Thursday 30 December 2010

Ave Versus Christus! Ave Jerry Goldsmith!

Another instalment of Borders Babel Clash.

Click here for the full post.

Monday 27 December 2010

Best Speculative Fiction of 2010

Thirteen Years Later is number 10 in Pat's Fantasy Hotlist's top ten of speculative fiction titles of 2010, following on from Twelve's position of 6 in the same list in 2009.

Full details at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Why You Little…!

Another episode of Babel Clash:

Click here.

Friday 24 December 2010

Best Vampire Releases of 2010

Twelve is listed in Barnes and Noble's best vampire releases of 2010.

Full details here.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Tuesday 21 December 2010

And the Eyes in his Head See the World Spinning Round

From today until 3rd January I'll be participating in Babel Clash on the Borders SFF blog. The idea is a that a pair of authors alternately posts in response to one another, and I'm lucky enough to be corresponding with fellow Pyr authors Clay and Susan Griffith, the minds behind THE GREYFRIAR, first instalment of the VAMPIRE EMPIRE series.

Today I got the ball rolling with the following post:

And the Eyes in his Head See the World Spinning Round

Sunday 14 November 2010

They Can’t Take That Away From Me

When first I heard the news the other week that the UK is going to accept the European Court ruling that convicts should be allowed to vote, I received it with the same indecision that I've always regarded the issue.

Ultimately, it will make little difference to the makeup of parliament. The prison population of the UK is roughly equal in size to a single constituency, but (a few large prisons aside) it is thinly enough spread to mean that the votes of convicts would not make much difference to the outcome of elections. Of course, if there were a single constituency for which all inmates were the electorate then the results would be interesting (and I use the adjective entirely without spin).

Another side to the argument is directed at the status of the criminal (rather than the effect on electoral results). Some would say that in committing their crimes, criminals have demonstrated their own desire to be separated from society, and so the withdrawal of the privilege of voting is a reflection of that. Others would argue that convicts need to be drawn back into society, and that allowing them to vote is a harmless way of helping to achieve it.

But the phrase that struck me as I listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 (from the lips of Lord Falconer, if I recall correctly), though it's nothing new, was that voting is a human right. It's an obvious thing to say, but it has inescapable implications.

Now I'm not the sort of person who thinks that something is a human right just because the European Court tells me it is. Even though I'm no reader of the Daily Mail, I still balk at the idea of Europe lecturing Britain on the rights of the individual – though I realize that what really sticks in the craw in that Britain needs to be lectured on the rights of the individual.

However, as someone who is generally distrustful of government, human rights are an issue that does arouse my interest, particularly having seen the ways in recent years there have been concerted attempts in the UK both from authoritarians to weaken them and from liberals (with a larger rather than smaller 'L') to dilute them. The authoritarian diminutions are obvious enough, with extended detention without trial, effective house arrest for suspects and the abolition of the right to trial by jury. The dilution is a more insidious issue. The Liberal Democrats talk of 'the right to breathe clean air', but this turns out (like, it transpires, most Lib Dem policy) to be more of an aspiration than a right.

It seems to me (though I site no authority on this) that human rights are the rules that govern how the individual interacts with the state. They should be simple to enforce, regardless of resources, and it should be easy and obvious to highlight occasions where the government compromises the individual's rights. The right to legal representation fits well into this, as does the right not to be detained for more than a specified period without charge. Those are about interactions with the state, and breaches are easy to identify and correct.

The right to breathe clean air doesn't fit in with this scheme at all. Although excessive pollution may be easy to identify, it is not generally caused by the state – in some situations it may be caused by nature itself and no amount of King Canuting can stop Icelandic volcanoes from erupting. And if there is pollution, God knows it's not an easy thing to rectify. To say that a trial should be halted because the defendant didn't have access to a lawyer is straightforward (if politically courageous), but fixing the environment isn't. It's a laudable aim to ensure that we all have clean air, but it's ridiculous to call it a right, and in doing so the simple and powerful concept of a human right is diminished. If it's okay to shrug our shoulders and say that it's impractical to enforce the right to breathe clean air, then it becomes easier to place people under house arrest without trial, offering up the same casual shrug. Rights and aspirations are very different things. Who wants to be told that they have the aspiration to remain silent?

