the 1996 Arthur C Clarke Award, involving a complex alien culture on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and the Jesuit mission which makes contact with them. It is a deeply affecting story of faith and humanity which produces as many questions as it does answers.

Michael Marshal Smith – Spares

An alcoholic veteran of one of the most bizarre wars ever fought falls foul of a rich and powerful gangster – and hides out working as a guard on a Spares farm where all the rich and powerful gangsters keep their clones ready for the day when they need a new organ or two. Savage, funny, passionately angry, Spares is a sharp, gritty book full of surprises. (1996) -- Simon Morden is the author of "Heart", "Another War" and the forthcoming "The Lost Art", as well as the short story collections "Thy Kingdom Come" and "Brilliant Things". He is editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine, "Focus", and was a judge for the 2006 Arthur C Clarke Awards. You can find more of Simon's work at Published under a Creative Commons license - Simon Morden 2006

What makes a good story?

This is from Simon Morden's "What makes a good story?" talk at Greenbelt 2006 – later expanded to become an article in the November 2006 issue of the BSFA’s Focus magazine. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. ___________________________________________

What makes a good story?

An essay from the November 2006 issue of Focus, by Simon Morden

‘A good story, well told.’

Judging the 2005 Arthur C Clarke award meant reading 47 novels in a few months. It also meant working out what I thought made a good story – something I could compare the diverse styles and subjects against – or doom myself to thrashing around in a sea of indecision. (As it was, we were almost late for our own awards ceremony.) So I decided what I looked for most in a novel was a good story, well told. In this article, I intend to concentrate on the first, and not on the second – though parts of ‘well told’ have impact on the ‘good story’, in that it’s much easier to tell a good story than a bad one. For me, ‘story’ has three parts. It needs a plot, it needs characters, and it needs a setting. If I find all three, I stand a chance at finding a good story.


It has to do something

That ‘something’ is making the reader want to read on. It is a non-trivial task to get someone so caught up in a story that they don’t want to stop. What it doesn’t need to do is preach the gospel, contain a moral or push any particular agenda you might have. Preaching in general, makes for bad storytelling. This is not to say that your story is bad because it contains a message – but the message should not be your primary reason for telling the story.

The story has to go somewhere

The somewhere doesn’t have to be to a geographical location, or be your typical ‘quest’ story. But events that happen to the characters have to in some way affect them. Things cannot be the same at the end as they are in the beginning. For the Clarke awards, I had to pick a shortlist of six books. It is no coincidence that the six I chose all had good stories and were well told. Too often I read a book which had strong characters, an interesting set up, but which went absolutely nowhere – nothing had changed, no one had changed.

Something non-trivial has to be at stake

If nothing is at stake, then why should anyone (least of all the characters) bother? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering: the fate of a world, a nation, a president, a person even. It just has to be important to the characters concerned. It can be a marriage, or a business, or keeping a child off drugs. A story about lost car keys can be trivial – unless there’s a body locked in the boot.


We have to identify with the characters

‘I do not care about these people’ are the seven deadly words no author wants to hear. In the baldest sense, if I do not care about what happens to the characters, I will not enjoy the story. This does not mean that your protagonist has to be a saint, but it does mean that your protagonist has to be real. And look, people identify with anti-heroes – some of the most compelling storytelling in literature and film revolves around characters whose qualities are far from all good.

The characters should be changed by their experiences

It is natural for people to grow and change through the passage of time. If your characters don’t, they won’t be as engaging as those that do. The changes they go through could be radical, subtle, or a mixture of both, but change they must. They might gain a better insight into themselves, they might have new knowledge about the world to assimilate.

The outer struggle must be mirrored by an inner struggle.

If, to take an extreme example, a character is racist, yet they find themselves in a position where they find their attitudes challenged – a foreign soldier protecting a village – the story should show them struggling with their attitudes. It need not necessarily show them ‘winning’.

