Saturday, 3 March 2012

The last post (probably)



According to my stats, this is blog 188, according to Blogspot’s it’s 185. Doesn’t matter, though, because it’s (probably) the last one here. For the record, I think blogspot's a great place to have a blog - very quick and easy to use and demanding nothing in the way of expertise with codes, programming or any of those other terrifying skills which seem accessible to 7 year olds but not to me. In case you didn’t know, my reason for moving is that I’ve got a new website and I’ve attached my blog to it. It seemed to make sense at the time. So, if you’d like to see more of the living, writing and other stuff I muse over and you haven’t yet visited the new place, it’s here. Thanks for all the comments. I hope you'll keep on making them.


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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Surprise! Aliens that aren’t humanoid.



A welcome visit from another guest blogger, my friend and fellow Pfoxmoor author, Greta van der Rol. I first came across her through her historical novel, Die a Dry Death. It’s a reimagining of an actual historical event and I found it completely absorbing. Since then, she’s produced many fine books, in a totally different genre. She says she loves writing ‘science fiction with a large dollop of good old, healthy romance’. Mind you, with a degree in history and a background in building information systems, perhaps her straddling of the genres isn’t so surprising. She lives not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia, where she takes great photographs and she’s apparently an excellent cook. This is part of her blog tour to celebrate the release of Starheart and, as part of it, she’ll be giving a $25 Amazon gift voucher to one person who leaves a comment on any of the blogs she’s visiting until 10th March. So leave her a note and that could be you.
It’s all yours, Greta.

Thanks for hosting me, Bill. I’m very grateful.

I’m here to talk about my new novel, Starheart, which is science fiction with a slurp of romance. Don’t let that put you off, though. You’ll find a slurp of romance in Doctor Zhivago, War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and some people quite enjoyed those.

During this blog tour, I’ve mentioned the story is set in the same universe as my two ‘Iron Admiral’ books but I’m given to understand that not everybody has read those, so I’d better introduce you to the aliens in the novels – the ptorix.

When I first dreamed up the ptorix, I was determined that my aliens were NOT going to be humanoid. To me, the probability of encountering another sentient species that looks like us is so far off the scale it’s come around the other side. On the other hand, I believe that if we are ever to be in conflict with another species, it has to be for a reason, such as we live on the same type of planet. I mean, why on Earth (pun intended) would some blob that lives in a gas giant want to come here? We’ll leave out how. Moreover, the species in my story would have to be not just intelligent but technologically advanced in order to build space ships. Whales and dolphins are intelligent but apart from anything else, they don’t have the physiology to manipulate building materials even if they wanted to. My aliens therefore have manual dexterity, even if they don’t have ‘fingers’. Enough of the theory – meet the ptorix.

Ptorix are essentially conical in shape, something they exaggerate with their clothing. They have no neck and the head ends in a dome. The body is covered in short blue fur. Their four arms end in a number of tentacles which can be deployed in a variety of ways. Think of a sea anemone and you’ve about got it right. They have four short legs but these are usually hidden beneath their robes. Three eyes which change colour according to mood are located almost equidistant around the top of the head, enabling a ptorix to see almost the whole way around its body without moving. They have two ‘mouths’, one – resembling a proboscis – for eating, the other for breathing and speaking. So from a human viewpoint, they’re pretty weird.

Now let’s go and talk to Professor Xanthor, who holds the chair of human-ptorix studies at  Shernish University on Carnessa. He plays a small, but important role in the Iron Admiral books. He has agreed to tell us a little about the background of the ptorix.

I found him in his study, resting on a platform at his desk (the ptorix don’t sit down). Eyes swirling orange, tentacles moving gently, he welcomed me in and directed me to a human chair. Note: the eye colour depends on the frequency of the radiation they emit – so red, being a longer frequency, is total calm, whereas violet indicates anger.

Good morning, Professor. Thanks so much for your time.
My pleasure, Greta. It is always nice to communicate peacefully with humans.

I appreciate that the ptorix have spread from their Galactic arm throughout much of the Galaxy. But do you know which world they originally came from?
Well now. The original home of the ptorix is lost in time. It has taken the Khophirate, what you call an Empire, many thousands of years to expand to its greatest extent – and, as you know, to contract to its current size.  But there is speculation, of course. For your audience, suffice to say it was a planet like this one – suitable for you humans as well as ptorix, with water, similar air and gravity and so on.

