Archive for June, 2009

postheadericon How To Write Science Fiction, Allison & Busby, Paperback, ISBN 0-74900-135-6

This is one of the books that sparked my spending frenzy in getting Bob Shaw hardbacks. I hadn’t heard of it (although I may have been vaguely aware of its existence but not fully acknowledged it) and I bought it from Amazon I think and eagerly awaited its arrival as it was more or less a ‘new’ book for me.

How To Write Science Fiction

How To Write Science Fiction

The book itself is split up into lots of segments. Perhaps Bob Shaw wrote it over a period of time and gathered it together only for publication or maybe it was designed that way. There are a lot of useful hints and tips on the act of writing itself, irrespective of genre.

Shaw says here that he has published 100% of the work he has written. Apparently he had totally forgotten about The Mercenary Mirage – published a couple of times including Overload after it was sent back unsold to him by Forrest J Ackerman: perhaps he totally forgot about other stories too?

It was an enjoyable read and felt like Shaw was talking to me, rather than me ploughing through a book – which can happen with some non fiction books. The tone is light and informal and the fact that it is in short sections helps the reader enormously as there are no big chunks to digest in one reading.

The first chapter deals specifically with Science Fiction, and it is here, right at the start that Shaw has a section headed The Reader Knows Best. The manner of the book is mainly pleasant Shaw doesn’t fluff up reader’s egos and repeatedly points out that publishing is tough. He gives the sage advice to look into what the market is looking for before embarking on writing a story as he details in the section entitled The Importance of Market Research. For a lot of people it’s the other way around: write a story then look to market it.

In the second chapter Shaw talks about ‘priming the subconscious’ and his little army of Brownies who deliver and develop story ideas, although he has no compunction against brownie cruelty at times by taking them by their (metaphorical) throats and demanding good ideas.

Shaw also talks about discussing ideas with other people. He worked at the same company as SF writer James Blish and they often bounced ideas around. Shaw then moves from ideas to plots.

It is when talking about plotting that Shaw brings up Light of Other Days – which is included in the book and is part of the chapter on plotting. Shaw reveals to us that he spent two years on the idea for Light of Other Days before committing it to paper. He then describes how he looked for the plot to best describe the idea. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book. That Shaw would take the time to develop plots for an idea until he was satisfied that he had presented the idea in the best possible form.

Chapter four delves a little deeper into Science Fiction itself, in particular the difference between hard and soft SF and ways on how writers can bluff their way through a story technology wise.

Shaw then takes a look at characterisation, human and alien. In this chapter Shaw informs us that his publisher initially rejected Ground Zero Man on the grounds that it ‘was by no stretch of the imagination …science fiction.’ And then goes on to say the same publisher picked the book up later. There follows a few other sections including one on alien names.

The next chapter discusses building worlds, and Shaw reveals to us some of the things that went behind his book The Ragged Astronauts, the first in a trilogy. This is a series which could be thought of as bordering on Fantasy and having little to do with Science Fiction.

Chapter seven discusses the staples of science fiction, rocket ships, ray guns and robots. Here he investigates the various ways science fiction writers overcome the Einstein barrier which prohibits faster than light speed travel. A short section looks at futuristic weaponry. Then there are a couple of sections on robot and computers.

The last chapters round things up. Bringing everything together, including the topic of selection, and grabbing the reader at the beginning and endings. There is an exceptionally useful section where he points out words in a paragraph and gives reasons why he chose those particular words over others.

The final chapter is called Going To Market. This chapter also contains questions and answers with Pamela Buckmaster from the Carnell Literary Agency.

The book was released in 1993 but contains a lot of important information and tips: mainly because they are all still relevant today.

postheadericon Terminal Velocity, Gollancz, Hardback, ISBN, 0-575-04917-0

This is the reissued edition of Vertigo, issued in hardback by Gollancz in 1991 – October 1991 according to Phil’s excellent bibliography of Bob Shaw. The original short story, Dark Icarus/A little Night Flying is presented as a prologue and then it’s as Vertigo. It was priced at £13.99 net. My memory seems to be failing me as I was convinced I bought this when it was first issued. But I didn’t. I did however purchase it recently online, at a much more reasonable price of £1.36 plus postage, which I think is great value for a good book in excellent condition.

postheadericon Vertigo, Gollancz, Hardback, 0-575-02559-X: Pan, paperback, ISBN 0-330-25990-3

So I got a second hard back copy of Vertigo, and this one is in much better condition. I won a copy on Ebay for 99p but it was ex-library. The new copy doesn’t have any pages ripped out of it and has no stamps. So I’ll give my thoughts on this novel now. I first read it in paperback way back in the eighties and went through the 99p Ebay one again recently before starting this review.

