Fire and Steam by Christian Wolmar

August 24, 2009

This has nothing to do with either Robots or Accordions, but it was one of the books I took on holiday with me, and I thought it worth a mention here.

Now, there is nothing quite like the sight of an SF author lying on the beach reading a history of Britain’s railways to get the pulse racing, but let’s stick to the matter in hand…

Fire and Steam traces the history of the railways from the Liverpool to Manchester railway to the present day. (Wolmar doesn’t count the Stockton to Darlington line as a proper railway.  One reason for this is that the line was intended to be leased to any operator who cared to run a vehicle across it, in the manner of a turnpike.  As someone who grew up within the vicinity of the S&D route  I felt a little aggrieved by this, but I follow Wolmar’s reasoning).  The book is a polemic in the best sense, championing the railways and questioning the orthodoxy that they were badly run, particularly in the days of British Rail.  It’s a fascinating history, peppered with interesting facts (for example, the plan to surround London with  a circle of railway lines around which armed trains would run to defend the Capital.  If I’d known that at the time of writing, I’d have included a similar scheme in Twisted Metal for defending Artemis City)

I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in railways, but that’s too obvious.  There seems to be a real interest for this sort of thing within the SF genre and beyond.  Think of the popularityof Steam Punk, for example.   There is something comforting about technology that we can all understand, something very satisfying at looking at a machine and knowing how it works from start to finish.  This book treats the entire railway network as just such a machine, and you might want to give it a look even if you think you don’t like trains…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fire-Steam-History-Railways-Britain/dp/1843546299


Pat Mills

May 12, 2009

I’ve included this entry in the Interviews category to make up for the fact that I forgot to mention Pat Mills…

Let me explain.  Interviews usually include a question along the lines of “Who are your biggest influences”, but it wasn’t until I was reading this weeks 2000AD I realised I hadn’t been mentioning one of my biggest: Pat Mills.  Now, its not within the scope of this blog to write biographies (its scope is Robots and Accordions, as I’ve mentioned before), so follow the link if you want to know more about him, but I’m including this entry to make up for Mills’s omission from recent interviews.

So why Pat Mills?  Well, his stories Robusters, ABC Warriors and Metalzoic all featured robots and were an undeniable influence on me, but there is more to it than that.

I grew up on three great comics writers, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Pat Mills.  Mills was always my favourite:  for the breadth of his imagination (Nemesis book 4 is surely the birth of Steampunk), his attention to detail (the research that went into Slaine spawned many imitators), but mostly for his depth of character.  Fitting real characters into SF or Fantasy settings can be a challenge, Mills manages it better than the others, to my mind.

I could go on, in fact I think I will  in another entry some time, but for the moment, here are some recommendations:

Marshall Law

Charley’s War

Nemesis Book 1 


My Robot’s Got No Nose

May 6, 2009

As far as I can remember, only one robot in Twisted Metal has a nose, and she uses this to sniff petrol.  Although all the robots on the planet Penrose have the capacity to install a nose, very few of them choose to do so.  The robots of Shull, in particular, live in a place with very few organic compounds, and so have little reason to smell things.  They prefer to use the metal to make something else.

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever been on a writing course to discover this made writing the book (and the sequel) something of a challenge.  Would be writers are always advised to make use of all five senses when describing things, and this is good counsel.  The sense of smell is particularly evocative (the smell of the sea and sun tan lotion always makes me think of holidays, for example) and to remove this sense from the book was a great wrench.

But I had to do it.  The novel is written from the point of view of robots, and the robots in the book have no need to smell things.  

Did it make a difference to the reader of the book?  Did anyone even notice?  I’d be interested to hear what people think…


Interview: Falcata Times

May 1, 2009

The Falcata times interview me here:  http://falcatatimes.blogspot.com/2009/04/interview-tony-ballantyne_30.html


Interview

April 29, 2009

Mark Chitty, over at Walker of Worlds, has just posted this interview with me, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

http://walkerofworlds.blogspot.com/2009/04/interview-tony-ballantyne.html


Signing: Forbidden Planet

March 25, 2009
I’ll be signing copies of Twisted Metal at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8JR, on Saturday 2nd May from 1 – 2pm.
Follow the link to find out more

The Bramble Briar

March 13, 2009

The Bramble Briar, sometimes known as Bruton Town, is a  folk song that dates back to the 14th Century.  In it, a young woman’s lover is murdered by her two brothers because they feel he is too low born for her.  They hide the body in a ditch filled with the briars of the title.

You can find the lyrics here: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/folk-song-lyrics/Bramble_Briar.htm.  My favourite versions are by Martin Simpson  and Bert Jansch.  Bellowhead offer a nice twist on their recent album “Matachin”

Now, I’m currently in the middle of the still untitled Twisted Metal 2, and The Bramble Briar keeps running through my head.  This is probably because TM is partly inspired by old ballads (there is a good reason for this which I’ll probably talk about another time),  but it’s also because a couple of weeks ago I was stuck on a plot point and I was struck by the following …

In the ballad, the young woman dreams that her murdered lover comes to her and tells her about his death.  She goes out next morning and finds his bloody body in the ditch.   Now you couldn’t get away with that sort of a development nowadays.  The woman’s lover is gone.  How is the writer going to get her to find him and thus advance the plot?  Will she ask around, look for clues, think about his likely behaviour, question her brothers motives further?   All that would take time and would involve a lot of thought on the writers part to make it work.  So no, she just has a dream and it all gets explained.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at all those men and women who contributed to the ballad’s present form, after all things were very different then and writing was still developing.  But writers today fall into the ‘explain everything by having a dream’  trap.  I do it myself. 

But lets be honest, it’s lazy.  And I really don’t think there is any excuse for this nowadays.


Another Point of View

March 6, 2009

Anyone wanting to write for the US market would do well to remember they don’t like head hopping over there.  By that I mean they prefer each section written from one point of view. 

And good on them, I say.  Personally, I prefer stories written in third person, past tense, strict point of view.  I don’t mind first person occasionally, but that’s it.  When I see anything else I usually suspect that the writer is using gimmicks to disguise thin content.  Strict POV is not difficult:  if you want to show another character’s thoughts, stick in a line break and start a new section.

Anyway, why mention this?  Well,  I spent yesterday working at the still untitled Twisted Metal 2, a novel set on a world populated by robots.  One of the interesting things about SF is it forces you to write from points of view you wouldn’t encounter in regular fiction.  Writing from a robot’s point of view means that many expressions can’t be used: expressions like ‘heart pounding’, ‘breathless exhaustion’ and ‘sick to the stomach’ to name but a few.  Robots don’t have hearts, stomachs and they don’t breath, so why would they use these terms?

This makes writing harder, not least in getting the reader to empathise with the characters.  But I think it makes writing more interesting.  At the very least, it avoids cliche.


Birmingham SF Group 13/3/09

February 27, 2009
Twisted Metal
Twisted Metal

I’ll be giving a talk to the Birmingham SF group on Friday 13th March on “What SF Means to Me”.

As well as getting to hear my personal definition of SF, you can hear how this influenced the writing of my latest novel, Twisted Metal. This would have been a very different book if I hadn’t followed that definition.

Doors open at 7:30, the meeting starts at 8pm, you can find out more by following the link below.

http://www.birminghamsfgroup.org.uk/