27 October 2010

Chaka George Edward

Even I would never have had the chutzpah to append 100 words of my own fiction to that previous entry. So here's the second of eleven teasers / deleted scenes / unused drabbles from my short story "A Hundred Words from a Civil War", to be published in Obverse Books's forthcoming Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts.
     The City’s Southwest fringes belong to the survivors of one brief skirmish between time-active powers back in the universe. Its tangential contact with European civilisation was short-lived but, for these people, defining.
     Once, the pilot smuggled Wessexite spies across the borders of the Northumbrian Workers’ Republic. Now she awaits an evacuation order. The erstwhile Tin Emirs of al-Kernow have employed Skræling berserkers from the Greenlander Realms to fight against His Majesty’s Third Assegais.
     Next to the pilot sits Chaka George Edward, formerly Emperor of Great Britain and Zululand. His parents, Cetawayo and Victoria, remember only their conventionally recorded lives.

"All this and more, cock."

Pop quiz: what do the following high-profile British writers all have in common?OK, so virtually everyone who's still reading this blog will know the answer. (Is anyone who isn't a Doctor Who fan still reading this?) Click the links below to find out which Doctor Who story they wrote, and in what medium:It's an impressive roll-call -- all the more so when you add in the writers I left out because it would make the answer altogether too obvious, like Paul Magrs, Paul Cornell, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat.

Of all of those, only Adams and Moore (both of whom did their Who writing at the start of their careers) inspire anything like the same awe in me as the two elder statesmen of British science fiction who've become the latest additions to the above list: Let's just take a minute to absorb that, shall we? Brian freaking Aldiss and Michael motherloving Moorcock, whose writing careers each started the best part of a decade before the first broadcast of An Unearthly Child, have recently published their first Doctor Who stories.

If literary SF is a little too subcultural for you to have a proper grip on it (...well, you should still know of Aldiss and Moorcock via their highly-respected mainstream fiction, but...), the nearest analogy to the statement this makes about the series' current cultural capital would be if, say, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie were to write Coronation Street tie-in books.

I'm really not exaggerating.

Aldiss's contribution is, admittedly, a slight thing -- a two-part short story, "Umwelts for Hire", published in what's effectively an annual pitched at roughly Young Adult level and embarrassed with the title Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2011[1]. It's a very Aldissian read, though: concerned with dreams and therapy, meditatively paced, conveying its action allusively through austere but evocative writing.

A churlish critic might argue that it didn't particularly need to be a Doctor Who story, with the Doctor's part being that of any thoughtful protagonist, but its refusal to conform to lazy fan expectations is part of its quality. Evil goes unpunished, enigmas remain unresolved, and the climax -- inasmuch as there is one in such a quiet piece -- is the implicit redemption of a minor villain. It's utterly at odds with the fast, bold, colourful storylines of the current series, and all the more wonderful for it.

Moorcock's The Coming of the Terraphiles -- a full-scale hardback novel visibly marketed with the view that the words "Michael Moorcock" on a book are just as much of a draw as the words "Doctor Who" -- is fast, bold and colourful. Indeed, it reads quite breathlessly at times, as if it were written in a tearing hurry in one draft, but by a genius. Which is quite likely to be true.

Moorcock's career has effortlessly embraced high and low art, and The Coming of the Terraphiles links his Doctor Who source material with all kinds of other British popular culture, from Robin Hood to P.G. Wodehouse, from sea-tale and space-opera to public-school cricketing story. Indeed, the mishmash is part of the point, the "Terraphiles" of the title being sincere but hilariously confused Ancient Earth reconstructionists of the distant future, whose hybrid of cricket, archery and tourneys has become the galaxy's most popular sport.

The novel is unapologetic about its series affiliations, foregrounding the Doctor and Amy Pond throughout, and making conspicuous use of the rhinocerid alien Judoon, with whom Moorcock's obviously rather taken. (There are also some nicely quirky references to the Daleks and the Time Lords.) Equally though, it's a Moorcock book through and through, part of his massive, multi-million-word Multiverse / Eternal Champion saga. (In particular, there's a character called Captain Cornelius, a space-pirate who wears iron commedia dell'arte masks, whose original conception suggests some interesting connections between the vaguely messianic characters in Moorcock's and the Doctor's universes.)

Admittedly everything Moorcock's written has been tied to this gigantic metaseries one way or another, but the connections here are explicit and inextricable, to the extent that Moorcock has actually recommended The Coming of the Terraphiles to a reader as a source for some of the background informing his series work. From the point of view of Doctor Who continuity, this is a sabretooth amongst the pigeons, upsetting huge swathes of the established history, physics and metaphysics of the Doctor's universe, but from the point of view of even a casual Moorcock fan[2] it's a thing of glory, beauty and wonder.

