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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Science Fiction

An Interview With DAVE HUTCHINSON by George Sandison

61b127488e3dc8bfdaca50ccc7ccc062_original 2084

Unsung Stories (unsungstories.co.uk)

Currently on Kickstarter: unsungstories.co.uk/2084

Indie publisher Unsung Stories are currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the release of 2084, an anthology of dystopian fiction from some of the biggest names in the genre. Fully funded within the first 24 hours, the anthology is now heading towards its third stretch goal. You can find out all the information you need, and back this awesome project, here. In case you need any further encouragement, check out the current list of contributors:

    • Jeff Noon
    • Christopher Priest
    • James Smythe
    • Lavie Tidhar
    • Aliya Whiteley
    • David Hutchinson
    • Cassandra Khaw
    • Desirina Boskovich
    • Anne Charnock
    • Ian Hocking
    • Oliver Langmead
    • Courttia Newland
    • Irenosen Okojie

To celebrate the birth of this ambitious anthology, Unsung Stories publisher, George Sandison, has interviewed author Dave Hutchinson about his story, the anthology and lots more. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the video below.

An Interview with MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

blakstad Name: MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

Author of: SOCKPUPPET (2016)

On the web: www.matthewblakstad.com

On Twitter: @mattblak

Matthew Blakstad’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and a member of the Crime Writers Association and The Prime Writers.

Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure!

The central storyline of Sockpuppet might have been ripped from the headlines: the theft of personal data; incompetence and cover-your-ass mentality of government organisations. Let’s talk about the book’s origins – what was the seed, and did the finished product in any way resemble your original vision?

It’s true – life has been showing a worrying tendency to replicate events from my book. Microsoft’s chatbots going rogue, the government launching its digital ID service – even a political scandal called #piggate! Of course a lot of that is just fluke but I think it also reflects the fact that Sockpuppet is based on a lot of research. The scandal that engulfs my government minister, Bethany Lehrer, is based on any number of recent examples.

But the roots of the book go a lot further back for me. Its earliest incarnation came in 2001, when I tried to write a novel about the dot com crash. But like many newbie writers, I was trying too hard to put across all my (I thought) brilliant ideas. Good novels don‘t start that way. They begin and end with character and conflict. So that first book was pretty bad and it’s now consigned to a drawer. Still, elements of it have found their way into Sockpuppet – not least one of the central characters, maverick hacker Dani Farr.

The idea for Sockpuppet proper came some years later, when I heard about a friend of a friend who was trying to build himself a fake identity, by leaving a false data trail across websites, phone records and credit card transactions. I was fascinated by this idea of carving out a new identity from data alone; and that became the seed of the novel. The story fell into place very quickly after that. Although I’ve honed and tightened it a lot since that first draft, it was already pretty much the book it is today.

The book deals very heavily with the concept of “identity”, both on the macroscopic scale – the theft of personal data of millions of people – and on the microscopic, or more personal, level – Dani Farr’s media gauntlet and the many different versions of her that seem to exist – and also dabbles with the concept of machine intelligence, programmed “personalities” designed to beat the Turing Test. It’s a storyline based on solid fact and you’ve built a lot of detail into the narrative. Tell us about your research approach: where did you start? Did the story evolve as you found more information?

My research process is pretty simple: I read voraciously and I talk to lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. I’m a bit of a magpie, picking up information here, there and everywhere. When you’re writing about contemporary tech, you can’t only rely on books, because they’re produced on a time lag of at least a year and the information in them stales quickly; so I glean a lot from blogs and other online sources. To research the social media milieu of Sockpuppet I spent way too much time on Reddit.

While I’m fossicking around like this, I start to jot down little prose sketches – images, snatches of scenes. Gradually, characters and scenes grow out of these. When I’m ready, I sit down and hammer out an outline, including character pen portraits and a plot summary. Then I dive into a first draft.

The research process doesn’t stop there, though. I like to break a cardinal rule of fiction writing, by continuing to do research through most of the writing process. The received wisdom says you should completely finish your research, let it percolate inside you a while, and only then start to write. That doesn’t work for me. Partly this is because I’m writing about things that are in constant flux, but it also reflects my approach to writing. For me the first few drafts are a process of constant enquiry. Little pieces of a puzzle keep falling into place as I ask myself, What if this happened? How does that work? What would this character do in this situation? And these questions inevitably lead to more research.

As an extension to that: your writing, much like that of Neal Stephenson, is a combination of narrative (often filled with black humour) and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right: enough detail to satisfy readers who know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it turns into a lecture and sends the more “casual” reader to sleep?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.

My motivation is a little different. I think I’m more interested in the interior, rather than the active dimension. When I look at the world today, so much of people’s time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices. Our sense of identity and our place in the world are constructed in large part on-screen. This is something fiction should be responding to, and interpreting back to us. That’s what art is for. But I don’t always see this happening in a lot of ‘serious’ fiction. Of course that’s much less true of genre fiction, but the stuff at the front of the bookshop often ignores tech completely, apart from the occasional clumsy use of Facebook messaging. (There is of course a whole other discussion to be had about why genre fiction isn’t in the front of the bookshop, but let’s not go there now.) I think many writers see tech as an unfit subject for the creative imagination.

