Monday, 4 December 2017

Star Cops Returns!

Well, here's a resurrection that I never expected: in May 2018, Big Finish is to release a second audio series of Star Cops.

Star Cops was a TV science fiction series that aired in the summer of 1987 that had low ratings and lasted only nine episodes. This might seem an unlikely candidate for resurrection, but actually the show is IMO one of the all time best telefantasy programs.

There are a number of reasons for thinking this. It was devised by Chris Boucher, who'd written three top rate scripts for Doctor Who in the 1970s, and was script editor for Blake's 7 all the way through. This meant that the stories and characterisation were mostly top notch. The production standards, too, were pretty high for a minuscule budget: the model work seems to me to hold up well in general and the set design is by and large good for the era.

It is set in 2027, when space has been colonised, there are bases on the moon and a Martian colony. Significantly, this scenario is referred to in the series as 'space exploitation' and not exploration; it's clear from the first episode that transnationals have major commercial stakes in space. The series is basically a cop show, with the 41 year old Nathan Spring as the chief of the International Space Police Force, solving various crimes in Earth orbit and on the Moon.

I rewatched some of the episodes over the weekend, and I found that they'd dated less than I'd feared. Politically, the series is a product of the last years of the Cold War: the Soviet Union still exists, for example, and remains communist. The UK in the Star Cops universe remained in the EU; Spring is paid in 'Eurodollars.' The world is largely at peace, although far right and anarchist extremist groups exist and the Mafia is trying to extend its presence to the Moon.

The ICT is rather mixed: they have interactive, voice activated flat wall screens and panels but no smart phones and the moonbase consoles have cathode ray screens. Spring has a portable AI called 'box' who responds like a somewhat more smart Siri. The culture of Boucher's 2027 has also become over-reliant upon AI in decision making, with computers making assessments on which case is worth following, partly for budgetary reasons. This rings very true today.

Although the extent of space exploitation and human space presence seems unrealistic for 2027, actually, the prospects for a significant cislunar human presence and possibly a Mars base look better now than they have for some time. The Chinese, for example, are to build a rival to the ISS in the 2020s and the Moon is once more being eyed as a destination. I suspect also that the major drivers behind a move into space will be private firms like Space X, who are building better, reusable space vehicles.

So a Star Cops style scenario might indeed be a possibility in the next thirty years, if not the next ten. I wonder how long it will be before there's a major crime out there....

Despite its quality, there are a number of reasons why Star Cops did not succeed as a TV show. It was in the summer death slot on BBC2; it was critically slated and it failed to pick up an audience to justify a second season.

However, it's important to remember the negative context in which it was made. Science Fiction was deeply unfashionably in the late 1980s in the UK. Doctor Who had narrowly missed being cancelled, and SF as a whole was often ridiculed on TV.

I was 13 at the time, and I loved it. I liked the series' realism, and the fact that the main action often happened on the moon and near-Earth space. To me, at the time, the near future was synonymous with an extended human presence beyond Earth.

When the show was cancelled, I never expected to see it return. Big Finish is being typically guarded in the information it's releasing re the revival. The new producer, David Richardson has stated in the company news feed that they have

"imagined a bigger budget, more action and a new theme tune, but we’ve also kept the scripts authentic to the original show. And they have a dangerous new adversary to fight, a thread which will weave throughout these episodes.”

So it will be great to hear David Calder, Trevor Cooper and Linda Newton reprise their roles. I only hope that the script quality can match the original series....

Friday, 24 November 2017

Arthur Clarke in the Sky at Night magazine.

This month's BBC Sky at Night Magazine has an article on Arthur C. Clarke. I can hardly believe that next march he'll have been dead for a decade. 

It's hard to understate how influential Arthur's work was on my life. For a while, in the 1980s, science fiction for me was Arthur Clarke (plus some minor authors like Heinlein and Asimov....) Arthur's future worlds generally speaking seemed civilised and pleasant places to live. They were places where high technology was used to better people's lives, where we'd achieved a decent ecological balance and where our politics had evolved to a more mature state. (Currently, I'd say we're barely managing one out of three).

Clarke's writings also impressed upon me the larger view of humanity and the Cosmos. He helped me to see that what unites humanity is really more fundamental than any perceived divisions.