Archetypal characters

Archetypes are more than symbols within storytelling: they seem, for some reason, to resonate deep within the soul (apologies for getting metaphysical). So if I say ‘Hero’ or ‘Mentor’ or ‘Magician’ or ‘Trickster’, you immediately conjure up how each of these archetypes behave. It isn’t what they look like, or whether they’re male or female, young or old, or where they come from and how they speak. It’s what they are. Once you have a good idea of how your character will behave in any given situation, you have a character that will live within the story.

Vicarious experience

Another aspect of your characters’ development is the ability to give vicarious experiences to the reader. I’m a bloke; I have no idea what it’s like to give birth. Unfortunately, neither does my wife, so I can’t ask her… but then again, I’ve never shot anyone at point-blank range, I’ve never put on an armoured exoskeleton and fallen to Earth from the edge of space, I’ve never been tortured to death, I’ve never talked to aliens living inside my head, I’ve never been stalked by a fallen angel. Yet, at various times, I’ve tried to convey precisely how this feels. Part of a storyteller’s job is to make unreal things real. It’s not a question of describing the scene, it’s living it through your characters.


Setting is where your characters are and the plot happens. Setting should be treated like another character – not described to death, or entirely superfluous to the plot so that your story could have happened anywhere.

The setting should matter to the plot

Setting is the third leg of your story, inasmuch as Rapunzel would be nowhere without a tower or Hansel and Gretel without the Gingerbread House. It isn’t just a painted curtain behind your characters. It has flavour, atmosphere, a solidity to it. The setting should be integral to the plot because it is a character.

The setting should influence the plot progression

In precisely the same way characters influence the plot, the setting should influence the plot.

The setting should influence the characters’ actions

This one’s obvious, but so easily missed. The setting can be interacted with. It can be picked up, thrown, read, looked through, lit, sat in, walked around. Your characters should be doing that – if they’re in a library, they should be whispering, looking around, reading the spines of books. If they’re in a coffee shop, they should be drinking coffee, eating muffins, clattering teaspoons.

The setting should be memorable and imaginable

Your readers are relying on you to paint a word-picture which is sufficient for them to both imagine the scene and remember it the next time you use it. Over describing and under-describing are both problems – you need to be able to give a sense of place without drowning the reader with two or three pages of adjectives and adverbs. This is, admittedly, pretty hard to do straight off, but it can be learnt.


A word or two about research. There is a broad middle ground to inhabit between the twin evils of doing no research at all, because after all, you’re making all this up, and spending all the time you should be writing, reading. As a rough rule of thumb, you should know stuff that has an impact on your story. This can range from simple things – seasonal weather patterns in Nairobi – to obscure things – what sort of sniper rifle a Russian veteran of Afghanistan would use. A friend once put out the call to discover how far a palanquin – that’s one of those chairs carried on poles at shoulder height – could be carried by one team of slaves in one day. Another friend actually arranged a test. About ten miles is the answer. As another rough rule of thumb, you should never be tempted to use your research findings to show your readers how much research you did for your story. That rifle I’ve just mentioned was never discussed or described in the story I used it in. But I knew the character who used it better because I took the time and trouble to find out what weapon he had. I knew what it looked like, how heavy it was, how accurate it was, how he fired it. Why is research important? Because it adds the flavour of authenticity to your story. If, as writers, we’re trying to suspend the reader’s disbelief, anything that helps is good. Anything that hinders is bad. Worst of all is the point where the reader is suddenly dumped out of the story by the writer doing something stupid. And specifically, why is research important when you’re writing SF or fantasy? Aren’t you just making stuff up? I would argue that you have to do more research than if you were writing chick-lit. For contemporary fiction, the world is a given. If your world is different in some way, it has ramifications over the whole of history and society. Nothing is a given anymore. Sorry to add to your workload… -- Simon Morden is the author of "Heart", "Another War" and the "The Lost Art", as well as the short story collections "Thy Kingdom Come" and "Brilliant Things". He was editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine, "Focus" for five years, and was a judge for the 2006 Arthur C Clarke Awards. You can find more of his work at Published under a Creative Commons license - Simon Morden 2007