So to answer your question, I wanted to find a way to write engagingly, and well, about technology and techies. I tried to give Sockpuppet a language and a voice that incorporates the distinctive modes of speech and patterns of thought associated with technology. And it’s hard to write about this stuff without becoming dry and cold. You need to find ways of reflecting the rich emotional experiences people have online. The character of Dani really helped me find a way into this. Her online experience is, I hope, every bit as rich and dark and complex as that of a romantic hero striding across a moorland.

But I didn’t want the book to appeal only to people who already understand the digital world. So a lot of the story is seen through the eyes of Bethany, who is older and to a large extent turned off by tech, even though she’s the government minister responsible for it. She describes herself as not so much a digital native, more a ‘digital shipwreck’. Part of my intent in writing her character was to create a route into the world of the book for people who feel a bit like Bethany, when they see how their endlessly SnapChatting children have taken to these machines since birth.

One of the gratifying things about early responses to the book is that non-technical people have found the book as engaging and revealing as those at the nerdier end of the scale. I get a lot of people saying, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So I guess that’s a win.

Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle. Martingale herself appears only briefly in the story, in the form of flashbacks, though her book The Electronic Radical, informs much of the story’s philosophy. I’m intrigued as to how you can build a cycle of books around a character who no longer exists – are we likely to see books set in earlier time periods, or will Elyse Martingale continue to influence events from beyond the grave?

The character of Elyse Martingale was a twentieth century computer pioneer and political radical. She died in the 90s so her presence in Sockpuppet is through the long shadow she’s cast over the techies and protestors who inhabit the book. But yes, I do intend to take the Cycle back in time as well as forward – to tell stories set in Elyse’s own lifetime. I have the whole Cycle mapped out at a high level, including two Elyse stories, though no doubt the plan will evolve as I go along.

The idea is that each book will stand alone, and that they can be read in any order – but the more of them you read, the more they’ll stitch together an alternative history of technology and protest.

Looking to the future, do you have a definitive end-point for the Cycle, or are you taking it a book at a time? Are we likely to see the characters at the centre of Sockpuppet – both real and not-real – in future instalments?

Sockpuppet is book one in the Cycle, and we’ve already put out a short e-novella called Fallen Angel, which is book zero. This takes place in the dot-com boom – around the turn of the millennium – and it contains some important prehistory to Sockpuppet. I’m now working on a near-future sequel to Sockpuppet (book two) and I’ve already written most of a story set in the late 60’s, among the futurists and early hackers of that time (which will probably be book minus one). Beyond that I have one more book planned, which is set in the late 1940’s, plus a short story set in the future – but I’m keeping my options open about future titles!

Along with Elyse Martingale herself, the books share a number of recurring characters, family connections and overlapping plot elements. The tech entrepreneur Sean Perce, for instance, appears in both Sockpuppet and Fallen Angel; and a number of other characters from both books will appear in other stories. I hope the reader may find that their feelings about a character based on their appearance in one book are challenged when they re-encounter them in another.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

We’ve already touched on Neal Stephenson. Along with him, I love William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Phillip K Dick – the usual suspects! These are some of the more direct influences on my style and subject matter – but I’m a really eclectic reader, so I’ve absorbed elements from a pretty diverse pool of writers. I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I can never remember that single book or movie that’s the perfect example of something or other. I’m sure the perfect answer will pop into my brain the second this interview goes live. But I think for now I’ll say, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which is the first part of his New York Trilogy. This is the book I’ve reread most over the years; and it still blows my mind each time, in its concision, its downright weirdness, and the way it repurposes the hardboiled detective story to mind-bending effect. It’s like a Philip K Dick Novel written by Camus.

There’s also a brilliant comic book adaptation of it by David Mazzucchelli, which like all good adaptations is a distinct work of art in its own right. Both are highly recommended.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Matthew Blakstad look like?

As well as being a novelist I have a Monday-to-Thursday day job, so a lot of my writing is done in brief snatches – in cafés, on the bus to work – whenever I can grab the time. I’m lucky that I’m able to keep working on a book in the back of my mind while I’m going about my busy day-to-day existence. So time spent actually sitting at the keyboard is something of a luxury – and it’s always productive. When I sit down on a Friday or weekend morning to do a full day’s writing, I feel like the words are already waiting in my fingers, primed and ready to type. I often find the day has suddenly turned into evening, and I’m sitting with sore eyes and ever sorer shoulders, wondering where the hell the past eight hours went. I suspect if I was a full-time writer I’d struggle much more with the glare of the blank sheet of paper, but the way things are, that’s never been a problem.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write. And keep on writing. I wish there was a short cut but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, I sweated over a first failed attempt at a novel, and I’m really glad I did. It was a ladder I had to climb before throwing it away, on my way to writing a better novel. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of your system before the good writing comes. And of course I’m still learning.

