Monday, 24 February 2014

The Book That Made Me - Paul Melhuish

In the first part of an ongoing series, NSFWG member Paul Meluish discusses "the book that made me"

* * * * *
The year is 1990. The place; somewhere is Switzerland. The weather; sunny. I’m supposed to be hitch-hiking. I’m sitting on the crash barrier on some rural road and there’s a blind curve to my left. Hardly any cars are coming but I don’t mind because I’m sitting there, rucksack at my feet, reading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, part of me hoping no cars come for a while, the other part of me knowing I’ve got to get to Lausanne at some point today. When a car does come I can hear the engine before the vehicle rounds the blind curve so I snap the book shut and slip it into my denim jacket pocket, stick out my cardboard sign for Lausanne, smile in that I’m-not-a-serial-killer reassuring grin I’ve perfected for hitching, and the car drives straight by. Good, I think, I can finish the next chapter.

Obviously someone picked me up because I’m writing this in my kitchen and not on that same blind bend where I’ve been stuck for the last 24 years.

For this piece I was going to cite The Lord of the Rings as the book that made me but I chose not to for two reasons.

1. Everybody else has already chosen this book as their special baby.
2. Although LOTR remains one of my favourite books it didn’t inform my writing today. I don’t write fantasy as such. I write horror, Sci-fi or a combination of both with fantasy elements. Weaveworld had a bigger influence on my writing than I’d care to admit.

I’d spent my adolescence in rural Oxfordshire reading James Herbert books, going for solitary walks an bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend. I loved all that New English Library horror but for me the writers never went far enough into the fantasy elements. They would mention hell but I wanted to see it, suicide trees and all.

Time passed. I left school with no qualifications, worked as a painter and decorator and quickly decided I didn’t want to work my life away priming skirting boards (they wouldn’t let me near any proper paint anyway) so I made plans to travel. At eighteen I inter-railed around Europe on my own and flipping loved it. At nineteen I left home and decided to hitch-hike through Europe and work in Spain. I ended up working in Switzerland. Well, both countries began with S.

Before I left, I bought 4 books and put them in the side pockets of my rucksack. One book was On the Road by Jack Kerouac (which I thought was crap. Well, I was nineteen) another was Magician by Raymond E. Feist (which I still think is crap but as he outsells me by millions I’m probably the only one to think this) I can’t remember the third one but the forth book I took was Weaveworld.

I began reading it in the youth hostel in Dover, I didn’t read it on the ferry crossing the channel because I got talking to a pretty Cambridge graduate called Emma and we drank halves of lager for the short crossing, but I did read it in Paris, Spain, the South of France and finished it in Switzerland.

The story centres around a guy called Cal Mooney who finds a carpet, Weaveworld, and becomes embroiled in the battle for who should own and use this carpet. The carpet, when unravelled, reveals a magical world which amalgamates with the real world. There is a creature called the Madeleine who rapes men and reproduces with them, a salesman who possesses a jacket that can produce any gift his ‘customers’ desire. The protagonists find Oriel, the angel who guards the gates of Eden and the goodies and baddies travel to the centre of the carpet to find the Fugue, the power centre for the carpet.

Weaveworld is a massive, mind twisting adventure and a real page turner. What made the pages come alive for me was the fact that I was having my own adventure as I reading the book.

I’d hitch-hiked through France and got from Paris to Bordeaux in one lift. I’d hitched from Bordeaux to Barcelona with an American who had come to Europe to escape the law for some unspecified crime. Experiencing something of a crisis in confidence I’d decided to not bother looking for work in Spain and just travel instead so headed back into France. One time I read Weaveworld sitting under a bridge with bullfrogs burping as I’d have to sleep rough that night because I was in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t going to hitch-hike at night. I travelled with an Irish guy called Colm and we spent the Easter weekend in the Pyrenees. I was reading the book in exceptional scenery. Colm and I looked for work in the South of France but he eventually got me a job working on a farm in Switzerland, lying to the farmer and his family, telling them that I was a student (a lie I had to keep up for my whole four month stay there).

I finished Weaveworld in a Youth Hostel in Switzerland. It was late and I was the only one in the lounge of this funny little wooden cabin. I stayed up until midnight reading. It would be my birthday the next day and I would be 20. Not a bad way to end your teenage years.

