Barriers & Cages

I’m not singling out any one book here; no prizes for figuring out what got me started, of course.

Here’s my question:

What is cool and ironic about revelling in how fucked up the world could be in some more extreme future?

Is the extreme and deadly ruined future where everything is settled by gore and bad writing supposed to be a warning?

Or is it supposed to be an escape, make us feel better about our bank balance and toe lint problems?

Either way, I don’t see how it works. The world is already fucked up, guys. We have melting ice caps, species extinction, extreme weather. We have genocide, chemical warfare, drones used in battle. We have starvation in some parts of the world and morbid obesity in others, we have the hivemind, we have xenophobic hatred and religious extremism of all kinds, including extreme atheism looking at you Richard Dawkins. We have power structures that function without our knowledge, offshore rogue economies; we have surveillance. We have Congressmen taking selfies of their dicks. We have all this crap in real life. Real life is much, much more interesting than these endless sci fi adventure templates. Where is the imagination in writing yet another ‘thriller’ that all too predictably involves a lot of blood, rape, and systemic oppression without ever really addressing where shit is going? Do you really think you can add something the horror of the information surround we already live in? What exactly is being illuminated here?

Because unless you can, unless you are really super fucking sophisticated and so far I have’t read anyone who is, then please don’t. Don’t write about sexbots and engineered humans designed to remorselessly kill or any of the other clichés of clichés of clichés that are passing for science fiction. You’re lazy and I see right through you.  Publishers: stop saying these books are doing something new when you know very well that they aren’t and you’re just trying to make a few sensationalist bucks. What you are doing is completely transparent.

You know what’s hard, as a science fiction writer? What’s hard is imagining worlds that aren’t the same old traps. What’s hard is imagining futures, or alternatives, that aren’t governed by the same kinds of power and that aren’t all about empire and oppression and who has the biggest dick or can make it seem like they do with mirrors.

What’s hard is imagining uses of technology that could get us out of this situation we are in, for real. Imagining ways of coexisting that do not resort to large-scale murder in one part of the world and everybody in the rest of the world pointedly looking away at cat pictures. Imagining currencies and structures and means of involvement that could get us somewhere as a species and fuck, as a planet, without destroying our own biosphere.

It’s hard to think about, hard to extrapolate, hard to imagine. Hard to make stories about things that have never happened, things that are unimaginable to us now. But isn’t that what SF is supposed to be—or am I on the wrong bus again?

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing in a genre that thinks people like me are good for fucking and simpering or a bit of extra protein when the cockroaches run out. And when you call this genre out it says: it was a warning! It was a critique! It was IRONIC.

I’m struggling night and day to come up with SF that isn’t just the same old EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, LA LA LA.  The same old violence porn by and for people who have no idea what violence is, what it does, who have no respect for its consequences. Writing SF is hard. It’s not for wankers.

Or is it? Really, seriously, I want to know.

I really want to believe we can do better than this.


Post-exam warbles

It’s just over a week since I took the Quantum World exam and about three weeks since I took the Physical World exam that I’d deferred from last year. Assuming I’ve passed (and I probably shouldn’t assume, but I hope) then I’ll have banked another 90 credits for my BSc with the Open University.

I wanted to set aside a few thoughts before summer sweeps me away, both as a record for myself and in case they are of any interest to other learners.

These courses are graded entirely on a three-hour pen and paper test, most of which is quantitative problem-solving.  I have taken two exams with the OU prior to this, and both times I was horrified at how badly I came unglued, both during the revision period and in the exam itself.  I came unglued in revision because although I’d been doing well throughout the year, I hadn’t retained much and had to do a lot of relearning. There wasn’t enough time for this even when I started early. I came unglued in the exam because I was unprepared psychologically for the brain freeze of exam pressure. Nine months at my kitchen table couldn’t get me ready for three hours in an exam room.

This year I was determined to do better. Was I successful? I can’t say until marks come out, but subjectively the exams felt different this time. So I’d like to make note of what I did differently this time.

First of all, I didn’t try as hard on continuous assessment. On the QM course I didn’t aim for honours marks on assignments; I did what I could do while remaining ahead of the study calendar, and I got good marks but not great ones. In this way I was able to maintain a two-week head start throughout the year, and this was very much needed at revision time.