But I digress. We were talking about voting, and I hope, gentle reader, that you experienced just a little foaming at the mouth some 600 words back when I described voting as a 'privilege'. Voting is not a privilege; it is a right. Some may argue that it's limited as a right by the fact that children can't vote, but children are a special case in so many areas. The important thing is that, without qualification, all children who manage to survive to a certain age then get the right to vote.

And this leads us on to another term that is often applied to human rights: that they are inalienable – they can't be taken away (or indeed given away). In Britain, we reach the age of eighteen and we are given the right to vote, and afterwards there is no way that the state can rescind that right.

Except, of course, that they can send you to prison.

It takes little effort to imagine some seedy foreign dictator making selected mass arrests in the more marginal constituencies in order to ensure that his sham elections come up with the intended result. But we're talking about Britain. It's difficult when living in an established liberal democracy such as the UK to make a case that concerns itself with the possibility of an authoritarian government trying to abuse its own legal system in order to take power away from its citizens. At the moment such considerations are out-loomed by the horrifying prospect of murderers, rapists, paedophiles and convicted News of the World journalists being allowed access to our cherished democracy. But, as Thomas Jefferson probably didn't say, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It is only by enshrining rights as unalienable today, when we are not faced with dictatorship, that we have a hope of ensuring those rights are in place in future, when they may genuinely be needed.

So however little I care about the voting intentions of convicted criminals, I care profoundly that neither I nor anybody else risks being incarcerated in order to prevent me from exercising those intentions. In the words of Tim Rice (put into the mouths of Juan Perón's lackeys) 'we have ways of making you vote for us, or at least of making you abstain'. The ability to stop people voting by sending them to prison seems a good way of ensuring abstention.

And that, of course, leads us to the other disenfranchised group of citizens: the insane. The argument that it should be impossible to remove the right to vote from convicts applies equally to the insane. Otherwise we'd end up in a world where, to paraphrase Euripides, those whom the politicians would destroy, they first declare mad.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Fiends from the Past

I don't know how things are in the USA, but in the UK the seeds planted in the mind of many a small child on February 26th 1977 are now bearing fruit in writers of every sort of alternative fiction. That was the day when the first issue (prog, as it was described) of 2000 AD first hit the streets. I was eight years old. Now I'm in my forties and letting the dark things that lurk somewhere in the recesses of my memory seep out into my work. There's nothing as straightforward as the wonderful cameo by Max Normal in Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who episode Gridlock, but there was one 2000 AD story that has to be acknowledged as an inspiration for my first novel Twelve. The connection may be surprising, since 2000 AD was a science fiction comic, and I don't (currently) write science fiction. But this particular comic strip wasn't SF – it was pure horror.

Fiends of the Eastern Front, by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra, débuted in Prog 158. By then I was twelve. I'd never read it since then, but when the idea for a vampire story set during Napoleon's invasion of Russia came to me I immediately remembered what a powerful combination vampires and war make. Fiends was set on the eastern front in World War Two, with a mysterious squad of Romanian soldiers fighting alongside the Germans. It's the obvious location for such a story – the cold and the long nights providing the perfect environment for vampires to hunt. I quite deliberately didn't go back to look at the comic strip when I was writing Twelve, and it was in fact only last week – now that I'm three books into the quintet – that I got round to it. It's a reflection of modern life (and my indolence) that it was easier to order a bound single volume online than venture into the loft and pick out all the relevant editions from my hoarded comic collection.

I'd been fairly sure that I hadn't been ripping it off wholesale, and I was pleased to find no surprises on that front. The only idea that I knowingly took from Fiends, though it's a widespread piece of folklore, was that a vampire could be killed by decapitation. I could even recall the exact wording of the commentary: 'There are many ways to kill a vampire. Decapitation is one of them.' I think that's echoed in Aleksei's words in Twelve when he first kills one of the voordalaki by that means: 'Ever since Iuda had mentioned it, I had been itching to try decapitation as a method for despatching one of these creatures.'

