Tuesday 24 December 2013

2013 in review

The ruins of Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire

Not a lot to review, honestly, but the picture's not a reflection of the kind of year I've had. It's just the closest to a Christmas picture that I have. I've just finished putting the children's presents around the tree and now I have to just sneak into their room with their stockings before going to bed myself and hope they don't wake up as I do so.

Each year I think that, as I delicately place a stocking at the foot of a bed, the lights will suddenly come on and I will find myself staring at my wide awake children, trying hastily to think of a reason why it's me and not Santa putting the presents out.

One year they may set up tripwire alarms for that very purpose. My wife wonders why I don't buy them electronic spy-kit sets, but that's just me thinking ahead. Might be a good idea to pass on the My-Little-Waterboarding set too, in case they get a bit too sophisticated with their interrogations...

Anyway, 2013 has had its usual share of ups and downs, though with a few more downs than normal. I started the year with just one novel out, and the lack of sales had me despairing. Starting the X-Troop novels put me back on track and made me focus long term, which was okay until the summer. Then a series of setbacks hit the family and we've been struggling to recover. Our finances took a nosedive, a cardiac scare (and possible misdiagnosis) cast its shadow and other stuff kind of just piled up to make the second half of the year something of a trial. The third X-Troop novel has been delayed as a result, for which I apologise. The majority of it is finished and it's looking like a January/February release now, but the setback has been frustrating.

I've also discovered that I may have Aspergers (a mild form of Autism). It's only a self-diagnosis (for which I'm 99% sure), but it explains a lot about my life. To some extent, I think I've always known. Deep down inside. Like something wasn't right.

Well, actually I thought I was just fucking nuts, which isn't quite the same, but I just hadn't been able to put a word to it. And now that I have, it just feels kinda strange. Not in a bad way, necessarily, just... weird. Like putting in a corrective lens so that everything springs into focus for the first time, and what I thought I was looking at turned out to be something else. So I'm staring a lot at the new sharp outline and wondering if I preferred it blurred.

But life's still good. I'm alive, I have a roof over my head and tomorrow's Christmas day. We've made it through another year and we haven't run out of options yet. Life used to be very shit for me, and more than a little goofy, so I feel lucky to have come this far and that has to be cause for a celebration.

So tomorrow I shall be celebrating, and I hope you can too, whether it's with your own family or by yourself. Eat what you can, drink what you can and know that, as a project, 2013 is pretty much wrapped up. You did your bit and now it's time to take a break before starting the next one.

Merry Christmas, and I wish you a hopeful, resourceful, ass-kicking New Year. Because who knows what's round the next corner?

Salaam, Shalom, have a good one.

Sunday 15 December 2013

It's all Rousseau's fault

I wrote about violence in fiction in my last post, where I briefly made the case for campaigners who believe that the fictional depiction of violence causes or worsens violence in real life.

Do I need to point out that violence is perfectly natural? Apparently so. Many people believe that movies and video games cause violence. There are even some who believe that atheist godlessness causes violence, and there are others who believe that rapacious capitalism causes violence. And there are some who believe that it's The Patriarchy and the insiduous influence of masculine culture that causes and perpetuates violence, for which (according to one book) we all need counselling.

If only we could be women, then all the world would be nice. Or so it goes.

It's natural to fear violence and to want to keep it at arm's length. To start with, it hurts. It can also kill you, and survival instincts are natural too.

But the idea that violence is some sort of inhuman disease, that it invades us from nefarious influences and upsets our natural goodness, can be put down to the influence of Rousseau.

Rousseau was an 18th Century French philosopher who taught that, in his natural state, Man was a harmonious being, and that it was the artificial influence of society that corrupted him. Rousseau was the one who said; Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Nature good, society bad, in other words.

Rousseau seemed to believe that ideal societies, of the kind that we should have been reverting to, actually existed. And he wasn't the first.

When the Spanish and Portuguese discovered the New World back in the 15th Century, many sea captains wrote approvingly of those charming, loincloth wearing natives they encountered, so free of the vicious strife and toil they had left behind in Europe. Thomas More was moved to write the classic book Utopia on the strength of these accounts, and groups of European idealists sailed out to start up their own utopian communities in the tropics, at one with nature and at peace with each other.

It was all bunk. The utopian communities perished, consumed by the harshness of nature that these civilized ladies and gentlemen had forgotten existed, and the noble natives were only peaceful because they were in awe of the Europeans in their huge ships. In reality, they were involved in endemic tribal warfare and lived a precarious existence, as was proved when they all died of the smallpox the Europeans had brought with them.

But the myth of innate goodness remains. Education, apparently, is the key. Give people good influences, rather than bad influences, and niceness will blossom.

People like me (and Josh Whedon) are therefore part of the problem, because it's our influence that's causing all the trouble.

I'm not just a person with a sick mind, you see. I also possess the power to manipulate your very soul. Can you feel my influence? It's magic, I tell you. Look into my eyes.

Or don't, because honestly it's all bollocks. Orangutans fight each other, and they've never seen a Tarantino movie. Dolphins fight each other, and they've never played Grand Theft Auto. Rabbits fight, and they've never read Fight Club. They also shag a lot, and they've never read Lady Chatterly's lover.

We search desperately for Utopia still, and seek to cleanse society of all the things that we think are preventing it from becoming ideal. But Utopia is not only a myth, it's a lie, and the campaigns against violence (and the 'wars' against drugs, poverty, inequality, et al) are simply campaigns against human nature.

Fight against human nature all you like, but really, there's only ever going to be one winner, and that's nature itself. In the past, people learned to live with it. Maybe we should too.

