At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…
In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.
In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.
The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably.Â And in case it’s not obvious, IÂ should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.
Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.
Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.
My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.
Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.
Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.
Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.
This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.
I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.
There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.
Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.
Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.
Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.
Over the weekend I came across one of those many internet tropes – a quote from someone, on a pretty background, with no interpretive comment by the poster. I must admit that normally I ignore these and scroll past them to a post which has more engagement with a real person. But this one did actually catch my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I was already thinking about.
Here’s the quote (without the pretty background)
“Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities” (Miriam Allen deFord)
Of course I started worrying at this, like a lively dog chewing at a toy. Leaving aside the rather pleasing symmetry of words, did I actually agree with it? The lady to whom the quote is attributed was an American writer whose main activity was in the mid-twentieth century. She was roughly contemporary with EE (Doc) Smith, a generation down from HG Wells, and rather older than Isaac Asimov. Most of her writing was in the form of short stories for magazines, though she wrote a few novels as well. She straddled the genres of mystery writing, true crime accounts, and science fiction – for the curious who don’t want to shell out real money, several of her works are on the Project Gutenberg site.
So, did I end up agreeing with the sentiment? Well, not really. Miriam Allen deFord was writing in a time when genres were quite strictly defined, especially by those individuals who ran the magazines of the day. Those people were hugely influential within their sphere, and were instrumental in founding the writing careers of a lot of people. But their personal likes and dislikes shaped what was written. Allegedly, Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about alien life because John Campbell, editor at Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog), had a personal antipathy to that kind of storyline. In Asimov’s case, the habit was so strong that, so far as I can recall, aliens appear just twice in his writing – in a parallel universe in The Gods Themselves, and in an enormously far ahead future in The End of Infinity.
We live today in a different world. Genres do not create such important divisions. This is most true in the indie world, but successful authors in the trad world also experiment with crossing genre boundaries. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro has explored several non-standard plotlines and combinations. But many indie authors positively revel in creating books which don’t fit traditional pigeonholes.
Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are often bundled together under the joint heading “speculative fiction”, with less perceived importance on whether the particular book fits one side or the other of some imaginary line. To be sure, there is still a spectrum of actual content, from “hard” science fiction in which the science bit seeks to be as credible as possible, through to fantasy which does not even seek a rational justification for actions or attributes. Most of my science fiction writing leans towards the geeky end of that spectrum, with Half Sick of Shadows a striking exception. Anyway, within that spectrum there are enormous areas of mixed colour – plot elements for which either a scientific or fantasy explanation might be found, and about which perhaps different characters in the book might hold different opinions. I think that’s fine, and a sign that the whole field has matured from a kind of binary opposition.
Well, a couple of weeks have passed and it’s time to get back to blogging. And for this week, here is the Alexa post that I mentioned a little while ago, back in December last year.
First, to anticipate a later part of this post, is the extract of Alexa reciting the first few lines of Wordsworth’s Daffodils…
It has been a busy time for Alexa generally – Amazon have extended sales of various of the hardware gizmos to many other countries. That’s well and good for everyone: the bonus for us developers is that they have also extended the range of countries into which custom skills can be deployed. Sometimes with these expansions Amazon helpfully does a direct port to the new locale, and other times it’s up to the developer to do this by hand. So when skills appeared in India, everything I had done to that date was copied across automatically, without me having to do my own duplication of code. From Monday Jan 8th the process of generating default versions for Australia and New Zealand will begin. And Canada is also now in view. Of course, that still leaves plenty of future catch-up work, firstly making sure that their transfer process worked OK, and secondly filling in the gaps for combinations of locale and skill which didn’t get done. The full list of languages and countries to which skills can be deployed is now
English (Australia / New Zealand)
Based on progress so far, Amazon will simply continue extending this to other combinations over time. I suspect that French Canadian will be quite high on their list, and probably other European languages – for example Spanish would give a very good international reach into Latin America. Hindi would be a good choice, and Chinese too, presupposing that Amazon start to market Alexa devices there. Currently an existing Echo or Dot will work in China if hooked up to a network, but so far as I know the gadgets are not on sale there – instead several Chinese firms have begun producing their own equivalents. Of course, there’s nothing to stop someone in another country accessing the skill in one or other of the above languages – for example a Dutch person might consider using either the English (UK) or German option.
To date I have not attempted porting any skills in German or Japanese, essentially through lack of necessary language skills. But all of the various English variants are comparatively easy to adapt to, with an interesting twist that I’ll get to later.