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Kéthani, by Eric Brown


Sometime very soon, the alien race who call themselves the Kéthani arrive unannounced on Earth, their presence marked by towering white structures. They reveal their offer of eternal life for all people by means of resurrection technology. Many embrace this seemingly free offer while others reject it on the grounds of ethics, religion, philosophy, or simply mistrust. The story follows a number of ordinary folk in a small West Yorkshire town and the effect the Kéthani have on their lives. Will they choose life or ultimate death? Will they stay in their cosy familiar enclave or join the starfaring races?


Eric Brown was born in Haworth, Yorkshire in 1960. You can find out more about him and his work at


The principle theme of the book is eternal life here and now. Is the negation of death desirable? What is the effect that it will have on society? Does life need death to make it worth living or is striving for achievement due to our limited time here on Earth?

The Kéthani’s gift affects all the character’s lives. Some choose artificial life and some natural death, but these choices are never without consequences. Some have to make choices for others, such as their young or mentally handicapped children; should their convictions deny those in their responsibility the chance of life and their own choice?

The easy resurrection affects society. Murders die out, as the victim can return six months later to convict the guilty. Medicine changes from preserving life and treating serious diseases, to easing the passage of the afflicted. Those who return a subtly changed: their angers and aggressions are gone making them law abiding and constructive citizens. They are more humane, but are they less human?


There are a number of repeating elements in these stories. I suspect that many of them are because the book was originally published in the separate magazines and Eric Brown needed familiar structures to tie them together. These are:

  • The group of friends in the pub – Eastenders has the Queen Vic, Coronation Street has the Rover’s Return and Kéthani has The Fleece, where they only seem to serve Taylor’s Landlord
  • Snow in Yorkshire – it does not always snow up here, in fact snow seems rather scarce these days, but in Kéthani, it snows in nearly every story
  • Marital breakup – whether this is an effect of modern society, an effect of the immortality from the Kéthani, or just something the author likes to include, the characters generally struggle to maintain relationships
  • Drunk driving – was this because death has little meaning the risks are not considered or the assumption that this is regularly done in rural Yorkshire?
  • This book has no heroes, only ordinary people with ordinary lives in the shadow of monumental events


  • The upward stations are both a symbolic and literal pointer to the stars
  • Death as the start of an awfully big adventure, whether the individuals return to Earth or decide to travel the stars
  • Kéthani implants are literal symbols of the promised resurrection of the Kéthani. As society comes to expect everyone to have one, some of those who refuse have fake implants to deflect attention


Positive points

The modular aspect and writing style make it an easy book to read, whether on mass or chapter-by-chapter.

There are no heroes in this book, only ordinary people. As such, Kéthani examines how earth this shattering event effects not the great, but the every-day.

The themes are thought revoking, forcing you to ask yourself whether you would have the implant or not. Likewise, is eternal life hear-and-now an unalloyed benefit? Does eternal life increase your appreciation of life or reduce it?

Eric Brown paints a sympathetic yet neutral picture of how various religious organisations and people respond to the Kéthani’s gift.

Negative points

Lack of overall plot – the book, which was published as a series of short stories in science fiction magazines over ten years, lacks an overall flow or arcs. While this style and repetition would work in the original magazine context, in a novel it is too staccato.

Abandoned devices – such as the Kéthani’s enemies are introduced, raising interest of a sub plot or diversion. Unfortunately, this is dropped at the end of the chapter without any explanation or expansion.

There is no plot twist or surprise at the end – it turns out that everything was true and the Kéthani are as nice as they appear.

Inconsistencies such as the Kéthani want humanity to act as their ambassadors, but there are no other alien races mentioned in this role, implying that humanity is the first. The group suicide using cyanide was unrealistically peaceful.


Kéthani is both thought provoking and very readable. While it fails is in a lack of overall plot and characterisation, it raises many interesting questions regarding mortality and its place in society.