Saturday 30 November 2013

A Celebration of Violence

I have a confession to make. I glorify violence. How do I do that? Well, I make it an essential part of the hero's journey.

I make it essential in that, without it, the hero cannot complete their mission. It must be done either by the hero, or on behalf of the hero. It is a situation whereby violence is the solution, or a vital part of the solution, to the problem.

For instance, a Mrs Marple or Poirot mystery would not count. The story may contain violence in it (like when the murder victim is killed), but the means by which the perpretator is caught owes nothing at all to violence. The detectives in question only use their powers of detecting, whatever they may be. A Sherlock Holmes story, on the other hand, may well glorify violence, since occasionally Holmes or his trusty armed sidekick, Watson, must resort to violence to move the case onwards or solve it.

Some authors try to shift the responsibility from their heroes so as to make them seem a little more moral, and less violent. You know, in order not to glorify violence. The Russian detective Arkady, in Martin Cruz Smith's novels, makes a point (after the first novel) of never carrying a gun. Other characters in the stories even question the wisdom of this, but he remains stubborn. He appears moral in this regard - the antithesis of the all-action hero who relies on his fists rather than his brain. Yet Arkady, in spite of being unarmed, continues to wade into dangerous situations, against all advice, and ends up confronting violent people anyway. And when he does, he nearly always relies on others to use violence on his behalf, thus allowing him to solve the case and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. His morality, therefore, is bogus, because he still needs violence to solve his problems. The author ensures that he benefits directly from violence done on his behalf (in one novel he even has to rely on a child shooting his enemy for him), even though his own attempts to fight almost always fail, because he's not a very good fighter. But he still keeps getting himself into situations where he needs a good fighter - or a good shot - to save the day. So he's not really the anti-hero that he appears to be, and the Arkady novels (which I thoroughly recommend, by the way) are also, in their way, a celebration of violence. Without it, he'd be dead and his cases would be unsolved.

The glorification of violence has many critics. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, got a lot of stick for it in his last movie, Django, and he got very exasperated during interviews because of his reputation of making violent movies. 'Why the constant violence?' his critics seem to be saying. How about giving us something that doesn't involve all that ugly, physical stuff?

There are a lot of stupid assumptions about what the glorification of violence really means. Josh Whedon, for example, that ever so nice man who empowers women in his movies, is never accused of glorifying violence. I mean, he's so kind and thoughtful, and so in touch with his feminine side. He doesn't do the gut wrenching bloody scenes that Tarantino prefers to let the camera linger over.

As Mal from Firefly would say, "He's my hewo."

But let's go back to my definition of what glorification of violence means: an essential part of the hero's journey... without it, the hero cannot complete their mission.

There doesn't have to be blood involved. Nor even a single sneering face. Buffy the Vampire slayer was a celebration of violence. So was Firefly (another one I recommend). And the Marvel movie he wrote and directed? You bet it was.

I peacefully require you to back the fuck up.

Any action story, no matter how sugar-coated or dialled down for a younger audience, will likely be a celebration of violence. And many of us enjoy this celebration for its own sake, which puts us on the wrong side of the barrier from campaigners who say that the depiction of violence in our fiction reinforces the violence that already exists in the world and actually makes it worse.

Are they right?

Saturday 23 November 2013

Where's science fiction going?

It's been said that science fiction has lost its vitality, that it's lost confidence in the future and is in danger of having nothing new to say. This is the view of old school 'hard' SF types. Their remedy is that science fiction should revitalise itself, find again its ground-breaking positivist roots and show what a post-capitalist, post-everything-white-and-western world would look like. With confidence and verve.

They're missing the point. They've certainly missed the boat. The Golden Age of science fiction coincided with the ascent of America to world power, closely contested by the USSR as it too stepped up to the podium. They were both Enlightenment regimes in their own way. And confidence about the future was high. It was just a matter of seeing which future would unfold.

Fast forward to now, and people claim that the 'genre of ideas' has run out of ideas. But the reason why is rather obvious.

The 20th Century ran through the gamut of Enlightenment ideas that had been laid out clearly the century before. They all crashed - Communism, Socialism, Positivism, National Socialism and Fascism. Social Democracy and Liberalism are also spent, and Neoliberalism's audacious promises about unfettered world markets has also hit the buffers.

Science fiction was an Enlightenment genre, with a great regard for its own self-importance. It may be recycling its ideas nowadays, but in that sense it mirrors Western society as a whole, and it's run out of 19th Century ideas to put forward. The onward march of progress was matched by the onward march of America. But the US has peaked now and people are starting to realise that great nations can go down as well as up. The old glib confidence in the future is looking a bit pale. There's a realisation that the inexorable march of progress may, in fact, be an illusion.

But still the stalwarts in SF announce that the only reason the future is uncertain is because it's being mishandled. If writers can only retune their minds to the future, then new ideas can emerge to get us out of this mess. And if Western SF writers can't come up with the goods, then there's always the up and coming developing world. Surely the (golden) flame of SF will be kept alive by Chinese and Indian writers?

But the idea that science fiction as we know it is internationalist and can survive to gloat over the prostrate ruins of the European Enlightenment that spawned it? Another delusion.

It doesn't matter who you are, or what idea you are, you can't stay at the top forever, and you can't stay relevant forever either. You grab a bit of sunshine, then you grow old. That's it.

The belief that science and ethics go hand in hand has been discredited by history. Enlightenment optimism has kicked the bucket and its leading edges are already being rolled back.

