Hello from Budapest

For reasons I won’t go into, I am presently in Budapest. The way things are going, I will most likely be able to write more here than I have over the past few weeks, which I am looking forward to because things have been slow going.

I’ve yet to find my feet, and am writing this from a charming little coffee shop terrace where social distancing is not too painful and I don’t feel the need to slop ethanol-laced gel over my hands every few minutes. I have yet to take any decent pictures, but this is not my first time here, so allow me to share one I took a few years ago when I was here in winter!

An image of the Hungarian Parliament building shrouded in fog and illuminated with spotlight during a winter night.
The Hungarian Parliament in the Winter Fog

How To Find Good Science Fiction To Read

There’s so much stuff getting published these days that it can be a challenge to identify good fiction from bad.

In fact, quite a few years ago when I was reading fantasy and science fiction in my own time, I remember even then, when we weren’t downloading it from Amazon, that the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ science fiction was woeful.

Partly that was my fault. I assumed that if a book was published, then it had to be good. After all, it costs so much time and money to publish it would be folly to publish something bad. If it’s cover was on display in a bookshop, then it must be among the best because of the real estate it takes up.

Now I know a few things I didn’t back then:

  • Publishers buy manuscripts before they’re written, so they haven’t seen the end result before they’ve committed to paying for it any more than you have.
  • Publishers aren’t that good at choosing great literature anyway. They get it right more often than the Amazon algorithm, but that’s because they’re harder to manipulate, not because they’ve got mystical abilities to choose good writers.
  • The book that has pride of place in the bookshop has often paid to be there. At least online portals are required to indicate that the presence of a book at the top of your page is a paid promotion.

At least that explains some of the truly awful stuff I read when I started into the genre, and almost put me off for good.

Then I ran into a few people who course-corrected for me and sent me in a couple of new directions.

If you’re looking at science fiction and wondering why people read this stuff, then perhaps I can do the same for you. Here is my take on why you ought to give the genre a try, and how to get a good panoramic view of what it has to offer.

None of the rules of writing change in this genre

Good stories have well-rounded characters facing big challenges that they overcome in creative ways. They face challenges that alter the way they see the world and therefore change who they are. They are set in a world that is internally consistent with rules you instinctively, intuitively understand, even if the rules seem strange from the outside.

Just because you’re in the science fiction genre doesn’t mean a good book doesn’t need good characters, internal consistency and a dramatic premise. If you come across a bad science fiction book, remember this: it’s probably bad for the same reason some non-science fiction books are bad. It’s not bad because it’s science fiction.

The search for good books to read exists everywhere.

There are different subgenres, some of which may not be for you

If you read a book that’s narrowly-focused military science fiction, you’ll most likely read a lot about military battles, deployments of fleets and the characters of the marines or officers that are in command of these ships or part of their crew.

You might hate that.

If you hate that, you’ll probably also hate the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, because it’s exactly the same thing only set on earth in our not-too-distant past when we relied on sails and conscripted seamen to get large ships around. Nobody in their right mind (at least in my opinion) is going to claim that the Aubrey-Maturin series (all 19 books of it) is bad. That’s because it’s exceptional.

But it might not be for you.

Check what a book is about before you choose to read it. Science fiction is not what a book is about, any more than The Three Musketeers is about French history.

Ask people who know

While you may not know the people who know, it only really takes a couple of links to get to authors you like who will recommend (or whose readers will recommend) other things to read.

Of course, don’t get stuck in an echo chamber of similar stuff.

A good place to start for some recommendations that aren’t from me is the Science Fiction Roundup by the Guardian. Every so often they publish a list of the best new science fiction. I don’t agree with all of their recommendations, but a lot of the authors I enjoy reading today I discovered there.

There are some great authors that you should read at least once to see what’s available

Here’s a suggested list of science fiction authors that you might like to try, and the reason for each.

DISCLAIMER: This is by no means a list of the best, nor is it a comprehensive list of the good. It’s a suggested panorama of undeniably good authors whose work provides a safe and high-quality entry point into the genre. If I were to write this article again tomorrow, half the names and suggestions would change.

Isaac Asimov. Because it’s hard to pretend to have read any science fiction if you haven’t at least read Foundation. He’s the father of the debate around AI and its interaction with its human creators.