Surprisingly, in S207 I had to study large tracts of the course again. Either I had forgotten them or I hadn’t covered them properly last year (again, despite high marks on continuous assessment). This took a big chunk of time every week, sadly, but I have to say that I benefitted a lot from revisiting the course; if I were allowed to do it again in an ideal world, I probably would. It’s a big course and for me it needed going over more than once to start to make sense.  Even so, when revision time came I felt panicky and overwhelmed. The first few past papers I looked at were terrifying. I didn’t start to feel any confidence at all until the last few days before the exam.

In the QM course I felt over my head from day one and this never changed. I worked very hard. I understood some of it. My maths improved enormously. In the last eight days before the exam I worked harder than I have ever worked at anything. I went at it with everything I had. I dreamed in Dirac notation and volume integrals. Apparently during those brief interludes when I emerged from my study cave, I walked around in an unresponsive daze with unfocused eyes. I remember my kids giving me random hugs and Steve keeping me supplied with hot ready-meals every night. When it all got too much I watched episodes of Damages on Netflix, but even that was too mentally demanding by the end.

All of this has been a journey. When I first started with the OU my youngest was not yet potty trained and was still breastfeeding. My attention was continually being snatched and nibbled. My concentration was shite. I struggled to prioritize all of the demands that come in from all sides, all the time. Now, though? I’ve learned to ruthlessly cut out so much stuff. Even more than for novel deadlines. Kids and Steve have adapted to what I’m doing, they’re behind me, and I can disappear from the world. It’s very intense. When I’m studying the material is so demanding that I feel inadequate and unequal and bumbling every single day, but I’ve been in there doing it anyway and it has put some edges back on my brain.

I used a self-hypnosis recording. At first it freaked me out. The hypnotist guides you into this relaxed state, you imagine yourself lying in your bed and you go down an elevator to your special room…and then it turns into an exam room. When I first listened to it I almost jolted awake in horror. But after a couple of weeks I do think the suggestions sank in and I was much calmer in the exam.

In my first OU exam in 2012 I was trying so hard to be careful and perfect and check everything that I ran out of time. Last year I rushed so much that I had to go back and rework, and ended up losing even more time. This time, I took advantage of Wyatt Earp’s quotation, ‘Take your time in a hurry.’ I stole this from Steve, who blogged about it years ago in a fighting context. 

I also asked Steve for more general advice on managing panic. In exams, my heart races like I’m running flat out. For three hours. When I took the S207 exam on 1 June, I was so pumped up that I was reading questions without reading them. The words were not going in. I eventually mastered myself, but it was disconcerting.  I told Steve and he advised me to fix my gaze. He told me about the concept of the ‘quiet eye’ and told me to pick a spot and focus on it. ‘Forget controlling your breathing,’ he said. ‘Control your eye.’

So I picked a spot on the ceiling and in the last few minutes before the exam started, while everyone was sitting there waiting (the guy in front of me was visibly twitching and jerking), I stared at this spot. Whenever I got a little rattled, I returned to the spot. It’s a simple trick, but it works.

The QM exam was difficult. There were some curve balls. There were a couple of places where I just blanked out—simple things that I know how to do, but forgot. I was able to shrug and move on, do what I could. I don’t know what my marks will be like. Maybe I will take QM again if it’s a bad grade. But I do know that I worked hard all year, I worked harder still in the weeks since Easter, I worked like a fucking demon from mid-May onward, and I gave the exam everything I had. I had nothing left when it was over.

So many people have encouraged me, old friends and family and new friends and fellow students, that I had to give it everything. I’m beyond grateful to have the opportunity to learn this stuff, to have a chance at a new career path at this stage of my life, and I couldn’t have got this far without so much support and goodwill.

So thanks to everyone who is still with me. You keep me going. 

Las madrinas, where are you?

When I was in my twenties I came across a book on my then mother-in-law’s shelf called Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson. I devoured it. I can’t remember much about it except that it was about women trying to figure it all out: how to be a person over time when you are dealing with paying work, creative work, family, and things being interrupted and needing to be juggled. I remember being fascinated by it and soaking up everything I was reading, because I simply had no template for how to construct a life that was in any way original. I looked it up again recently and noted that all of the women Bateson wrote about were white, upper-middle-class women with a stable socioeconomic base, so I didn’t bother getting it for my kindle because it would probably just piss me off. I think I’m probably better off remembering it as it was.

I googled it again because I have been thinking about mentors lately. I have had two wonderful mentors in my life, both when I was under thirty, both male. It’s not that I didn’t want a female mentor; there just wasn’t anyone. I never used to think it mattered; probably it wasn’t until I had my first child that I started to appreciate why I might learn things from a woman that I couldn’t learn from a man. And as I get older I’m increasingly conscious of an absence and it makes me sad; there is no one to answer the kinds of questions that I want to be able to ask of an older woman, of someone who has travelled through some of the places I am in now or where I hope to go.