Another key to becoming a good writer is to first become a good reader. Critiquing other people’s work develops your ‘ear’ for good and bad prose, and the more you do this, the easier it becomes to see the flaws in your own work. A great way to make this happen is to join a writer’s group, where everyone submits a passage of their work every few weeks and gets feedback from the others. This peer review approach is a big part of how writing courses like Faber Academy work. I did a FA course, and it was a real turning point. This was a few years back now, but seven or eight people from my class still meet every month and review each other’s work. They’re still the first people to read my stuff and I trust them implicitly because we’ve all exposed our worst and best to each other along the way. It’s invaluable.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Both! As part of my research for Martingale book 2, I’m reading The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz, the digital activist who died tragically young and was appallingly treated by the US authorities. I don’t want to myth-make about a young man who was taken too soon but the truth is, he was a brilliant mind and a terrible loss.

I’ve also just started Our Endless Numbered Days by my fellow Prime Writer [LINK: https://theprimewriters.com], Claire Fuller. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to read this one. It’s extraordinary – beautiful and dark, with a brilliantly twisted take on the survivalist post-apocalyptic narrative.

If Sockpuppet should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

That’s hard! I used to be a professional actor myself when I was a kid, but I’d make a terrible casting director. Still, since you ask, here’s an all-Game-of-Thrones cast list that’s for some reason just popped into my head:

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, would be amazing as the ballsy, shoot-from-the-hip Dani. Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) could carry off Bethany’s patrician manner – and lace it with just the right dose of vulnerability. To complete the set, Sean Bean could play his bullish Burnely namesake Sean Perce. (He’s a bit old but I’m sure with a slap of foundation he could pull it off.)

In terms of directors, Joe Cornish of Attack the Block fame gave the book a lovely quote for the cover, so he’d definitely have first refusal. He’d do amazing things with it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

In my experience, genre writers are definitely the most fun. Especially in the bar at two in the morning. If I had to pick just one I’d probably go for Neil Gaiman because you could talk to him about literally anything and he’d have something fascinating and unexpected take on the subject. For drinks, I imagine he’d be happy with some fine craft ale or other. I know I would. But if he insisted on drinking, I don’t know, faerie mead or some such, then I’d be game.

Thank you once again, Matthew, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad

SOCKPUPPET - Matthew Blakstad SOCKPUPPET

Matthew Blakstad (www.matthewblakstad.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Days before the nationwide rollout of Number 10’s Digital Citizen initiative, news appears online that the pilot scheme has been hacked, and the data stolen. The source of the information becomes an immediate suspect, but there’s only one problem: famous Parley personality sic_girl doesn’t exist; she’s a piece of software created by hacker Dani Farr to win a bet, and there’s no way she should be revealing the kind of information she has started sharing with the world. Dani finds that her own private life suddenly becomes very public, her career and reputation in tatters. Pressure is also mounting on Minister Bethany Lehrer who has staked her career on Digital Citizen: is the data as safe as she claims, and just who is Mondan Plc, the company who manages the service and the collected data, a company not on the government’s list of sanctioned suppliers?

Matthew Blakstad’s debut novel fuses the political and technological worlds to examine the concept of identity in our increasingly Internet-driven world. In a storyline that might have been torn from the headlines, Sockpuppet looks at what defines us in this world: our identity – our most important asset as members of civilisation – is little more than a set of data stored on vast servers across the globe, a collection of personalities that represent the different versions of “me” that we often present to different audiences. Through the narrative, he asks a number of fundamental questions that should strike fear into the heart of every person who ever provided personal details online: who, despite security provisions and Acts of Parliament, actually has access to our data? And what happens when our different personalities are linked and cross-referenced, when they start to bleed into one another – what does this mean for that prized ideal for which we all strive: privacy?

It’s a serious message – and one that will make you consider just how much of who you are is no longer in your own hands – presented in an often blackly-comic but always intelligent way. Think The Thick of It written by Neal Stephenson and you’re some way towards understanding what lies behind that grinning pig’s face. The story is told primarily from the points of view of the two main characters, Dani and Bethany. In many ways polar opposites, the women find themselves drawn, in very different ways, into the fray caused by sic_girl’s revelations. On the one hand is Bethany, career politician who talks a good sales pitch but understands little the technology behind the real-world applications of Digital Citizen. Dani, on the other hand, is the archetypal socially inept hacker whose understanding of the technology leads her ask questions, because it shouldn’t be doing what it is doing, and these questions lead Dani into a world of trouble. What’s interesting here is that the two central characters are female, working in what are traditionally male-dominated fields, and Blakstad takes time to look at the continued prevalence of sexism in these fields in particular, and in society in general.