I really missed that book when I’d finished. I wanted Cal, the Weaveworld and all the characters to carry on. I also did something I’d never done before. Usually, I was precious about my book collection and would keep books. I left Weaveworld on the book shelf of that youth hostel. It would be nice to think it stayed there or, even better, got picked up by someone else travelling so they could revel in the books magic when travelling.

I read Weaveworld again in 1992 but it didn’t have the same magic. I was working as a kitchen porter then, living a mundane life and knowing the story already took the edge away.

Not only did the book open my mind to literary possibilities but the experience of travelling around Europe changed my perspective forever. I learned that life didn’t have to be humdrum and boring. I learned that you could just set out with just a rough plan and something would come up. The experience improved my problem solving skills and I learned to overcome fears that had once mentally crippled me. This was my rite of passage;  having to survive sleeping rough and having no money, working in a strange country and getting past the language barriers. If I could survive that I could survive most things.

There are other books I’ve read when life was good that I remember with great affection. I read Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series last year. I was unmarried when I started that book and married when I finished it. Perdido Street Station I remember reading when I was on placement in Slough and things were going well. I also have fond memories or reading Imajica by Barker in 1995 at my first year of university in Northampton but Weaveworld always reminds me of my time thumbing it across Europe.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Star Wars (in comics)

NSFWG member Mark West, clearly in a nostalgic mood, on one of his earliest sci-fi loves.

One of my earliest encounters with comics (aside from the weekly adventures of Spider Man) was the Marvel comics adaptation of “Star Wars”, which appeared in the 1978 annual (that my folks got me in the summer, to read in the car on the way to Widmouth Bay).  Having watched the original trilogy films over the Christmas period with my son, I decided a re-read (after several years away) would be in order.  Rather than the annual (which is abridged), I went for the Boxtree version, collected from the weekly comics, which was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin and Steve Leialoha.

Clearly sourced from an earlier screenplay (Luke is part of Blue Squadron, for instance and Jabba The Hutt resembles something that stood at the bar in the cantina), this follows the film but also includes scenes that were never shown, such as Luke and his friends at Tosche Station, Luke seeing the battle at the beginning and pretty much all of Biggs’ part.
As a light read (the editing works well, though some of the “meanwhile…” boxes do get monotonous), it’s generally good fun.  The Chaykin artwork is more visceral and immediate (he’s not very good at drawing spaceships) but the Leialoha section, which starts at the encounter with the Tusken Raiders, is more detailed and defined (and, to my eye, better).  The book also has several pages of production art from the film.
Han clearly shot first...
Meeting Jabba
Still one of the best pieces of dialogue interplay in the film and reproduced well on the page
ZZRAKK - though this doesn't explain how Vader could lift the cloak with his lightsaber
With some peculiar dialogue choices - I can’t imagine Han Solo saying “hold on tight kiddies” as the Millennium Falcon blasts away from the Death Star - and some pruning - only the X-Wings make the run on the Death Star - this is faithful enough and conveys the immediacy and action of the film.  Speaking as someone who doesn’t tend to read graphic novels, but loves “Star Wars”, I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it.

After enjoying reading this, I found the other Boxtree collections on ebay and Amazon, so expect similar reviews of them as the year goes on...

originally published at Mark's blog

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Omega Man and Me, by Paul Melhuish

One January, in a shell garage located by the A45 dual carriageway in Northamptonshire, I stopped to get some petrol, like you do. As I waited in the queue to pay at the counter I saw that they were selling a few DVD’s. Among the popular titles like Die Hard and Toy Story sat the 1971 version of The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston retailing at a whacking £3.99.

Sometimes you watch a film with low expectations, hoping for something cheesy, laughable yet lovable. Sometimes you’re in for a surprise.

I’ve not read Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend but I’ve seen the Will Smith film adaptation. Basically, the majority of the world’s human populace gets infected with a plague that turns people into blood-crazed zombies. Will smith has to fight them off and find a cure at the same time. In our day and age the Man-fights-zombies-then-finds-other-survivors plot is well worn and has been seen a hundred times. In 1971 that particular plot-path was still fresh and new. Night of the Living Dead had only been out for a couple of years and the man-fights-zombies plotline was not embedded in our consciousness as it is today.