But people already know this. Consciously or unconsciously, they are aware that history goes in cycles. So instead of wanting to read about brave new futures, they thirst instead for zombie and post-apocalyptic stories.

And the SF old guard may grind their teeth and pull out what's left of their hair over this, but it could be that the untutored masses are a lot smarter than they give them credit for.

It may well be that the future we wanted isn't coming back at all.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Clean no longer

"How's the collar, princess?"

The writer Michael Lind once used an analogy of Star Trek versus Star Wars as a way of highlighting the modern exaltation of barbarism in America. In Lind's view, Star Trek represented scientific achievement and rationalism, while Star Wars represented degenerative regression and romantic medievalism.

American science fiction once saw the future with optimism and hope. A future of technological advances and inclusive government. A future where, perhaps, some planetary Federation (a multi-ethnic America enlarged, basically) might send starships out on five year missions of peaceful exploration, rather than for conquest or profit. An enlightened future. A nice future.

It wasn't just science fiction that saw it this way. It was America itself, freed from the shackles of the evil empire (Great Britain) and the corrupt manipulative ways of the Old World. America embraced the Enlightenment values of Liberty, Social Development and Individual Rights, and it emerged from WW2 as number one in the world. Not an empire, like those awful European colonialists and their despotic monarchies, but a Great Force For Good, championing rights, liberty and happiness - the very values still touted by the Humanist movement today, which is to the Enlightenment what the Knights Templar once were to Christendom.

America was an Enlightenment regime. And science fiction, with its emphasis on science and progressiveness, was an Enlightenment, Humanist genre. At its core, anyway. This is why the hardcore SF cadre bemoan the 'sci-fi' proclivity with exploding spaceships. It's not enlightened. Or literary - which is to say, not aligned with serious bourgeois, enlightened values. It's also why Michael Lind hated Star Wars.

But America was not the only Enlightenment regime. The other one was the Soviet Union, and they too wanted to use science and reason to better the affairs of Man. Indeed, it was explicit in their literature. They sought to rationally plan society and engineer better, more rational citizens. America sought to change the world through revolutionary democracy. The USSR sought to do the same through revolutionary socialism. Two different ways of arriving at the same Enlightenment goals.

There remain many who still pine for the Soviet version - or at least the idealised version - but the game was up for the Soviet dream after Stalin's death. The admission of his crimes soured hopes of a Utopia and, in spite of the ongoing Cold War, it was only a matter of time before the Enlightenment dream was seen as deeply naive.

America's moment of disillusionment came soon after, with the Vietnam war. The idea that a rational regime, created through revolution with the aim of transforming humanity, could end up committing the same crimes against humanity that the old European empires were guilty of, was a heavy blow to the hope of intellectuals. It was the beginning of a long decline that would eventually see the USSR collapse and the USA vilified as the evil empire it once sought to make obsolete.

Progressives used to laud America. Now they bemoan it.

To Michael Lind, Star Trek was the hope we should have stuck with, while Star Wars was a return to pre-enlightenment horrors like monarchy, slavery and elite knightly orders. Star Trek was clean. Star Wars was dirty.

But Star Wars was more popular by far. What did this say about cinema audiences, and the population at large? And what does this say about science fiction itself?

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Random things

I love new pictures. With the impending publication of the third X-Troop novel, I thought it might be a good idea to replace the covers on the first two to match. Alas, I don't have the money to replace them outright, so I opted instead to redo them slightly and make them look a little more professional. You can see them above, mounted on my facebook banner (click on the banner for a real good look. It's worth it). So far, I'm loving the improvement, and seeing them like this reminds me why I bought Luca Oleastri's Alien Spy. It's just an awesome picture, and looks more evil rendered in black and white. I've had a lot of mileage out of that pic, and I'll have to come up with something different for the third story, but I don't know what.

Want to hear more about the third X-Troop story? Of course you do. What will it be called? Err, not sure about that one yet. I can tell you however that it will be set in Guatemala, and will feature the Maya civilization and the legend of ancient astronauts (so maybe Mayan glyphs and a pyramid for the cover?). Alex Harvey will also get a new female sidekick and, as usual, nothing will quite go according to plan. Alex gets to play detective in this story, as there is a mystery to solve. Hmmm, a mystery involving Maya and aliens. A Mulder and Scully ripoff? Ha, maybe, but I can tell you that Scully was never like this. You'll find out more when the book's out.

When does it come out? Well, I'm aiming for a December/January launch, but hopefully I'll have more precise information closer to the time. If you want an email notification of the new release and a discount price, head to my New Releases site and sign up for an automatic email alert.

Meanwhile, if you want to get hold of Amped, the first story, for free, I'll be giving it away gratis at Amazon and Amazon UK on the 7th and 8th of November 2013. Grab it while you can.

Sunday 29 September 2013

The Bechdel Test

"Don't talk about him..."

On a writer's forum I frequent, someone posted the topic: Does your writing pass the Bechdel Test?

So what's the Bechdel Test?

Here, in summary, is a popular rendition of the Bechdel Test that should be applied to any story:
1. Are there at least two women in it?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?

This test has become something of a cause célèbre among people who feel that women are under-represented in fiction, be it in movies or in novels. On the forum in question, it generated a lot of talk about how women are ignored or marginalised in movies or genre fiction, about the injustice to women in general, women being 50% of the population, and the need to apply the Bechdel Test (if you believe in doing the right thing) to your work as a writer and to question whether you are doing enough to solve such injustice.