His last message public message, recorded shortly before his death, concerns the ecological strain that we're putting on the Earth and the need for better priorities.  Carl Sagan put it well in the below quote, which Arthur cited: 

“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

This, its seems to me, is an appropriate value for the 21st century.  Although the current cultural mood flows in the opposite direction, I suspect that humanity's survival will depend upon recovering such values.

Arthur Clarke's last message

Arthur's primary gift was to help me understand that the 'world' does not just include the Earth: that the Earth is just one planet in a vast cosmological scheme.

I think that one of the best ways to appreciate this is via the extensive library of images that NASA, ESA and other space agencies have obtained of the moons, planets and other bodies of the solar system. Check out NASA's solar system exploration pages for myriad spectacular examples.

The other way, of course, is to look up on a starry night. Right now, in the northern hemisphere's autumn, there are some fabulous sights. Look up. That's our real neighbourhood....

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Challenge of Rick and Morty

Well, wasted a lot of Saturday trying to write a blog that was so gloomy that even I felt like taking a running jump off a tall building towards the end. After a bit of consideration, I have decided to abandon that and instead talk about a show that no doubt everyone else knows about since it's been on the air since 2013.

This is the work of genius cartoon show Rick and Morty created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. It is a cartoon following the adventures of the drunk/mad/amoral genius scientist Rick and his hapless 14 yo grandson Morty. The premise is that Rick has the ability to travel between multiple alternate dimensions of time and space and make lots of fart jokes.

This means that not only are we constantly exploring strange new worlds, but that we're also repeatedly encountering multiple versions of the lead characters. In one episode, the two leads even replace -- and bury in the back garden -- two of their alternate selves who are killed in an accident. This is necessary because Rick has spectacularly f**ked up their origin dimension and...oh, well watch the episode 'Rick Potion #9' on Netflix....

I won't spend too long breaking down the ins and out of the show, partly because I'm incredibly lazy but mostly because it's been done much more effectively by others. Check out Wisecrack Edition's analysis of the 'cosmic horror' philosophy of Rick and Morty, above, and also their podcast the Squanch, which breaks down each season three episode fairly comprehensively.

What I will talk about is how the existence of a such a clever show challenges writers of speculative fiction.

I've been reading fairly sizeable chunks of new short SF this year, partly on magazines, partly on websites and partly very new fiction for the Milford SF writer's conference. I have to say that much of it seems positively tame and certainly restrained compared to the wild, inventive and very contemporary plots of Rick and Morty.

For an example, see Wisecrack's discussion of the season three episode 'The Ricklantis Mixup' (WARNING: Spoilers!):

This discussion gives a good impression of just how smart, sophisticated and dense each episode of Rick and Morty tends to be, in addition to being very funny. 

This might sound like blasphemy, but I think that in places this cartoon equals (exceeds?) Douglas Adams in wit and philosophical sophistication (although it's certainly much cruder than Adams ever was....)

So writers of speculative fiction (like me) find ourselves challenged; can short stories still deliver and inventive punch, even though we're less burdened by dick and fart jokes? I think the challenge is on... 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

British Fantasy Society short story Competition Winner!

The wheel of fortune, for obvious reasons....
Allen Ashley of the British Fantasy Society:

"BFS Short Story Competition 2017 – Results‏
It has once again been my privilege and pleasure to judge the competition. This year I received a record-breaking crop of entries with 117 eligible stories submitted for consideration. I read every story thoroughly and silently. I read a large percentage of the stories twice, three times or more. After much deliberation, I can now announce that the three winners are:
First place: “Revive” by Richard Salazar
Second place: “Sacrament” by Charlotte Platt
Third place: “Labyrinth of the Sun” by Matt Colborn
I have also awarded a fourth place as highly commended: “The Beast” by James Ellis
The top three stories win prizes and all four of the above stories will appear in a future issue of “BFS Horizons”.
Thank you for your patience during the judging process."

This has been a very welcome announcement after a rather trying week. Not only is my car probably trashed, but I've also been laid up in bed most of the weekend with severe depression. 

I've worked many, many hours on fiction this year (and really over the last three, especially). This work has been mostly invisible from the outside in terms of publications, so it's good to finally get to that stage. For me, the essential thing is that a story or novel is published so it has an audience, which justifies, in the long run, all the effort. I do not believe that fictions are written to gather dust in the bottom of drawers....

Many thanks to all the people who've helped me on this journey, especially those in Milford 2013 who critiqued the s**t out of this story and helped me get it right....

