Thursday, March 26, 2009

God's Plan, Men Laugh?

By which I mean, you only have to mention God and Angels in these irreligious times of ours and a great many people will just find it all a bit silly. Both have featured heavily throughout the four (or some would say five) season lifespan of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series that by its nature and tone looks to its audience to take it seriously. And I think when it comes to the conclusion of this epic journey, with all the compelling questions and mysteries raised along the way, we tend to look for a serious science fiction answer.

And I'm glad to say, from what I saw, it delivered. Mostly.

Hopefully anyone who hasn't seen the series finale yet will have looked away and pointed their browsers elsewhere by now. If not, do so now. A spoiler free review would be nice, but basically would amount to me summing it up – as I did on a mailing list at the weekend – as a 'qualified awesome'. Or words to that effect. And fair to say, it seems like ages since I blogged about any TV and as such I feel I ought to say a bit more. So, this one very much contains SPOILERS.

Now, declaration of interest: I love this show and so you can expect a degree of bias in anything I have to say on the subject. But at the same time, with a greater enthusiasm and emotional investment in the characters and the unfolding storyline, there are greater expectations riding on the resolution and greater potential risk of disappointment. So when it came to sitting down to watch the finale, it was with mixed feelings – anticipation (ooh exciting) and tension (please please don't let us down) and, not least, the firm and certain knowledge that we were all going to be left depressed that this terrific series was soon to be over.

At least with this one, it wasn't being canned before its time like a number of other favourites of mine (Firefly, Carnivale, Deadwood, for example). And it was effectively being given the full 3-parter treatment without the torture of having to wait an extra week. But even with the 3-episode runtime to play with, there was a perhaps inevitable impression of too many questions left unanswered and not enough time to cover them all and wrap up the storylines for the main characters satisfactorily.

When the series returned after its hiatus and that incredible scene of everyone, Cylon and human alike, standing on a devastated Earth, it did so with a good balance of oh-my-god revelations and ooh-that's-interesting reveals, and with a crisis in the fleet that (finally) addressed Gaeta's issues with having been tried and nearly executed by people who turned out to be Cylons. (Something my good friend Stuart and I had been hoping for.) It was during that edge-of-the seat stuff that we discovered Galactica's ailing condition. The fact that the two ladies in Bill Adama's life were both riddled with cancer provides a potent emotional core through the rest of the series and – especially if you, like me, happen to love the character of Laura Roslin and the 'old girl' Galactica herself – you'd really have to be some sort of toaster not to feel Adama's pain. And – not for the first time - Edward James Olmos breaks down brilliantly.

(And by the way, if I ever have to serve on a starship, I'm not saying I'd want to do so in the BSG universe when the remnants of humanity are on the run from Cylon persecution, but please, just make sure Adama's in command and not that useless lardboy, Kirk, or indeed any of the wet-blanket Starfleet brigade.)

In some respects it's unfortunate that it also vividly paints for us the general shape of the finale. Or a key part of it anyway. Because as horrible as it is to watch the Galactica being cleared out and 'closed down' like a high street store in the depths of the credit crunch, we know they're not going to let her go out like that. We know she's going to go out in a blaze of glory.

Events then are steering towards that and although Boomer's abduction of Hera is an effective enough shock moment, we are primed and prepped for a finale that has to centre around a rescue mission and a confrontation between Galactica and the Cylon colony. In that sense, it is not going to surprise us, so we merely have to trust that it will amaze – and be wrapped in that all-important satisfactory resolution.

We have by this stage already learned the identity of the last Cylon. And I'll admit to a measure of disappointment on that score – if only because Ellen Tigh was not my favourite character, so the idea of her coming back did not fill me with excitement. Still, in her defence I will say she returned as a different person – transformed, if not reformed. We learn a great deal about the nature of the Final Five, their background, their prior existence on Earth. My main gripe about that is that the majority of this reveal is dished out in a lot of tell, rather than show. So what you have are a lot of satisfactory answers delivered in an unsatisfying way – a large proportion of them served up by Sam, another of my least favourite characters, before he totally succumbs to data-delirium and rambles incoherently in a campaign to out-cryptic Babylon 5's Ambassador Kosh. However, the character's ultimate conversion into a Cylon hybrid is a fitting and satisfying twist.

