The Breach cover

Here’s designer Julia Lloyd’s genius cover for The Breach, published March 17th 2020. It captures so much of the book in one strange, haunting image, and I bloody love it.

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As this novel has at least one hand reaching for horror, the official reveal was over at Ginger Nuts of Horror, where there’s also a short excerpt. Check that out here.

Perennial update

The Breach, or the novel that very nearly did me in, is structurally edited and back for copy edits at Titan. It’ll be out in March 2020, and a cover design will follow soon.

I’m beavering away on the next thing, working title Mothertown. It’s a maddening experience, and I’m enjoying it. That’s masochism for you.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be at Edge-Lit 6 in Derby, where I’m interviewing guest of honour Anne Charnock about her work. I think the world of Anne and I love her stuff, so it’s an honour to have been asked. On top of that, Edge-Lit has a keen focus on genre writing craft, in a single concentrated day of goodness – bag yourself a ticket!

Lastly, and definitely not leastly, our second son was born a couple of weeks ago. We couldn’t be more proud, or more grateful to the midwives and doctors who delivered him while keeping Suze safe. He’s a belter, but the jury’s out on whether he’ll be ginger.

Recent entertainment

Paternity leave gave me a good excuse to finally finish Tim Major’s excellent Snakeskins. It’s set in a stunted, parochial alt-UK in which a group of people called Charmers renew themselves in a process called ‘shedding’, which briefly creates a clone. This marvellous (and bonkers) idea is fully explored and, pleasingly, played straight. It’s been compared to Wyndham, and with good reason: the book has a strange, timeless quality, in part owing to its setting, but also because Tim brings real humanity to characters that in different hands might fall flat in the face of such a strong concept.

Vicki Jarrett’s Always North is published by Unsung Stories this October. I read an advance copy of this one, and I’m so chuffed I did – it’s a wonderful, beautifully written novel you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for. Here’s my take: Told in glowing prose, Always North confronts the oncoming future with power, wit and originality. Come for the intrigue of a mission into the changing Arctic; stay for the ingenious shift to an England shattered by rising water. It will mesmerise you.

I’m also about two-thirds through Widow’s Welcome by D.K. Fields. I’m the first to admit I’m not much of a fantasy reader – but here’s a book that’s doing very interesting things with form and approach, with a properly intriguing crime hook. Stories within stories, political games and deceit, served in a buttery style.

Next up I’ve got Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc (aka Zinky Boys), an oral history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin, which I want to read before the Clarke Award is announced (and Aliya hopefully wins).

(On the Alexievich theme, the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl needs no more praise but deserves it anyway. Properly magnificent stuff.)

‘How’s your book going?’

This usually means, ‘How may copies has the book sold, and are you rich now?’ To which the answer is always, ‘I don’t know yet, and I’ll never be rich writing the weird shit I keep writing.’ But here’s the answer I prefer to give: I’m incredibly grateful for Zero Bomb’s readers and the responses it’s had – including my very first national press review in the Guardian. It was a project that mattered a lot when I was writing it, and the Titan team have done an amazing job getting it out there. Vainly, I’ve collated its reviews on this page.

William Gibson writes of not really knowing what his books are about until people start reading them. By way of categorisation, ‘post-Brexit dystopia’ seems to be the way in for Zero Bomb, and it’s been gratifying to see people engage with some of the stuff that drove it – the ongoing devastation of austerity; the UK’s slide down a dehumanising gig-economy hole; 2016’s toxic EU referendum and its resulting chaos; our rotten and recursive news cycle; the absolute state of the psychopaths who run this country.

Semi-autonomous drone-foxes aside, I still see most of the book’s setting as probable – not least because simple projections will carry you a long way into grim territory. I got into some more of that in two interviews during promo season – you can read them here and here.

A bit of fretting

It should go without saying that I’m privileged to be published, to find readers, to earn a little money from the process. In fact I’m lucky to be able to write fiction at all – spare time being the truest luxury in this world. But I want to be honest about self-promotion. There are certain expectations that go with the book-writing territory (albeit some imagined or exacerbated by anxious thinking), and one of those is that I will push my work and help to justify my editors and publishers’ faith in it. Six years after my first publication, I’m still working out what feels comfortable, as opposed to what feels plain gross or performative. Something about the tension between writing as expression and book as commodity. In the simplest terms, I’m squeamish about finding ways to condense 70,000 words into a snappy, snackable, shareable one-liner, never mind having the balls to ask for someone to part ways with their cash. So while I’m happy and proud to announce my work, to share reviews (cough), and of course to be read, there’s no getting away from the fact the promotional game has been highly/callously optimised, and you have to play along. And it doesn’t always sit right.