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Fantasycon 2017

Well, it was touch and go, but I made it to Fantasycon on Saturday. For the previous couple of days, I'd been laid up in bed with a horrible flu/cold/sore throat. Sore throats are the worst, aren't they?

Anyway, I dragged myself onto the bus and arrived at Queensgate bus station, which is a viable contender for the most depressing place in the UK. Fortunately, the Bull Hotel, Fantasycon's venue, was just opposite Queensgate, which was good, because I was in a cold sweat by the time I'd traversed the neoliberal utopian consumer palace that is the shopping centre. The sweats were probably from the flu and not the environment.

The first panel I saw was titled 'Horror: Mastery and Apprenticeship.' This featured Phil Sloman, Mark West, Nina Allen, James Everington, and Ramsey Campbell.

I was especially pleased to see Ramsey, because I've long been a fan of his work but I'd never before seen him in the flesh. I thought, by the way, that he was unduly critical of Midnight Sun in the discussion: I think it's one of his best works.

It was also good to hear from other authors who were new to me: Nina Allen especially seemed to have some useful insights into writing horror fiction, and I will be looking her work up in future.

After this, I went along to a book launch by Newcon press. Newcon, an independent publisher, were releasing several new volumes, including Tanith by Choice, a selection of the sadly missed Tanith Lee's best stories, chosen by a number of her fellow authors.

Storm Constantine was also present to plug a new selection from 'Visionary Tongue,' a magazine project from the 80s and 90s that provided a venue for a number of subsequently high profile fantasy and horror writers.

Storm recently kindly reprinted one of my short stories, as well as providing a positive Amazon review of my short story collection, so it was nice to finally meet and thank her. Events like Fantasycon remind you of how much of a supportive community exists for writers of speculative fiction.

One of my Milford friends, Tiffany Angus, was on the next panel, 'Landscapes in Fantasy,' which also featured Nina Allen, Joanne Hall and Ed McDonald. The discussion focussed upon the effect that landscapes have on character in fiction. Tiffany's specialisation is gardens and fantasy, and she's currently launching a new MA in Science fiction at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

I was also intrigued by Ed McDonald's description of his novel, Blackwing, which I'll also be reading at some point. There seemed to be a panel consensus that residing in Bury St Edmunds induces a fascination with apocalyptic landscapes!

After lunch, I hung around in the dealers room for a bit and spent far too much money. One of the best things about dealer's rooms is that you get to see the range and quality of the current small press scene, which is generally wide and high. I picked up a some Ramsey Campbell volumes from PS publishing and the latest InterzoneBlack Static and Shoreline of Infinity magazines. I also bought an intriguing new SF Collection from Unsung Stories press called 2084.

The last panel I visited concerned short fiction, This featured Allen Ashley, Stephen Bacon, Tim Major, Pat Cadigan, Adam Millard and Lynda Rucker. It was especially good to see Pat Cadigan, who has had cancer and details her struggles on her blog. Her bravery with this serious illness put me to shame with my weedy post-flu drooping.

There was plenty of practical, useful advice on submitting short stories here (including the advice to avoid markets who pay less than the professional SFWA rates). It was also useful to hear from writers who specialise in shorts as opposed to novels. Compared to around 2000, when I had my first successes, the short story market today actually seems stronger and more diverse. This is largely, I think, a benefit of the internet.

After this panel, I said goodbye to some Milford friends in the hotel bar and then returned to the dire bus station.

Then, home.

Well, nearly: two young men managed to collide their car with the bus on the large roundabout outside Queensgate. Fortunately, they weren't hurt (and I honestly don't see how they managed to collide with the bus in the first place), but it meant that we had to return to the bus station and wait for the next one.

Once home, I went straight to bed and collapsed into a dreamless sleep until midnight when the cat pawed my face and yowled for munchies.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Milford Live Blog 2

Well, this is the second live blog from Milford. Finished critiquing this morning, ready for this afternoon's session. Also just finished a High Intensity Interval Training session which will hopefully displace some of the dietary excess of this week.

It's just occurred to me that random reader might not know what Milford involves. Basically, it's for writers of speculative fiction who have at least one professional sale under their belts. Each attendee can submit up to 15,000 words, either one or two pieces that can be novel excerpts or short stories. The critiquing sessions involve sitting in a big circle (see panorama above). Each person gets three minutes to offer comments on a story or novel portion, and the writer gets to respond at the end.