So my latest skill out of the stable, so to speak, is Wordsworth Facts. It has two parts – a small list of facts about the life of William Wordsworth, his family, and some of his colleagues, and also some narrated portions from his poems. Both sections will increase over time as I add to them. It was interesting, and a measure of how text-to-speech technology is improving all the time, to see how few tweaks were necessary to get Alexa to read these extract tolerably well. Reading poetry is harder than reading prose, and I was expecting difficulties. The choice of Wordsworth helped here, as his poetry is very like prose (indeed, he was criticised for this at the time). As things turned out, in this case some additional punctuation was needed to get these sounding reasonably good, but that was all. Unlike some of the previous reading portions I have done, there was no need to tinker with phonetic alphabets to get words sounding right. It certainly helps not to have ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, or futuristic names in the mix!
And this brings me to one of the twists in the internationalisation of skills. The same letter can sound rather different in different versions of English when used in a word – you say tomehto and I say tomarto, and all that. And I necessarily have to dive into custom pronunciations of proper names of characters and such like – Damariel gets a bit messed up, and even Mitnash, which I had assumed would be easily interpreted, gets mangled. So part of the checking process will be to make sure that where I have used a custom phonetic version of someone’s name, it comes out right.
Wordsworth Facts is live across all of the English variants listed above – just search in your local Amazon store in the Alexa Skills section by name (or to see all my skills to date, search for “DataScenes Development“, which is the identity I use for coding purposes. If you’re looking at the UK Alexa Skills store, 4194670454.
The next skill I am planning to go live with, probably in the next couple of weeks, is Polly Reads. Those who read this blog regularly – or indeed the Before The Second Sleep blog (see this link, or this, or this) – may well think of Polly as Alexa’s big sister. Polly can use multiple different voices and languages rather than a fixed one, though Polly is focused on generating spoken speech rather than interpreting what a user might be saying (the module in Amazon’s suite that does the comprehension bit is called Lex). So Polly Reads is a compendium of all the various book readings I have set up using Polly, onto which I’ll add a few of my own author readings where I haven’t yet set Polly up with the necessary text and voice combinations. The skill is kind of like a playlist, or maybe a podcast, and naturally my plan is to extend the set of readings over time. More news of that will be posted before the end of the month, all being well.
The process exposed a couple of areas where I would really like Amazon to enhance the audio capabilities of Alexa. The first was when using the built-in ability to access music (ie not my own custom skill). Compared to a lot of Alexa interaction, this feels very clunky – there is no easy way to narrow in on a particular band, for example – “The band is Dutch and they play prog rock but I can’t remember the name” could credibly come up with Kayak, but doesn’t. There’s no search facility built in to the music service. And you have to get the track name pretty much dead on – “Alexa, Play The Last Farewell by Billy Boyd” gets you nowhere except for a “I can’t find that” message, since it is called “The Last Goodbye“. A bit more contextual searching would be good. Basically, this boils down to a shortfall in what technically we call context, and what in a person would be short-term memory – the coder of a skill has to decide exactly what snippets of information to remember from the interaction so far – anything which is not explicitly remembered, will be discarded.
That was a user-moan. The secondÂ is more of a developer-moan. Playing audio tracks of more than a few seconds – like a book extract, or a decent length piece of music – involves transferring control from your own skill to Alexa, who then manages the sequencing of tracks and all that. That’s all very well, and I understand the purpose behind it, but it also means that you have lost some control over the presentation of the skill as the various tracks play. For example, on the new Echo Show (the one with the screen) you cannot interleave the tracks with relevant pictures – like a book cover, for example. Basically the two bits of capability don’t work very well together. Of course all these things are very new, but it would be great to see some better integration between the different pieces of the jigsaw. Hopefully this will be improved with time…
I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…
So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.
Specially, I read this:
We have completed the review process for your book âHalf Sick of Shadowsâ and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work. In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.
Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!
A follow-up to my earlier post this week, catching up on some more news. But first, here is a couple of snaps (one enlarged and annotated) I took earlier today in the early morning as I walked to East Finchley tube station.
Â The Moon, Jupiter and Mars, annotated
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars
All very evocative, and leads nicely into my next link, which isÂ a guest post I wrote for Lisl’s Before the Second Sleep blog, on the subject of title. Naturally enough, it’s a topic that really interests me – how will human settlements across the solar system adapt to and reflect the physical nature of the world they are set on?
In particular I look at Mars’ moon Phobos, both in the post and in Timing. So far as we can tell, Phobos is extremely fragile. Several factors cause this, including its original component parts, the closeness of its orbit to Mars, and the impact of whatever piece of space debris caused the giant crater Stickney. But whatever the cause… how might human society adapt to living on a moon where you can’t trust the ground below your feet? For the rest of the post, follow this link.