Larry Niven. Mainly because of Ringworld, which remains one of the great leaps of the imagination in the genre. Once you’ve visualised the Ringworld in your mind, it’s something you can’t unsee.

Iain M. Banks. An author whose worldbuilding is beyond compare. Iain M. Banks invented the post-scarcity society ‘The Culture’. If you can have anything you want, then what motives individuals to act? Then he asked what would threaten such a powerful society and what challenges would it face, internally and externally. In answering that question he wrote some of the most satisfying science fiction out there. If you want to start where I started, read The Player of Games, but if you want to start with the book everyone talks about, read Consider Phlebas.

Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite authors for hard science fiction. By this I mean science fiction with a strong emphasis towards not bending, breaking or ignoring the rules of physics. I think of his books as ‘crunchy’ and I enjoy them very much. Revelation Space is space opera with enough worldbuilding to keep you busy pondering it for weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Don’t stop there though, Reynolds is prolific and I’ve recently rediscovered him myself.

Alex Lamb is a more recent author. I really enjoyed his debut novel, Roboteer, published in 2015. I’m putting it here because it’s a very different vision than the other suggestions. The setting is conflict between Mars and Earth, and the technologies that make space travel possible. I also reviewed it when I read it, and you can read the review here.

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author, and his work has been widely translated into English. If you ever saw the film The Wandering Earth, then you should know that the story came from him. The work has a distinct flavour to it that comes from its foreign roots, which I consider a great asset. I suspect there is a lot of excellent science fiction being written in China and we in the west are deprived of access to most of it. I would suggest, just to pick something suitably different, The Three Body Problem.

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite writers, and it’s extremely hard to pick what to suggest from his work because it’s all just so excellent. I’m going to cheat and suggest several novels because I can’t choose between them. The first, Seveneves, is a spectacular story spanning centuries that begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon. The second, Anathem, tells the adventures of a monastic scholar on a world called Arbre, where knowledge is kept behind walls to protect if from the saecular world. Finally, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; yet another fast-paced world-building epic with a strong message about the social ladder and how it works.

Ann Leckie exploded onto the science fiction landscape in 2013 with Ancillary Justice. Original and exciting, sometimes poignant, Ancillary Justice is about a synthetic person that is an extension of a ship AI, and how they must adapt to no longer being part of a collective larger identity while dealing with the larger circumstances of how the ship she was a part of was destroyed.

There is a ton of excellent science fiction

Literally more than you could ever read.

I’ve named mostly big names here, because Asimov, Stephenson and Banks are giants in the genre, but that’s not to say you have to stay in that particular garden. I just think it’s a good set of signposts to start with.

I’ve not named any military science fiction, although there’s plenty of that (for some fun, pulpy military science fiction you could try Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, starting with Dauntless. In a similar vein, you could try the excellent Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Also by John Scalzi, if you’re looking for something a bit (very?) different, and you’ve some experience with the Star Trek TV series, you might enjoy Redshirts.

I could literally type all day and not run out of suggestions.

I was about to say I’ll stop there, but then it struck me that I haven’t mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s fantastic novel, 2312. So… guilt.

Feel free to add your recommendations below. I’m always keen to discover quality writing, and the genre isn’t as well signposted as people think it is.

Happy reading!

Re-Read: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I’m an Alastair Reynolds fan.

Not ashamed to admit it, he writes crunchy science fiction that sits well with my critical mind. You know – the bit that competes with your enjoyment of a novel by whispering, “that’s not very realistic, is it?” in the back of your mind.

I’m not a very good fan though.

I found his books by accident, trawling the shelves of a local bookstore many years a in search of good science fiction, something which can be very hard to come by when you don’t know the genre well.

In the intervening years, I’ve read Reynolds intermittently, chancing upon one novel or another, and getting that spark of author recognition when I saw his name. I’ve enjoyed every single one, to a greater or lesser degree.

I recharged my kindle for the first time in about two years when the coronavirus-related confinement limited my entertainment options, and while flicking through books I’ve read and know well, I chanced upon Revenger. I remembered the title, recognized Alastair Reynolds’ name on the cover, which seemed familiar.

But I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Brilliant! A second run at a novel I’ve already bought, courtesy of a faulty transfer from short- to long-term memory.