  1. best use it as reaction mass
  2. pot boiler suitable for the space port
  3. ok
  4. a good book that deserves another read
  5. genre defining classic that other books will orbit around

*** a good book but not one that will set the world alight

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Foundation trilogy, by Issac Asimov


In the far future, the Empire rules the galaxy. Hari Seldon, a mathematical genius, has realised that while in the same way that one cannot predict the behaviour of individual atoms of a gas but you can that of a fluid, the mathematics of psychohistory can predict the behaviour of a society. Seldon applies this to the Empire and realises that it is collapsing and will lead to 20,000 years of barbarism before a new Empire can arise. To reduce the anarchic period to only 1,000 years, he arranges the creation of two scientific foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will grow and form the new Empire.


Scene setting and the initial expansion of the Foundation

Foundation and Empire

The Foundation overcomes the last gasp of the old Empire, but is conquered by the forces of the Mule

Second Foundation

The race is on to find the Second Foundation between Foundation refugees seeking help and the Mule seeking final victory

Other books in the series

  1. Prelude to Foundation – a prequel looking at Hari Seldon and how he created Psychohistory
  2. Forward the Foundation – the conclusion to Prelude to Foundation
  3. Foundation’s Edge – the Foundations realise that there is another power at work in the Galaxy: Gaia
  4. Foundation and Earth – the Foundation searches for humanity’s forgotten birth place: Earth


Isaac Asimov was born Исаак Озимов or Айзек Азимов in Russia in 1920, before immigrating to America with his family in 1923. He earned a PhD in Biochemistry and was a professor the Boston School of Medicine. He died in 1992 aged 72.


Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This is the most widely quoted reference. Asimov modelled the Galactic Empire on the Roman one and its collapse from within from decadence and from without by barbarians (ie without atomic technology).

America following the end of World War Two

Having been long overshadowed by the British Empire, in the years of the writing of the Foundation trilogy (40’s to early 50’s), America became the dominant world superpower by means of its atomic weapons and the collapse of the British Empire. The Foundation is thus a proxy of post-war America. While America was allies with Britain during the war, it was the heir to the British Empire in a similar way to the Foundation being heir to the Galactic one.

Major Characters

Hari Seldon

While Hari Seldon only appears in person in the first book, the character’s influence resonates through all three in the form of the Seldon Plan. This predicts the fall of the first Galactic Empire and reduces the 30,000 years of barbarism to only 1,000, when his two foundations form a new galactic empire

The Mule

While Psychohistory can not predict and is not influenced by individuals, The Mule disproves this assumption as he is a mutant with mind and emotion control abilities. The Mule is a genetic mutant where his mental powers are offset by his deformed body and sterility. Thus his empire, which is similar to Alexander the Great’s, is doomed to collapse on his death.

The Foundation

While Foundationers come and Foundationers go, the First Foundation, based on technology and physical sciences goes on.

The Second Foundation

Like the first Foundation, the second is based on science; unlike the first it is science of the mind – psychology. It plays no part in the story before the arrival of the Mule in the second book. There follows three searches for it: the first for its aid, the second and third to destroy it. On this third attempt, the Second Foundation arranges that the First Foundation will appear to be successful and put an end to the Second’s existence.


Freewill vs. predestination

While the behaviour of a single molecule of gas is unpredictable, when you have sufficient quantities then their behaviour becomes fully predictable. The physics of gasses gives rise to guiding principles such as Boyle’s laws. Similarly, Asimov postulated that while an individual was unpredictable, people in their billions and more are, thus changes to society can be predicted in the same way we predict the weather using psychohistory. The problem with this is that such systems only work if they are closed and that all data is known. With the weather, we know the system starting point (current weather reports) and energy input to the system (the sun and coriolis forces). It also relies on the physical laws remaining constant. Similarly, Seldon formulated the “laws of psychology” as applied to population masses. The underlying assumption is that humans react the same to outside influence regardless of differences in culture. Also, that individuals have no significant influence on society. We now know that the laws of chaos make it impossible to know the weather in sufficient detail to predict accurately: hence the butterfly effect. In fact, the Met office only predict with confidence three days in advance. Similarly, psychohistory only stays on track of the predictions through external agencies correcting social drift from the ideal path. This is an option not available to the Met Office!