That's right. Women are 50% of the population, but the test should be applied to all fiction. Because clearly there is no such thing as different genres for different markets. No, everything should be skewed to what a woman would find interesting. And according to some, that means that, if you're writing a thriller, then you must write it for women as well as men. Because otherwise you're part of the problem, rather than the solution.

This is possibly one of the dumbest, most one-sided interpretations of 'the rule'. That's like me approaching it from the other side and saying that Romance novels really need to cater for men more. I mean, c'mon, enough with the drippy will-he-won't-he stuff, how about a little bit of action, car chases and fist fighting too so that men can enjoy Romance novels as well? Aren't men 50% of the population and a little more deserving of love and respect, instead of just catering to what women want?

Uhm, no. Writing, or film making, isn't about social justice. It's about genres.

What's a genre? It's a particular style, subject or context that appeals to a given number of people, who self-select according to what they like. Neither writers nor critics create genres. Genres are created exclusively by consumers (readers or viewers). A writer, critic or marketing guru may recognise a genre, i.e. detect a grouping in the market (society) that has this or that preference, and they may then try to cater to that genre, but they cannot create that group of people or force them to generate a particular preference, though lord knows, if they could, they would. Marketing consultants, publishers and film studios would love to have that ability, and some may even kid themselves that they do have that ability. But, in the real world, the consumer rules, and is as difficult to predict as the weather (as many a bankrupt business can attest).

So if I'm writing a novel about, say, a ferocious battle in some valley in WWII, it would be pretty obvious that I'm looking to aim it at the guy market. A few women might want to read it, but I'd be a fool to hinge my marketing strategies on that slim possibility. And having two women talking to each other in it isn't going to affect who the book is likely to appeal to. In fact, it would be seen as a distraction. As would a car chase and knife fight in a romance setting. And neither of these two (overtly simplistic) scenarios would have any bearing on whether an author respects women (or men) or sees them as equals in society.

As for women being under-represented in fiction, it should be hard to make that case when romance is the biggest and most lucrative genre in the publishing industry. And always has been. Women read more fiction than men. It's a $1.350 Billion industry.

And that's only counting romance, which is a narrowly defined genre. Women's fiction in general, which includes 'chicklit', erotica, 'new adult' and recent innovations such as fictional women working as nannies, midwives and nurses in the 50's (which is all the rage in the UK at the moment), accounts for an even bigger percentage of the share.

But hey, never let facts get in the way of your ideology.

There's also the problem that the 'test' was never really a test. It was a cartoon:
by Alison Bechdel
The Rule was a cartoon that Alison Bechdel drew for her series Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985. It was a humourous aside about lesbians struggling to find anything worth watching in an era bursting with cheesy action movies. And if you look at the second to last panel, it also kind of mocked 'the rule' itself.

In other words, it was never meant to be taken that seriously.

You wouldn't think it from googling the subject though, where the rule has become set in stone and waved by crusading authors, critics, columnists and bloggers everywhere. And if you think about it (you know, really think about it) the 'test', as applied rather literally by such crusaders, is in fact a shallow interpretation of the spirit behind Alison Bechdel's cartoon.

Bechdel was a lesbian, and the comic was very much an illustration of the isolation a lesbian woman might feel in a largely heterosexual world which, thanks to multimedia technology, was celebrated at you from every angle, avenue and air-play. To a lesbian, anything to do with men would be a massive turn off. She is interested in women, and in women being interested in women, so a lot of romance or women's fiction would fail 'the test', because the driving force in their narrative is women wanting, thinking about or talking about men, with issues about men being somehow involved in the resolution of the story.

In that vein, even Thelma and Louise would fail the Bechdel 'test'. It may have been celebrated by many as a feminist statement, and, applied literally, it may have ticked the test boxes, but the story is essentially about two women and their relationships to men, about running away from men, taking their revenge on men and, finally, getting away from the world of men, though they achieve this only by committing suicide (nice positive message there).

To pass the real Bechdel test, the movie should be about two women who find each other, develop a relationship and then go on to develop a cure for cancer, with triumphs and frustrations over funding, results and perhaps a natural disaster thrown in, but with the women emerging triumphant at the end, their relationship battered but still strong, and their contribution to the world held up in a test tube. Without the opinions of men being in any way involved.

You see, the whole issue about women in fiction is not just about doing, or box ticking, it's about BEING.

That's the thing about an inspiring story. That's what a person who reads or watches it wants to get out of it.

And what a lesbian woman wants to be differs not only from what a hetero guy would want to be (would like to see themselves as), but from what a hetero woman wants to be too, and that there is the tragedy that laces the humour in Bechdel's cartoon. That, when you see different from the majority, or feel different from the majority, you're going to feel isolated, no matter what.

A poignant message, and a very old one. And one that can be handled with grim breast beating, or, alternatively, a little dark humour.

That, and not the depiction of women in general, is what The Rule is all about.

Alison Bechdel's graphic compilations are available at Amazon.com

Sunday 14 July 2013

Really don't watch this movie

I watched Skyline today. Yes, I know I'm three years too late, but time runs different in the alternate reality that is my brain, because it seems like only yesterday that I remember the movie coming out.

Like Monsters, another movie I discussed not so long ago (five minutes, wasn't it?), it's a low budget affair, set almost entirely in one luxury apartment, with unknown actors and a lot of CGI, and it's divided audiences, who can't agree on whether it's good or bad.

But wait. It wasn't actually a low budget movie at all - it just feels like one. Monsters cost half a million dollars to make, and is testament to what can be achieved with modern techniques and technology. Skyline, on the other hand, cost a mindblowing $20 million to make.