At the same time, much focus is – rightly – given to the question of who or what is Kara Thrace? It consumes her and it's no coincidence that we'd very much like to know too. The episode where she cracks the musical code, coached along by the 'ghost' of her father was an interesting one that raised further questions about her nature. Couple that with the chillingly memorable image of her finding and torching her own corpse on Earth and you pretty much have the definition of a burning question right there.

These are just some of the ways in which the hook is baited. There are a lot of other threads and factors to be considered and tied up, and key ones for me included Gaius' religious experiences and where they were ultimately taking him, and what role Caprica – both the real one and the one in his head – was to play in that. Boomer and Athena, of course, and the significance of Hera. When you have that many fish to land, there are bound to be a few catches, so as with anything you're attempting to review it all boils down to how you measure its flaws against the positives. And the feeling, on balance, you're left with at the end.

So where, in my view, did it fall down and where did it succeed?

Falls, just for a change, can come before pride. A very minor issue, but I wasn't convinced by Cavil's suicide. It seemed a little too convenient and ran counter to a character who, I'd imagined, would want to take down as many as possible with him when everything was going to hell in a handbasket. It's something that gave me pause to question in the midst of an otherwise truly awesome moment (see later). Then there's Hera, whose importance seems to have been more symbolic than actual. Maybe it's just that she is the first one, when she grows up, to mate with a Neanderthal and (as Eve) mother a new race, priming us with her half-Cylon DNA and that imperative to fashion machines in our own image. But I think I expected something of her nature to play a key role in the resolution, rather than just have her serve as Cavil's hostage. Still, most disappointing by a Caprican mile has to be the 'answer' to the question of Kara Thrace – which seems to be “take your best guess”. Well, okay, I can only assume she's an angel in this scenario – but with the key difference that she can be seen by everybody, and that she came back with her very own 'sweet chariot' – her miraculously remade Viper - coming for to carry everyone home. She might even be the Saviour figure, died and resurrected. But more than left guessing, I did feel we were left begging, rather. I liked the character a lot and I think both she and we deserved more. Probably those who couldn't stand the character will be even more miffed.

However, her final scene and departure, leaving Lee alone, does spare us the possibility of these two ending up together. That would have been wrong.
And so to other things that weren't wrong. In fact, things that were, to my mind, very right indeed.

On a purely superficial level, the battle – as expected as it was – was massively impressive. A great many boats were pushed out on this one and the colony's position amid all that cloud and tumbling rocks made for a busier and more colourful space battle than we're accustomed to – all with some nice sharp cutting between that and the bloody gun battles on board the colony and Galactica. Blaze. Of. Glory.

And even if it all accelerated to the fairly unoriginal hostage situation, what followed was (as I think I mentioned before) truly awesome. Gaius, of all people, is the peace broker and an agreement is reached. Then as the Five mind-meld to provide Cavil with the gift of resurrection, Tory sweats – and Galen flips. One act of revenge and all hell breaks loose. Not only awesome, but key to what we learn subsequently.

The rest is (Kara Thrace aside) as neat an exercise in wrapping as you'll find this side of Christmas. There's real tragic beauty in the Roslin/Adama resolution and the Galactica's own death, flying off into the heart of the sun is almost – almost – as emotive as the shutting down and demolition of B5 at the close of that series. The use of the old Battlestar theme was a slight distraction in that part of my attention is briefly given over to recognition, rather than just getting on with crying my eyes out. But the scene does tug at the heart strings and/or give the tear ducts a decent poke.

There's tons more material that demands comment here, but by this stage I'm sure you'll be impatient for me to hurry towards my own finale and I may as well jump to what's likely to be the most contentious aspect of BSG's resolution. Which is, of course, that...

God did it.

God was behind it all. And God, like magic, can be a bit of a cop-out in science fiction. When you have a universe so rooted in gritty 'reality', God is a tough sell. And I can see where a lot of people would have a problem. Myself, I don't think it's nearly sufficient an explanation of the nature of the resurrected Kara Thrace, for example.