Two characters loom large in the background as the stories of Bethany and Dani play out centre stage. The first is Sean Perce, CEO of Mondan Plc and to all appearances the villain of the piece. A self-made man, Perce is building an empire and looks to be using Lehrer’s project as a means of doing so. As he buys up smaller companies and moves them all into the vicinity of his iconic – and ironically-named – headquarters at 404 City Road, the reader can’t help but question his motives or guess at just how culpable he is in the misfortunes that are haunting both Bethany and Dani. The second character is the ghost (not in the literal sense) of Elyse Martingale, a technological pioneer and political radical who worked with the likes of Turing at Bletchley Park. Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle, so it’s intriguing to find that she is long dead when the events of the novel occur. But her presence is felt throughout: as well as being the grandmother of Bethany Lehrer, her 1957 book, The Electronic Radical, plays an important role in the development of many of the story’s central players.

I have, for a long time, been a fan of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writings of the likes of Stephenson, or William Gibson, and even the research-laden adventures of the much-missed Michael Crichton. Matthew Blakstad, if his debut novel is anything to go by, fits neatly into this category of writers who like to combine story with detail in an attempt to offer different experiences to different levels of reader. He speaks directly to those of us of a more technological bent through his in-depth discussions on the political and technical issues that surround identity management, his description of social media platform, Parley, or of the technology behind the “personalities” that inhabit the platform, and does so in such a way that the casual reader will also take enjoyment from the reading experience. It’s a fine balance, and one that very few writers manage to find even over the course of several novels, but one that Blakstad strikes without any problems: the story continues to move forward, the reader so engrossed in the writing that the possibility of skipping the detail never crosses the mind.

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES - Aliya Whiteley THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Great War is a not-too-distant memory, and England is still in the process of recovering from the horror and loss that it wreaked. Teenager Shirley Fearn lives in the small village of Westerbridge, where she attends the local school taught by Mr Tiller and harbours the desire to become a teacher herself. As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, Shirley discovers Mr Tiller’s terrible secret, and learns of the missives he receives from a mysterious source. Mr Tiller has made it his life’s work to change the future of mankind, and enlists Shirley’s help. But where Mr Tiller sees something that must be avoided at all costs, Shirley sees only opportunity and a new form of repression that isn’t much different from that which rules her everyday life.

When we first meet Shirley Fearn, she appears to be much like any stereotypical young lady from the early twentieth century: she is madly in love with her teacher, the mysterious Mr Tiller, and spends her days planning their future together. But Shirley has a spark of individuality, an ambition to become a teacher that sets her at odds with her family and friends. The Shirley who takes over the story as May Day arrives is a much different person to the young girl who has accompanied us thus far: she is more determined, surer of her own value to humanity.

Mr Tiller has recently returned from the front lines, a limp the only outward sign of the terrible injuries that he has received. The women in the village see him as less than a real man while Shirley, blinded by her childish crush on him, sees his differences as a good thing.

No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

As the story progresses we learn the true nature of Mr Tiller’s injury, and the mental torture that comes along with it. Like Shirley, we are drawn into his confidence and become complicit in his plans to obey the plea that his mysterious missives carry, and of the possible future that awaits humankind.

The Arrival of Missives, for all its brevity, is a story of two distinct halves. From the start, it’s a wonderfully-written examination of life in rural post-War England, and of the mind-set and mores of the people who populate it. In Shirley Fearn we have the perfect protagonist to guide us through this strange old world – a teenage girl who has hopes and dreams of her own, but whose life has already been mapped out in this male-dominated world by her parents to a certain extent, but mainly by the town and the town’s expectations. She feels herself inexorably drawn towards Daniel Redmore, a young man not much older than she is, but finds herself resisting partly because of Mr Tiller, and partly because it is assumed by everyone that they will end up setting up home together.

The latter part of the story is an allegorical feminist manifesto of sorts, though by no means the hectoring, anti-male rhetoric that those two words suggest to many. When Shirley hears Mr Tiller’s missives first hand, something inside her breaks, and forces her to question her very nature. Mr Tiller’s future disaster seems much less troubling to Shirley, especially when she works out why. The reader is drawn into this argument and forced to decide for themselves: in much the same way that history differs depending on the teller, surely, too, the future must look different depending upon through whose eyes it is viewed.

‘It shows humanity,’ he says.

‘One part of it. One part, one group, with a message that has truth only to those who choose to believe it.’

What is interesting is how directly the book speaks to the speculative fiction community, and the frequently lambasted male-dominated science fiction community in particular.

My only clue lies in the fact that they have one thing in common. They are all pale old men…how can there be no people of China, or the East Indies? No youths? No women, no women at all? How is that possible?…I will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave.

It is, undoubtedly, an important message, but one that is interwoven so closely with Shirley Fearn’s tale that it comes as a natural consequence, rather than as the aforementioned feminist manifesto around which a story has been constructed.

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

GUEST POST: The Arrival of Opportunity by ALIYA WHITELEY

Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)
                 THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES (2016)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @AliyaWhiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s second novella, The Arrival of Missives, goes on sale on Monday 9th May. To celebrate the book’s launch Reader Dad is very pleased to welcome Aliya back to talk about the book’s origins.

There are lots of brave young women out there in literature but I never wanted to write one myself.