What did they spend the rest of the money on? Drugs? Call girls, alcohol and wild orgies? I sincerely hope so, otherwise they've been robbed. And the bit where I said that audiences are divided on this? Well, actually they aren't. The overwhelming majority appear to hate it with a passion. They certainly feel they were robbed.

"Look, they're taking our money."

They certainly didn't fork out for a decent scripwriter. The cast, as one reviewer put it, resemble a bunch of swimwear models. Beautiful, bland and dumb as a box of frogs.

The bimbos look shocked and declare, "What are we going to do?"

The beefcakes look shocked and declare, "We gotta do something."

They come up with some really stupid ideas, to which the bimbos reply, "We can't do that."

And that's pretty much the entire plot of the movie.

The film begins with a rich, gun toting hip hop artist throwing a launch party for his friends in L.A. (surely the most alien invaded city in history now). That peaked my interest at first - maybe he'd call all his homies to go out and kick ass. But it goes nowhere and he becomes just another bland character who's going to die soon anyway. And according to the wiki entry, he wasn't a hip hop artist, but manager of a special effects company. My bad, but that just makes it worse anyway.

So they're stuck in this apartment while the city outside is ravaged by aliens that look like they've been ripped straight out of the Matrix movies. Do they start revealing interesting back stories, crushed hopes and dreams, interesting snippets that make you look at them in a different light? No, not at all. They just stare out of the window while the airforce fights a losing battle with the alien motherships. And they stay clueless and stupid for almost the entire movie. You'd think that maybe the director would throw in the reliable cliche about folk pulling together in a crisis, becoming a real group, but the fact is, they never do. They all live urban, individualistic, selfish lives, and when their mobile phones stop working, they're all stuck. One character, who's pregnant, has a tantrum about someone smoking in the apartment. The aliens are devastating the city's inhabitants, but she's still got time to worry about the effects of second-hand smoke. Yes, it really is that petty.

The only other mildly interesting character (apart from the hip hop artist who actually wasn't) is the hispanic apartment complex manager. He doesn't look like a model, and he does appear able to actually think. He certainly gets the best death scene. But looking interesting isn't difficult in that company, and he's largely wasted in the movie.

You kind of look forward to seeing the aliens slaughter such a shallow bunch of idiots. And slaughtered they get, as mankind appears helpless before the alien onslaught.

But then, at the end there's a twist. As the main guy and his pregnant girlfriend make a doomed attempt to escape the fate of their yuppie friends, they are captured and sucked up into the mothership. All appears lost, and the end credits look ready to roll.

Another scene follows, however. The girl wakes up in the bowels of the ship, surrounded by comatose victims. Tentacles pick up her boyfriend and rip his head off, removing his brain for insertion into waiting alien bodies. As he's been infected by something the aliens have done to him earlier in the movie, his brain glows red, unlike the other brains being fed into the tubes. The red brain is inserted into an alien head, and the alien comes to life, with red eyes instead of blue, and looking like he's having trouble with his new brain, like something's gone wrong.

Meanwhile his girlfriend is picked up by the tentacles but spared when they realise she is pregnant. Obviously she's being saved for some sort of breeding program. Suddenly the red eyed alien appears and saves her, fighting the other aliens and carrying her off. The end.

Weird? I'll say so, but it's actually the most original part of the whole movie. I have to assume that the producers have a sequel in mind, where the monster, or alien, with a human soul uses his strength to save the girl and thereby mankind. Or something.

"I'll save you from the aliens. Oh, wait..."

I hate to say it, but Disney has already produced the sequel. It was called Beauty and the Beast. Is that what's being planned next? Somehow I can't see the producers getting funding for that, so we'll perhaps just have to imagine it ourselves.

Or, on the strength of this showing, hope that it never gets made. This really is a movie that you do not want to watch, unless you like unintended comedies. With a few beers and a few of your mates, it could actually be quite funny.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Supercharged vision thing

I mentioned in this post, and this post, how the X-Troop series got started: essentially on the back of disillusionment with my previous attempt at a series, and possibly the writing process itself. I got all hung up on being a proper writer, doing things the proper way and a whole bunch of neurotic hangups that really just sabotaged whatever I was doing. A common newbie writer trap, I'm sure. Or maybe not. All I know is that when I finally said, 'fuck that' and just did my own thing, it started to come together a little more harmoniously.

Influences, you see. That was my main stumbling block - and I just couldn't see it.

I was writing science fiction, and science fiction authors that I researched kept going on about their biggest influences - 60's, 70's or 80's written science fiction - and how it shaped their reading lives and, ultimately, writing lives. Writers like the late Iain Banks kept mentioning the importance of knowing the SF 'canon' (with a view to criticising the pesky outsiders who dared to write SF without such vital knowledge). All the Brit SF writers would go on about how they loved SF.

And that was a problem for me. I didn't love SF. I didn't particularly love any genre. I mean, it's just a bunch of books. I love my wife. I love my children. But books are just things that I like to read. I have shelves of them, but I also have shelves of CDs and DVDs. I like to be entertained, and I find some books better than others. The ones I like, I keep, and the ones I don't get given away. I have a couple of favourite authors, but I don't slavishly read everything they've had printed. And I certainly don't love a genre. Some books I liked happened to be science fiction. Most however tend to be scattered randomly among the genres, and I don't care.

I'll certainly never qualify for the die-hard fan in stormtrooper costume at a sci-fi convention. And the thought of queueing for ages to get some author's signature on a book I've purchased strikes me as pointless. I mean, why?

Clearly there was something wrong with me. How could I hope to compete with all those other authors if I didn't have the correct genre gene?

