On The Other Side (or too much of the wrong Sci-Fi)

You know you’re not getting enough Sci-Fi TV when you start thinking the Twelve Monkeys spin-off is quite good.

When I was a teenager growing up on the other side of the planet, I used to feel completely cut off from everything that was cool because I had no virtually no access to the music scene in London.  I felt as if everyone in London was having a marvellous time because they could go and see Joy Division whenever they wanted to, or Nick Cave or Echo & the Bunnymen or the Fall or the Jam or Siouxsie or the Cure of about a zillion other bands I was wild about in my latter teens.

Eventually I did get to London when I was twenty and was plunged into a life of sheer utter suicidal misery and poverty and bewilderment, in which I was even more cut off from the universe than I had been before.  It took another twenty years before I could even begin to revel in my weirdness and could being to experience some relief that the reason I was “cut off” was because I was too fiercely individual, never part of a crowd, never agreeing with anyone about anything.  Now that I’m older and wiser, the “cut off” feelings I’ve discovered are actually about uniqueness.  Obviously this is delightful now.  It wasn’t then.

However:  Sci-Fi.  It’s all on bloody Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky Atlantic or whatever other pay-channel thing that exists.  I’ve only ever been able to afford the very cheapest Virgin package.  In the beginning, the package didn’t have the Sci-Fi Channel (now called, peculiarly, SyFy)(no, it’s not cool).  Now that I’ve got SyFy, it’s to find it’s a bit crap.  So I wished I had the Fox channel instead (mostly because ITV dumped Dexter after the 2nd series and I never got to see the rest).  When I finally did get Fox, now part of the cheapie package, it had, of course, gone a bit crap as well.

So every month when my SFX mag turns up, it discusses TV shows I’ve (a) never heard of (b) will never see or (c) don’t actually care about.  It’s true that there are immensely popular things that I really don’t give a single thought to, such as the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and anything that is a comic spin-off.  What does that leave me with?  What are all these fab shows I’m missing?  I became convinced that, as I paged through one glossy article after another, that I was really missing out.  I was cut-off all over again because I couldn’t afford extra TV subs.  I MUST watch this stuff, I thought.  This is all Radical.  This is Now.  It’s Modern.  It’s what Sci-Fi is all about.  The crap I write is so out-of-date.  Maybe I should go out and buy all the box sets, I thought.  I should catch-up.  I should brush up on what’s Really Out There.  Maybe I should I get Netflix.  Or Amazon Prime.  If I don’t eat, I should be able to manage.

And then I took a step back and remembered that miserable, bewildered girl who came to London and drowned.  I remembered that nothing is ever as cool as you think it it.  The grass is never greener.  I might be the only person in the entire universe who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones (no Sky Atlantic on Virgin) and I don’t actually want to.  The real issue is not that I’m missing out but that I don’t like what passes for Sci-Fi these days.  There’s more of it than ever before and none of it truly appeals.  There’s more CGI and less innovation.  More violence and less story.  A lot of it is Earth based.  A lot of it is in  universe recognisably now.  Grim is big.  So is realism.  The characters are generally unlikeable with endless soap clashes, endless fighting, endless betrayals until you can see every plot coming at you with predictable weariness.

But is it that there is something wrong with the Sci-Fi or is it just this planet in general?  I’m not sure I can work this out.  I think I’ll just go on feeling cut-off instead.  And write what I like even though no-one else reads it.  And dream of the Exodus Sequence on TV.  Now there’s a show I’d watch.

 

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Proofreading ULTRA yet again

When you see an error in a book traditionally published, you think, oho – shit editor.  When you see an error in a book self-published by the author, you think, oho-ho-ho – shit author.  This is just horrible!

With the relaunch of ULTRA as A DOORWAY INTO ULTRA, the first thing I did was proofread the first paperback proof I ever received from Createspace.  Until now, all the proofing I’ve done has either been on my computer (where it’s easy to miss things) or on my Kindle (rather laborious to write down every error).  But in the old proof copy I had, I could scribble away in red ink as much as I liked.  What fun!  But, oh, horrors, some of those errors are terrible.  Really easy to miss when reading quickly and I imagine that most people do miss them.  However, since I’m know how annoyed I get if I come across too many errors in a book, I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel the same about mine!