Many of the older women I do know are tired. Some are embattled. I don’t see this in the same way with the men I know; could be my confirmation bias, of course.

In 2012, after a couple of years of failing to finish any saleable work, I came to a crunch point. I was really worried about what would happen to our family if my partner wasn’t able to earn enough to keep us going, because my own contribution had become nonexistent. I had sneaked in under a tuition deadline with the Open University so that I can study at low cost, so I decided to study full-time in the hope that I’d end up with enough credit at the end of the year to get on a PGCE course for physics. I took a gruelling course load: 120 credits of physics and applied maths. I didn’t do very well, and I had to defer the physics in the end because I ran out of time to prepare for exams. Still, one of the reasons I was able to get through the year at all was because my maths tutor was this amazing woman. She is an Oxford PhD who home-schools her kids in between teaching at Oxford and with the Open University, and she’s incredible, absolutely devoted to helping her students. She uncomplainingly carries an enormous and varied workload, and she saw me through whether she was fully aware of it or not.

What happened was that after my father died last winter I was so overwhelmed that I wished I could just drop everything. I was driving myself to do work I hated, I was bad at it, the pace was unrelenting, and every day was a struggle. Yet when I went to tutorials with this tutor, or got feedback from her online, I felt like I wanted to try harder. I didn’t want to let her down. I could see how much she put into her work and all of the things she had to juggle, and I was determined to give it everything I had. I put in many late nights. There were a lot of tears. But I would not give up. I am getting kind of emotional just remembering it.

So thinking, recently, about female mentors and role models and the women Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls ‘las madrinas’— the little mothers*,  the women who guide us in our lives—it occurred to me that maybe I had such an intense reaction to this tutor because I need someone wiser, more experienced, who has been there. To help me. For that moment in time, she was the person who filled that void. And I don’t think I’m going to find a proper mentor in real life at this late stage, not in the shape of one single woman, anyway. But oh, do I sometimes wish I could just sit down at the kitchen table with someone who could fucking tell me how to do this thing.

For women in any field where there haven’t been many women before, this must be a problem. For women who are the first generation in their family to be juggling work, family, education, creative work, as I am—it surely must be a problem. It can’t just be me, can it? Who do you turn to when you are at mid-life and there is no one older than you to lay it on the table in a way that can help?

I feel sometimes like I am out here in the wind trying to do things that I have no idea how to do.

When I’m kvetching on Twitter about women in SF or whatever, maybe I sound like a one-note samba. I feel like I have to talk about it because I’ve got the battle scars and I want people to know I’m here.  I’m delighted to see what looks like the beginning of a renaissance in women writing science fiction, and as a science student I am hopeful that women will start entering science in greater numbers, which I think will happen if the barriers there are addressed. But what’s really going through my head all the time is the question of where is the chain of trust and help being passed down from older to younger? I feel responsible for younger women coming onto this scene for the first time. A lot of hard-working, talented women have fallen by the wayside since I’ve been around, or have been marginalized. I don’t want newcomers to fall into the same traps I fell into—not that the traps are ever quite the same.

And yet, how can I help anyone when I am still trying to figure this out for myself?

At school when teachers would talk about role models I thought it was a presumptuous, condescending concept. Changed my mind. I’d give nearly anything for some successful, job-family-writing-juggling woman role models aged 60+ to sit me down and give me the straight shit wisdom-in-hindsight right about now. Let me know if you find one I could rent or something.


*I heard Dr. Estes talk about this phrase on one of her audio courses, but to write this post I googled to check I had the correct Spanish. According to the online dictionary, the definition of a madrina is: 1) godmother 2) bridesmaid (3) protectress (4) prop or stanchion (5) straps or cords which yoke two horses (6) police informer. I love police informer! That one is the best.

About self-promotion

There has been some talk lately about authors and awards, and whether it is a good thing to post about the awards your work may be eligible for in the year gone by, or not. The blog that sparked me to write this was Alastair Reynolds’ but I don’t want to get into the area that Alastair addresses, about the way people fight online. And I’m not even thinking about awards. It’s just that reading different views on the subject has made me think about self-promotion when it comes to myself.

When I started out as a writer there wasn’t a whole lot of internet to shake around in, and the only piece of self-promotion advice I can recall being given was the suggestion to have bookmarks printed with an image from one’s new book cover, to give away at conventions (which I did not do, because I was lazy). There was no need to worry about how (or whether) to do a blog tour or what interviews to do or what bloggers to target with your allotment of advance review copies or how to best use Twitter or Instagram.