That said, for all its grit, BSG was threaded all the way through with mystical happenings and what Han Solo liked to call hocus pocus religion. And I was left in no doubt that this resolution was where they were headed all along. That in itself is a satisfying feeling. The Six in Gaius' head and the Gaius in Six's head were revealed as 'Angels' quite late in proceedings, but even though they are confirmed in that final scene as absolutely real – no figment of anyone's imagination except perhaps God's – it's all a question of interpretation. Like God himself, it's a question of what you call it.

Say, instead of Angels, we call them 'avatars'. Say, instead of God, we call it 'Creation'. Whatever you choose to call these things, whatever your own view of the BSG universe, what you have is a system that is constantly repeating a pattern in search of some 'winning move'. Like Joshua in that movie, Wargames. And I like the idea of that concept applied on a universal scale. The coin is being flipped over and over in the hope that it comes up heads. Trouble is, BSG has always shown us that the coin has more than two sides and the odds are stacked against the desired result.

Then, in the light of that revelation, you reflect back on Galen's actions and you appreciate fully why that is. The pattern had every chance to change – humans and Cylons had many chances along the way to change the pattern. There at that crucial point, revenge destroys that chance. Galen may have been Cylon, but what he does is a very human reaction. He's too good a copy of a human. Even Tigh assures him he would have done the same in his position. And frankly there aren't many characters here who could claim they would have done any different. Athena's answer to Boomer's act of contrition (returning Hera) is to blow her away. Adama, Roslin, they've all had their vengeful moments. There are few people, human or Cylon, who are especially big on forgiveness when it comes to the crunch.

The pattern's doomed to repeat again. Until next time. Or next time. Etc.

Insufficiently explained or no, Starbuck's deliverance of Galactica and – as a result – the rest of humanity to Earth (our Earth), backed up by the Dylan track - “There must be some way out of here...” - is a brilliant TV moment and for my money it illustrates that far from...

God did it

...the message here is that the blame lies squarely with humanity. Us. Whatever you call it, the portrait painted is of a God (or Creation or system) that gives humanity every possible chance, but His creations (i.e. we) keep screwing up. Not a new concept by any means but a message that maybe does bear repeating until we get it.

That's the warning that's implicit in that final scene and for me it was a satisfying footnote to a series that managed to impress, excite and give me plenty of food for thought over the space of five years. A series that also bears repeating, so I'm already looking forward to watching it all through again on DVD. Even if it turns out the same in the end :-)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


So, last time I established that, for me, authonomy was very much a case of Been There, Seen It, Done That. Did Not Buy The T-shirt. You get what you can out of it, you move on - no need to commemorate it on an article of clothing, eh. ;-)

But as I stated, I'm going to be leaving samples up on the site as a reasonably accessible showcase for my work. At some point I may go to the trouble of converting them to PDFs to post on my own website, but for the time being they may as well stay put. Even though I'm no longer an active member of the site, I may as well put the account/page to some use.

So, if anyone feels like having a read and finding out what goes on in the imagination of Simon Forward - well, some of what goes on! - these are the places to visit:

Evil UnLtd (TM). The Farce Of The Dark Side. Villains are the heroes in this sci-fi comedy. Enough has been said about this one that I don't suppose I need to expand on that. Give it a whirl - if the comments I received were any gauge, it proved popular with SF and mainstream readers alike. I'm aiming to get back on the metaphorical campaign bus, searching for a publisher for this one and in the meantime have begun work on Vol 2 in the series.

Then, of course, there's Kip Doodle And The Armchair Of Lost Dreams. Kip Doodle's been trapped in his latest cliffhanger for too long. Now he's breaking out of his felt-tip world and into Ty Lewis' life. Anyone who's read this blog will know about Kip Doodle (TM), but for those who don't, it's an action adventure fantasy series for kids of 8+ - and a fair number of grown-ups too. Haven't actually started work on any further episodes yet, but I've drafted plots for another two books in the series and ideas for others are popping into my head all the time.

Then we have Tortenschloss. Gormenghast with multi-coloured frosting, a cherry on top and dark sprinkles. A Young Adult fantasy adventure, this is intended as the first book in a trilogy. The two subsequent books have been plotted with broad strokes and as with Kip, it's just a case of my preferred approach to work on some projects: this book evolved fluidly in the writing process and I'm keen to allow that to happen with the others in the series.