It was an enjoyable read. The novel is pretty close to mainstream in that it deals with everyday problems in the main, plain old fashioned human conflict. It would qualify very well for Theodore Sturgeon’s definition of Science Fiction: a human problem with a human solution but which would not have happened if not for the scientific content. (I’m going from memory here so forgive me if the quote isn’t exact.)

The scientific content of Vertigo is the easy availability of sort of jet packs aka CG harnesses which are used for personal travel. We all know what we’re like in cars and the jet pack is another form of this. Shaw develops all sorts of possibilities for the way people would behave with this new form of transport, and all sorts of social repercussions such as the more or less ceasing of airplane flights. Other problems brought about by this invention are the crimes and misdemeanours in three dimensions instead of being limited to flat surfaces on the ground.

The main protagonist for this story is Robert Hasson, a policeman going to Canada to recover from a horrendous accident.

As I’ve mentioned before this novel grew from the short story A Little Night Flying, also known as Dark Icarus, first published in Science Fiction Monthly in 1974 and also in the short story collection Cosmic Kaleidoscope (1976) and in other places. It was re issued as Terminal Velocity in 1991.

Hasson departs for Canada, physically and mentally shattered, recovering from of a nervous breakdown and taking a medication called Serenix. No drugs company in the world would call their product that so Shaw can get away with it.

To re acquaint myself with the novel – I did read it over twenty years ago and I’m not getting any younger, smarter or prettier- I started to leaf through it and found myself engrossed again, well into chapter three before I realised I was supposed to be reminding myself of the novel as a refresher, not a full read. I suppose that’s a compliment to Shaw’s writing and his talent. So I decided to re read the novel in full.

Shaw has a way with developing characters and situations. Vertigo is a relatively slow starter of a novel. There’s no major incident to incite events as prescribed by story experts all over the world. The baddies make themselves known relatively soon but plot wise Shaw carefully draws in the reader to Hasson’s situation.

Odd that I don’t recall the mention of Kafka’s Metamorphosis story. I used to be quite into Kafka, although I only have a hard back edition of The Trial and paperback edition of a collection of short stories – including Metamorphosis – and I can’t be sure but I think there might be a Penguin edition of Amerika stuck in some corner.

Gradually Hasson begins to feel better, with the help from Oliver Fan, from the local health food store and even tries but fails to fly in a CG harness.

The story gets ratcheted up a few notches in the last few chapters. Shaw adds some humanity to the one of the villains of the piece by making the repercussions of their actions more serious than their intentions. Head bully Pridgeon proclaims he didn’t know how dangerous the traps he set in the Chinook Hotel were. Chief villain Morlacher keeps threatening the secondary character Werry and seems implacable, intent on the protection of his property by any means he deems necessary.

A character – Barry Lutze – introduced early on becomes the final obstacle for Hasson in the last chapters as, to save Werry’s son, Hasson puts on a CG harness and heads upward into the night to the Chinook hotel and faces his fears, surviving the situation and comes out the other side alive and a stronger person.

Although it obviously doesn’t seem to follow the rules/requirements of story telling it does, and Shaw proves himself to be a master at doing this subtly. I’ve heard actors look at the beginning of a script and the end of the script to see if there is a proper character arc, character development and character progress. No actor would be disappointed with Vertigo. The unsteady, unconfident, frightened Hasson of the start of the novel grows throughout to be replaced by the confident and growing character at the end of the novel.

postheadericon A Load Of Old Bosh, Beccon, Booklet, ISBN 1-870824-34-2

This booklet was printed for Confabulation, the 1995 British Convention. The cover is by Sue Mason, interior illustrations by Jim Barker.

There is a short note from Bob Shaw where he points out that they were written as speeches; to be heard and not read, and therefore may feel different to something written to be read.