This is mostly dealt with in the first book and touched lightly on the sequels. Asimov’s belief, like a number of other SF writers of his generation and many scientists today, believe that religion is caused by ignorance of science. In Foundation, the Inner Kingdoms are controlled by the Foundation through the atomic religion. This religion is essentially without morals or spirituality on the part of the Kingdoms. Morals and spirituality do not feature in the Foundation, only cynicism and manipulation.


Deus ex machina

An unexpected power or event saving a seemingly impossible situation, especially in a play or novel. [ L translation Gk, = god from the machinery] Example: in War of the Worlds, the Martians are unstoppable by human efforts but are beaten by simple Earth viruses. Normally a frowned on literary device, as it suggests a cop-out of providing a suitable and satisfactory solution to the problem that the characters are faced with, but it is the central theme to the Foundation trilogy under the guise of the Seldon Plan. That is: Psychohistory. Foundation – the fledgling Foundation is faced with a series of impossible crises, but each are solved but the heroes doing nothing and thus allowing the deus ex machina to act Foundation and Empire – the first half is a continuation of the theme of the first book, where the deus ex machina continues to function against the remnants of the Galactic Empire. The second shows the destruction of the plan but the actions of one man: the Mule. Second Foundation – shows how the guardians of the deus ex machina are the Second Foundation, who are the heirs to Hari Seldon himself and the science of psychohistory. The first half has the Mule attempting to destroy the Second Foundation to protect his empire, while the second has the deliberate apparent destruction of the Second Foundation by the first. The reason for this suicide is that the Seldon Plan, that is the deus ex machina, cannot function while the Foundation expects the Second Foundation, the operators of the machina, to act. As “the plan helps those who help themselves”, the paradox is that Foundation must destroy the deus ex machina to allow it to operate. Later books reveal that while the First Foundation is unwittedley guided by the Second, the Second is likewise controlled by Gaia, who are in turn controlled by AI robots who are controlled by Asimov’s Three laws of Robotics. The ultimate god from the machinery is actually a machinery god.


Atomic power / superiority of technology

The first atomic bomb had brought the Second World War to a close only a couple of years previously, nuclear power plants were proposed and America’s rise to super-power status was due to its adoption and mastery of fusion. At this time, America was the only nuclear power, just as the Foundation was the only users and creators of atomic energy and weapons. Thus both were the de facto dominant power. The problems with Asimov’s handling of technology are:
  • That the Foundation as a scientific colony with copies of all suitable records becomes technologically advanced is logical, that the Empire with the same knowledge forgets everything, is not.
  • Psychohistory depends on society remaining consistent, but technological advances are unpredictable. You only have to look at the effect of the Industrial Revolution on British society to see the effect such advances make.
  • Asimov wrote the Foundation trilogy before the existence of computing was publicised. While computers were used during the war to decode German codes, that information was still top secret. Thus the computing is completely absent for the first two books and is only introduced in the third book as the Lens star chart and the Transcriber vocal recognition machine.

Psychology / Psychohistory

While the actions of an individual are unpredictable using psychology, with sufficient numbers the reactions of society can be predicted with such accuracy that history can be plotted out in advance: psychohistory.
Some aspects of psychology in the books do not ring true for me:
  • That the Mule can control people’s emotions and fix loyalties is acceptable in the context of a SF novel due to his mutation. That the Second Foundation through three hundred years of studying psychology can achieve the same is not believable and forms an uncomfortable element to the Second Foundation novel.
  • I find that the Second Foundation’s non-verbal communication an unnecessary and distracting motif


***** genre defining classic