The first adult novels I remember reading were war novels, and for a while I consumed a lot of them, all set in WW2. I enjoyed Len Deighton's war novels and from there I went on to read a few of his spy novels. Eventually I tired of those and gravitated to fantasy novels, sparked probably by the fantasy RPG games I played with my friends, which were a lot of fun. I tried out some science fiction, and then a few crime novels. Then I read spiritual memoirs like Richard Bach's Illusions and The Bridge Across Forever. In between I consumed non-fiction books on psychology, philosophy and history. There was never any pattern, and I don't recall the need to ever stick to one. If I saw something I liked, I'd lurch off in that direction, and that was that.

But while I was struggling over my letters to agents, listing my influences and trying to sound impressive, I forgot what was probably the biggest influence of all on my reading.


From the age of seven I was nose deep into a comic every chance I got. And not the magazine type comic like The Beano or Victor, but stuff by Commando or Battle Picture Weekly: small, self-contained picture novels essentially, not serialised.

Any chance I got, I'd go to the corner newsagents opposite my house and buy another for 20p. I had drawers full of them. I wish I'd kept a couple, just so I could see what I liked about them, but my parents were keen on throwing them away every chance they got. I think they were disturbed by my geeky insistence on reading them rather than going out to play. I don't know what the fuss was about, as I remember playing out in the streets a lot, but I couldn't get enough of these comics - both for their stories and their graphics.

I'd gotten hooked into the visual form of story telling. Not that I was interested in telling stories myself, but I did get into drawing. I drew tanks, planes, battles and, later, spaceships and space battles in competition with a friend who was into that sort of thing. I was never really a great artist, I don't think, and I certainly never went on to study it at college, leaving school instead to work in a textiles factory, but I kept on drawing in my own way, doing cartoons just for the hell of it (and hanging them up in the break room). By then I was reading novels and I didn't really think about those years of influence until just recently, when I completed Amped.

Amped was a big departure for me in writing style. Rather than write tons of description or exposition, as I thought I was meant to, I just wrote scenes, one after another. I didn't bother with chapter headings. When the scene ended, I inserted a line break and then started on the next one. I stayed in one character's POV (point of view) and, after setting the scene briefly, let them tell their story through their actions and dialogue. I resisted the temptation to go too deep into motivations or meanings. I wanted speed and I just surfed straight through to the final scene. Then I went back through it, editing the odd word, then I proofed it (checking grammar and punctuation). And that was that - a completed story.

Not a long story, obviously, and that helped with the speed of the thing, but it was all there the way I wanted it, and I didn't feel the need to pad it out in any way. It was, for me anyway, a liberation. The transfer of the story in my head, straight onto paper (so to speak), with no distractions or hangups. And in the new age of ebooks, I could publish it straight away, without some agent saying it wasn't long enough.

I had essentially written, in literary form, a comic book.

I didn't realise it at the time, of course, and when I started X-Troop, I wondered if I really should be tackling a longer story in the same way. It felt like I was bucking a trend or breaking some rules - you know, doing something wrong.

Did I mention that self-doubt is one of the most common traits of a writer?

Anyway, while I was mulling this over, I walked into a specialist comic shop. Adult comics - wall to wall superhero stories. I've never been into superheroes myself, so I wasn't sure what I'd get out of the experience, but it turned out that there were many crime and thriller comics too, and as I browsed through them, I realised that the story style was similar, albeit in picture form, to what I'd just written in Amped. And that's when the light bulb came on over my head. The clouds parted, the angels sang, and I remembered, finally, my true story heritage.

One comic that caught my eye was The Boys.

I can't say too much about the contents, as it was £15 (a far cry from 20p) and I couldn't really afford it, but it seemed to involve the 'boys' beating up a lot of caped superheroes. All in a good cause, I'm sure. But I liked the look of it, and all worries about writing X-Troop in the same breathless comic style pretty well vanished. A visual, fast moving narrative would be fine after all.

Are Alex Harvey and his lads based on the 'boys'? Not really, as I'd dreamed them up already, but I think The Boys certainly gave me the confidence to stick to the story, from a bruiser's point of view. I stopped worrying about whether it was right for the science fiction market, or female readers, or whatever. I also stopped worrying about whether it was too shallow, relying on such a visual, fast paced style. In the end, none of that mattered. Readers who like deeper, slower works will always find them elsewhere, and worrying about it certainly didn't help my first aborted series.

I got into writing for the same reason I got into reading - to get away from the mundane life of school and crap jobs. I get inspiration from reading books, but I also get inspiration from art - a lot more than I realised. I think in pictures. One of the biggest challenges for a new writer is finding their own 'voice'. We all start by mimicking the styles of authors we like. It just took longer than it should have to realise that my 'voice' is visual rather than verbal. It's the voice I think in. I still can't draw it. But I can write it.

When it comes down to it, I just love art.

And if you're interested in The Boys, I've just found it on Amazon and Amazon UK for a lot less than fifteen quid. I think I may be getting a copy myself after all. Enjoy.

New book, new direction

The new book is out! The second story in the X-Troop series, called, as you can see, er, X-Troop. That's going to look odd on Amazon as it will be listed as X-Troop (X-Troop). No matter. It's a 40,000 word novella, compared to the teaser Amped which was 17,000, and it sets the tone for the rest of the series as Alex and his boys go into action against the alien threat. Lots of action, squaddie humour and aliens being sent back home in body bags.

And as we say hello to a new story, we say goodbye to an old one, for Even The Dead Dance To Live, my first self-published novel, has now been taken off the market. Why? Because it wasn't really the book I wanted to write.