The booklet is well printed and bound, very neat. It was all done in Claris Works on a Macintosh IIvi. I have a Mac Classic somewhere in the house but it wont boot due to a memory problem. I’ve worked on Macs but I’m not as fanatical about them as some people are. Nowadays you can get a Mac to run on a USB stick: that’s the problem with computing technology. It’s state of the art for five minutes then it’s redundant.

The Need For Bad Science Fiction kicks off this collection of speeches and it takes a dig at reviewers as much as writers. It touches on SF conventions, SF films and the night shift of Star Trek.

Common to all the speeches is the diversity of topics within. They were designed to entertain a live audience and so had to be suitable to grab and keep the attention of the audience. I think that makes them a little tricky to review and summarise. There are bits within bits. One off jokes, puns, nods to SF and fandom.

The talks cover the period 1974 to 1988 and are mainly Eastercon speeches. In a few of the speeches there is a reference to the TV Series Space:1999, which in Bob’s head has become Space: £19.99. I’ll refrain from any comments on the budget of said show.

The Bermondsey Triangle Mystery nicely builds up ‘elements’ of pseudo science to create a very British inspired mystery. Shaw cleverly delves into the past to tell us about the peculiar events that shaped Britain, involving the Civilisation of the Cod People, giant tubers known as Taters, sliced by a wire mesh fence.

Other delights include Time Travellers Among Us with Shaw detailing the time machine, the Chronoclipper Mk. II, for sale at a reasonable price of £2,000 – this speech is from 1975 but even allowing for inflation I’d say that’s cheap for a time machine! Among others there is also Beyond Cosmos, where he tries to get a TV show made with the German/Irish scientific researcher and writer Von Donegan. Up The Conjunction covers the well worn topic of Astrology with the help of a couple of illustrations.

postheadericon The Ceres Solution, Granada, Paperback, ISBN 0-586-05652-1

The Ceres Solution was the first Bob Shaw novel I read, back when Bob Shaw was relatively new to me. I had bought A Better Mantrap to ‘try out’ the author and enjoyed it so much I went back to the SF bookshop in Edinburgh ( I remember their radio advert on Radio Forth giving their address on West Crosscauseway and finishing with ‘Where on Earth is that?’ Well, I found it funny) and hoovered up a few more books. The Ceres Solution was relatively new at that time.

One of the central characters in the book is Denny Hargate, wheelchair bound and embittered whose life is changed when he meets a beautiful woman in an out of the way place called Cotter’s Edge. The adventure starts when he sees her draw a complex pattern in the air with her hand and this makes her disappear instantly.

Shaw brings up some social attitudes within the novel. For instance, the woman, Gretana ty Iltha. is beautiful by Earth standards but very unattractive within her own society. A bold brushstroke of the old saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Assigned and persuaded to go to Earth, which fills her with dread, Gretana arrives on Earth and Shaw begins to reveal the plot slowly. The Moon plays a large and vital part in the story. Working on earth Gretana meets another agent and forms a friendship, against the rules. He, Kelth, informs Gretana and the reader about the influences of the Moon on people, and further develops the plot as well as laying down clues.

The conflict then escalates as it is revealed a radical group of Mollanians are on Earth and they disagree with the Star Trek like non interference policy of the establishment.

The plot slowly unfolds and we find that the Ceres Solution is a radical move by the ‘terrorists’ to free the Terrans from the influences of the Moon.

The novel slowly builds, with Shaw revealing details and clues throughout, until the climax where the Ceres Solution is delivered and mankind is changed forever.

The Ceres Solution is a good solid novel from Shaw, where he takes small things – such as the moon’s influence over us – and expands it into a wondrous and fantastic tale of human struggle. Human struggle against nature, politics, dogma. Shaw weaves the various elements together with flair. He builds characters we learn to like and empathise with – who’d have though anyone would root for a sarcastic wheelchair bound runt? The book ends of the story, a short intro at the beginning and a short piece at the end, highlight and enforce one of the main themes of the book; lifespan. The worlds presented and the ‘technology’ used for space travel are well reasoned and to an extent plausible.

Shaw developed and enhanced ‘ley lines’ and astrology in an inventive and imaginative way, one of the things I feel was a forte of his. The result is an enjoyable and entertaining novel. Fair seasons.