Wednesday, 1 April 2015

On reading science fiction aloud...

Last night I read out two sections from my book Eden's Endgame at a Bookstore in Paris, Berkeley Books, with a mixed Anglo-French audience of around thirty people. It's only the second time I've read my work aloud like this. Three of us were reading, one a poet, one contemporary literature, and me, science fiction. Of course not everyone's into science fiction - it's a genre - so I was happy to see so many turn up. 

I'm not that at ease reading my work aloud. Although I often lecture and give presentations for my day job, sometimes to audiences in their hundreds, reading my novels aloud to even a small group  is quite nerve-wracking; I had to stop twice to take a sip of water as the inside of my mouth kept drying out. But I focused on the writing, on the words in the book that I'd worked over again and again prior to publication, and it helped to have some of my writing colleagues present.

Reading scifi to a non-scifi audience means picking something out of the novel that doesn't require a degree in astrophysics and isn't too outlandish. In the end I picked two short pieces, the first the prologue from Eden's Endgame, which describes, at least in part, how the most (in)famous character in the series, Louise, became like she is. It is set in Thailand and, at least for the first half, is almost funny, before it shifts into a slightly gruesome action sequence. There's no 'scifi' at all except one nano-sword, an oblique reference to a hover car, and 'indie sav-minds'. But it's a full-on, in your face piece, and gets pretty tense.

The second was more enigmatic (they are both below). This one was also from Endgame. I wanted the audience to 'see' some scifi ideas, and I've been told this chapter is pretty visual. I just selected the first section, where you 'see' two people in space-suits cannoning down to the surface of a dead planet.

How did it go? Well, you'll always get applause in France, no matter what you do or how bad you are, but it seemed to go okay. Comments I got concerned how visual it was, like watching a film, they could see themselves falling down the tunnel on the planet, or sipping a Lao Pane in the Thai cafe, and also how tense it was, pulling them in. But the second section I read aloud was also about character, about the relationship between the two people falling, Jen and Dimitri, and the temporary role reversal in their relationship, and I could see some of the audience 'getting it'. 

Did I sell any books? Eight, so not bad. A film-maker said we should talk, after she's read some more, she loves this kind of writing. So I'm dreaming now, lol.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. A number of people asked me why it was only my second reading. I shrugged, muttered something about my publisher not being interested, but afterwards, I thought, why not? More of us scifi writers should come out of scifi conferences, get out of our comfort zones and away from our laptops, and read to 'normal' audiences, to show that at the end of the day, it's still just fiction, it's about people and their struggles with whatever life throws at them. Because the funny thing is, as I realized last night, is that these normal people are willing to give it a try, willing to hear us out.

After all, as I said in my first ever (non-scifi) published piece, Writerholics Anonymous, writing is a contact sport :-)

Thanks to Jen who made it happen, and to Phyllis from Berkeley Books, to Mary Ellen, Gwyneth, Lizzie and Janet who came to support, my writing colleague Marie from our Writers Group who also read from her new book, Tita, and (especially) to everyone else who gave up their time and pitched up to listen. 

Here's what I read out from Eden's Endgame:

Bangkok, 2252, Eve of WWIII

Thirteen years before the Fall of Earth

Louise fidgeted in the long silk dress with the red dragon pattern; give her combat fatigues any day. But Nick had never seen her in a dress – naked, sure – and they were being called up tonight, so it was now or never. She shifted her weight in the bamboo chair, sipping her second Lao Pane, a kiwi whiskey shake, and mopped her brow with a paper serviette; it was forty-five in the shade, and the café aircon was bust again. Nick was already an hour late, but she’d wait. It was the fourth day in the past month they’d been put on high alert, the difference this time being that the tactical nukes had been armed, their mid-range delivery missiles prepped.
            Through the dusty window she watched people in bright colours and straw hats scurry past. Bangkok always bustled, but there were fewer smiles and animated interchanges than usual. Everyone knew a third world war was just around the corner. According to the indie sav-minds, half the population would perish. Many still didn’t accept it, but she did. Man had always waged war, on increasingly large scales. All you needed to make it go truly global was to interconnect everyone and everything. Nowhere left to hide or run to, nowhere neutral. The screen behind the counter blared out the latest last-ditch peace talks, another excuse for a barrage of rhetoric whipping up normally sane people into a frenzy. One trigger-happy finger, one inflammatory event, and the world would ignite.
Louise leant forward, caught her reflection in the glass table-top, saw the hardness behind her features. Her state of mind wasn’t the best brochure for humanity. Twenty-two years of life had been pretty shit so far, more than her fair share of uninvited adult attention as a teenager, and once she could fight back, she’d tried and failed to reinvent herself as a teacher. Instead she’d ended up a marine after one of her few real friends pointed out she had a killer instinct, having witnessed her break a guy’s jaw in a nightclub punch-up on her eighteenth birthday.
Her sex-life had been a disaster zone until a few weeks ago. Nick, a Canadian commando monitoring the US war games in Thailand. Love at first fuck. And now gung-ho politicians and insanely radicalised religious leaders were going to blow it for them, and for everyone else. She could forgive them all if she and Nick could have one last afternoon of passion. Staring over people’s heads outside, she searched for his six-six frame. Come on, Nick, don’t keep a girl waiting.
            She took another sip as she watched a woman in a burka enter the café – must be baking alive inside – and take a seat opposite a man with slick black hair, shiny business attire and mirror sunglasses, none of which suited him. He looked like one of the Green-Shirt politicians who’d been warmongering over the Thai vid channels. The two of them made an odd couple, especially as she seemed to be the one running the meeting. The woman’s eyes suddenly locked onto Louise, so she turned back to gazing out the window.
Across the busy street she spied Nick, taller than the locals, sailing towards her like a yacht cruising into harbour. She stood up to show him the dress. His shades were down but when he saw her he stopped dead and lifted them and mouthed “Wow.” He walked faster, waving his hands in the air, pretending to be exasperated by the constant flood of people and biofuel tuk-tuks in between him and the café; it made her smile. Wait till he saw what was underneath her dress.
Another man crossed her gaze as he glided towards the café entrance ahead of Nick: athletic frame, bald, no hat, no sunglasses, and grey one-piece jumpsuit despite the heat. Her instincts kicked in as he cut effortlessly through the crowded street, his features concentrated and alert; he was on a mission. She noticed a tattoo on the side of his neck, like a cross but with an oval at the top; the ankh symbol, she recalled. Then she remembered a briefing three days ago: a US politician had been killed in broad daylight right outside the Senate; there had been a photo of the assassin’s body, riddled with bullets, the same tattoo on his neck… She glanced down at the bag at her feet. No pistol, just her knife.
            The door tinkled as the man stepped inside, his eyes an intense emerald green. He took one brief look around, reached into his pocket, then sprang towards the woman in the burka, brandishing a metal rod. The woman, without even turning around, flung herself flat, as a thin blue blade whipped above her, finding instead the neck of the politician who was rising to his feet, a gun in his hand. The politician dropped his weapon and clutched at his throat, unable to speak or scream, only gurgle as blood gushed through his fingers. He crumpled to the floor.