This feeling links in to why I’m ever-more skeptical about posting word counts or any kind of writing ‘productivity’ metrics, and why I distrust anything that tries to quantify a form that should resist quantification by default. When, idly vanity-searching one day (cough), you discover a team of researchers is using a system to analyse novels’ ‘emotional story arcs’, based on the words contained in them, you have to wonder. Word counts, data ‘insights’, targets, clickbait, pleading for retweets… besides meeting deadlines and/or your own satisfaction, what does this kind of weird competitive economy do to fiction?

Maybe it’s my day job as a copywriter fuelling this – there’s only so many times you can hear writing called ‘content’ before you want to boil your own head – but creating stuff inside capitalism is a topic I find both compelling and uncomfortable. It’s also one I intend to try and do something with in the next couple of years.

Until next time!

Zero Bomb’s away

Zero Bomb is published today by the lovely crew at Titan Books, and is now available in all your favourite places.

It’s a book I didn’t quite see coming: I started writing it in January 2017 and finished the first draft late that summer – pretty fast by my usual standards. But the real writing comes in editing, and it was only ready for initial submission as a novel called Automatic England about five months and two extra drafts after that. Just over a year later, and here, somehow, we are. It’s a beautifully made thing – including that genius art by Julia Lloyd – with a set of blurbs I’m still pinching myself over. As ever, there’s a weird sense of exposure, excitement and anxiety. Most of all, though, I feel privileged and immensely grateful to everyone involved. I hope people like it.

Looking ahead, I’ll be at Eastercon in Heathrow over the Easter weekend, and in Derby for Edge-Lit in July. Then, in August, I’m hopping over to Dublin for my very first Worldcon – assuming it’s still possible to leave the country.

For more about Zero Bomb, head over here.

Zero Bomb and The Breach to Titan Books

Massively excited to write that Titan Books have acquired my next two novels for UK/US publication in 2019 and 2020.

Zero Bomb (March 2019) is a paranoid near-future SF mystery set between London, Birmingham and the fringes of Manchester. It concerns ‘news trauma’, neo-Luddite terrorism, crap parenting, ‘70s British SF and a very strange fox.

There’s a cover reveal and short extract from Zero Bomb up at Tor.com here.

The Breach, meanwhile, is my take on a first-contact story. It’s about a local journalist investigating the death of a climber, and a trainee steeplejack with an unhealthy interest in urban exploration. Fairies, body horror, a massive space elevator scam, completely made-up fall arrest technology… and other fun stuff.

Both books share a fictional northern town called Dillock (which happily rhymes with pillock), but they’re otherwise standalone, and don’t have anything to do with my first two.

They’re also going to be published under a new pen name: M.T. Hill.

Hoping to share more soon, but for now I’m feeling excited and very fortunate to be joining Titan’s list.

End state

2017. A small country, seized by nostalgia for a country that never actually existed to start with, begins to implode…

My writing year peaked early with my trip to Seattle for Norwescon 40 and the Philip K. Dick Awards ceremony. Fittingly, science fiction conventions always have something of the slipstream about them. As Claudia Casper points out in her own excellent write-up, you exist, for a few days at least, in a sort of pocket universe – in this case a very beige airport hotel – into which a hundred different fandoms are squashed. And then you go home again, unsure about exactly what happened, but weirdly relieved it did.

From the moment I landed in Seattle, I was brilliantly well looked after by the convention staff and Angry Robot crew, and felt super grateful to be nominated and there at all. Highlights include signing the back of a Kindle for a woman dressed as a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who; joining the ‘League of Extraordinary Redheads’ (thank you, Lisa M); doing a panel alongside Possibly the World’s Loveliest Man, Ethan Siegel; and walking for miles to marvel at downtown Seattle.

Congratulations again to the wonderful Claudia Casper, whose novel The Mercy Journals took home the prize. Here are the four (of six) of us that made it, looking… writerly? From left to right, winner Claudia Casper, some tosser, Kristy Acevedo, and special citation winner Susan diRende. (Photo by William Sadorus.)