So, back to The Omega Man. In my £3.99 DVD Charlton Heston’s character Dr Robert Neville is living in a deserted city, hunting for supplied during the day but barricading himself in his home in a hotel at night, lights blaring out against the infected victims of the plague. The big difference here is that Neville’s enemies aren’t mindless zombies but thinking, conscious, religious and totally mad.

Neville’s nemesis is, if I remember correctly, The Family. A cult of survivors infected with the plague. They present as pale, albino-like and photophobic; The Family can’t stand light so only come out at night. Their leader is Matthias, a fundamentalist who abhors the technology that, he believes, created the plague. Neville, who is unaffected, is the heretic, the ‘Creature of the wheel’ who still embraces technology. (He drives a car and, more inconveniently for the photophobic Matthias and crew, leaves the lights on at night). So Matthias and his band of hooded cultists, Neville, the omega man, is the number one target.

Matthias preaches from a pulpit, wears a hood like some crazed monk and has legions of loyal followers. Which, on balance, is scarier? A mindless zombie or a fundamentalist?

The 1971 version of The Omega Man remains one of my favourite sci-fi/horror films of all time. There are no CGI effects; the stunts are real as are the locations. The city where Neville lives and survives is deserted but not decaying or weed-strewn yet. In the opening shots of deserted streets where litter is blown around and silence reigns, a chilling sense of the post-apocalyptic is evoked. Matthias and his hordes look effectively menacing and insane with their pale faces and black cloaks. They look medieval in their get up which creates a sense of the surreal by placing them in the modern urban environment.

The drama created between Neville and his nemesis could never have been achieved if Matthias had been a mere zombie and the sense of struggle between the two opposing view points just adds to the tension. In one scene one of the main protagonists, a young woman hardened by fighting for survival on the streets of the city, becomes infected with the blood-plague and joins Matthias’s family. You could almost say how this illustrates how seductive the beliefs of the fundamentalist can be to the lost and the frightened. But hey, this is just a movie. I really should stop over analysing this.

In the end, Neville finds a cure for the plague, Matthias tries to stop him from getting the cure to the non-infected survivors and Doctor Neville dies just as he gets the cure to them.

So, to the 2008 version. I don’t want to slag it off, it was an enjoyable film but no where near as enjoyable as the 1971 version. I would like to have been a fly on the wall at some of the scripting meetings for the 2008 I Am Legend. Why did they choose to leave Matthias out of it and give Will Smith a mindless nemesis? Maybe they didn’t want to invoke the image of the fundamentalist in these times where fundamentalism is a more pertinent issue? Maybe they thought they’d play it safe with the well-worn plot of man-versus-zombie. This is a shame because in Matheson’s novel the vampires’s weren’t mindless attackers, they put Robert Neville on trial at the end of the book. Whatever the reason I still prefer the 1971 version.

Having said this I’ve not seen the 1964 version of Mathesons novel, The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price. I might like that even better but I don’t think they’ll be selling it at any Shell garages anytime soon.  

this article originally appeared on Paul's blog (at this link

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Perils of Plotting a Time Travel Novel, an article by Tim C. Taylor

One of the great fantasies in fiction is to travel into the past to experience what it might have been like to live in historical worlds that we see only in history books, or to travel the other direction into the future. In most cases, authors and scriptwriters present these fantasies by simply setting the entire story in this other time: hence historical dramas and futuristic science fiction. But there’s another way to present this fantasy, and that is to have your characters travel into the past or the future, usually starting their journey from a setting in today’s world.

Welcome to the time travel novel!

In 2012 I published a series of time travel novels called The Reality War. In this post, I’ll share some of my experiences because plotting a time travel novel isn’t always as simple as it looks.

A brief history of time travel
Most commonly the writer sets up most or all of these time-traveling characters to come from the present day so that we, the reader, identify with them. As the characters marvel at the wonders these other times present, and struggle to prosper in worlds they don’t fully understand, we marvel and struggle with them. We’re right in there, exploring these times as if we too are time travelers.