I’ve certainly loved many of them. I reread Jane Eyre many times and winced at Emma Woodhouse’s mistakes. I recognised the yearnings of Ursula Brangwen and held my breath for the nameless bride in Rebecca. Modern books have given me female leading characters who are perhaps more action driven (which you could say is a trend in popular entertainment generally) in the form of Halo Jones, Lisbeth Salander, and Lyra Belacqua. But the more these characters found themselves in incredible and dangerous situations, the less able I felt to create one myself. I wouldn’t be writing from a position of empathy. I didn’t feel I would make the same choices if I ever got thrust into such interesting perils. As a teenager I was bookish and quiet (well, I still am). I wished for excitement and did nothing about finding it in any place other than within the pages of the stories I loved. And I certainly didn’t want to create a heroine like myself – what would be the fun in reading about that?

But then The Arrival of Missives popped into my head, and I started to write a story that, as a writer, terrified me. I didn’t have the emotional distance from my lead character that I thought I needed to make it work. My own experience of being a young woman, dreaming of a future I was also scared of, kept getting in the way.

Somerset in 1920. Shirley Fearn is a bright young woman who has opinions about the immorality of war and the importance of love. She feels passionately about education as the tool that can guide young men towards making a better world. She also feels passionately about her mysterious schoolmaster, Mr Tiller. She has plans for her future. For everyone’s future.

When I first started to get into her voice I thought of her as the opposite of me. I soon realised that she was utterly recognisable: not in deeds, but inside her head. I was giving her thoughts and feelings that I had experienced as a teenager. I might have been quiet, but I had lots of opinions. It’s not a question of what both Shirley and I were thinking, but when and where the opportunity arose to express those thoughts.

Writing Shirley made me realise that character and opportunity are not automatically the same thing. Often the situation of the book controls characterisation, feeding into the idea that we learn from our experiences and become the sum of them. This is the act of making meaning from our lives. So Ursula Brangwen (a huge influence on The Arrival of Missives) becomes a teacher and finds the experience changes her. She recognises the intense, seething battle taking place between the young and the old for power, and therefore must decide on what side of that battle she lies. DH Lawrence was a master of this organic growth from event to action to internalisation, I think, and the struggle this creates in us all.

How Ursula views that relationship between age and youth is, though, entirely a creation of her mind. She has such strength of will, and it paints the world around her. That’s what helped me to write Shirley. Very strange things happen to her (events that we might characterise as science fiction or even horror in terms of literary genre) and yet she sees them all as a reinforcement of her world view. I found that I loved writing Shirley’s forceful decision to interpret all the things that happen to her, and her small village, as steps towards the future she wanted.

When I reached the end of Shirley’s story she had changed; what’s the point of writing if people, characters or otherwise, aren’t changed by it? But I’m still not sure if the change within her breaks my heart or reassures me. I suppose we all have to alter to grow. We can’t stay the same, and character can’t be an excuse for stagnation on the page or in real life.

Having said that, I’m still quiet and bookish. But it doesn’t worry me so much any more. It turns out that being afraid of whether life will ever give you an opportunity – whether the unique things inside of you that makes up your character will be wasted – is a big part of being young. Writing Shirley Fearn reminded me of that, and also proved to me that the thoughts are equally as important as the actions. It’s how the two relate to each other that decides the future, whatever it may be.

missives tour

LONG DARK DUSK by JP Smythe

LONG DARK DUSK - JP Smythe LONG DARK DUSK (Book 2 of the Australia Trilogy)

JP Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

Months after the events that brought her and her companions to Earth, Chan Aitch is living in a shanty town built against the inner surface of the wall that now surrounds Washington, D.C. She has, so far, managed to escape detection and recapture and performs odd-jobs for the local fixer, Alala. Fascinated by her new home, Chan has spent some time coming to grips with the planet’s history and, through her trips to the city’s museums, has met Ziegler, an historian and writer for whom Chan is a gold-mine of information. Chan herself has one goal: to discover where the government have taken Mae, the young girl whom she took under her wing in the final days of their time on Australia, to rescue her and to take her somewhere where they will never be found. But this is a strange new world, and she has no access to anything like the resources she could count on aboard Australia. Who, if anyone, can she trust? And where, on the vastness of the continent, should she start?

The middle book of a planned trilogy can often be a strange beast: the set-up has been done in book one, while the big payoff is unlikely to happen before book three. So there are no expectations on the reader’s part when it comes to book two, and each writer has his or her own take, or each story demands a different approach to this central volume. Regular visitors to Reader Dad will have noted my on-again-off-again relationship with the books of JP (James) Smythe, so it should come as no surprise when I say that Long Dark Dusk didn’t really work for me, despite how I felt about Way Down Dark and how excited I still am about Dark Made Dawn.