And also here’s a reminder of the Kindle Countdown offer on most of my books, and the Goodreads giveaway on Half Sick of Shadows. Here are the links…
Half Sick of Shadows is 5188184695, with three copies to be won by the end of this coming weekend.
All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at Â£0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively – but once again only until the end of the weekend. Links for these are:
It’s been an exceptionally busy time at work recently, so I haven’t had time to write much. But happily, lots of other things are happening, so here’s a compendium of them.
First, Half Sick of Shadows was reviewed on Sruti’s Bookblog, with a follow-up interview. The links are: the review itself, plus the first and second half of the interview. “She wishes for people to value her but they seem to be changing and missing…Â She can see the world, but she always seemed curbed and away from everything.”
Secondly, right now there’s a whole lot of deals available on my novels, from oldest to newest. Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of next weekend.
All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at Â£0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively. Links for these are:
Amazon rules prevent me from putting Half Sick of Shadows on a countdown deal (it’s already too economically priced) but in order to be more or less consistent there is a Goodreads giveaway of three copies running at the same time – just follow the link on or after December 10th to enter!
A few days ago on The Review Facebook page (look back to December 1st) the question was posed – what person in history would you like to see written about? Naturally enough, most replies focused on historical individuals who had lived interesting lives but had never really had the attention in fact or fiction that the various contributors felt was appropriate.
Now, I kept quiet in this discussion, because my mind had immediately run away down an entirely different avenue, and it didn’t seem the right place to ramble on about that. But here in the blog is a different matter!
Doggerland is the name we give to the stretch of land which once joined the eastern counties of England to parts of Europe. Nowadays the North Sea covers that whole span, but every so often ancient relics are retrieved, mostly by accident in fishing nets (the first such being a barbed antler tool back in 1931). The name Doggerland comes from the Dogger Bank, which is a large region of sandbanks and shoals in the North Sea, in places no more than 50′ deep.
So nowadays the sea divides Norfolk and the Netherlands, Lincolnshire and Denmark. And with climate change and slowly rising sea levels, this is unlikely to change. But let’s roll back some ten thousand years, and see the changing picture.
When the land warmed after the last ice age, Britain and Europe were united by a broad low-lying tract of land (this was c. 11000BC). This land was never rugged or mountainous – imagine something like present day East Anglia, Holland, or Denmark, and you have the picture. Two arms of seawater divided this from Scandinavia to the north-east, and Scotland and Northumberland to the north-west. Several rivers – including the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine – flowed into this broad plain, and thence into the Atlantic via what was to become the English Channel.
The land was good for hunting and trapping animals, the margins had fish and shellfish, and when early farmers arrived they found the soil to be fertile. It was, I suspect, a pleasant and welcoming place to be, with a climate becoming gradually milder as, decade by decade, the Ice Age retreated. The sea level rose as the ice melted. In some places, the land sank down as the sheer weight of the glaciers further north was released – this is still happening in the Scilly Isles which, very very slowly, are being submerged. Both factors spelled the end for Doggerland.
By now this huge expanse of territory has completely disappeared. This did not happen overnight – best estimates are that it was all gone a little before 6000BC, so it took around five thousand years to dwindle. The occupants, whether living a hunter-gatherer or settled lifestyle, had many generations to adjust to the change. I suppose they had oral traditions which spoke of how this island used to be attached to the land, or that forest used to extend several days’ journey further north. But within that long span of steady reduction, most likely there were also sudden calamities. A storm surge one winter might have taken away miles of coastline. An autumn flood might have demolished a natural barrier to the water, exposing the lower fields beyond. A series of unusually high tides might turn fresh water meadows to salt marsh. A landslide in Norway, resulting in a tsunami, probably did much to finish the process. All of these things have been seen in the low-lying lands which still border the North Sea.
Extensive study has revealed a lot about this drowned land – see 361-401-1127 for a summary of investigations by several Scottish universities. Or 866-584-6929 for an account of work to map the surface features which still remain.
So the story I want to tell, one day, is the story of the last person to leave Doggerland. Or, more widely, the last community to abandon its shrinking and increasingly boggy surface. What was it like to leave the places, practical and sacred, which their people had moved through for so long? How were they received by those groups already living in the regions around? Did they look back with relief or regret?
Perhaps one day, when I want to switch back from science fiction to ancient history, it’s a story that I will tell.