British Fiction Focus

Smoke on the Water Stories, Squared

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s weekly column dedicated to news and new releases from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

It’s been a week of high and lows, I suppose. One the one hand, thousands of science fiction fans are gearing up for Eastercon 2013, AKA Eight Squared, which promises to provide a long weekend of genre-oriented excitement, including panels, music, art and hilarity. On the other, there was some very sad news last Wednesday: James Herbert, author of Ash and The Rats, has died.

We’ll touch on both of these stories in this week’s edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, in addition to taking in the launch of a line of lavish speculative classics from HarperCollins Voyager, the unveiling of Hodder & Stoughton’s cover art for Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep—how can it possibly compete with the North American cover, I wonder?—and, last but not least, a flood of short fiction by Neil Gaiman and a number of other authors.

Meanwhile, the week in new releases includes a tremendous trio from PS Publishing, the latest from former rocket scientist Simon Morden, Will Hill’s third Department 19 novel and the conclusion of Greg Bear’s trilogy of Halo prequels. That isn’t even the half of it, either!


Eastercon Ahoy!

Every year since 1955, the Easter weekend has been co-opted by leagues of genre fiction fans—but Eastercon’s actual origins stretch back in time even farther. In fact, this year marks the 64th such event, hence the subtitle, Eight Squared Con.

From the FAQ:

Eastercon is traditionally focused on written science fiction and fantasy, but there are strong programme streams for film, TV, gaming, costuming and other related activities. The Guests of Honour are usually authors, artists and prominent fans rather than professional actors, and there is a strong social element to the convention.

So what can attendees look forward to?

A quick look through the schedule, which you can read right here, reveals a staggering array of events. The shortlist for this year’s Hugos will be revealed, meanwhile we’ll hear about the winners of the British Science Fiction Association’s own awards. The season premiere of Doctor Who will be screened, and an episode of the hilarious panel show Just a Minute will be recorded, to air on BBC Radio 4 later.

That’s not all, obviously. Books will be launched, by Freda Warrington and Cory Doctorow among others. Those authors will also read from their new novels… as will Jaine Fenn, Walter Jon Williams, Ira Nayman, Ian Whates, Gareth Powell, Stephanie Saulter, Emma Newman, Mike Shevdon, David Murphy, Marion Pitman, Janine Ashbless and Roz Kaveney.

And there’ll be panels aplenty! On The Changing Portrayal of Gender and Sexuality in SF and Fantasy, Underground London and Victorian Values… as well as subjects such as whitewashing, motherhood and older women in genre fiction, works from beyond the Western world.

Eight Squared Con takes place in Bradford from March 29th through April 1st, and make no mistake: it’s going to be great. The only slight downside I can see is that there’s likely to less drinking than at the Sci-fi Weekender.

Speaking of liquids….

A Sea of Stories

It occurs to me that we’ve touched on my penchant for alcohol several times in the British Genre Fiction Focus already, but as particular as I am about a nice pint, water is also pretty awesome.

For serious! See here:

It covers three quarters of our planet and makes up two thirds of our bodies. We thirst for it and bathe in it, but how do the increasing pressures on water supplies from climate change and economic crisis seep into our imagination? The Guardian’s short fiction project Water Stories asks writers from around the world to distil the essence of modern life, charting the ebb and flow of our cultural existence to explore the element from which we are born and which has inspired writers since Gilgamesh crossed the Waters of Death.

And so, to celebrate World Water Day 2013—who knew that was a thing anyway?—The Guardian enlisted the assistance of eight authors to tackle the titular topic, thanks to funding from the National Lottery.

British Genre Fiction Focus Water Stories

A whole week’s worth of wonderful short fiction followed, beginning with “Sea Story” by A. S. Byatt, continuing care of The Carhullan Army’s Sarah Hall, and ending with “Down to a Sunless Sea” by none other than Neil Gaiman, whose participation led to my mentioning the series here.

In between times, this salute to all things liquid in literature also featured three shorts translated into English for the first time, ‘The Swimming Pool’ by Jekwu Anyaegbuna, and last but not least an astonishing graphic story—that’s posh code for a comic strip—by Isabel Greenberg.

I wouldn’t swear by it at this stage, but I do believe I’ll be reading a few of these for a subsequent edition of the Short Fiction Spotlight, so if you’ve been following that feature series, you have your work cut out for you.

Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, doesn’t it?

Can Doctor Sleep Compete?

We’ve known about it for many months—years, even!—but the idea that we’ll be reading the sequel to The Shining before the end of 2013 still strikes me as strange.

Strange… but indubitably true. Doctor Sleep will be published in late September in both Great Britain and the United States, and as of now we know what both editions will look like. Scribner released the awesome North American cover art some time ago, but not to be beaten to the punch, Hodder & Stoughton just unveiled their take.

And it’s great. Somewhat less striking than the other, but much more fun. Try moving your mouse cursor over the smoke:

This amused me for many minutes. I only wish we could pet the little kitty too!

Before I get distracted by this animated art again, here’s the book’s blurb:

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless—mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”

Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival….

I’ve followed Stephen King through thick and through thin, and though I’d argue he’s been on something of an upswing in recent years—beginning with Duma Key in ought eight—I confess to feeling nervous about Doctor Sleep.

It could very well be brilliant. All things considered, I expect that before a travesty. But what worries me most is that it’ll fall somewhere the middle, and no masterpiece needs a mediocre sequel.

We’ll find out one way or the other in September, I guess.

Voyager Classics

An alarming number of new genre novels—six of which we’ll talk about shortly—are on the slate for publication this Thursday, but in addition to these, March 28th also marks the release date of the Voyager Classics Collection.

Say what?

The Voyager Classics Collection aims to reprint timeless works of Science Fiction and Fantasy in beautiful clothbound editions, creating a collection of iconic books celebrating the some of the best works of not only the genre, but of modern literature. The collection includes works from seminal authors such as George R.R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury and William Gibson. The stunning clothbound editions, which will appeal not only to fans of SF and Fantasy, but also collectors and enthusiasts of beautiful books, are the perfect addition to any booklover’s library.

Having laid hands of several of these deluxe hardcovers already, I wanted to feature them here in the British Genre Fiction Focus… because they really are worth owning. The presentation of the various Voyager Classics put me in mind of the few Folio editions I’m lucky enough to have in my library: one senses no expense has been spared in putting these beautiful books together.

British Genre Fiction Focus Voyager Classics

Eight landmark works of science fiction and fantasy have been given the treatment to date, including A Game of Thrones, I, Robot, The Hobbit and Fahrenheit 451. I plan to take this opportunity to catch up on a few classics I really should have read—namely Assassin’s Apprentice and Neuromancer—but I’m tempted to buy Magician and The Once and Future King as well.

Truth be told, though, I’m this close to ordering the rest of the collection. Trust me: they’re that lovely.

So Long, and Thanks for all the Scares

I take no pleasure in closing out the news section on a low note, but for horror fiction fans around the world, and particularly in Great Britain, this week brought word of the death of an author who helped define the genre we hold in such high regard.

Last Wednesday, James Herbert passed away peacefully at his home in Sussex.

He was only 69 years old, but he changed the world, in his way.


As Herbert’s long-time editor Jeremy Trevathan said, “His death marks the passing of one of the giants of popular fiction in the 20th century,” and there’s no getting around the impact he had on the horror genre. Beginning with The Rats in 1974, which shifted 100,000 copies in less than one month—figures we rarely see these days, and almost never from debuts—James Herbert’s work was read widely, and appreciated dearly.

His 23 novels—the last of which, Ash, was published in paperback in the UK just one week before he passed—were translated into 34 languages, collectively selling upwards of 50 million copies worldwide… a truly astonishing number which speaks to Herbert’s ability to reach far beyond the genre he made his own from day one.

A incredible array of other authors have paid tribute to the late, great master of the macabre in the week since we heard of Herbert’s death, but of all the anecdotes and stories, Hari Kunzru’s reminiscence best encapsulates my feelings:

When I was 11, my tastes were more or less fixed on SF and fantasy, with an occasional foray into the yellowing thrillers (Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean) to be found on the shelves in the spare bedroom. At school, though, there was only one writer who counted, and that was James Herbert.

Boys who generally showed no interest in books were furtively passing round copies of The Rats and The Dark, marking particularly grotesque passages, quoting them to each other with the same mix of disgust and fascination the girls (I later learned) were getting from the goldfish scene in Shirley Conran’s Lace. I was (still am) a sensitive child, who tended to take things to heart, and, in general, I avoided horror novels, but I didn’t want to be left out.