Let me explain. When I first wrote Even The Dead, I'd never heard of self-publishing, and I was geared to selling it to agents and publishers in the traditional manner. This was a problem because, as I'm sure you're aware, it's not easy to get your book accepted by a publisher. The general advice is that, when you're making your pitch to them, you compare your work to an established book or author whom they are already publishing. It's common sense really. Publishers take a financial risk every time they accept a previously unpublished author, and they will naturally filter out any request along the lines of, 'this original work is like nothing you've ever printed before'. Straight into the bin with you, my friend. Life's too short and money's too tight to take too many risks in the publishing business - or any at all, in fact. So for me, as a sci-fi writer trying to get into the Brit SF market (which is where I had to start), I had to look hard at novels by the likes of Iain Banks, Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Richard Morgan, etc. And attempt to emulate them.

Or so I thought.

The only probem was, these guys weren't my primary influence. More on that later.

Anyway, when I wrote that story, I didn't really think about the story on its own, but rather what commercial framework that story would fit in. I tied myself up in a lot of knots over that one. The original story I had was a kind of Firefly/Star Wars mix, but that kind of stuff was, by then, considered too fantasy and seriously out of fashion. I pored over the SF boards on the net, and there was a lot of talk about 'hard science', plausibility, technological impact on future society and a whole lot of other stuff that, in retrospect, was actually just sniffy posturing. But I took it on board and tried to reshape my fantasy sci-fi into more serious SF. I researched tons of science so I could keep up with the opposition (Alastair Reynolds and Paul McAuley were both scientists) and twisted the story round so that it would be grounded in scientific questions. I lengthened the story so it would match the standard 100,000 word expectations of a publisher, and for this I had to invent new subplots, new characters and acres of padding, when what I really wanted to do was get on with the original story at breathtaking speed. The resulting monster was 130,000 words long and looked, to my eyes, like I'd taken a sports car and hitched a caravan to it. Subsequent rewrites to get it 'correct' for the 'market' added a luggage box, an extra row of seating and a sensible beige paint job. The only thing that prevented me from adding even more was sheer exhaustion. I'd had enough of the process, so I put it out as it was, but I was never entirely comfortable with it. I was in too deep to understand why, though.

Needless to say, the agents and publishers all turned it down (or simply never replied), so I then went through the whole self-publishing learning curve and put it out, to a rather unenthusiastic response. It got some nice reviews, and a few people may genuinely have liked it, but I know of several who started it but then never finished it, and many, I'm sure, were too polite to give me their real opinion on it. But the ultimate test is the market, and the readers voted with their feet. Even The Dead languished for months, dead in the water and with barely a spark of interest. That's when I realised I'd spent years going in the wrong direction.

It wasn't a complete waste of time. Pushing your boundaries never is, and I learned a lot from the process. I consider it to be my apprenticeship. But the fact was, my baby had spent too long in the mutant vat and had come out all misshapen; a bunch of killer scenes and interesting characters rubbing shoulders with dullards, spiralling counter-plots and way too much filler. What it needs now is to be stripped down, cleaned and oiled, with all the dead weight removed and a V8 supercharger added. And a new, funkier paint job. But that's for the future. Pull a cover over it and roll it into the corner of the garage, because X-Troop is on the ramp now, its exhaust growling sweetly and about to enter its first time trials.

Or sales trials. You know what I mean, roll with me on this.

So what's this new beast like? Well, read the sample or buy the book to find out. I mean, you're not going to take my word for it, are you? Take it on the road and give it a test drive. But if you want a peek behind the scenes (like a DVD extra I guess) to see it with the covers off, spark plugs and all, then stay tuned (no pun intended) for my next blog post, where I'll be exploring the book's influences and inception.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Don't watch this movie

A friend lent me this movie. He said, "A lot of people didn't like it, but I really enjoyed it."

I went away, thinking, "Hmmm, it's probably shit then." I checked out the reviews on Amazon, and found opinion split down the middle, from 'I found it really beautiful' to 'It's crap! Nothing happens in it!'

I left it on my shelf for about a month and a half.

When I finally got round to watching it, my expectations were suitably low, and if you're planning to watch it too, then I recommend you do the same. It's a low budget flick - a project where the Director/Producer/Writer Gareth Edwards took a crew of six, plus two actors, on a road trip through Mexico and Guatemala and filmed a rambling movie.

A disaster waiting to happen? It sounds like it, doesn't it? There were no other actors involved - they just paid whatever passing local person they could find and gave them some lines to say. And all the special effects were inserted digitally afterwards by the Producer/Director/Writer, who was in fact a special effects man by trade, with no previous full-length movie producing experience. The plot involves two people in a journey from A to B, the ending is abrupt, and there was clearly a lot of improvisation involved, with many questions left unanswered. And considering that it's an alien invasion movie, of sorts, the action quotient is fairly low.

It's no wonder some people hated it.

It's certainly no Independence Day, nor even a District 9.

But I loved it.

To start with, the cinematography was brilliant. Lovely handheld shots of the scenery, very lush, plenty for your eyes to linger over, it was great. The accompanying music then adds layers of atmosphere. And much of the movie is like this - a languid flowing river of atmospheric places with lots of local flavour. In that, it reminded me of the movie Driver, one of my favourite films of recent times. Nothing like it, of course, it's just that they both use the same approach to music. Some reviewers say that nothing happens, but to me every frame was eye-candy, so as far as I was concerned, something was happening all the time, and I'd often rewind sections so I could see them happen again.