What can you tell me about your very early ancestors?
Oh, I think just looking at us will give some answers. The ptorix were originally prey animals. This is why we have such wonderful eyesight. We can see anything around us unless it is directly behind us and we see much more of the light spectrum than you do.

So what changed?
How did we become dominant? (His tentacles lashed a little and his eyes swirled through yellow and green – thoughtful) We had the advantage of a large brain, which we needed to process the image from our eyes. And we had our tentacles. We could make weapons at first to defend ourselves from the predators and later to kill other animals for food. We found, too, that living in cooperative family groups made us more powerful, even against the largest predator.

We had always been scavengers, living on the remains of flesh killed by others. (He rubbed at his proboscis) We ptorix find it strange that humans eat solid flesh. Please forgive me. We find it disgusting and so inefficient. We wait until the flesh has softened enough for us to suck up the nutrients. Of course, this is done with chemical additives, now. Only the best restaurants let the flesh putrefy of its own accord.
However, we were nothing if not adaptable. We learned to find other foods, modify our diet for different environments and eventually, different worlds.

But back to our ancestors on their first world. Soon enough, they ran out of natural caves to live in and were forced to build new dwellings. Even now, after all these centuries, we build homes that look like caves. (He waved an arm, taking in the curved walls of his office, the eye-watering decorations and the stalactite-like embellishments in the ceiling which emitted soft light).

I thanked Professor Xanthor for his time and went home to write this. So there you have it. Aliens need not be humanoid.

You can find out more about Starheart on Amazon here

I’ll be at another friend's blog on 5th March to tell you about the sparks that fly between Jess and the Admiral, the main characters in the book.



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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Farewell to Blogspot – well, nearly


OK, this is almost the last blogspot blog. Not because I’m stopping, but because, thanks to Anneke, I have a new website and I’ll be blogging there from now on. But there’ll be a grand finale here too because, on March 1st, I’m hosting my friend, the versatile Greta van der Rol, on one of her blog tour stops. It’ll also stay open because the 180-odd postings here may still be of interest to forensic psychiatrists and/or students of the absurd.

It started on March 18th 2009 and, despite calling the first entry ‘Dipping a toe into the existential water’ (and thereby alienating trillions of potential readers), I did get some followers. Which is more than can be said for the new one where, at the moment, sitting forlornly at the top of the page is a nearly empty box which should be filled with all your grinning countenances and/or avatars.

So this admirably short posting is here for just one reason, to beg, beseech, implore, cajole and entreat you to visit the new site and, even if you’re only pretending, join me (and the badger) there.



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Friday, 24 February 2012

A miscellaneous medley of patchwork pot-pourris


The title is merely following the modern political and commercial impulse to generate words which imply but simultaneously evacuate meaning. So …

Four excuses for the gap since the last post:
  • Family visits.
  • I’m doing another ‘Brilliant’ book for Pearson Education. This time it’s Academic Writing, so it’ll simply be borrowings from a couple of the other books and writing new introduction, conclusion and linking materials.
  • Under the usual, generous direction of Anneke Klein, I’m making a new website, partly to use the header above instead of having the current looming head at the top of each page, but also to make it easier for me to add and delete stuff when I want without having to impose on Anneke every time. It'll also mean migrating this blog to the new site and (doubtless), losing both my followers in the process.
  • My perennial laziness (and, speaking of laziness, whatever happened to my brother Ron?).

Of course, there’s also the fact that I have nothing much to say. I’ve just done a highly enjoyable, very interesting interview with Sara Bain. You can see it hereSara is a journalist who gives so much time to others that she doesn’t leave enough for her own writing. She also has a way of framing questions that produces answers which take you into areas you hadn’t anticipated. If you want to learn about your characters (and yourself) a Sara Bain interview is the route to take.