New title (or more expanded), new cover (hopefully) and newly polished edition:  is it worth it?  Ultra is, so far, the only book I’ve self-published that isn’t part of a series, so I tend to overlook it.  It was the first book I published, an experiment that required a huge learning curve, and one that filled me with doubts.  However, rereading it newly, years later, I’ve discovered that it’s actually quite good.  Not excellent but honestly, much better than a lot of dull garbage that comes my way.  Despite the fact that I wrote it AND I know what happens in it down to the last detail AND I’ve read it a zillion times before – I still found it quite a page turner!  If your own book still feels exciting after all those drafts and edits and hours spent proofing, then it can’t be half bad.  Which is a frightfully British way of saying, see here, this is quite good!

I’m currently fixing up the tiny (yet glaring) errors, doing three manuscripts at the same time so that I make the same decisions for all three.  This means my screen is full of three rather narrow documents in rather small font, which is hard going on the eyes.  It’s dog work and there’s been plenty of that in this self-publishing business – you just have to get on with it.

But it’s good not to have to feel slightly embarrassed by this book.  It means I can go ahead with the relaunch with some confidence.

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That blurred line between genres

I’m thinking of relaunching my book Ultra:  new title, new look, vastly improved paperback experience.  I had thought of changing the genre as well but then, by chance, saw a pie chart showing how different genres sell on Amazon.  Way over 50% went to Romance/Erotica, though it would have been much more interesting to see this properly split.  What surprised me, though, was that the slice for Science Fiction/Fantasy was greater than for Fiction.

I had considered changing Ultra’s genre to fiction, thinking it might appeal to a less specialised audience, but now I’m not so sure.  It isn’t a “proper” sci-fi book.  It starts off with a family drama feel and even stronger feelings of thriller-style unease as the reader is introduced to John Fox, the abductor.  But the solution is not general fiction.  It’s sci-fi.  I’m perfectly aware that the sci-fi genre is so vast it requires further sub-division but I can’t either find a sub-genre that fits.  It’s mostly mundane sci-fi but the resolution is hard sci-fi – though without the science.  It’s not soft sci-fi at all but it could be called existential.  Calling something existential probably doesn’t tell you enough about it, though.  I mean, all my work is existential.  I’m concerned about the downfall of man – but nothing I write could be called social or anthropological sci-fi.

This blur of genre’s led to problems with my title.  If I wanted to categorise the novel as sci-fi, then it needed an appropriate title, although selecting the word “ultra” probably wasn’t the best idea as it has become REALLY overused.  It’s an important word within the context of the novel, though:  “ultra” is a thing, a place, a condition.  It has multiple definitions but isn’t an adjective.

Having toyed with the idea of relabeling Ultra as fiction, the new title I came up with was as bland as salt-free butter.  Another look at the novel and I decided to keep it as sci-fi and use the word “ultra” in a more interesting way.

Not being able to define your work is not a good start when it comes to selling it.  I can’t ask Amazon to please add a new sub-genre to their sci-fi selection, which means all my work invariably ends up as “general” sci-fi which sounds really boring.  Typing in “existential sci-fi” brings up lists of books which include the inevitable 1984, Solaris, Handmaid’s Tale and others that I have (mostly) read.  Interesting.  Except that Ultra is hardly in that class.  My latest novel, perhaps, but not this slight effort, my experiment in self-publishing.

Let’s go with lightweight existential science-fiction based fiction.

Snappy.

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The Dystopia that is London

Dystopia?  What dystopia?  Isn’t London fab?  Full of interesting stuff and people and food and people and things to look at and people and things to do and people.  It’s a holiday destination.  It’s an ancient city.  It’s vibrant and alive and, um (I’m really struggling here) and full of people and you can meet people and there are people everywhere, mostly eating food, it seems, because there are more food-related things in London than anywhere else in the universe.  Does that guy really sell all that paella every Saturday in the Brunswick Centre?  It’s enough for 400 people.  Do 400 people pass by his stall?  Yes, probably . . .

Dystopias are – broadly speaking – depicted as post-apocalyptic struggles to survive.  A big bad thing happens and the planetary population is cut down to a few million, rather than the seven billion who are all either eating too much or not getting anything to eat at all.  This – the big bad thing that destroys most of the population – is generally regarded as A Very Bad Thing Indeed.  All those dead people – well, yes, obviously it’s bad but having fewer people on this planet would solve an AWFUL lot of problems.  My futuristic idea (the one that was supposed to have happened by about 1991) was colonisation of the solar system.  We should already be living on the moon, Mars and several of the less interesting planetary moons (the ones that don’t spew volcanoes on a regular basis).  Instead of mobile phone technology, app creation and weird food combinations (no, I don’t want to eat fucking peas with my ice cream), inventors and creators should have been looking at alternate energy and rocket fuel (vacuum energy doesn’t take up much space, does it?) – and dome construction.  We’re going to need a lot of domes on those other worlds because it might take a bit of time to terraform all the poisonous stuff.

