Blood and Iron Extract

March 17, 2010

I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today.  I’ve posted an extract over on my website:  follow the link

Stone Age, Iron Age

January 27, 2010

I’ve just got the copy edited manuscript for Blood and Iron from Macmillan and I’m busy working through it.  It always amazes me the inconsistencies the copy editor picks up.  The MS must have been read by at least six people by now, including me,  and none of us noticed that I used the same word eight times on one page, or that one character knows another’s name even though they’ve never met before.

The copy editor also queried the fact that I said the Stone Age came after the Iron Age.  In fact everyone so far has pointed out this is the wrong way round.  They’re right of course, but I state here, for the record, before the reviews come in, that on Penrose the robots learned to handle iron long before they learned to handle stone.  In fact, for robots, the Iron Age means the time of the birth of the robots.

Okay, I make it me 1, copy editor 552 and counting.

Morphobia Alligator

January 20, 2010

Morphobia Alligator

Meet Morphobia Alligator, one of Sebastian Winnett’s inspired illustrations for Blood and Iron.

Morphobia Alligator is built to a different, and much older, design than that adopted by the robots in Twisted Metal.

What do you think?

Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

January 14, 2010

Can a robot be capable of thought, creativity and emotion?

Many people and religions would answer “no”, believing that some spirit or soul within us is responsible for our thoughts.  This concept is known as Duality: the idea that the body and thoughts are two different things.  However, in the past hundred years or so, work on computers and the study of such natural phenomena as Emergent Behaviour have led to the materialistic belief that the mind can be explained in terms of  nuts and bolts and levers arranged in different patterns (or more accurately through an arrangement of cells and electrical impulses).

Now, materialism has been a common theme in SF for the past few decades.  One manifestation of this is the “mind running on a computer” idea. After all, if a mind is not some separate spirit or soul, and is instead just the result of physical interactions, then why can’t those interactions be modelled on a computer, pretty much the same way as the World is now modelled on Google Earth?  I used this idea myself in my Recursion trilogy where minds hopped freely back and forth between processing spaces. But whilst writing Divergence, the last book in the series, I became aware of the following problem: once we accept the ideas of minds jumping back and forth between computers, we are almost back at the idea of “souls” jumping between physical containers. On an intellectual level we are thinking “Materialism”, but subconsciously we are back at Duality.

So I decided to write a book that was unmistakeably materialistic.  I came up with the idea of using robots, robots that would take a piece of wire and twist it into a new mind. These robots would seek out metal to make children, and, when resources were short, they would fight other robots for metal just as humans fight each other for land and food.  I liked the idea, and the novel that eventually became Twisted Metal began to unfold. The novel deals with robots that are capable of thought, creativity and emotion, and of anger, hatred and irrationality, but each with a mind made up of nothing more than a piece of metal twisted into shape by his or her mother.

But I digress.  I wanted to say why I think people like robots.  And I think it’s this fascination that they are the same as us, but oh so different.  You take a piece of metal, you twist it into a robot, and what you have there is exactly what you built.  It may malfunction and try and kill you, it may learn how to love you, or it may just hoover the carpet, but what you are looking at is materialism in action.  And this, for many people, is their first glimpse that the world may be stranger than they think…

(The above originally appeared as an article in SciFi Now Magazine)

Debatable Spaces

January 13, 2010

SF Writer and scriptwriter Philip Palmer asked me to contribute to his SF Song of the Week feature.  You can read about it by following the link.  I won’t give the game away by saying what it is (how about that for suspense?), but I’ll point out that I remember listening to this at university and thinking “That would make a good story”.

That got me thinking about music that has inspired me to write.  More on that, I think, in a later blog.

Three for the Price of One

December 11, 2009

I watched the film The African Queen for the first time yesterday, and very enjoyable it was too.

Now, alongside Robots and Accordions, this blog celebrates good writing, and the screenplay had that in abundance.  I was particularly taken by a scene near the beginning of the film where Katherine Hepburn’s character kneels at the bedside of her brother.  He’s going mad, having just seen the Germans destroy the village where he works as a missionary, and he is reliving his past life.  Whilst his sister listens, he talks about how he must pass his exams tomorrow in order to become successful in life.  If he doesn’t pass, he resolves to become a missionary and in that way perform the Lord’s work.  He decides, that being the case, he will take his sister with him, wherever he is sent.