Louise stumbled backwards as the speed of events caught up with her; she couldn’t move properly in that damned long dress. Cursing, she fell to the floor, amidst the scraping sounds of furniture being kicked aside, swishes of the assassin’s ultra-thin sword, and high-pitched screams and shouts of the clientele as they clambered for the exit. Louise glanced up while her left hand dived into her bag and unsheathed her stiletto. Nick burst through the door, almost taking the frame with him, and thank god had his pistol drawn. Louise found the knife, grasped its smooth handle, and got to her feet.
            Nick was right behind the assassin, who seemed oblivious as he hacked his way through tables and chairs towards the woman in the burka, who was far more agile than she looked. Nick shouted at the guy to stop, or he would fire. The assassin didn’t turn around, just flicked his blade backwards, its blue edge slicing first through Nick’s pistol arm before it carved a line through his chest; Nick went down. The woman in the burka had her back against the wall.
            Louise darted forward and flung the knife at the killer just as he raised his sword. The stiletto plunged into the side of his neck, severing his carotid artery, a curtain of blood spraying over the wall. The woman in the burka dived to the floor. The assassin staggered backwards a pace, glared at Louise once, then tapped the sword hilt with his other hand as if entering a code, ignoring the blood spurting from his neck, and collapsed.
Louise didn’t see him hit the ground.
            Everything turned blinding white, and she heard a deafening crack as a wave of searing heat scorched her entire body, lifted her off her feet and threw her to the other end of the café. She landed in a puddle of melting plastic furniture and burning bamboo. Her left eye still worked, the right was fused shut. She looked down her body: the dress was largely burnt off, her skin a hideous landscape of red and black, the flesh on her right arm barbecued to a crisp. Flames licked her legs, the only saving grace being that she couldn’t feel them. She was glad she couldn’t see her face. Acrid fumes made her cough and her eye water. Getting up wasn’t an option. Through the smoke and fire she tried to make out Nick’s remains.
            A tall figure walked over: the woman in the burka. Steam poured off the black material that now looked more like very fine chain mail. It flickered silver and white as if there was some kind of tech underneath. The woman was unharmed. She removed her hood and facemask, and bent forward, her eyes the blackest Louise had ever seen. Two sets of footsteps rushed in, speaking urgently in foreign accents, not Thai.
            “Your Eminence, are you alright? Thank Alessia! We must leave straightaway, the police will arrive quickly; you cannot be found here!”
            The woman did not answer them. She spoke instead to Louise.
            “You saved my life. But you have fourth-degree burns over most of your body.”
            Louise coughed, tried to speak, couldn’t, her throat and tongue dried leather, tasting of charcoal. That extent of burns meant only one thing. Louise closed her eye as the pain asserted itself with a vengeance, as if she was being boiled alive. Her body began to shudder. A single whimper of agony escaped through clenched teeth.
The woman continued, amidst shouts and wails outside, and the crashing of the burning roof caving in all around them.
            “The assassin who did this to you – and murdered your friend – is called a Sentinel. There are fifty of them roaming this doomed world. You have a choice: I can put you out of your misery here and now, or I can save you – if you agree to join me and help kill the rest of the Sentinels. The choice is yours. If you wish to die, keep your eye closed. You have ten seconds.”
            Louise thought of Nick; he deserved to be avenged. But what if this woman was evil, and the assassin had been trying to kill her for a good reason? No way to know. And right now, the world could go to hell as far as Louise was concerned. Besides, if she was dead, there was nothing after, of that she was convinced.
She opened her eye.
The woman touched Louise’s neck with something metallic that made a short hiss, and her body numbed as if she was wrapped in a cool cloud.  
“Bring her,” the woman said.
Rough hands grabbed Louise’s listless body, lifted her from the sticky floor. The sirens grew louder.
“What about the Minister, Your Eminence?”
“Leak a report that the Fundies assassinated him. It is the spark we have been waiting for. The war starts tonight.”
Louise’s head tilted back as she was bundled out of the café into a hover car. Behind her, in amongst the smoking carnage, she glimpsed Nick’s cremated corpse. In that moment, she hated the world and everyone in it, and was prepared to watch it all burn, until there was nothing left but ash. 