As it happens, and I'd forgotten, the vampires in Fiends conform to just about every bit of folklore that there is: they don't like garlic or crosses; they can transform into bats and wolves; they can't cross fresh water; they can be killed by silver bullets. None of those characteristics applies to the voordalaki of my novels. One notable difference is that my vampires can be killed by fire, where those in Fiends cannot. Again, that was one of the few things I specifically remembered, and remembered almost exactly Captain Constanta's words when he revealed himself to have survived being incinerated by a flamethrower: 'Cringu told you I can grow from the smallest speck – even from ashes, you fool!' I made a definite decision that that was too unphysical for the world I was creating.

So I was well aware of the general connection between Twelve and Fiends of the Eastern Front – vampires fighting in a human war – and I knew a few specific characteristics that I'd chosen to use or ignore. However, there were two connections between the stories which I noticed on rereading Fiends that I had completely forgotten. Whether they come down to coincidence or subconscious recollection is hard to say.

The first is in the specificity of numbers. As the title suggests, Twelve is about twelve vampires, and much of the story involve the hero, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, picking them off one by one. In the opening of Fiends its hero, Hans Schmitt, is found dead and entombed and on the walls of the cellar he has drawn the silhouettes of ten vampires. He gets through them rather quicker than Aleksei, managing to kill seven of them in one assault. For me, the number came from the fact that I wanted to name my creatures after the apostles – so I suppose we should blame my childhood reading of the Bible, rather than of 2000AD, for that.

But the most surprising thing was the discovery that, like Twelve, Fiends was written in the first person. I'm often asked why I chose to write in the first person and I can't say anything other than it simply seemed right. The decision has a major impact on plotting, and in subsequent books I've not found it possible to put together an entire story from one viewpoint. You might think it difficult though for a comic strip – a medium in which the fourth wall is so evident – to be written in the first person. Fiends, however, is told mostly through the diary of Hans Schmidt, discovered with his body in the cellar in Berlin in the present day (as 1980 was described at the time). Thus every caption is, unlike most strips, part of a first person narrative. Again it could be coincidence, but I suspect that format may have influenced me.

So what next? Will one of my novels feature a character loosely based on Walter the Wobot, Judge Dredd's irritating sidekick? I doubt it, but it can't be denied that 2000 AD has been an inspiration to me as a writer. And I bet I'm not the only one.

Splundig Vur Thrigg.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Turkish Publicity

Looks like there's been quite a lot of TV coverage following the release of Twelve (Oniki). Here are three links to clips:

Sunday 9 May 2010

Consensus Politics

I don't envy Nick Clegg over the next few days. He's been handed (by 23% of the electorate) the awesome task of deciding who it is that should govern us all (100% of the electorate, plus all those who didn't vote). Not an easy thing for one man to do (impossible, it seems, for the almost 30 million who did vote to do).

Rest assured though that Nick is not taking his duties lightly. He has urged '...all political leaders to act in the national interest and not out of narrow, party-political advantage,' and one can only assume that he plans to follow that advice himself. Even if we gloss over the admission that what's good for the country and good for the Liberal Democratic Party might be different things, Nick's good intentions will still require some careful thought from him as to what actually is in the public interest.

His starting point must, surely, be to adhere wherever possible to the the will of the people, as so confusingly expressed by the election result.

Clearly, in order to do a deal with either the Tories or Labour, there will be a degree of give and take on policy, but thankfully, there are some policy issues on which the electorate has expressed itself with a uncharacteristic degree of agreement. Those are the policies over which the two largest parties were, before the election, in broad agreement. If David and Gordon agreed then, as far as we can tell from the votes, so did 65% of us.

It would seem perverse of Nick, in his negotiations with either party, to try and go against any of those policies.