So the idea of less people on this planet is an appealing one for me, or the idea of living somewhere where there are fewer people.  I should just get out of London, I know, but I can’t afford it.  I arrived here 32 years ago (the anniversary is almost upon me) and the moment I crossed the M25 in a crapshit coach, the clang of prison bars sounded in my ears and I’ve not since been able to escape.  Trouble with my body (i.e. pain) has increased my paranoia to almost unmanageable levels so that I never go anywhere if I can help it.  That I can’t afford to is the main problem.  I’ve not managed to crawl out of writers’ poverty and after 32 years, the hope that I will has become laced with increasing terror that I won’t.  So, for now, I’m stuck here.  I can’t get out.  I can’t stand to go out and escaping into my writing only works if I’m actually writing.  Which, as a self-published writer, isn’t as often as I like because I’m usually doing those other things that self-published writers wish an agent/publisher/publicist/editor/accountant/assistant/secretary would do instead.

On the hottest day in London this year, it reached 35 degrees C (that’s in the nineties.)  On a beach, this is fab.  In London, you have to add the heat of the sidewalk that glares in your face and bakes all day until your feet burn even through your sweaty sandal soles.  You also have to add the humidity because there’s no such thing as “dry heat” in London.  It’s not true that it rains all the time in London, not in central London anyway.  Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been paying attention.  Last year it didn’t rain for 8 months.  Christmas was hotter than the following Easter.  Just to make a point.  Anyway, on the hottest day, I had to catch a tube.  I NEVER catch tubes.  I NEVER go on the underground if I can help it.  The heat.  The people.  Did I mention the heat.  And the people.  Don’t forget the people.  At rush hour, around five in the afternoon, I was in Euston station snail-walking with seven million people all trying to get through one single turnstile (the others were broken, duh, of course, what, you think things WORK in London?), then snail-crawling down one single escalator (the other one was broken, see note about things working in London) until I was virtually sobbing with the fucking nightmare of it all.  Not only was I being crushed physically, I felt as if my very being was being squeezed into lava.  My blood was made of chilli (this would explain why I can’t eat it).  My brain was molten.  Sweat ran from more pores than I knew I had.  I was breathing sulphur.

There were no seats on the train (you think fit young men are going to get up for half-fainting middle-aged old bags?) and the BO was at peak levels.  Yes, I know, I’m whinging about something that many, many before me have whinged about.  Many, many have written of the horrors of catching a tube at peak hours in summer.  What no one seems to realise, though, is that THIS is the definition of a dystopia.  Because it’s not life.  It’s not living.  It’s not even surviving.  All those screens and tablets and iThings and eWotsits and games and apps and blah-blahs – they were all invented to distract from the dystopian nightmare.  That’s what they’re for.  That’s why technology hasn’t gone in the right direction.  That’s why we are still here, terrified of bombs and mad fuckers shooting us and the train getting stuck in a tunnel until you think you’re just going to FUCKING SCREAM AND SCREAM AND SCREAM BECAUSE IF YOU DON’T GET OUT YOU’RE DOING TO DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE.

So it’s a vicious circle.  In order to survive being squeezed together with too many other people, one has to be hypnotised by one’s gadget.  And the creation of such gadgets is stifling our desire to escape.  Because why would anyone WANT to live in a soup of sweat?

I’m perfectly aware that there are other nightmare scenarios on this planet.  War zones, for example.  Horrific poverty and starvation and torture.  I know I’m lucky to be living in a relatively free civilised city.  That’s not the point I’m making.  The point is that the future is here.  The dystopia has arrived.  There wasn’t A Big Bad Thing.  There was just more and more and more.  And now we’ve got too much of everything which is slowly crushing us without us realising.  The end isn’t going to come on an asteroid with our name on it (the terror in Terra), but a slow, gruesome, grinding, grubbing towards death, the rich getting richer and stupider, the poor getting eviller.  For every moment of happiness, there are a thousand more that aren’t.  For every soul trying to do some good, there are a hundred thousand who aren’t.  At those odds, it’s easy for hope to run out.  And I think it already has.  It’s just that no one has noticed because the dystopia that is called London – that is called Earth – has been decorated with shiny things to distract us from the doom in which we live.