Writers have used this approach to time travel for most of the past few centuries. TV shows such as  Quantum Leap, books such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain, and films such as  Back to the Future (1985-90) largely fit this description, though some of these stories, such as Twain’s, are designed to satirize contemporary society, and by the time Quantum Leap and Back to the Future were shown, there’s an increasing interest in the mechanisms and the reasons for time travel, something that has often been to the fore with the longest-running time travel saga of them all: Doctor Who (first shown in 1963, the day after President Kennedy was shot, as I guess we all now know in 2013).

More recently, while many time travel stories remain content to transport the characters to an adventure in another time, others are increasingly interested in the consequences of time travel, such as the beautifully circular nature of Schwarzenegger film The Terminator (1984), and the complicated romance of The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger.

So when I started writing a time travel novel a few years ago, I first had to make some decisions about what kind of book I wanted to write.

Scientific Romance or technobabble?
First off, I read some novels featuring time travel. It’s quite a fun kind of research. Plenty of people would point to The Time Machine (1895) by HG Wells as the first modern time travel novel. Wells described his ‘scientific romances’ (as he called them) as changing just one thing about the modern world and seeing what would happen as a consequence. In his case, that change is the time machine built by the Victorian gentleman inventor. The future worlds the inventor travels to extrapolate Wells’ thinking about the class divide in the wake of the industrial revolution (Wells has the workers and the wealthy evolve into separate species), and contemporary scientific thinking about the entropic universe (in his story, the Earth of the far future is dying). While Wells makes a lot of effort to invent credible futures, he makes no attempt to explain the physics of time travel or its possible consequences. We see shiny brass control panels and levers; that’s enough for Wells.

I also listened to an audio version of Kindred (1976) by Octavia Butler. Here the author takes a black woman living in 1976 California and transports her to a life of slavery in Maryland of the early 1800s. Rather than present a straight historical novel, Butler uses time travel as a literary device to transport a modern woman into the past in order to make the realities of slavery more immediate to the modern reader; we’re also transported with the main character, and we also find the transition shocking.

But in Kindred, there is no attempt to cast a veil of explanation over the way in which the character time travels. There’s no moment of Star Trek technobabble, where (at its worst) it suddenly occurs to the chief engineer that if we reverse the phase of the forward shield modulators, we conveniently have the capability to time travel. Butler’s time travel is a literary contrivance in order to set up an otherwise impossible scenario that she wants to write a story about. We know it’s contrived. Butler knows that we know it’s contrived, but none of that matters. She makes such a brief reference to the traveling that we quickly accept the story conceit, and get on with enjoying what Butler wants to show us.

Then there were other books I read that I’m too embarrassed to mention here. Ones that start with the worst technobabble from Star Trek, add some half-remembered terms from school such as hypotenuse and coefficient, and present that as impressive science. No, I wasn’t going to take that approach with my novel. (BTW: I love Star Trek; a consequence of the Trek universe having such a vast fictional output is that inevitably are some dark corners of plotting naughtiness.)

I thought Kindred’s if-I-mention-it-quickly-no-one-will-notice approach to time travel worked for that book, but was too vague for the science fiction I like to read. So to start with, I decided that HG Wells would be my pilot through time, and that’s not a bad thing.

How to make your reader’s brain melt
Time travel can get really complicated.

I’m not talking about the mechanics of how it’s done, I’m talking about the storytelling. In most conventional novels, each scene takes place a little further along in time than the previous one. If there’s a big gap, the author will probably start a new part and add something like ‘Ten Years Later...’ so you know there’s a big jump in time. The reader is so familiar with this sequencing of scenes that he or she won’t even stop to notice what the author’s doing.

But with time travel, what is the correct sequence of scenes? Well, of course, there isn’t one. When the characters can move backward and forward in time, it’s up to the author to choose whatever sequence best fits the story they want to tell.

Sometimes the author wants to write about the dislocating effect of time travel. Well, that’s easy enough: just jumble your scenes into a random order; that should do the trick. Problem is, most readers will give up if you do that; I know I would.

The Time Traveler’s Wife pushes this about as far as I think an author could go and still retain a readership. The sequence of scenes is difficult to follow, but that’s okay because that book’s more about the psychology of troubled relationships, with the time traveling more of a metaphor for how people in relationships often don’t seem quite in phase with each other. I wanted my book to be essentially action-adventure (though a thematic connection with The Pilgrim’s Progress soon became very important — but that’s another post). So I knew I had to make my plot easier to follow than The Time Traveler’s Wife.