One obvious example is Trident. Now broadly speaking, when it comes to not replacing Trident, I, ahem... ahem..., agree with Nick. It's a solution to a problem that's not the one we currently face. But in democratic terms I have to concede that both Labour and Tories want to replace Trident and that combined, 65% of us voted for them. Now of course that's not to say that everyone who voted Labour or Tory agreed with every one of their policies, but neither is it for me, or Nick Clegg, or anyone to try and second guess exactly what a vote for Labour or Conservative meant on this issue.

Simply enough, if Nick wants to work for the good of the country rather than his party, then on this issue he should go with the people and, in negotiations with either of the other parties, drop any insistence on non-replacement of Trident.

And there's another issue on which 65% of the population were voted for parties which were in broad agreement - proportional representation. The Conservatives have always been implacably against PR, and Labour's suggestion of the Alternative Vote system is (as discussed previously on these pages) regarded by no one as having any resemblance to PR whatsoever (it would have increased Labour's parliamentary majority on the same popular vote in 2005). It may be the case that Labour has now undergone a death-bed conversion to PR, but that was after the people had voted. The 29% who did vote Labour, did so on the basis of a commitment not to introduce PR.

So on the issue of balancing 'the national interest' against 'narrow, party political advantage' is would seem that the Liberal Democrats must drop PR from any list of demands they make in negotiations with either party. In terms of the nation, 65% seem not to want it. In terms of party politics, well, who really benefits?

Monday 26 April 2010

The Case for DR

To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and to the Liberal Democrats, every problem looks like one that can be solved by proportional representation.

The problem that's troubling us all at the moment is the prospect that, based on current opinion polls, Labour could come third in the popular vote but still be the largest party in the Commons and thus could form a government with the support of minor parties, most likely the Lib Dems.

Would proportional representation solve this problem? Well, it would mean that if Labour came third in the popular vote, it would come third in the number of MPs, but that would make little difference as to whether Labour and the Lib Dems could ally and form a government. There would be a different balance within that alliance, but it would still be an alliance of parties neither of which had come first in the popular vote - a result in which none of the electorate gets the result they voted for. PR is not a solution to the current problem.

What we need is to introduce disproportional representation - a system where whichever party gets the highest proportion of the popular vote, regardless of how small the margin, gets given enough seats to form a majority government, thus giving the maximum possible number of voters the result they wanted. The problem then is that the result is the same regardless of the size of the majority. One solution would be that the size of the majority determines how long it is to the next general election - say between two and five years.

Now I admit that this isn't a perfect solution, nor indeed a very thoroughly thought through one (you should hear some of my ideas on organizing Formula One Saturday qualifying), but at least it tries to address the problem we have, rather than being a simple knee-jerk shout of 'PR' regardless of the problem that the electoral system actually faces.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Marathon (and Zeno) Debrief

The news you're all waiting to hear is that I completed the Brighton Marathon in 4 hours 12 minutes 43 seconds.

But I know you're not really interested in how quickly I ran the marathon but, as I asked in an earlier post, what was the distance?

Despite not being able to post diagrams, I suspect Katie had the answer to the question posed (as I guessed she would before I even posted).

The answer is that Mr Tortoise, the slower runner, records the further distance on his GPS.

Suppose the following is the actual route that both runners take on a small fragment of the course. It's a sharp bend, to make things clearer, but the same principals would apply to any bend in the route. (Click the diagrams to enlarge.)
Now Mr Tortoise will complete this section in twice the time of Mr Hare. Given that their GPSs both sample their position once a second, that means Mr Tortoise will have twice as many samples (shown as red crosses) as Mr Hare (green circles).
Given these samples locations, calculation of the actual route taken is done by joining up these locations as shown.
(Note that it's an assumption that the GPS software joins the dot's as straight lines. Conceivably, a much more complex algorithm could be used.)

Clearly the red (Mr Tortoise's) route is going to be longer than Mr Hare's, regardless of the nature of the bend. The only circumstances when this is not the case will be on a straight line, where the intermediate red cross will lie on the green line and the distances will be the same.

So on a perfectly straight route, the total distance will be the same, but if there are any bends at all, the slower runner will always record the further distance.

