Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Solaris Rising 3 - interview with the editor Ian Whates & a review


I managed to catch up with Ian Whates, the editor of this fine anthology and asked him a few questions -



For anyone who hasn't come across a Solaris Rising book before can you describe what they're all about?

Good question.  Let’s see if I can formulate a halfway decent answer.  I’ve compiled many anthologies over the past nine years, mostly via my own NewCon Press with a few The Mammoth Book of… titles thrown in for good measure.  However, these have all been themed.  With the Solaris Rising series I wanted to take a different approach.  I saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength and breadth of science fiction, to highlight the sheer variety that the genre contains.  The intention is to provide established SF fans with entertainment value via a veritable smörgasbord of high quality stories but also, hopefully, to showcase what modern SF has to offer for new readers or those who have lost faith with the genre.  Science fiction continues to be a vibrant, inventive, and relevant form of literature.  If somebody comes away from reading one (or even all) of the SR volumes having discovered a new author or two whose novels and work they want to explore further… Job done.    


I guess the obvious question is - how do you choose the stories/contributors?

I start by drawing up a shortlist of authors I’d like to include in the book, then set about approaching them, giving as much notice as possible and hoping their many other commitments enable them to submit within the time frame.  Of course, there are always those who can’t, those who agree to but then find that life sneaks up on them, and those who submit stories that aren’t quite what I’m looking for.  SR3 features at least two (Ian R MacLeod and Ken Liu) that I’ve been badgering for submissions since the very first book, while there are still a number (Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Bear, etc) whom I’ve yet to persuade.  I primarily approach established names, conscious that the line-up has to contain enough well-known authors to attract readers, but I invariable sneak in one or two lesser known writers as well, those whose work I’m confident can sit comfortably in such company. 

As the stories come in and are either accepted, set aside for further consideration, or rejected, I begin to build a picture in my mind, not so much of subject matter as the tone and feel of the accepted pieces, and going forward this helps decide what I continue to take.  Sometimes I read a story and think, “Yes, that’s the perfect opener,” or, “That provides the final word I’ve been looking for.”  Generally, though, I leave the ordering of the ToC until after all the stories are in.


As well as this excellent collection what's coming up next? What are you currently working on?

Funny you should ask…  On the writing front, I have a number of new short stories set to appear in the next few months, including pieces in Galaxy’s Edge, Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction and PostScripts, as well as in several anthologies.

On the editing/publishing front, I’m about to publish several new titles via NewCon Press at the London Worldcon, with a launch party on the Friday afternoon.  These include The Race, debut novel from Nina Allan, who is a wonderful writer.  She won a BSFA Award earlier this year and also France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.  Then there’s Marcher, a novel by another wonderful writer Chris Beckett, who won the Edge Hill Prize a few years back (from a shortlist that included a Booker Prize winner and two Booker shortlisted authors) and the Arthur C Clarke Award last year.  This novel was originally released as a paperback in the USA in 2009 but Chris was never satisfied with it, so he’s taken the opportunity to completely rewrite the text, even changing the perspective from first to third person and giving us a different ending.  I’m also releasing Sibilant Fricative, a book of critical essays and reviews of literary and cinematic SF by Adam Roberts, whose pithy putdowns have to be seen to be believed.  And then, of course, there is Paradox

This features all new stories inspired by the Fermi Paradox, and I’ve managed to prise stories from some fabulous authors (Mike Resnick, Pat Cadigan, Paul Cornell, Paul di Filippo, Robert Reed, Adam Roberts, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke, Tricia Sullivan, George Zebrowski, Mercurio D Rivera, Stephanie Saulter, Adrian Tchaikovsky, etc) as well as a number of scientists. The book features a fascinating introduction by astronomer Marek Kukula and his colleague at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Rob Edwards, while the hardback finishes with an essay by Stephen Baxter.  I’m really excited by this one, in fact by all the new releases. 


You say the best opening line in the book is by Laura Lam (“I thought I would write and tell you what happened after you died.”) - How important are opening lines in your opinion?

A good opening line is a tremendous asset for a story.  It helps hook the reader (or the editor receiving the submission), which means they immediately have something invested in what follows.  Of course, if what follows fails to live up to that initial promise, then the best opening line in the world will go to waste.  However, it’s very easy for a writer to underestimate the importance of that opening line.  Always worth a little bit of extra care with that one, as it sets the tone.


You've worked with lots of names in the field, is there someone you'd really like to work with but you've not had the chance to yet & if so why them?

Good Lord, yes.  Loads of them.  The day there isn’t is the day I’ll pack up being an editor.  My two biggest thrills in editing are: 1) when I get the chance to work with an author whose writing I love, whose books and stories I’ve devoured as a child/teen/adult, and 2) being able to publish the work of a really exciting new or lesser known author whose writing excites me as much as any of the big names.  Sorry, I haven’t been specific here because there really are so many authors I have ambitions to work with, and if I provided a list of names I’d only look at this an hour or so later and think, “How could I possibly miss him/her out?”  As for why… Because in every instance I love their writing.  Simple as that.


You say that you'd like to showcase SF "without placing any restraints on the authors’ imagination by imposing a theme", why is that principle important for Solaris Rising? Can you envisage future themes?

Not with the Solaris Rising series no, not unless the publisher was to decide on a change of tack and asked me to – at the end of the day, this is their series.  I’m simply the custodian who has the privilege of marshalling the books on Solaris’ behalf.  As explained in my opening response, the whole intent of SR is to showcase variety and quality; that’s been my mission statement since I embarked on the project and, in a sense, provides a very loose set of parameters in itself.  


