Sunday, 17 February 2013

Escaping the grid

Recently I went on holiday. I needed a break. A friend of mine says life is like breathing: you have to breathe in occasionally. What he means, applied to writing, is that you must read as well. I’d been slogging away on the most recent manuscript for Edens Revenge, and had just sent it off to an editor/reviewer, so I decided to go off-grid for ten days. The only electronic gadget I took with me was my toothbrush. No smart-phone, no laptop, no IPad. I took six books with me and managed to finish three and start a fourth (I'm not that slow a reader; there was other stuff to do on the holiday, LOL).

I started by reading two in parallel. Jack McDevitt’s Firebird, and Ben Bova’s guide for Scifi writers. Since one was fiction and the other non-fiction, they didn’t interfere with each other in my head.

I picked Jack to go on holiday with me because I’d had a comment from a reader of my first two books that I write like him. I wish. I’d read Deepsix, and loved it. It is a brilliant example of people in a hazardous environment, getting picked off one by one on a planet in self-destruct mode, as successive rescue attempts try to save some of them. Jack’s not afraid to kill off excellent characters, and knows how to make the reader root for otherwise unlikeable characters. The people you meet in this book are truly ‘dimensional’, real flesh and blood; I can still conjure up six of them with ease, two years after having read it.

Firebird is a quite different setting, somewhere in humanity’s future, where life is relatively easy-going. This suited my holiday-mode. The story is mystery, about a physicist who disappeared forty-one years earlier. The physicist was into ‘multispheres’, i.e. the idea of parallel universes. This is called ‘slipstream’ scifi, and it’s not something I’m personally ‘into’, but I wanted to see how Jack tackled it.

The writing is very fluid, smooth, and it’s an easy read. The main character is Alex Benedict, but the point of view is from Chase, his partner, who is someone most readers would want to know and have as a friend. However, I’ll be honest, after 70 pages, I was still wanting some action, and thought about switching to another book. I wanted to see the end, so I jumped to the last thirty pages and read them non-stop. I couldn’t put it down. When I finished the Epilogue, there were tears in my eyes. I had a beer, and went back to page 71 and started where I left off. Sure enough it ramped up shortly after that and I read and enjoyed the book despite knowing exactly how it ended. I read all the way to the end and the Epilogue still had the same emotional impact as when I’d read it a few days earlier. Bravo, Jack.

There’s not much ‘slipstream’ in it, much to my relief. What impressed me was the way he can introduce ‘walk-in, walk-off’ characters in a couple of lines and really ‘nail’ them for the reader. As with Deepsix, Jack understands human nature and is skilful at depicting not so much the dark side of people, but rather the depressingly grey aspects of some of us; in particular, what happened to one of the characters is sad but all too likely, a kind of passive murder. But the ending is uplifting.

Although Ben Bova’s book is relatively old now and science has moved on, most of what is between the covers holds true. It was nice to get certain facts straightened out in my head, e.g. the difference between a quasar and a pulsar; or between white, red and brown dwarf stars; definitions from a Parsec to Perihelion; etc. The main feeling it impressed upon me was just how impossibly big the galaxy is, and how unimaginably powerful stars are. Scifi on film always gives the impression that space is small and manageable, but the facts prove very different.

Ben has a great style for making ‘knowledge-dump’ fun, and I enjoyed every page of it. I’m not sure how much of it will enter my writing, but hopefully it will stop me from writing some ‘boo-boos’ in my own science fiction. Funnily enough, the last book I started reading (still reading it) is Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels by Iain Banks. The writing, as always, is sublime. However, early on, the main character makes an observation that a Culture ship could hit an enemy vessel a trillion kilometres away. Having just read Ben’s book, this stopped me. A trillion? Really? Isn’t that like several light-days distant? Having just read that Earth is one AU (Astronomical Unit) from the sun, equal to 149 million kilometres, and Pluto is 39 AU or roughly 6 billion kilometres away... So, it would be like shooting from the sun at an object 160 times further away than Pluto. When you factor in time-dilation effects and the fact that everything is moving anyway (the galaxy rotates), well, that is some pretty impressive shooting. In my books I limit my battle distances to a couple of million kilometres, so it is a matter of hitting a target less than a light minute away, which I still consider to be extremely advanced, given the power requirements to do any damage to an enemy ship, and given likely target acquisition capability. Here’s a brief excerpt from forthcoming Eden’s Revenge, for example:

Blake was about to ask when the Transpar, Zack, broke in. “We are not alone. A Q’Roth warship, range two million kilometres, stealth mode. I cannot yet tell the vessel’s class.”
            “Marcus, relay it to Gabriel now!”
            Marcus stuttered the message in Hremsta as fast as he could.
            “Blake, this is Micah. We aren’t picking up any vessel other than yours.”
            Blake frowned. Since when did Micah speak Hremsta? “Micah, Zack’s at the controls, patched into the Hunter’s sensor arrays. I don’t doubt him – if he says it’s there, it’s there.”
            Micah continued. “Okay, Blake – Gabriel is going to deploy one of the mines as a missile, please relay us some telemetry – ship codes – anything – so we can target the ship.”
            “Roger.” He turned to watch Zack’s crystal fingers blur over the controls.
Marcus nodded. “Co-ordinates sent.”
Blake was thrown sideways out of his chair as their ship lurched to one side. He clawed his way back, struggling against the G-force of intense acceleration, noting that Marcus had managed to stay with his console. “Report,” he barked.
The Transpar responded with its cool, tinkling voice. “The warship fired on us and the Ossyrian pyramid-ship, too. We took minor damage, and I am executing a fractal defence pattern so they cannot get a fix on us. The inertial dampers will protect you now – my first evasive manoeuvre was a little extreme.”
Blake regained his chair. “Show me the Ossyrian vessel, split screen.”
The pyramid spun slowly, punched by pulse beams from the warship. Stealth mode had failed, and the pyramid hung like a spinning sapphire in space, bleeding gas and occupants into the void. Hell’s teeth! How could they detect and target it so accurately from so far away?

Anyway, Iain Banks knows megatons more than I do about Scifi, LOL.

The third book I read was The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, a classic. The intro where a stranger meets the illustrated man is captivating. Bradbury has a very concise, hard-hitting style that thrusts you into the moment, and the concept is enthralling. I then read some of the ‘stories’ that are the essence of the man’s tattoos. I found them enticing but also dispiriting; his view of human nature is not exactly optimistic, this set of stories tending towards the bleak. I didn’t much like the one about the witches and novelists, as it was more fantasy, but read the others. I just needed a drink after the last one.

By the end of the holiday I had settled into Banks’ sure-footed style and depiction of a war between two mega-civilisations, with his own brand of ‘gnarly’ humour. I’ve already read about half the Culture novels, so it is about time I read this one.  

I have to say it was pleasant being off-grid for 10 days: no sms, phone calls, emails, facebook, goodreads, twitter, or checking the latest sales figures on Amazon or how many people are reading my blog posts (sad but true). And it was very nice to immerse myself in other people’s writing and, after a while, stop thinking “that that’s a cool turn of phrase, I should borrow it,” or “that’s a cool way to describe people/asteroids/whatever,” and just enjoy reading. By the end of the holiday I could tell I’d relaxed, as I had to ask someone what day it was.

Now I'm waiting for the report on Eden's Revenge, the official one, and those from five separate readers. I hope to finish Consider Phlebas before then, as once the reports arrive I'll probably disappear into an editing black hole...

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