Picking up several months after Chan’s arrival on Earth, Long Dark Dusk finds her living in the walled city that was once Washington, D.C. This is a much different Earth than the one we live on: environmental disaster has left the planet a dry, hot husk of its former self, air-conditioned, walled cities the only refuge for the relatively small number of humans who have managed to survive the harsh conditions. Through Chan’s eyes, and her interest in where she originally came from, and of why her ancestors wound up in space, Smythe manages to give us a potted history of the apocalypse and the resulting martial and political environment under which the survivors exist.

Chan is driven by a single objective: to find and rescue Mae, and disappear somewhere that they will not be found. Between the knowledge and resources of the mysterious Alala and the cagey Ziegler, she feels she is well on her way to finding the girl, when a double-cross lands her in a facility in the middle of nowhere for “re-programming”. It is this central section of the book that I have problems with. As the author explores many of the themes that his earlier adult novel, The Machine, explored – identity and memory; how one informs the other – the pace of the novel comes to an almost-complete standstill. (You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed The Machine – that’s because I didn’t like it, for various reasons.) It’s undeniably beautifully written, and Smythe uses a number of tricks to distance us from Chan (while still keeping us inside her head), as she becomes distanced from herself, and from the world around her. It’s impossible not to be impressed – notice, for example, the lack of direct speech from Chan – but it feels less like an integral part of the story (I have since been assured by the author that it is) than the output of a challenge the author has set for himself.

As the book moves towards its climax, the pace picks up once again, and Chan finds herself forming a most unlikely alliance that will have repercussions for what is still to come. The story finishes on a high point, which leaves the reader ready for the trilogy’s final volume, next year’s Dark Made Dawn. There are still many unanswered questions, and plenty of action and excitement on the horizon.

As with all of Smythe’s books, Long Dark Dusk is about setting your expectations as a reader. Anyone picking this up expecting more of the same as what we saw in Way Down Dark will, like me, come away somewhat disappointed and, to be honest, I do think that’s what caused most of my problems with the book: faulty expectations. As always, it’s wonderfully written and, aside from the central section, a compelling and often gripping story. Chan continues to be a wonderful narrator, a well-drawn mix of innocence and violence that will keep the reader coming back for more. A solid middle book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but which keeps us interested enough that we’ll come back for the payoff. Not the best of Smythe’s work, but by no means the worst.

WAY DOWN DARK by J. P. Smythe

WDD WAY DOWN DARK (Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy)

J. P. Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

When Chan Aitch’s mother dies, she leaves a gaping hole in the so-called power structure aboard the Australia. Chan is left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to defend the part of the ship previously controlled by her mother against the Lows, who are set on taking complete control at the cost of the lives of anyone who does not believe in their extreme philosophy. But the Australia holds many secrets, from Chan herself, and from the rest of the people aboard, secrets that will call into question the very reason for their existence. As violence threatens to consume the entire ship, Chan realises that there may be a way to escape, and to save the ship’s innocents in the process.

With his latest novel, Way Down Dark, James Smythe moves into the realms of Young Adult fiction, though this is like no YA fiction that you’ve seen before – as dark as the title suggests, this is an intense and frightening novel with more than a little adult appeal.

Set in a far future, Way Down Dark tells the story of a small portion of the human race sent into space after catastrophic events have made the Earth all but inhabitable. Their mission, several hundred years and many generations later, is to find a habitable planet, and rebuild civilisation from the ground up. Their home for all that time, the giant spaceship Australia, a sort of Mega-City One Block-in-space.

When we encounter Chan and the Australia, we find ourselves on board a ship that is the very definition of “run down” – lights don’t work; air and water processing systems are patchy; and the floor of the towering structure is buried under hundreds of years of filth and refuse and the bodies of those who have died during the ship’s long journey. Imagining the worst possible scenario, Smythe gives us a population that has split into a number of distinct groups. On one side are those struggling to survive; on the other, the Lows, tattooed and maimed madmen and –women who want control of the whole ship whatever the cost. Aloof from (and quite literally above) both groups are the mysterious Pale Women, a semi-religious cult who seem to have plans for Chan.

From the outset, the tension is palpable, and Smythe succeeds in making us feel claustrophobic despite the size of the ship in which Chan is imprisoned. Chan is the perfect guide for our journey into this strange new place: she is deeply conflicted and still mourning the loss of her mother, but manages to find the strength to stand up to the constant advances of the Lows into the territory that she has inherited. There are several detours into the head of Agatha, her mother’s friend and a guardian angel of sorts for the girl who she first saved many years earlier, which gives us a look at Chan’s family history, and a better understanding of the currently politics of Australia.

Smythe’s latest novel has much to recommend it: his track record in writing gripping, engaging and thought-provoking science fiction; the shift from HarperCollins to Hodder & Stoughton whose own track record with the genre is second to none. But the story itself, and the characters that inhabit it, is, as always, the biggest draw to a Smythe novel. The word “Smythesque” has been bandied about for some time, and there is a definite style, a definite theme, for want of a better word, that sets his novels apart from those of his contemporaries. Unfortunately for Smythe, the reader will always have a set of preconceived notions of what his books should be. Fortunately for the reader, Smythe shows us that he can meet these expectations in many ways, but that he can also surprise us: the novel we think we’re reading as Way Down Dark opens is very different from the novel we find ourselves holding as we close the back cover, and it leaves us crying out for the next instalment of this excellent new trilogy.