The downside of reading a book you already know is that you read it much faster than the first time around, as your memory starts to fill in ever larger bits of the story for you. The upside is you get to rediscover work you enjoyed enough not to delete, which in my case is a sure measure of quality. I’m not short of memory on my kindle, but I’m still picky about what gets to fester there.

After I finished, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Revenger and found that it’s referred to as “hard” science fiction. That I have to object to. Although much of Reynolds’ oeuvre is hard science fiction, this isn’t. The “glowy”, the “ghosty” and the “quoins” are anything but, and they’re central to the story. That said, his departure from the strict confines of hard science fiction poses no problem for me.

Fura Ness, as a protagonist, gets most of her character development out of the way in the first third of the book, and spends the rest of it coming to terms with the person she’s developed into. The world-building is, while not on a par with Seveneves, absolutely top notch. Reynolds’ willingness to kill off significant characters keeps you on your toes, but he doesn’t forego the character development of each of his victims for all that, which gives you the shock that a death in a novel ought to.

Finally, the moral complexity the book hints at is refreshing (at least to me), in a context where the real world seems ever more defined in absolutes. Even the protagonist and the anatgonist have, as we finally discover, a side to them that mitigates the obvious judgement their behaviour draws. It’s possible, in fact, that the most evil characters are on the periphery of the story, looking in.

I’d forgotten about Revenger, and I really enjoyed rediscovering it. I also discovered that there are two sequels, which I will now have to read, and other books by Reynolds that had passed unnoticed, and which will find their way onto a list that informs future reading decisions.

Coronavirus Workplace Upgrade

The impact of coronavirus on my personal situation comes with a particular silver lining.

Unable to go to the office to work, I worked from home in London for a while. After a while, that was unmanageable and a solution needed to be found. The solution I came up with was to relocate the family to the countryside until this blows over.

Continue reading Coronavirus Workplace Upgrade

TV: The Walking Dead, Season 10

If there’s one thing a virus-driven lockdown is good at, it’s creating opportunities to catch up on lots of unwatched TV.

You know: all that time you thought you’d spend writing, which in fact gets lost while binge-watching someone else’s output.

It’s hard to get mad though, because there’s a lot of very good stuff to watch out there, and the Walking Dead franchise is, in this sense, the gift that keeps on giving.

Like any ten-season series, it’s had better and worse seasons, but whatever supernatural process the druids of screenwriting employ to regularly turn out excellent episodes has been perfected by the team behind The Walking Dead.

After so long on the road and on the threshold of disaster, we now have our survivors in communities that, while they have their differences, more or less manage to work together. This is in no small part because they face a common enemy, and I’m not talking about the Walkers, because since season 9 we now also have the Whisperers.

The Walking Dead has always had other living, breathing humans as the main cause of suffering in their post-apocalyptic world. If it weren’t for other survivors, our survivors would be getting on just fine. These other groups have either slipped happily into Mad Max-style lawlessness in the absence of a socially-imposed code of conduct, or they’ve put their own survival ahead of their sense of morality, and justify any number of horrors as a consequence.

The Whisperers are different. While their leader’s motivations are complex, conflicted and emotional, as a group they’ve become what they are to survive, and as a consequence of their leader’s cult-inspired approach to people management. They’re not faking it, they’re a full-on proper cult, and they worship the walkers. That makes them a different kind of threat; one that can’t really be negotiated with.

It’s nice, in these last couple of seasons, to have seen some glimmer of light through the sometimes all-pervasive darkness that is the post-zombie-virus world. The communities thrive and the people find plenty of time for happiness amidst the struggle for survival. Of course the story only provides this to have something to tear down, and it’s not just the whisperers who challenge the survivors, it’s also the sheer difficulty of living in a post-technological age with the constant threat of annihilation outside the town walls.

Some communities just don’t make it.

Against this setting, The Walking Dead manages to successfully deploy themes of vengeance, justice, injustice, redemption, sacrifice and above all community. Perhaps the dark backdrop of the series provides fertile canvas for these kinds of stories, perhaps the writers are just, after all this time, truly great at what they do, but season 10 is undoubtedly excellent, despite some unexpected cast adjustments.