Here's the second, shorter piece, from the beginning of chapter three:

Jen and Dimitri shot towards the planet, helmeted heads first, like two silver bullets. The timer in the corner of Jen’s visor indicated ten minutes since they'd torpedoed out of the Ice Pick parked safely above them in orbit, another ten till touchdown. Ukrull had refused to land, and as usual declined to explain why. The planet had no atmosphere, so there was no need to worry about burning up. But the silence was eerie: no rushing wind, only her own measured breathing and Dimitri’s ragged gasps.
They were on the galactic rim. To one side there were no stars, on the other a disc-like swathe of light. It gave Jen vertigo whenever she glanced towards the inter-galactic void, so she focused instead on their destination below. The planet was dark, even though this was the side facing the system’s red dwarf. As she tried to make out details, her helmet visor sensed her eye muscles’ effort and zoomed in. But there were no distinguishing marks, only a frozen ocean of metallic dust, all that was left of the Xera, the hyper-intelligent machine race that had almost taken over the galaxy two million years earlier. The other galactic species had barely survived, but had finally conquered the Xera, leaving nothing but this tomb planet, ten kilometres deep with metal ash. It was a memento, and above all a warning. And now she and Dimitri were there to find a machine race remnant if one still existed, and bring it back to Esperia for examination, without waking it up.
The planet grew large beneath her, the terrain stretching far and flat in all directions, and she took one last look towards inter-galactic space. She and Dimitri knew pretty much nothing about the Xera; apparently such intel was only fit for Level Fifteen and above. When they’d arrived, however, she’d asked how the Machine race had started at the galactic rim; it seemed unlikely. Ukrull had replied, “Before Machines, galaxy bigger.” She guessed the Xera had somehow chewed up entire star systems for resources. Either that or the purge of the Machines at the end of the war had necessitated a clean-up operation on an unimaginable scale. She felt a chill, and adjusted a control to put a little more heat inside her suit.
            Jen glanced across to Dimitri, his bulkier space suit looking awkward, his arms waving in jagged movements as if to stabilize himself, when there was as yet no appreciable gravity, his gloved fingers splayed as if for protection against an imminent fall. Dimitri’s helmet visor, like hers, only showed half his face, from nose to eyebrows, but she could see his eyes were wide.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
            She knew him better. While she was enjoying the thrill of the ride, he was clearly terrified. This was taking too long. “Pierre, how close are we? I can’t see the entrance.” She waited, wondering if Pierre and Ukrull, sitting in the Ice Pick, were paying attention, or were involved in deep discussion about tactics in case Qorall had tracked them.
“Twenty klicks to the right, Jen.” Pierre’s voice still sounded synthetic, although he had most of his humanity back. “I’m adjusting your suits’ course direction. When we blasted the drop-shaft there was some blowback debris. It should be safe now.”
            “Should?” She knew Dimitri could hear Pierre, too.
            Ukrull’s gruff voice boomed inside her helmet. “Safe.”
            The altitude readout said one hundred twenty klicks to go. Abruptly her suit-thrusters kicked in, and her head and internal organs squeezed to the left as she and her lover tacked to the right. Within thirty seconds she saw the gaping hole in the dust sea, blacker than its surroundings.           
After several minutes she felt the top of her head press against the helmet as they began to decelerate. “Lights, Pierre,” she said.
            The drones sent down earlier activated, and the ten-kilometre chasm beneath them lit up like a glistening, bottomless shaft, its smooth lipless mouth rising slowly toward them.
“Piece of cake, Dimitri,” she said.
            Dimitri, normally loquacious, grunted something. Jen had thought the light might help, but it only emphasized how fast and deep they had to go. The decel continued as they plunged into the borehole lasered by the Ice Pick, thirty metres across, its cauterised wall a polished coal mirror reflecting two blurred shapes tearing downwards. She tried to breathe normally. Dimitri’s arms started to flail.
“Pierre, can you slow us down?”
            “We’re on a tight schedule, Jen. You know as well as I –”
            “Pierre, just do it.”