The Dark was supposed to be about an ancient malignant evil. I knew about that from The Lord of the Rings. How bad could it be? Very bad indeed, as it turned out. The Dark is a force, a visible evil miasma, the type of thing that came easily to English imaginations before the clean air act. It makes people do terrible, often sexually violent, things. We’d just moved into an old house, which had been owned by an elderly lady. My room had no carpet. The bulb in the ceiling light flickered. I had no paranormal investigators to help me fight. I succumbed to a state of abject terror… I did finish it, but I had to do it by daylight, in cheerful communal places, mostly the living room. I never read another.

For yours truly, it was The Rats rather than The Dark that disturbed me beyond belief when I was still getting used to life in the double digits—and like Hari Kunzru, I never went back to the well, for fear of the horrors it held.

That said, I’m nearly 30 years old at the time of this writing, and I’ve read a whole lot of horror since The Rats made its unforgettable mark on me. Surely now I have the intestinal fortitude to make it through another round of the terror James Herbert made his trademark….

Alas, I’m at a loss as to which of his books to tackle. Any advice?

Moving on, because we must, let’s take a look at the week in new releases.


The Curve of the Earth (Petrovitch #4), by Simon Morden (March 28, Orbit)

Post-apocalyptic London, full of street gangs and homeless refugees. A dangerous city needs an equally dangerous saviour.

Step forward Samuil Petrovitch, a genius with extensive cybernetic replacements, a built-in AI with god-like capabilities and a full armoury of Russian swear words. He’s dragged the city back from the brink more than once—and made a few enemies on the way.

So when his adopted daughter Lucy goes missing in Alaska, he has some clue who’s responsible and why. It never occurs to him that guessing wrong could tip the delicate balance of nuclear-armed nations. This time it’s not just a city that needs saving: it’s the whole world.

Department 19: Battle Lines (Department 19 #3), by Will Hill (March 28, HarperCollins Children’s)

As the clock ticks remorselessly towards Zero Hour and the return of Dracula, the devastated remnants of Department 19 try to hold back the rising darkness.

Jamie Carpenter is training new recruits, trying to prepare them for a fight that appears increasingly futile. Kate Randall is pouring her grief into trying to plug the Department’s final leaks, as Matt Browning races against time to find a cure for vampirism. And on the other side of the world, Larissa Kinley has found a place she feels at home, yet where she makes a startling discovery.

Uneasy truces are struck, new dangers emerge on all sides, and relationships are pushed to breaking point. And in the midst of it all, Department 19 faces a new and potentially deadly threat, born out of one of the darkest moments of its own long and bloody history.

Zero Hour is coming. And the Battle Lines have been drawn.

Fragments (Partials #2), by Dan Wells (March 28, HarperCollins Children’s)

It is the eleventh hour of humanity’s time on earth; this journey may be their last.

Kira Walker nearly died searching for the RM cure, but the battle for survival is only just beginning. The genetically-engineered Partials are inextricably bound to a greater plan that could save both races and give Kira the answers she desperately seeks.

Venturing deep into the wasteland, Kira’s only allies are an unhinged drifter and two Partials who betrayed her yet saved her life—the only ones who know her secret.

Back on Long Island, what’s left of humanity is gearing up for war. But their greatest enemy may be one they didn’t even know existed.

Halo: Silentium (Forerunner Trilogy #3), by Greg Bear (March 28, Tor UK)

In the first Forerunner novel, rebellious young Forerunner Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting crosses the paths of two humans and the long-life line of a great military leader, forever changing Bornstellar’s destiny… and the fate of the entire galaxy.

In the second, those two humans—Chakas and Riser—are captured by the Master Builder, misplaced during a furious battle in space, and find themselves on an inverted world where horizons rise into the sky, and where humans of all kinds are trapped in a perilous cycle of horror and neglect. They became both research animals and strategic pawns in a cosmic game whose madness knows no end—a game of ancient vengeance between the powers who seeded the galaxy with life, and the Forerunners who expect to inherit their sacred Mantle of duty to all living things.

Now, the third book in this ground-breaking trilogy will reveal the ultimate purpose of this ancient game, challenging everything we thought we knew about the Forerunners.