It’s hard to tell if the actors had had enough, or if there are spin-offs being prepared in the wings, but there is an external force that rips characters unexpectedly off the chessboard, without killing them, never to return (or at least not in this season). If I had to think of one thing to criticise from season 10, it would be this. In the manner of their disappearance is a strong sense of real-world factors imposing constraints on the cast and script. Maybe there was no better way of dealing with it. It doesn’t do much to diminish the viewing pleasure, but it does make you wonder where the series is going.

Strongly recommended for quarantine viewing, watching the survivors in the Walking Dead will certainly make you re-evealuate the difficulty of being stuck at home because of our, comparatively less threatening virus.

The Walking Dead Season 10 is available on Netflix and via Amazon Prime.

So. Good News… You’ve Caught This Virus…

My brain did a weird inversion of the whole coronavirus thing a couple of weeks ago and had what I thought at the time was a great idea.

I tried to put that idea to paper in the form of a short story.

After writing something I was not at all happy with, I decided the idea was not so good after all.

But perhaps the idea is fine, just not in my hands. My brain won’t stop grafting new ideas onto this one, turning it into some epic nonsense of a multi-novel series, with occasional subconscious plagiarising from Maze Runner. I had

So instead of giving you a story, I’m going to dump the idea here. Your imagination can write the rest.

Continue reading So. Good News… You’ve Caught This Virus…

Adventures in Fiverr – Book Cover Designers

There are lots of things I’m not particularly good at that I do anyway. Making my own book covers has been one of those things. They’re not particularly good, but my ‘books’ are really only short stories and I was giving them away for free.

While I’m fine with giving away some of my work to connect with an audience that likes my writing, I’m not so sure about spending money to put a cover on a free piece of writing.

Perhaps I was wrong about that, but it’s hard to know.

I’ve got a series of shorts coming together, with a jeans-and-leather wearing female exorcist with a bit of an attitude problem as the main character. I wanted a cover and after a few hours playing around, I decided I wasn’t good enough at cover design to do it myself.

I turned to Fiverr.

About a week later, my opinion of my own cover design skills has gone up considerably.

Continue reading Adventures in Fiverr – Book Cover Designers

Short Story: Rare Gifts

I don’t do all that much horror, but sometimes that’s just how a story turns out. Not that my horror is all that horrifying, but this story very clearly veered towards that genre about a third of the way through the writing process, and there was no clawing it back after that.

At about 1350 words, it’s pretty short, so it’s quick to read and easy to digest. I hope you like it.

Here is “Rare Gifts”.

Continue reading Short Story: Rare Gifts

New Fiction – What You Might Find

The Christmas holidays are – despite appearances – an impossible time for me to write anything substantial. I have made zero progress on my more substantial projects (other than call into question everything I’ve written so far), and I’ve been unable to find the time to write any more of the short story or novella series that I’ve been working on.

Without the routine of home, there isn’t any time to sit at a keyboard and hammer out anything more sophisticated than a very short story.

But I have managed that, a very short story. Particularly in response to prompts over at Reedsy.

This particular story is a reaction to “write a story about a very skilled pickpocket”. It’s about an immigrant pickpocket in a big city. Unusually for me, there are no fantasy of science fiction elements at all. I did have some in mind, but as the story decanted onto the page, none of them made the transition.

You can comment on it below, or over at the story page itself on Reedsy. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

What you might find. By Nick Lavitz.

You can check out the short stories I’ve written on Reedsy by going to my author page on their website.

I like writing in response to prompts because it allows me to generate a short story that’s hermetically sealed away from the longer-term projects I’m working on. Writing straight from my own imagination, without a prompt, results in my cannibalising bits from my stories-in-progress. I currently lack the mental discipline to write a spin-off of an unfinished story, instead I compromise the story itself as my imagination goes off in new directions with an unfinished universe.

New Fiction – Rewind

Cover for Rewind by Nick Lavitz

I’ve been writing some short stories (and a much longer story) for a while now but they’re not ready. Sorry.

They’re a new direction for me and they’ve taken a lot of time to get off the ground as I frequently bring them to the shredder to start again.

New beginnings are painful.

I was, however, browsing the web recently when I came across Reedsy. There they have a competition page with writing prompts, and one of the prompts for the month bounced off some random thought, which resulted in a quick and cheeky short story. Which I submitted.

They’ve put it on their website, so I invite you to take a look at Rewind, and let me know what you think, either over there or over here.

Rewind – by Nick Lavitz