What is your criteria for defining a short as Science Fiction, as opposed to any other genre?

Hah!  The old hoary dilemma: put any twenty science fiction fans or writers in a room and ask them to define ‘science fiction’ and you’ll end up with twenty different answers…  I suppose it comes down to my own internal compass.  I know what I consider to be science fiction and what not.  Whether I could ever express that in a concise and consistent manner is a different question.  Over the years there have been submissions, including some from big-name authors, which I’ve rejected for various SR volumes because they simply weren’t SF (in my opinion).  At the same time, each volume has included stories, particularly those that veer towards the weirder side, which others might have disqualified were they in my shoes.  For example, Jayne Fenn’s “Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions” and Tricia Sulivan’s “The One that Got Away”, both from volume 1, and Mike Allen’s “Still Life with Skull” from volume 2.  Even Nina Allan’s “The Science of Chance” in volume 3 may have its sceptics, since this is a police procedural in an alternative reality Russia, but I’ve always considered that a branch of SF.

I suppose, at the end of the day, a story’s tone and the language used, its structure and ambition, play as much a part as its content.

Actually the series has included one story that definitely isn’t SF, although it is about the genre: Peter F Hamilton’s “Return of the Mutant Worms” from volume 1.     


Do you think there is an ideal length for a short story?

No.  There are some great flash pieces and some fabulous novellas, stopping off at just about every point in between.  One of my own pieces that I’m particularly satisfied with, “Digital Democracy” (which was commissioned by Ken MacLeod), consists of just four lines and comes in at 42 words.  I’m a great believer in a story being as long or as short as the narrative demands. 


What, for you, are the elements that go to make a perfect short story?

I don’t think it’s possible to specify them in any definitive way.  One of the joys of the short story, in fact of any length of story, is its variety.  By all means I can highlight important factors but to suggest they’re vital or indispensable would be an oversimplification, because I could then point out fantastically crafted stories that lack one or more of those elements.  Action pieces, mood pieces, clever stories with a twist, innovative tales that explore new concepts, mysteries, chilling stories, humorous stories, etc, they all have different requirements, different emphases.

A story has to engage the reader first and foremost.  Whether that be by piquing their curiosity or setting their heart racing from the off, or enchanting them or amusing them.  A convincing setting and engaging characters can often be key, but in the more confined limitations of the shorter form this often has to be accomplished with a few deft sentences, relying on the reader to fill in the rest as the narrative develops.  A story has to have a strong opening, whether that’s a languid scene that builds as we go, or a piece that throws you straight into the action, it has to have a purpose rather than simply stumbling into the narrative, and the ending is, of course, important.  Even an open ending is still an ending. 

From a writer’s perspective, the important thing is to determine at outset what you want to achieve, what the story is intended to convey, and then deliver that to the best of your ability.       


Dave Gullen popped into Bristol Book Blog a short while ago (http://brsbkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/mind-seed-7-tips-for-new-publisher.html#more) to talk about the first anthology he edited - and one of the points he made was that "story order is important", do you agree? How do you set about arranging the stories in the Solaris Rising books?

As mentioned earlier, I generally decide on the opening and closing stories during the reading and editing process.  These will invariably be stories I consider to be particularly strong, although not necessarily the one I deem the strongest.  Sometimes you receive a truly outstanding piece that, for reasons of pacing or content, simply doesn’t work at either end of the book.  I often have these lurking in second or third spot to pounce and catch the reader unawares.

After I’ve chosen the stories at either end, it’s then a case of working forward and backward from those two anchor points.  I always position a story so that there’s a link, however tenuous, to those on either side.  The link may be thematic, it may be conceptual or something I consider common in character or setting, it may even be a contrast in pacing: a mood piece followed by an action one, to vary the tempo.  When I’ve finalised the ToC (and there’s often a good deal of toing and froing before that happens) I’m able to see a chain of links that runs throughout the book.  I might be the only one that sees that, but it’s there.


In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
Be thick skinned, don’t take rejection personally; oh, and join a writers’ group; having your work reviewed and critiqued by contemporaries and, as importantly, the exercise of critiquing their work, can teach you a hell of a lot.  Okay, that’s two pieces of advice.  This isn’t a maths exam, is it?

Many Thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer the questions, the Bristol Book Blog review is below



Ian Whates says in his introduction that he has attempted to showcase the rich variety that modern science fiction has to offer. I would tend to agree as this is a fine collection of stories. Of course, as with any anthology, there are taste variations between the editor and the reader but the vast majority of these stories really hit the spot. The one or two off ones are not poorly written, just didn’t do it for me. It’s pointless to try and summarise all the stories so I’ll just mention the ones that really stood out for me. I was very taken by Ken Liu’s Homo Floresiensis which has stayed with me since reading it, a tale of the discovery of living specimens of what the world nicknamed hobbits a few years ago, The Howl by Ian MacLeod and Martin Sketchley and The science of chance by Nina Allen both explored the same sort of territory (timelines) and really captured the imagination.  They swim through sunset seas by Laura Lam was a very striking tale with a brilliant first line Dear Eli, I thought I would write and tell you what happened after you died and I also enjoyed psychological Thing and sick by Adam Roberts. Also worth a mention are Gareth L Powell’s entertaining Red lights, and rain</i> and the clever Popular images from the first manned mission to Enceladus by Alex Dally MacFarlane.

There, I said it was pointless to try and summarise all the stories and I then tried to do it! I'd best stop before I do them all. It's hard to pick favourites here, which I think is as good a sign as any that you should pick up this collection if you're an SF fan.

Overall - This is an eclectic and entertaining collection, often thought-provoking, like all best SF. Recommended.




















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