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

SEVENEVES - Neal Stephenson SEVENEVES

Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£20.00

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.

An unknown Agent has split the moon into seven pieces, which remain in the moon’s original orbit around the Earth. When two of the pieces collide, causing fragmentation, Dr Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris – Doob – discovers that in two years the fragmentation will reach a saturation point and will submit the planet below to a five-thousand-year bombardment during which all life will be destroyed. Using the technology available to them, the world’s foremost scientists and space agencies design a Cloud Ark centred around the existing International Space Station, a structure that will save several thousand people and, theoretically at least, allow them to become self-sufficient in space until the Earth is once again habitable. Five thousand years later, the human race is now seven distinct races, descended from seven Eves who survived the early years of the Cloud Ark’s existence, and the terraforming of New Earth is almost complete: Kath Amalthova Two, along with one representative from each of the other six races, is chosen for a secret mission to the planet’s surface where an incredible discovery has been made.

There is a sense of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a new, weighty Neal Stephenson tome. Mainly because the reader has no idea what to expect until they start reading (previous books range from Seventeenth Century adventures to cryptography, from eco-thriller to cyberpunk classic), except that there is a good chance that they will be entertained and enlightened in equal measure. Seveneves is no exception, and sees Stephenson enter the realms of hard science fiction, which he touched upon briefly in 2008’s excellent Anathem.

Seveneves takes no time in catching the reader’s attention (“The moon blew up…”) before spending some time introducing the core characters and concepts of the novel. Taking an interesting approach to the apocalyptic trope, Stephenson presents an escape route for humanity based solely on the technology that is available now. So don’t expect starships with hyperdrives or warp engines, but rather a loosely-couple collection of “arklets” that are centred around the existing International Space Station, or Izzy. As always, Stephenson has a keen insight into how technology actually works versus how it’s supposed to work. Using the concept of cloud-based computing technology as a basis for the Cloud Ark, he presents a picture of autonomous craft across which the human race – as well as the data and genetic materials required to rebuild the planet – is spread, so that if one craft is destroyed, very little is lost in the grand scheme of things. In the true spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, there is a more practical reason for this approach, which is to be able to avoid the bolides that will eventually be thrown their way from the moon’s remains. But of course, things don’t end up working as they were originally designed, so much of what the Cloud Ark should have been is effectively “de-scoped” in order to have a workable plan within the two-year timescales imposed by Doob’s calculations. “Done is better than perfect,” as any software engineer will tell you.

The Cloud Ark wouldn’t be anything if it didn’t have a human population on-board. As the book’s title suggests, this is very much a female-driven narrative with many of the central roles both “today” and “five thousand years later” filled by strong female role models: Dinah, the miner’s daughter who has been stationed on Izzy for a year before the moon blows up, using her robots to mine the huge chunk of rock and iron – once an asteroid – that has been attached to the space station’s forward end; Ivy, Izzy’s commander and a skilled pilot who will ultimately bring the remains of the human race to safety; Julia Bliss Flaherty, the US President who will become a thorn in the side of humanity’s remains in the years following the moon’s disintegration; Kath Two, through whose eyes we witness the birth of New Earth five thousand years after the destruction of Old Earth. There are, of course, strong male counterparts – Doob; Sean Probst, the owner of the mining company for which Dinah works, who goes on a mission of his own to find water for the Ark – but they tend to take a back seat to the novel’s women.

The first two-thirds of the book concern themselves with the three or four years immediately following Zero, and allows us to see the creation of the Cloud Ark through to the Hard Rain that wipes the face of the planet clean, and the desperate run to the Ark’s – and humanity’s – final resting place. The characters here are people we know, people with whom we can identify, people who we feel – for the most part – will make good ambassadors for the human race. And in the best tradition of Stephenson fiction, the narrative is liberally scattered with technical discussions and all the information we need in order to understand the situation on the Ark: how nuclear reactors work; what delta vee is, and how it is used to move between different orbits; a very brief introduction to orbital mechanics and Lagrangian points. It’s vital to understanding the story, and Stephenson presents the facts in a way that are easy to absorb and leaves us with the satisfied feeling that we have learned something new, and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. The story is infused with plenty of tension and until the two-thirds mark there is no guarantee as to the outcome or survival rate of the people who were lucky enough to make it off the doomed planet and onto the Ark.

The book’s final third is set five thousand years later, and the human race has re-established itself in a habitat ring that completely encircles Earth. Down on the surface TerReform are working to re-create the flora and fauna that once populated Old Earth from the surviving genetic samples. Stephenson takes time introducing us to the habitat ring, and to Cradle, the city at the end of a massive tether that has the ability to touch down on the planet’s surface. We also get a flavour of the political situation and it’s easy to see that little has changed on this front in the intervening period. Here the characters are less familiar, the descendants of genetically-modified children bred to have certain qualities depending on the wishes of each of the seven women – the Seven Eves of the novel’s title – on whom it falls to re-create the human race. But we still have plenty of time to get to know them (one third of this novel is almost three-hundred pages, which is a decent-sized novel in itself), and their peculiarities, as their mission to the planet’s surface progresses. Here we find the resolutions to a number of loose ends that Stephenson seemingly leaves dangling at the end of the book’s first section, and the results are as surprising as they are satisfying to the reader’s curiosity.