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What else? Well, I spent the rest of the year writing a short novel to make two drafted since Graft, and (re)learned five important rules for the game. Namely:

  1. Publishing is weird
  2. Really, really weird
  3. The only thing you can control is your writing
  4. So if you’re on sub, or waiting on news, keep writing
  5. Also, a watched inbox never dings

Elsewhere, and between dadding, working, editing and writing (and playing Titanfall 2, the best multiplayer game ever made), I didn’t make enough time to read everything I planned to. Here are my four favourites of the books I did get to:

Sarah Hall’s new collection Madame Zero enthralled as much as it unsettled. She writes a kind of subtle horror, which, like Alison Moore’s, gets under my skin in a very particular way. These stories seem especially focused on motherhood and parenting, and are acutely honest. Two in particular – ‘Later, His Ghost’ (originally published here) and ‘Evie’ – are ridiculously good.

Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heightswas a masterclass in understated thriller writing. I don’t mean to say it’s a quiet novel – it’s anything but – but the writing, while propulsive, is beautiful without being showy; full of technical detail without ever being dull. That’s how you do it, Mr Weir…

Having watched Tom Ford’s glassy Nocturnal Animals on a plane, I finally picked up Tony and Susan, Austin Wright’s 1993 novel(-within-a-novel). Literate, clever, unashamedly meta. And, in places, unbearably tense. If you’ve seen the film and found the family’s ‘encounter’ with the gang tough-going, the book is even more wrenching, full of impotent anger and melancholy.

My best read this year was Svetlana Alexievich’s astonishing oral history Voices from Chernobyl (recently retranslated/republished over here as Chernobyl Prayer, which I’d totally missed). In some ways this book is almost revisionist for me – I think our cultural understanding of the Chernobyl disaster is skewed away from the apocalypse wrought on its victims and constructed instead as ‘look at these cool photos of a deserted Pripyat.’ I’ve thought about it every day since I finished it. Harrowing, angry, sometimes bleakly funny, and deeply strange. Frankly, it serves to make most science fiction irrelevant.

And that’s really about it. Here’s to 2018, and a good solid bunker.

‘Eighty-niner’

XPRIZE’s Seat 14C is a digital anthology whose stories follow characters on board a flight from Tokyo to San Francisco. The concept: not far from the West Coast, the plane passes through a time-wrinkle and jumps 20 years into the future, touching down in a near-utopian 2037.

Writers involved include Paolo Bacigalupi, Madeline Ashby and Karl Schroeder – but there’s also an opportunity for someone out there to bag a $10,000 prize package by filling Seat 14C with their own take on the world 20 years from now. 

My contribution is ‘Eighty-niner’, about a passenger called Molly, a vintage Camaro, and a strange island forest. Its beautiful story art was created by Ashley Mackenzie.

Eighty-niner artwork by Ashley Mackenzie

Norwescon 2017

This Easter I’m jetting out to Seattle for Norwescon 40 and the 2017 Philip K Dick Award ceremony. I’m looking forward to meeting the other nominees, to exploring the city, and to catching up with the Angry Robot crew across the pond.

This will be my first US convention, and while I have some expectations (world-class cosplay, people asking me to repeat myself), I’m also aware it’ll be very different from UK conventions I’ve attended so far.

If you happen to be there, my schedule is below. Otherwise I’ll be wandering about, lost, taking photos, or hunting tacos. Please say hello! I’m the lanky ginger one.

Friday April 14th

Philip K. Dick Award: What It Is, What It Means

12:00pm – 1:00pm @ Grand 2

Administrators and nominees for this year’s award discuss the PK Dick Award and the legacy of Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick Awards

7:00pm – 8:30pm @ Grand 2

Presented annually at Norwescon, with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust, for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Philip K. Dick Trust and the award ceremony is sponsored by Norwescon and the Northwest Science Fiction Society.

Saturday April 15th

The Year is 2067

7:00pm – 8:00pm @ Evergreen 1&2

From the tablet to cell phones, we live in an era forecast long ago in science fiction. Our panelists look ahead 50 years and extrapolate on what the current stories of today may forecast for tomorrow.

I have a few issues with the idea that ‘good’ science fiction demands ‘good’ futurism, but extrapolation is a fun game. The trickiest decision is whether to be realistic, given the current state of play (increasingly devastating automated warfare; unfathomable heat; general savagery; Scotland fitted with propellers and pootling happily towards the Arctic Circle), or plain hopeful (meaningful peace; meaningful communities; cheap, clean energy; free healthcare). Maybe my grandfather had it right when he recently said: ‘You science fiction authors have vastly underestimated how awful things are going to get.’