 

Personally, I’d like to live in a cave in the mountains with hot and cold running electricity and a huge bear at the entrance to keep away the infestations of inhumanity.  Or anywhere else that’s cold and empty.  Pluto, maybe.

 

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Book Review: The Abominable by Dan Simmons

Before I start this review, let me just say briefly: stick with it – this book explodes into life after a slow start.

I read this without having any idea what it was about, without seeing a blurb or any reviews. So I was rather disappointed to find that it was about mountain climbing. My most favourite sci fi book of all time is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, followed by The Fall of Hyperion, and it was only later that I realised he seems comfortable in any genre, particularly horror. I thought this was going to be about the abominable snowman, or yeti. But the slow-paced mountaineering stuff bored me to death and I ditched it before I’d reached page 30.

I gave it another go, starting from the beginning again, and got as far as page 50, teeth gritted. It was only on my third attempt, when I had absolutely nothing else to read and the idea of reading about snow and ice seemed attractive in the middle of a sweltering hot London, that I finally got going. There is a great deal of mountaineering stuff at first so that it feels like reading a textbook. Also, the scenes seem disjointed, lurching from one set piece to another. But I kept going. Dan Simmons is a good writer, very visual, and by hanging in there (er, on one of those magic ropes, perhaps), I found I couldn’t wait to read the next instalment and then realised, at last, that I was entranced.

Part Two sees our heroes on the foothills (though I use that word cautiously) of Mount Everest. By this time I was hooked on mountaineering. Everything I had “learnt” in the earlier chapters was now part of my vocabulary and I had no trouble following the action, despite not knowing a single thing about climbing very high mountains – except that it seems an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do and you’re quite likely to lose several fingers and toes while you’re about it.

And then suddenly, in Part Three, everything makes sense. All the plot strands that wandered off, all the mountaineering stuff you had to learn, everything you now knew about Everest – these were the puzzle pieces hiding a MUCH bigger story. Because I didn’t see the huge plot twist coming, I’m not even going to BREATHE what it’s about. I LOVED that I knew nothing. I LOVED the surprise – and the shock. The title suddenly makes much more sense too if you get as far as Part Three. The horror is much more subtle than the usual run-of-the-mill visceral horror stuff, which I loathe.

The ending might fall down a bit and be just a tad unbelievable, but it really doesn’t matter after the tremendous excitement on the steep slopes of Everest. I wish I’d had a map, though, of where the climbers were climbing. I would really have like to SEE the immensely difficult climbing they were doing. It says much about the book’s strength that I’m now wildly interested in adventure-type stories and want to rush off and read more. I’m not inspired to climb anything higher than a footstool but that’s not really the point – it’s a revelation to read a genre that I normally wouldn’t touch, considering it boring or boysie. It’s great to be proven wrong. I’m now going to read every Everest biography I can find!

The enclosed picture gives some idea of the climb, through this probably isn’t exactly the same route.

map-everest-north-col

I’ve read another excellent review of this book which describes in detail what it’s about – my review is mostly just an emotional response. You can read it here:

http://www.bevvincent.com/onyx/simmons-abominable.html

 

 

 

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Why is it so hard to write a book blurb?

Does it ever get easier to write a book blurb?  At some point, after you’ve battled day after day, does something suddenly go “ping” and you realise how to string the words together adequately?  I’ve just written nine new blurbs for each individual story in The Exodus Sequence.  Followed by a blurb for the Exodus Sequence collection.  And then three more new blurbs for each of the published novels in the Fleet Quintet.  That’s 13 blurbs in about a month.  And I think, finally, that I’m starting to get the idea how to put them together.  This doesn’t mean that I think my blurbs are brilliant because they aren’t – but they DO tell the reader what the books are about.  And isn’t that what a blurb is supposed to do?  You pick up a book, you glance at the back – so what’s this about then.  You glance at the first page – is this written in a style I could be bothered to read.  (This is after the cover was interesting enough for you to actually pick up the book in the first place…….)

My blurbs used to be extremely obtuse.    In too many of them, I tried to be clever.  I tried to snare the reader.  I played with words and punched out smart phrases.  I was mysterious.  I tried to make the books seem mysterious.  And esoteric.  And all that crap.  Then I read ten thousand blurbs for other books and researched what other people thought were good blurbs and finally – finally – I realised what it was all about.