In plot terms, the novel is pretty much bonkers, with entirely new elements, characters and ideas cropping up nearly every chapter, apparently at random. The ideas are huge, intricate and very silly, and their wild profligacy would keep most writers of the standard post-2005 Doctor Who tie-in range in book proposals for a decade. While the plot manages to be recognisably pulpish (which is also to say, given Moorcock's habitual concerns, archetypally mythic) it also mostly eschews Doctor Who cliche in various refreshing ways.

If I had to choose one aspect of this book to improve, it would be allowing Moorcock to work with a Doctor he was already familiar with, rather than having to learn the character of Matt Smith's eleventh Doctor. I love Smith's mercurial portrayal, and Moorcock writes him well, but I can imagine that a version of this book with William Hartnell's Doctor in central position could be utterly majestic.

Rumour has it that The Coming of the Terraphiles is the first in a series of weightier Doctor Who novels written by high-profile authors, marketed at a rather more literary audience (and inspired, rumour suggests, by Sebastian Faulks's James Bond novel). Rumour even goes as far as hinting that the next name to be added to the roll-call might be that of Stephen Baxter.

While I might prefer such known Doctor Who fans as, say, China Miéville or Michael Chabon -- perhaps even Christopher Priest, who made a number of abortive attempts to write scripts for the TV series in the 70s and 80s -- I can only applaud the vision involved, and hope it's given as free a rein as possible for future titles.

[1] By long-standing convention, annuals and their equivalents are named after the year following their release, even when (as in this instance) their content relates almost exclusively to the current year's output from the parent entity. I think it's an effort to make the more gullible buyer feel they're getting in ahead of everyone else.
[2] I've actually read a very small proportion of Moorcock's vast output: two books of the Cornelius Quartet, the wonderful Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (brief review here) and, long ago in my adolescence, the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy and the Jerry Cornell comedy-spy diptych. I have literally never read an Elric novel.

10 October 2010

Publicity (Self- and Other-)

1. Other-

Quite apart from not actually posting here for weeks, I've not done nearly enough to publicise the fact that my brother Nick has self-published a novel which seems to be gaining some approving reviews among fans of the kind of novel it is.

I don't really enjoy the idea of zombies, in the usually understood modern sense. I've no problem (other than credibility, obviously) with the idea of a vodou bokor raising the dead to act as his or her slave -- that kind of zombi I'm perfectly at ease with. It's the contagion-and-pandemic model of contemporary zombiedom which frankly gives me the screaming willies. I've always had a phobia of plague, and the idea of a horde of unwitting, pathetic carriers who don't realise how a pathogen has modified their behaviour terrifies me far more than any mere cadaver risen from the grave.

(Oddly enough, I'm perfectly at ease with the contagion model of vampirism. Indeed, I've happily written about it. Vampires are usually highly selective about whom they recruit to their ranks, however, which leads me to suspect that it's epidemics and pandemics which really terrify me, and not disease per se.)

All of which means I haven't actually read Breaking News: An Autozombiography. I should have, but I almost certainly never will. However, as I say, people who have read it seem to have liked it, so if you're less squeamish than I am about the whole concept you may well like it too. I'm sorry not to be able to provide a less pusillanimous endorsement.

2. Self-

I've just sent off a final submitted draft of my 10,000-word epic short story, "A Hundred Words from a Civil War", to be published in Obverse Books's forthcoming Faction Paradox anthology Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts. It is, as you may by now have gathered, a full-on sequel to my Faction Paradox novel Of the City of the Saved..., and I'm immoderately pleased with it.

For reasons which may eventually become clear, I've written eleven additional drabbles which won't form part of the final drabbleplex, but which I will be putting up on my website. I may as well post them here too, as occasional teasers from now until the book's eventual publication date. Meet Mnaea Marla:
     Mnaea Marla lies beneath the rubble, clutching the grenade. The enemy are searching the building. It’s only a matter of time. Her left arm is a useless crumpled thing, and both her legs are broken.
     Worst of all, her left head is dead, caved in bloodily under a falling brick. No surgeon can bring back that unique consciousness – her aggravating twin, her friend and lover, her conscience and tempter. They can never be together again now, except in death – death, and the hope of further resurrection.
     The enemy are close now. Marla primes the grenade, kisses herself goodbye, and waits.
(These alternative / deleted scenes are all one-offs with no link to the main story, so you're not missing out by not having the context.)

The book's out in February, supposedly. I'll try to post the other ten drabbles by then. It should force me to blog something every so often, at least.

3. Oh, and...

...There are, incidentally, zombies in "A Hundred Words from a Civil War". But not contagious ones.