Lover at Last (Black Dagger Brotherhood #11), by J. R. Ward (March 28, Piatkus)

In the darkest corners of the night in Caldwell, New York, a conflict like no other rages. The city is home to a band of brothers born to defend their race: the warrior vampires of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

Qhuinn, son of no one, is used to being on his own. Disavowed from his bloodline, shunned by the aristocracy, he has finally found an identity as one of the most brutal fighters in the war against the Lessening Society. But his life is not complete. Even as the prospect of having a family of his own seems to be within reach, he is empty on the inside, his heart given to another.

Blay, after years of unrequited love, has moved on from his feelings for Qhuinn. And it’s about time: the male has found his perfect match in a Chosen female, and they are going to have a young—just as Qhuinn has always wanted for himself. It’s hard to see the new couple together, but building your life around a pipe dream is just a heartbreak waiting to happen. As he’s learned first-hand.

Fate seems to have taken these vampire soldiers in different directions, but as the battle over the race’s throne intensifies, and new players on the scene in Caldwell create mortal danger for the Brotherhood, Qhuinn finally learns the true definition of courage….

Martian Sands, by Lavie Tidhar (March 29, PS Publishing)

1941: an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour, a man from the future materialises in President Roosevelt’s office. His offer of military aid may cut the War and its pending atrocities short, and alter the course of the future….

The future: welcome to Mars, where the lives of three ordinary people become entwined in one dingy smokesbar the moment an assassin opens fire. The target: the mysterious Bill Glimmung. But is Glimmung even real? The truth might just be found in the remote FDR Mountains, an empty place, apparently of no significance, but where digital intelligences may be about to bring to fruition a long-held dream of the stars.

Mixing mystery and science fiction, the Holocaust and the Mars of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, Martian Sands is a story of both the past and future, of hope, and love, and of finding meaning—no matter where—or when—you are.

Starship Seasons, by Eric Brown (March 29, PS Publishing)

On the backwater colony world of Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis, all is not what it seems…All David Conway wants after the death of his daughter and the break-up of his marriage is a quiet life away from Earth—and when he comes to Chalcedony he thinks he’s found that. What he does find is a group of people whose friendship will change his life forever, as well as a haunted starship, extra-terrestrials with an uncanny ability to read future events, and a conflict between alien races that has lasted for millennia… and is about to begin all over again.

In this wonderful series, Eric Brown gives us aliens, fabulous works of art, starships and teleportation… plus some of the most delightful characters ever to grace the printed page.

A Very British History, by Paul McAuley (March 29, PS Publishing)

While the use of genetically engineered dolls in combat games in near-future Holland poses profound ethical questions, their liberated cousins threaten to alter the nature of human existence; on an artificial world beyond the edge of the Milky Way, one of the last humans triggers a revolution amongst alien races abandoned there by her ancestors; in the ocean of Europa, a hunter confronts a monster with its own agenda; in “The Two Dicks,” bestselling author Philip K. Dick has a life-changing meeting with President Nixon; while in “Cross Road Blues” the fate of American history hinges on the career of an itinerant blues musician; and in the Sturgeon Award-winning novella “The Choice,” two young men make very different decisions about how they will come to terms with a world transformed by climate change and alien interference.

Selected by the author himself from his output across over a quarter of a century, this landmark collection contains the very finest science fiction stories by one of Britain’s foremost masters of the genre. From sharply satirical alternate histories to explorations of the outer edges of biotechnology, from tales of extravagant far futures to visions of the transformative challenges of deep space, they showcase the reach and restless intelligence of a writer Publishers Weekly has praised as being “one of the field’s finest practitioners.”


The only gimme for me this week is The Curve of the Earth, though I’d love to take a look at every last one of the books PS Publishing are poised to launch during Eastercon, especially Starship Seasons. I’ve heard these novellas—now conveniently collected, not to mention nicely presented—demonstrate Eric Brown at his very best, and given how much I enjoyed Engineman and The Kings of Eternity, that’s saying something.

But what about you folks? Did any of this week’s new releases appeal? Please do tell.

I’d also invite you to share your favourite memories about James Herbert and/or former Eastercons in the comments section.

Failing that, we’ll talk again next Wednesday, as ever. In the intervening period… have a week!

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.


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