What else? Well, the interview was timed to coincide with the release of the fifth Jack Carston novel, Unsafe Acts, and Sara’s questions about how I ‘met’ Carston and how he’d developed made me focus on something I already knew – he’s changed quite a lot. Or maybe he’s allowed more aspects of his personality to appear. I spoke about this in the interview so I won’t go over the ground again here, but my suspicion is that the next in the series will be the last and I’m toying with the idea of it being narrated by Carston himself.

And one final thing to confirm forever my bafflement at the whole world of publishing (as if such confirmation were needed). This is for those of you who seek value in books. You’ll remember that The Sparrow Conundrum won an award, but maybe there are two versions of it in circulation because I notice that, while the paperback still costs $10.99 on Amazon USA, you can actually buy – from the same site, 12 new copies priced from $9.15 to $39.17.

The same division between cheap crap and quality literature is evident on the Amazon UK site too, where The Figurehead, new from Amazon, will set you back £8.88 but its obviously far superior used doppelganger will cost you £39.92.

Best of all, though, are the two versions of The Darkness. Now I think it’s pretty good – but then I wrote it, so I would, wouldn’t I? But I obviously didn’t realise just how good it was. Amazon seems to have been priced out of the market because, on its site, used copies are available at prices ranging from $98.53 (yes, almost the magic $100) to (and I swear this is true because I checked it again and again) $250.80.

So if anyone reading this was thinking of buying the $250.80 copy, I have few here I’d happily let you have for just $250 each, with free postage.


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Sunday, 5 February 2012

SALE!!!! Everything (i.e. 1 item) must go!!!


A few years back, I joined Second Life™ (known to residents as SL), to do some research on a short story I was writing. It’s a fascinating, addictive place and I made friends there whom I’d never have met under normal circumstances. It’s a place where you can indulge all sorts of fantasies and, indeed, there are stories of people who have more or less opted out of their Real Life, which is the term used there, and prefer to live, interact, and even worship in the virtual world. In times of austerity, the ability to build yourself a vast home in a fantastical location of your choosing, fly through the air and be perpetually young and attractive (or be a dragon, unicorn or mouse if you prefer) has obvious appeal. It’s very liberating but the loosening of inhibitions can also be dangerous.

In the end, I left because it was taking up too much of my time. But while I was there, I was involved in various writing groups which were very stimulating and which caused me to write some stories which would never have occurred to me if I hadn’t experienced that mingling of the real and the virtual. A few months ago, I put some of them together and it was clear that the real/virtual theme was strong in nearly all of them. There was also the fact that the coexistence of 2 ‘realities’ is the perfect situation for humour, since laughter depends a lot on the unexpected.

So?

Well, it didn’t take much to write a narrative strand that let me put them into a sequence which offered a sort of development to a conclusion. I’m not claiming great things of it – some of the stories are sad, some funny, some satirical, some absurd, some just rude –  but the one thread running through them all is that strange virtual/real dynamic. And they make up a novella. I wouldn’t want to risk offending the people at Second Life ™, whose creation really is remarkable, so the stories take place in a game called Alternative Dimension – a game which does the same sort of things but is by no means a replica of SL.

And the reason I’m telling you this is because, for this weekend only on Amazon, it’s free. Naturally enough, the title is Alternative Dimension and it’s written by my avatar, Jack Lefebre. (Actually my avatar had a ‘v’ in his name, too, but there are already writers called Jack Lefebvre and I didn’t want to offend them.)

It won’t take a minute to log on, ‘buy’ it and, if you’re like me, store it with all the other freebies you’ve downloaded and forgotten about. It’s at http://amzn.to/zvutuc for the USA and http://amzn.to/yt6Mno for the UK



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Sunday, 29 January 2012

A scientific interlude


Away from the usual self-advertising and PR plugs for a change. Two items I read recently – one on a website, the other in The Observer – set up some scientific musings. Science to me usually means fascinating things which I don’t understand, but it often leads to trains of thought I wouldn’t otherwise have.

The first item was about chromosomes. I know, of course, that they’re made of DNA and proteins and carry our genes. When I checked Wikipedia, there was stuff about regulatory elements, nucleotide sequences, eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells as well, but (as they keep saying in the film Airplane), that’s not important right now. What is important is that we (humans) have 46 of them. But – and this is the interesting bit – it’s also possible that we have 48. And why is that interesting? Well, we all know that chimpanzees also have 48, but – and this time it really is the interesting bit – so do potatoes.