I feel old!

But also, I feel like I am in over my head with some of this stuff, because the scale of self-promotion that genre authors are now expected to deal with is way more than I ever signed up for. I got into writing because it enabled me to be out in the world without ever having to leave my own head. The fun gets sucked out of it when I’m required to maintain a public persona. I do what I can, in my very minor way. But it goes against my grain. I am a person, not a brand.

I’ve heard it said a number of times over the years that women are at a disadvantage here because we are socialized to avoid blowing our own horns, and that backlash comes a woman’s way when she does. I’m not disagreeing with that, except to object in the case when this state of play is used as a lever to imply that women must be more pushy in order to compete. For myself, I just can’t get with that. I reckon people should do what they want, what works for them as individuals.

Me? I don’t want to have to shout about my work. I want to do my work. That’s what I came for. And frankly, I’m a little tired of feeling that this attitude is a deficiency on my part.

At the same time, I’m tired of feeling like I should apologize every time I make an announcement of the ego-squee variety, lest I be mistaken for one of those people who bombard everyone in their immediate vicinity with announcements about their 17-volume self-published series (and who can blame them, since this is how self-publishing works?)

How can I feel both of these things at the same time in a single brainsack? I HAVE NO IDEA. I can only conclude that something is crazy here—and you know what? It ain’t me.

Being an author is like being a parent. No matter how hard you’re working, it will never be enough. By the time you figure out how you should be doing it, time has moved on and the parameters have changed. No matter what you do, somebody will be convinced you’re doing it wrong. It’s a messy, sprawling business.

For a few years I made a concerted effort to blog, go on Twitter, become more visible. I felt I had fallen short with promoting my work when my kids were babies and I had no broadband. I realised I would need to hold up my end better. It’s true that I’ve made some great friends online. But honestly? I can’t see any difference between my visibility before I got on social media and after. It was low before and it stayed that way.

One reason why it’s taking me a long time to get this new website off the ground is that between my studies and writing I’m really very pressed. The other reason is that I’ve enjoyed being inaccessible for a little while. It’s been a relief. I’ve been able to hear myself think. And, coming back even a little from this break, I’m conscious of a shift in my feelings about these things.

I’ve finally got a novel coming out this year, and I’m going to need to do some stuff to publicize it. I‘ll make announcements. I’ll blog about stuff. I will do what I can to push the book, within reason. I’ll be available to readers who are interested in my work, as ever.

Honestly, though? The more of this drumming that I have to do, the less I am writing fiction.

Life is short. I know what I’m here for.


Do it like a fungus

It’s been so long since I blogged that I feel all shy.

sky-fox (photo from via

Thing is, I’ve been restricting social media use to the bare minimum to avoid distractions, and it’s working really well. Still, in the interest of not disappearing altogether, I’m going to see if I can’t manage to blog from time to time. Nothing ambitious.

Yesterday I visited Ravenstone Press, which is the new children’s imprint run by the same people who bring us Solaris Books. They are publishing Shadowboxer this October as a YA title, and we had a really good meeting about how that will work. I came away very happy.

The new website is all echoey and empty due to my administrivia failures. There are bits of news, though. The SF Gateway now have some of my backlist available as digital downloads worldwide, specifically LetheSomeone to Watch Over MeDreaming in Smoke and Maul. For readers new to my work, I’d say Maul is the most accomplished thing on the list, Someone to Watch Over Me was generally ignored when it came out and shouldn’t have been, and Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke for 1999. Lethe is my first novel, different in tone to the others, more traditional SF. I was 26 when I wrote it.

Of Lethe: I’ve just heard from Imogen Church that she has finished recording the audio book. I’ll give a shout when it’s on the market.

Other than that, I’m heavy into the energy eigenvectors and the spin states. Indistinguishability. Up next: entanglement. Utterly boggley–I’m told you don’t grok it, you just do the maths and hope for the best.

The SF novel is creeping forward. Do it like a fungus, do it like a mold. That’s my rallying cry for this one.

PS (I will be posting this on the new WordPress site and also on livejournal for now, until I am better organised.)

PPS The font here is coming out grey and I don’t know how to fix it, but I will. Argh, WordPress!

Under construction

Everyone says that WordPress is delightful and idiot-proof, but I have not found this to be so! Please bear with me while I get a grip. There will be a blog and website up here pretty soon.