If  you’re a famous writer, there’s hardly any blurb at all.  The books sells on the author’s name, not his work.  But if you’re not famous, then you have to sell the book.  You have to tell people what it’s about.  There’s no room for cleverness.

Compare these two blurbs for my novel V.GOMENZI:

ORIGINAL:

Who is Vincent Gomenzi?
How does he end up in Sistia Scarpora’s life four hundred years after trapping his brother on Nigel?
And how does he become involved with Recovery and Igen Dyce?
Third in the Fleet Quintet, V. Gomenzi traces the history of Recovery – from Nigel to Garanthal to Dragør Johnson.
It follows the Angel of Deadly Enlightenment – from its fall in the Garden of Truth to the last Fleet game.
And it reveals the truth about Vincent Gomenzi:
The vortex.
The Fleet machine city.
The First.
V. Gomenzi.
Mindwalker supreme.
Can evil develop a conscience?

NEW:

The Fleet must be stopped before everyone in the Sigma Sector disappears forever.

Vincent Gomenzi leaves Earth when he is sixteen, knowing that he can never mindwalk again.  The terrifying maw of the vortex waits for him if he tries to transfer out.  As the first mindwalker, Fleet personnel 1, he was once the most destructive force in the Sigma Sector …

Igen Dyce loses his fiancé to the Fleet.  A baseball star on Lomensis, he forms the Lomensii branch of Recovery, an underground organisation formed to rescue those lost to the Fleet.  When he meets the spectacular Sistia Scarpora, he hasn’t yet saved a single soul …

The Angel of Deadly Enlightenment tries to escape from the Garden of Truth but is doomed to return in every new cast.  When it finally works out what Truth is, the Fleet will be scarred for all eternity, the memory of their encounters setting in motion the downfall of the Sigma Sector …

From the freelance operative to the machine city, Vincent’s jump in time leads him to Recovery.  From the Garden of Truth to the Fleet installation, he learns the truth about what he has done.  And from the vortex to the stone angel, he has to undo the past to save the future …

The third novel in the Fleet Quintet, the three strands of V. GOMENZI cover the same time period as TRANSFERENCE and FLESH FOR SALE – reaching further into the future and far, far back into the past, almost to the beginning.

***

The new one is longer, perhaps a little duller, but you sure get a better idea of what you’re about to read.  Also, the three strands of the novel are clearly described to help the reader along.  I’d love to know what anyone thinks!

My new webpage for V.GOMENZI can be viewed HERE.

V.Gomezni

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What do you do when you’ve finished an enormous novel?

I finished my new novel mid-May and for a long time felt rather lost.  I write because I want to escape into a life that isn’t my own and with that escape gone, I had no idea what to do with myself.  Several months have gone by since then and all I’ve done is work-work-work, slog-slog-slog …….. and distantly dream of writing again, with vague ideas wandering into my mind – and just as quickly wandering out again because they aren’t that good. Though they don’t need to be:  I just need somewhere to go, even if it is only fantasy.

So I’ve been rewriting blurbs for my Exodus Sequence, all nine of them plus the collection.  I’m also rewriting the  blurbs for the Fleet Quintet.  I’ve also added Goodread author reviews and updated the covers, a laborious process.  Each story has been republished with the improved covers, all (hopefully) errors removed and clearer formatting.  I’ve also been working my fingers to the bone on my website, adding many new pages (one for each Exodus story) and deleting the useless ones.  There are links galore and I’ve gone beserk on buttons.  I’ve even changed this blog, though I don’t seem to come here that often any more and never had the courage before to ditch the old theme.  Hopefully the new one is much brighter and cleaner looking.

Aside from all this “career admin” stuff, I’m also spring-cleaning my flat, painting ceilings, hoovering in corners I had forgotten existed and going to my day-job each day, which recently has begun to plunge me into a desperate kind of depression.  All this is pretty dreary.  It’s just slogging, trying to get through the summer, a season I utterly loathe in London.

So if you see me trudging around Tavistock Square, listening to the Bladerunner soundtrack for the zillionth time (comfort-music), no doubt limping because some part of my body is usually sore – that would be my daily half hour of escape.  That’s when I dream about the stories I wish I was writing, even if they’re terrible.  I’d rather be writing rubbish than doing admin.  I wasn’t cut out for this.  I was only ever a dreamer.

Check out my new look website:  www.susannahjbell.com

 

 

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