And of course, both recorded distances will be less than the true route, represented by the black curve.

Which leads me to be puzzled as to why, at the Brighton Marathon, my GPS recorded a distance of 26.41 miles, when an official marathon is only 26.22 miles. Worth further sponsorship, surely?

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Zeno’s Paradox Revisited

Two runners, Mr Hare and Mr Tortoise, run a marathon. Mr Hare is faster and completes the course in, let's say, three hours, whereas Mr Tortoise takes six hours.

Each of them wears an identical GPS running watch, which samples the runner's location once every second and uses the information to calculate speed and distance travelled.

The marathon follows a typical street circuit and each of the two runners follows exactly the same path, without cutting any corners or taking any shortcuts.

The question is, at the end of the race, which of Mr Hare and Mr Tortoise is likely to have travelled the furthest distance according to his GPS watch?

If you have a solution, post it as a comment, showing your working. (Note there are no tricks in this, it's purely an issue of mathematics, or possibly physics.)

I'll be posting my solution after the Brighton Marathon on Sunday April 18th, for which you can still sponsor me at I hope that my time will lie somewhere between those of Messrs Tortoise and Hare.

Monday 22 March 2010

Ding! Ding! Round Two.

Twelve is through to the second round of the BSC Review Tournament, and up against The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick. Vote at BSC Review.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

My New Novel’s Out Tomorrow – Don’t Buy It!

That’s right. If you only do one thing tomorrow, make sure that thing is NOT the purchase of my latest novel Thirteen Years Later, released in the UK on Thursday March 18th 2010.

Instead, visit the Fourth Annual BSC Review Book Tournament and vote for my first novel, Twelve.

The tournament works as a knock-out, with the sixty-four initial contenders being whittled down round by round to a single winner. In the first round Twelve is pitted against Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire. The voting period for this round is limited, opening in the morning of March 18th and closing at 8pm EST (midnight GMT) on the 19th. Subsequent rounds of voting follow soon after, so I’ll keep you posted.

Of course, if you can manage to do two things on Thursday, then I’d be delighted if the second one is to buy a shiny new copy of Thirteen Years Later. Otherwise, I’m quite happy if you leave that until the weekend. Early Saturday morning is probably a good time.

Sunday 28 February 2010

No Seax Please, We’re Canadian

As part of a recent redesign of my website I've added a number of Wordles to illustrate the text of the excerpts from my novels. If you want to create your own Wordle, click here, but suffice it to say you can design your Wordle using one of a selection of fonts, that Wordles are very popular with teachers trying to get their students interested in language, and that the site has a comprehensive FAQ section.

Hence the following somewhat entertaining FAQ and answer:

Could you remove or change the name of the "Sexsmith" font? I don't want my students to see it.

Yes, with pleasure. First, please write to the musician Ron Sexsmith, after whom the font is named, and get him to change his name. You may also want to write to Sexsmith, Alberta, Canada, and see if you can get them to change their name before any of your students inadvertently consult a map. Christian rocker Paula Sexsmith ought to be in your sights as well; don't let her feel left out. Take a slapshot at goalie Tyson Sexsmith, while you're at it.

"Sexsmith" is a common surname and placename, especially in Canada. It's analogous to "Shoemaker", "Fletcher", or just plain "Smith"; it's a profession. A "seax smith" was someone who made seaxes.

The place-names Middlesex, Essex, Sussex, etc., all derive their names from the seax.

If the children of Boston and its suburbs can grow up in Middlesex county, perhaps giggling occasionally at the mention of the sheriff or courthouse thereof in local news broadcasts or 5th-grade geography lessons, then I believe that the children of the world can weather the mere sight of those letters, in that context. Good luck!

Friday 1 January 2010

More 2009 Lists

Following on from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist 'Hotties', a few more 2009 round-ups have been posted. Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews puts Twelve at number 4 in its top 10, Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic puts it at 8 in his list of 'mainstream' favourites and Speculative Horizons has it in the Top 5 (in no particular order).