If this sounds nerve-wracking for delicate creative types, it can be. However, it's also a very useful learning exercise both for the critters and the victims. When critting you learn how to look at your own work in a different way, which makes self-editing better. When being critiqued you get a better idea of how a particular piece of work is going to be perceived. So it's useful from both ends.

This year, as I mentioned in the previous post, the standards have been intimidatingly high. I've had both of my pieces done, and gotten away fairly lightly, I think, with some fairly positive critiques. I think the process works when the comments direct you clearly towards things that need changing. It can, however be confusing if everybody offers contradictory advice. This year, however, it's been fairly clear what I need to change and I hope my comments have been helpful to others, too.

Critting is hard work. Below is me after a week's worth, early in the morning with probably too much stubble.

But in some ways I think the true value of Milford goes far beyond the critiques. Writing in the big, cruel allegedly real world can be a fairly lonely business. The primary thing I've got out of it is a sense of community, and affirmation that what I'm doing is worthwhile.

It's also wonderful to be around pretty smart people who are concerned with similar things to myself -- the way the world is going, the exploration of both inner and outer space, and our long-term survival as a species. Most of all, it's great to be around creatives who have enthusiasm for what they do. Anyway, blogger is playing up again and I'm going a bit cross eyed. Until next time!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Live from Milford SF Writer's Conference!

This year, I swore that I'd write a live personal blog from Milford SF Writer's conference at Trigonos, Snowdonia, Wales, and here it is. Forgive the old pic: I can't get Blogspot to access my photo album on this iPad, and if you want to see some new ones, check my Twitter feed.

This year, as usual, we've got a good crowd. It is always pleasant to see old friends, and also to make the acquaintance of new ones. This year, there are two recipients of a Writers of Colour Bursary present, and they're not only charming people but also extremely good writers. Generally speaking, actually, the story quality has been extremely high this year.

In some ways, I feel rather fortunate actually being here at all. Gremlins seemed to be working full time, prior to arrival. The day before I left, my car developed a fault, which meant that I had to take it into the garage. The cat was very cross with me for leaving her at kennels.

Then, on the journey, the trains were delayed, meaning that connections were missed.

Fortunately, I met up with a fellow Milford attendee, T, at Birmingham, and we were able to rearrange group taxi rides at the other end. We arrived at Bangor only an hour later or so than we had originally planned.

We used the time stuck on trains and platforms to catch up and to have discussions about contemporary SF. I think that we both feel that a portion of current SF seems stuck in the past, whilst the 21st century unfolds about us. One particular unfolding was especially concerning T: family had evacuated their homes due to Hurricane Irma, which was raging as we travelled. It's hard to believe in techno-utopias when it's obvious that we've fouled our own nest.

Milford is held annually at a teaching centre in Snowdonia called Trigonos, which is a very chilled out environment where you're fed extremely well. There's a largish lake at the bottom of the garden and you can see Snowdon on the rare clear days. It is also apparently, the site of one of the stories in the Mabinogion and certainly feels like fairyland at times.

The format at Milford is that the mornings are free and the afternoons are devoted to critiquing. This is a good thing because as usual, I'm behind in my note-writing.

I've decided that I'm quite right-brained (holistic, overviewy) in my critiques: I tend to see the stories as a whole, and neglect details that other critters will pick up on. Those other critters seem to have the opposite tendency: small details get latched upon whilst the whole tends to be neglected. Both styles, of course, can be useful to a writer being critted. I hope!

I mentioned this theory at breakfast, and someone commented that the left brain-right brain thing had been exploded. Actually, the whole question has recently been re examined in a fascinating book by Iain McGilchrist called 'The Master and His Emmisary.' The general idea is that the two hemispheres give us the capacity to attend upon the world in two ways. The first mode of attention is geared towards manipulation, and to breaking up the world into comprehensible pieces. The second is concerned with detecting general changes in the environment and so is more holistic.

The upshot is that the world is presented to us in two ways, which can coincide but also contradict. McGilchrist suggests that it's best when the two sides of ourselves are made to work together, and that things tend to go wrong when one side dominates over the other. In fiction writing terms, I think we need both modes: the holistic mode for creation and a view of the rounded whole of the work, and the more analytical side to work through plots and problems.

Anyway, so far it's been fun if a bit exhausting. It's also chucked it down with rain; I've already fallen on my arse at least once. However, it is beautiful and very peaceful here. If Samye ling's my own personal Shangri-La, Milford's probably Arcadia. Or maybe Annwyn!