The basic story - of a journalist who has to escort his boss's daughter out of Mexico and through the alien-devastated zone - is simply told. You don't get masses of dialogue, which would only ruin the mood anyway. A few lines in the opening credits tell you where the alien creatures came from and why they now 'infect' the American/Mexican border area, and then it's just a line here or a sign there that tells the rest of the story. The story is low key, and the acting is low key, and authentic where it counts.

So, it's boring, right?

Well, no. Again, some reviewers complained that you hardly saw the 'monsters'. I don't understand what movie they watched, because you see the monsters quite a few times. Maybe they were expecting them to be given lines, I don't know. And although it's a languid movie, stuff does happen. Shots get fired, people die, the two characters have to flee or hide, etc. My favourite scene is the 'fin' that appears in the river, which turns out to be the surfacing hull of a crashed fighter jet. Then, while everyone's watching it from the boat, relieved that it wasn't a monster, a set of tentacles rises from the water and pulls the plane back under.

The effects in this, for such a low budget movie, are brilliant. The tanks, jets, helicopters, ruined buildings, mountains, even the signs by the roadside, all fantastically done in a way that adds to the enjoyment of the movie. Some people, I know, moan about too much CGI - some people moan about anything - but I don't see what the fuss is all about. If it works, it works, and in this case, it does.

Some of the storytelling is a bit lacklustre - as a writer I can't help but notice that. For instance, the ending appears quite abrupt and a bit pointless. Like a lot of arty, low budget movies, in fact. It wasn't until I watched it again with the commentary on that I discovered that the opening action scene - featuring monster and shooting - was actually the ending. Judging from the reviews, I don't think I'm the only one who missed that. The addition of a 'x days before' subtitle before the next scene would have helped, especially as the next scene appeared to be a seamless transition from the one before. Neat, but also confusing. It's also never made clear what the boss's daughter is doing in Mexico in the first place, or why she's got a bandage on her wrist. Some things have to be guessed at.

But the movie was still a delight to watch, and the DVD extras on how the movie was made double the enjoyment, in my opinion. Does the movie have a deeper meaning or message, as some have claimed? No. It really was just made up as it went along and, as a writer, I can relate to that.

My verdict? Simple. Visual. Enjoyment. That's it. My advice? Don't watch this movie, it's crap. If you take that on board, you might then actually enjoy it, rather than be disappointed that it wasn't something else.

Monday 22 April 2013

Aliens ate my sequel

Okay, so I was writing the next Shakespeare Cruz novel, and it wasn't coming together very well. Six months and forty thousand words and still it wasn't happening. I tried and tried, but the project remained lifeless in my hands. I began to dread each day of writing, like I was doing a job I really hated. As the daily word count dropped, I reached the point where I doubted my ability to write.

Doubt - the writer's worst enemy. I knew it well and assumed that a good dose of stubborness would drag me through. It didn't. It just made it worse. I was bored of the story, bored of the setting, and unable to fake it any longer. So I quit.

Although I only published my first novel a year ago, the story as a concept was born about four years before. I spent a year putting together the 130,000 word first draft, then another year editing it, rewriting it, putting it out to publishers, getting rejections, rewriting it some more, agonising over the next round of rejections, and rewriting it more still. By the time I decided to self-publish it, it had been edited and rewritten about nine times. I then spent another year learning how to self-publish and market it - yet more agonising.

By the time I started on the sequel, the original concept had lost its lustre and poor sales were sapping my enthusiasm. The sequel, rather than being an exciting new idea that got me out of bed in the morning, felt like a burdensome obligation.

If a writer can't get excited about a story, then there's no way a reader will get excited about it either. So although it hurt (oh my pride!), quitting was the right thing to do.

So, what to do? Well, I sifted through my old notes and ideas (I keep them in a box) and tried to find something else to write. The trouble with old ideas however is that they're just that: old. Hardly the kind of thing to invigorate flagging self-confidence. I really should throw that box away.

You know when you're a writer, however, when the ideas just keep coming, and with time on my hands, the next one came along. While everyone else was taking an interest in the Olympics and all its sporting achievements, I got interested in the science behind the performance enhancing drugs that the commentators were busy condemning. Soon I was putting together an image of thrill seeking athletes being lured into the arcane world of special forces soldiers, who, in their own way, also seek thrills. As I was watching Battle: Los Angeles for the umpteenth time, I naturally started to blend the two together (well you would, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?).

The result is exactly what it sounds: drug enhanced ex-soldiers hunting down aliens,

Crazy? Hey, I'm a writer. Of course it is.

But it certainly got me out of bed in the morning, and kept me scribbling late into the evening too. Quitting's not a bad thing sometimes, provided it's temporary.

Anyway, I got my mojo back, and in just three weeks produced Amped, the first story in the X-Troop series:

“You’ll be fighting against your body for the rest of your life. But you have been doing that anyway.”

Alex Harvey isn’t the kind to ask too many questions. He just wants to win, whether it’s in cage fighting or athletics. He isn’t all that bothered about performance enhancing drugs being illegal either. He’d take them all, if he could.

So when he’s approached by an organisation offering him a completely new type of enhancement, he’s more than tempted.

But what is the true source of this new offer, and what does it really involve? And why is this mysterious organisation interested in his army background and his ability to hunt suspects, no matter how challenging the mission?

It's a novelette (longer than a short story but shorter than a novella), and it's the pilot story for the new series, the second story of which I'm currently working on (and which should be out in a couple of months).

And the best news, dear reader, is that it will be available as a free download at Amazon and Amazon UK this coming Thursday and Friday (25th & 26th April).

Saving the world and beating up aliens. What's not to like?