That’s much easier said than done. I kept a book of scrawled notes and diagrams about how my fictional world(s) worked. I needed to be clear how everything fitted together because that way I could concentrate on the parts of the story that mattered most and were most exciting. Sounds strange, perhaps, but I find the deeper my understanding of the background to a story, the more confident I am at knowing what to focus on, and what I can safely leave out.

Even so, there were two redrafts where I looked at my notes, and then scratched thick red lines through sections of the plot that were overcomplicating the story and so had to go.

But I wanted a story where time travel wasn’t only an excuse to have an adventure; it was at the heart of event, it caused them.

So I couldn’t ignore perhaps the most powerful — and dangerous — idea in plotting time travel novels: CAUSALITY.

Causality causes confusion
At the kind of simplified level that you and I might understand, causality is actually a pretty obvious concept. It’s a fancy way of saying that cause leads to effect.

Take this example: you hold a glass vase of flowers out of the fifth-floor window. You let go... what happens?

Well, it’s not a trick question. You let go — nothing resists gravity accelerating the vase toward the ground — vase hits ground — vase shatters. It’s so obvious it seems a pointless waste of time describing the sequence of cause leads to effect. Cause happens first (drop the vase) followed by the effect (vase breaks).
Not so with time travel.

Take the first Terminator film: John Connor leads the human resistance in the future — so a cyborg assassin goes back in time to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor — so John sends his friend, Kyle, back in time to protect his mother — which leads to Kyle getting Sarah pregnant with John — so Sarah goes into hiding and prepares to train up John to be an effective leader and fighter — which brings us back to John Connor leads the human resistance in the future — a cyborg assassin goes back in time... and so on.

In this example, causality breaks down. In other words, it is no longer true that effect always happens after cause. Humanity needs John Connor to lead the resistance (cause) which leads to Sarah preparing him for that role (effect). But the rise of the machines hasn’t happened yet. The effect is occurring before the cause.

If that feels complicated, it’s because it is complicated. In the world we live in, cause always appears to lead to effect; time only flows in one direction and our brains can’t really cope with anything else. In The Terminator, the script cleverly implies a closed loop. If you follow events in the right sequence, as I listed them above, then it appears that effect follows cause and everything appears simpler than it really is. And yet the sequence is impossible; it’s a paradox, but maybe it’s just what the universe has decided to settle with. It might be impossible, but it’s the most stable version of history.

That’s a neat trick, so I make use of closed loops and the idea of reality settling into the most stable and least confusing version of history.

But I wanted something in my novels to shatter all this neatness, to be the spanner in the works that kicks off the Reality War I write about. And for that I need a little more from PARADOX.

Professor Paradox is/ was/ will be my grandfather
Let’s go back to The Terminator. If Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin succeeded in killing John Connor’s mother in the past, then John would never be born — which would mean the cyborg would not be sent back in time — which means...

This is sometimes called the Grandfather Paradox. If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, then you would never have been born... in which case you couldn’t have killed your grandfather... in which case you can travel back in time and kill him...


Plotting with time paradoxes is like cooking with the hottest chili peppers: a supremely memorable ingredient, but use sparingly or you’ll blow your readers’ heads off.

But if we can time travel...
One more time travel plotting idea to consider... If time travel is possible, what’s so special about the times when your story is set? Take the Victorian gentleman inventor of HG Wells. If he invented time travel in the 1890s, why don’t other people invent time travel in his future, or make use of the technology first developed in the 1890s and has been in continual use since then? And what about the people in their future? And in the future of their future too? What is so special about the 1890s that this is the only point that time travel is invented? To his credit, Wells raises this point in his novel. I think he’s right to do so, which is why you need to keep watching the shadows in my novel because in The Reality War there are other people hiding there.

Conclusion: Plotting for time travel 
In conclusion, plotting a full-on time travel is not for the fainthearted There are many pitfalls and a lot of  work, and it’s rather like wearing fresh underwear, as I explain in this post. And when you sit back and release your novel into the world, I have no doubt that some readers will vigorously attack it because they will be convinced that’s not how time travel really works.

No worries. I look forward to such discussions, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing time travel, it’s that it is addictive.