            She thought she heard Ukrull’s grunting laugh, but there was no other response. They began to brake hard. Firing her micro-thrusters, she drifted towards Dimitri, within arm’s length. The halo of small helmet lights around his face accentuated his dark bushy eyebrows and wide, eager eyes, but covered his dark moustache and goatee. He looked tense. She selected private comms so Pierre and Ukrull would not hear.
“Take my hand, please,” she said.
            He stared straight down, his eye-brows connected. “I am fine, my love, it is just –”
            “I’m not. Please. Take my hand.”
            Without facing her he reached across and clutched her hand. She didn’t flinch, though it hurt at first. She saw him blink hard.
            “I must seem a big fool to you,” he said.
            She said nothing, the best way to get him to talk.
            “I’m afraid of heights, my one weakness. That is, I’m afraid of falling.”
            She laughed, not unkindly. “But you lived on Santorini, high above the Mediterranean waves. And for the record, you have plenty of other weaknesses.”
            He let out one short staccato laugh. “I left that isle as soon as I could.” 
            “We’re nearly there,” she said.
            “It’s okay, I’m feeling better, we can go a little faster. Pierre is right, we’re on a tight schedule.”
            “Just because Pierre is never wrong, doesn’t mean he’s always right.” She flicked a comms switch at her waist. “Pierre, half-speed, please.”
            Jen gazed downwards into the blackness. She tried to suppress a gnawing intuition that this was going to be a one-way trip, and squeezed Dimitri’s hand, glad he was with her.
            Suddenly two steady blobs of light appeared on the floor below; their reflections.
            Decel was severe this time. Her head rammed into the top of her helmet. At first she flailed her arms as Dimitri had done earlier, then she punched the thruster controls on her heels, flicking herself upright. With relief she saw Dimitri execute the same manoeuvre, but they continued to drop too fast, their reflections still a blur on the sides of the shaft. Pierre should have been precision-controlling their descent from the Ice Pick to minimize drop-time, but this was cutting it too fine.
"Pierre! Slow us the fuck down!" She felt Dimitri's arm tug around her waist, pulling her against his larger frame, trying to protect her. Abruptly their suit thrusters fired a plume of blue flame, and Jen felt herself slide down inside her suit, compressing towards her heels. Dimitri let go; just as well if they were to avoid an uncontrolled tumble.
Three seconds later she hit the ground. She attempted to roll but instead sprawled, her visor whacking against the smooth metal floor, banging her forehead hard against the padded helmet interior. She ended up on her back, panting. At least the visor hadn't cracked. Her partner loomed over her, holding out his hand. You're tougher than you let on, Dimitri. Accepting his help, she got to her feet and checked herself. Nothing broken or sprained. Dimitri was smiling; now that they'd landed and he could go play the explorer.
Jen wasn't smiling.
"Fucking hell, Pierre, you almost –"
            "Jen, are you both alright? There was an energy surge down there, off the scale, blocked us for fifteen seconds."
            The concern in his normally unemotional voice stalled her anger. "So, something is still down here," she said. The weight of what they had been sent to do finally hit her. She'd thought it was most likely a dead end, it seemed so fantastical, that part of the Xera – the galactic equivalent of an urban myth – could still be alive. How could the other species have been so reckless? How could they have left the job unfinished two million years ago?
            She nodded to Dimitri. "Okay, Pierre, we're going in."
            “This way,” Dimitri said, his voice regaining some of its customary exuberance. He pointed, and she saw the circular tunnel off to the left. Ukrull’s precision impressed her: thirty thousand kilometres up, he’d sunk a hole to exactly where he’d detected an underground maze and a single, very faint, heat signature. Inside she felt a shiver again; the Machines had been supposed long dead. There should have been no tunnels, no heat signatures, and no power surges. Jen wished she'd brought along a tactical nuke.
            “Let’s go, my sweet!” Dimitri said, and bounded towards the tunnel's mouth.
            She smiled, happy with his return to form as an eager explorer, but then pursed her lips; she knew how often his enthusiasm got them into trouble. “Wait for me, Dimitri.” Jen ran after him, the low grav allowing her to take long leaps as he disappeared from view. She flicked on the finder to locate the heat signature, but it registered nothing. Not good. Staring down the tunnel’s entrance she saw that it divided in two, but couldn’t see any light; Jen didn’t know which way he’d gone.
“Hey, Dimitri, I said wait up!”

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