There’s a really nice example of the writer’s craft in the above scene:  many different bits of information being conveyed by one monologue.  First, there is the brother’s madness, which is distressing for his sister and the viewer.  Second, we get see a little of the brother’s back story.  And thirdly, there is the look of hurt on Katherine Hepburn’s face when her brother describes her as ‘not a comely woman’.  All that emotion conveyed in a couple of sentences.

I love this sort of economical writing, I’d rather see it than overblown prose any day. Three for the price of one.

Max J Friedländer

November 1, 2009

I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).

Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”.  Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”.  The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.

The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon,  amongst other guides:

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”

It wasn’t always thus.  Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories  to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of  dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field.  You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).

Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.

Or maybe not.  You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves.  Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall.  The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.

Reading Aloud

September 28, 2009

Listening to David-Rees Thomas’s excellent reading of my story, “The Waters of Meribah” the other day, I was struck by just how awkward some of the sentences were.  This is not the fault of David’s reading, I should explain, but my writing.

No false modesty: I can give two reasons for this.  Firstly, and I’ve heard many other writers say this, when you read any piece of your own work once it’s published on publication, its always the case that every mistake and piece of bad writing becomes glaringly obvious in a way that it never did when you were still redrafting.

But secondly, and this is the main point here, back when I wrote  “Waters” I hadn’t yet learned the trick of reading my stories aloud when redrafting.  I don’t always do this now, if I’m honest, mainly due to pressure of time, but it’s a good trick to learn.  Reading aloud makes you more aware of the rhythms in the dialogue.  It exposes wordy sentences and unnatural expressions, and it makes you realise just how awkward some of your sentences are prose is.

Most importantly though, you experience the story via another input stream and this gives the brain a different perspective on the work.  (Similarly, some writers re key in the entire final draft of a story in order to send it through the brain in a different way).

By way of experiment, I just went through the above text reading it aloud.  I’ve marked my deletions using strikethrough.

See?  It works.


September 13, 2009

Julie, a friend of mine, came up with a perfect description of the process.

She said that when you first write a story it’s like a baby:  perfect and precious in your eyes.

After a few redrafts it grows into a young child: you see that  it has its faults, but you love it anyway.

But as  you keep rereading and improving, a story becomes a teenager, lurking in its bedroom and complaining that you don’t understand it anymore. Catch it on a bad day and all you can see is its faults- everything about it irritates you.   If you’re honest with yourself, you realise that you’ve both been in each others company too long: you’ve both changed.

By that time you’re looking forward to the day when your story can go out into the world and start earning a living.  That’s when you can both see the best in one another again.

Blood and Iron

September 7, 2009

The sequel to Twisted Metal will be titled Blood and Iron.

For most of the time of writing it was known as Untitled Robot Book, and that’s the name that appears on the contract, but the title itself caused me more problems than any other story I’ve written.  Odd really, bearing in mind I’ve had the novel plotted since before I started Twisted Metal, and the characters virtually wrote the story themselves.

But I just couldn’t figure out what the title was going to be… until my agent advised me just to read through the MS.  “You’ll find it there in the text,” he said, and he was right.  Right in the middle of Chapter 10, in a meeting between humans and robots, there was the phrase Blood and Iron.

This time, unlike with Twisted Metal, I looked up the phrase on Google.   Coincidentally, Bismark used the phrase (or almost used it: he said “iron and blood”) in a speech confusingly known as the “Blood and Iron” speech.  Further checking showed there was no “Blood and Iron” video game.

None of that mattered, really.  Blood and Iron felt right. I knew that was the title.

I’ve seen the Jon Sullivan’s black and white rough for the cover, by the way.  It looks amazing.  The plan is to have the background in blood red, the foreground character in iron grey.

I’m currently thinking about starting book 3.  To me, it will be “The Book of Robots” but that’s not a very commercial title.  I’ll let you know what I come up with.