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