In the evolutionary ladder, therefore, we are on a par with potatoes. (The temptation at this point is to digress into the class structure implicit in varieties such as King Edward, Belle de Fontenay, Duke of York and Saxon. Instead, I’ll just point you to the admirable website http://www.lovepotatoes.co.uk/.)

The second piece of science, however, offers hope that such parity will soon change because stem cell researchers in Edinburgh have succeeded in cultivating new brain cells. Not by sucking out real brain cells and prodding them, or from the practice of using bits of embryos, which upsets so many people who think only God should do that. No, instead they've done stuff with skin cells. (‘Prodding’ and ‘done stuff with’ are scientific terms.) Thus, we can look forward to a future in which our descendants are clothed not in skin but in brains, which will give us a clear edge over our potato cousins who, even if they did manage to follow our evolutionary lead, would still get peeled and thereby lose their powers of ratiocination.

To some of you, this may seem a frivolous misuse and indeed misappropriation of important scientific advances, but I take my lead from one of the greats of British comedy, Tommy Cooper, whose use of statistics was exemplary. He once revealed the following:

“Apparently, one in five people in the world are Chinese. There are five people in my family, so it must be one of them. It’s either my mum or my dad, my older brother Colin, or my younger brother Ho-Cha-Chu.
...
I think it’s Colin.”


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Monday, 23 January 2012

Unsafe Acts


One of my claims to fame (he says, as if there were several) is that I earned an acknowledgement in Ian Rankin’s dagger prize winning novel Black and Blue. Members of the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association are asked to list any areas of ‘special expertise’ so that fellow members can contact them if they need information on different topics. I’ve written countless videos and DVDs  about offshore safety as well as actual safety induction programmes, so that was one of my ‘specialisations’. In Black and Blue, Rebus had to make a trip to an offshore platform and Ian wrote to ask what sort of thing that involved for a ‘visitor’. I wrote back and thereby got myself a mention.

So, apart from name-dropping, why am I writing this? Because, on the 15th of next month, Unsafe Acts, the 5th novel in my Jack Carston series, will be published and, as the cover image and the title suggest, it involves an offshore platform and safety. It also involves some reflections on homophobia and how, even in the 21st century, that’s still a problem.

It’s been through several drafts and, as I was reading the proofs, I again got the strange feeling that, while I knew I’d written it and my name’s on the cover, it was hard to remember how it happened. When something’s out there as a self-contained thing – whether in tangible form as a paperback or in the same completeness as an ebook – it somehow seems instantaneous. The book has become a fact. When you’re writing, you’re always poised on the edge of wondering what the characters are going to do, where they’re going to go. The process is one of ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. So for me the writer, Unsafe Acts was a succession of instants which eventually stopped. But for me the reader, it’s a complete, set thing with its own internal logic and a journey which has only one path. I suppose for readers coming fresh to it, the uncertainties are still there because they don’t know where the characters will take them until they’ve arrived.

The other question you sometimes ask yourself, when you’re reading a novel you’ve written, is the one that most writers hate: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ And again, it’s often difficult to answer. With Unsafe Acts, I know that the seed was sown in a casual remark from a friend, Mike Lloyd-Wiggins, who said one day ‘You ought to write about an offshore platform. There’s plenty of stuff going on out there.’ (This was the same friend who also said, a few years ago ‘You ought to write a story about a figurehead carver’. So thanks, Mike.) But that’s just the seed. When you see the dense vegetation that’s grown from it (I know, crap metaphor, but I’m lazy) you really do wonder where all these people were hiding, what made them appear. Where did they get their attitudes?

One other interesting thing about this book (for me anyway) is that it’s a different Jack Carston from the one I first met when I wrote Material Evidence. Of course, I’m different now from the person I was then but I don’t think that means we’ve followed the same path. He now seems so fed up with the hoops he has to jump through to satisfy his superiors and tick the right administrative boxes (what a field day these crap – and now mixed, too – metaphors are getting), that I really wonder whether the next book will find him leaving the job altogether.

Anyway, forget the Jubilee (definitely) and the London Olympics, the date for your diary is the day after Valentine’s Day.


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