Throughout, Stephenson attempts to maintain some grounding in fact, ensuring that the science behind his inventions is as sound as possible, while still allowing him to manipulate the characters and their environments to suit the direction of the story. Seveneves presents us with a view of the apocalypse from the outside; these are people who have survived through escape, rather than through some freak immunity or well-constructed bunker system. His approach makes the travails of Ivy, Dinah, Doob et al thoroughly believable, and his characterisations ensure that these are people we care about, people we want to succeed not just because of the consequences, but because they are people we care about, people that we feel deserve some kind of break after what the author puts them through.

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

INFLUENCES: Literary Influences by OLIVER LANGMEAD & Competition

DARK STAR - Oliver Langmead Name: OLIVER LANGMEAD

Author of: DARK STAR (2015)

Literary Influences, Contemporary & Classic

 

Dark Star has a lot of influences, because it’s three things in one. It’s science fiction, it’s a detective story of the noir and hard-boiled brand, and it’s an epic in the classical sense.

Dark Star blog tour skyscraperThe best place to start is at the beginning, because it’s possible to see the exact moment when a fairly predictable trend in reading became something else. I started out with Brian Jacques and Roald Dahl from the age of about six, and by the time I was half way through my teens, I had devoured everything written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as a few other authors writing along the same lines. Then, at the age of sixteen, I was made to read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and everything changed.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what that book did for me. It was as if I had certain expectations about what books were, what books could be, and I could see the limits of that. Then experiencing a book like All the Pretty Horses opened my mind to a whole world of literary writing that I had not really considered before.

This is where it’s possible to start to see where Dark Star came from. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading pretty much anything and everything to broaden my sense of what a book can be. From Lovecraft’s grim and verbose short stories, to Philip Roth’s beautiful but horrible Sabbath’s Theatre (the best book I’ve never finished) to Bret Easton Ellis, testing the idea of vacancy in the lines he writes, and beyond. I’ve loved the architecture behind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and been in awe of James Joyce’s almost impenetrable writing in Ulysses, and spent even more time investigating what makes gothic classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, tick.

From science fiction, I cite China Mieville and Michel Faber as major influences. Specifically, Mieville’s The City & The City, which had a sense of wonder behind each discovery that I desperately wanted to kindle for myself, and Faber’s Under The Skin, which evoked such a sense of character in both its place and in its moods, that I hoped to see something similar in my own work. For Dark Star, I wanted the reader to feel a sense of discovery in a world that is disarmingly familiar. I wanted to evoke that 1920s noir kind of atmosphere, then give the reader glimpses of the science fiction beyond.

I chose a few books from the classic detective genre to look at in order to understand it better, and Raymond Chandler is the author I have to cite above all others. The Big Sleep was crafted so well to be what it was, and it is possible to see why it has had such a big influence on authors other than myself. This is one of the main sources from which those most treasured clichés and tropes come, which I hope I have treated well in my own book. Making a world that felt familiar, just like Chandler did, was important to me. Closer to the atmosphere that Dark Star would have, however, has to be Frank Miller’s Sin City. Sin City had the voice that I wanted to use; that gritty internal monologue, bitter and beaten by its surroundings.

Dark Star is a love story for three genres, however, and the third might surprise you. I hope that you’ve heard of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. I hope that you’ve heard of The Divine Comedy, and the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Because these are all epics, written in an ancient style, which I completely fell for and decided to try and emulate. I’m hoping that you’re wondering whether writing a science fiction noir in verse would work at all. Because I wondered that, as well. But… it does work. Some of those recognisable elements are there: the pentameter, the descent and the divine, and some of them are not, but Dark Star is undoubtedly written in the tradition of those ancient greats.

It all comes back to McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, in the end. When I read it, I thought that it was completely marvellous that I had never read a book like it before: that someone had tried something so ambitious, and had been so successful with it. It’s something that I wanted to try for myself. And the result of that is Dark Star.

Competition

To celebrate the release of this excellent novel, Oliver’s publishers, Unsung Stories, are very kindly giving away a signed copy of Dark Star and a signed Dark Star poster to one lucky winner.

To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is send a single tweet answering the following question:

Which book changed your expectations of what books can be?

Make sure you include the hashtag #DarkStarGiveaway as well as including @MattGCraig @UnsungTweets to ensure your entry is included.

The competition will close at midnight, Monday 30th March 2015 and the winner will be notified shortly thereafter.

Book  & Publisher Information

Dark Star product page (Unsung Stories)

Amazon UK Dark Star product page

Amazon US Dark Star product page

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