HEAVENSEND. The Four Horsemen are coming. Who will be the Four to stand against them? Another trilogy in the making, but this one definitely in the adult sf/fantasy - and even horror - market. I do need to continue with this series, but I also need to wait until the return to the chillier, greyer months as it's that sort of atmosphere I like to tap into for the characters and situations involved. And of course, none of us are in any hurry to get back to winter now that we're enjoying a spot of sunshine. So I and the characters of Heavensend will just have to be patient!

Ice Cold In Alex's. How far must a man go, to what depths must he sink, to protect paradise? A stab at a more literary form of SF, this is just one of those stories I have to write, irrespective of market considerations or whatever. As such, it's one of the first to take a back seat whenever I have paid work on, but I will finish it one day! Its themes of morality, love, hatred and idealism are just some of those things I feel compelled to explore.

WILD.Mama Nature has a bone to pick with Mankind. To save humanity, the world turns to a man called Wild. Coincidence? Maybe not. Adult SF/fantasy/horror, but different again to Heavensend. Although there are some connections, not least in terms of the featured background world/universe. A long time before authonomy was even a twinkle in the eye of Harper Collins, this actually received a decent spot of feedback from HC's Voyager imprint - one of those "You can clearly write, but it's a question of the market" style receptions. Which I took as highly encouraging at the time.

Industrial Waste.A Neuromance. SF/fantasy, again connected with the backdrop featured in Wild and Heavensend, and different again. This was the second novel I ever completed, so it's quite old now, but like Wild, it received a similar sort of praise in its 'rejection' from a top SF agent. Well-written, but a bit too Cyberpunk - at a time when Cyberpunk had had its day, or words to that effect.

Like all the samples on offer, it's not present for any of the old authonomy vote chasing, purely for your reading pleasure. And maybe a measure of frustration inherent in reading a sample and, all being well, getting to the end and wanting more. It's also worth noting that a number of the pitches/blurbs were done in a hurry for the sake of a quick upload, so those are by no means the polished article that you'd expect to see on a book cover, or even in a submission. For that - and any frustration! ;-) - I apologise in advance, but nevertheless if you do try a taster of any of these, I hope you enjoy. Comments are welcome here or on the site and I may upload further samples at some point or, as is more likely, eventually transfer samples to my own website.

Meanwhile, fingers crossed there'll be an announcement before too long about further commissioned work. I'd love to tell you now, but for the time being that's all hush hush, so I'd just have to content myself with placing a finger to my lips and going, "Shhhhh." Which wouldn't make for much of a blog post, I admit.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beware Of The POD People

You know the POD people. They seem to be one thing and then they turn out to be another. Often they're out to steal your identity or your soul or some such.

Take, for example, authonomy, Harper Collins' online community for authors. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was an alternative route towards publication, what with all the enticing slogans dotted around the site: "We're More Than A Community Of Book Lovers, We're on a mission to flush out the brightest, freshest new talent around." "Beat The Slush." "Can You Make It On Screen?" And, most deceiving of all, pasted right above the Editor's Desk chart, "Publishing Contract Anyone?"

Whereas the truth of the situation is much more like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers where, when you are spotted as a talent, they point at you and scream. Proclaiming you an outsider and making sure you stay that way.

As the only author to date to have two separate books reach the Top 5, within the space of two months, I hope I might be forgiven for thinking my books had something special going for them. The first, Evil UnLtd (TM) was declared by Harper Collins themselves to be excellent but, as a science fiction comedy, sadly lacking a viable market. (Hello?) The second, Kip Doodle (TM), was a fantasy adventure for kids.

Many agents described it in positive terms, using words like "colourful", "imaginative" and "well-written". The only publisher to see it so far, Harper Collins, didn't believe young readers would find its central hook sufficiently fascinating. Kids - and adults - who have read it thus far have loved it. Some of the people in this loop appear to be a little out of touch.

It's clear that they pay no attention to the feedback left by authors and readers on each book. They are, I imagine, dismissive of those comments because the nature of the peer-based system does mean that a proportion of the critiques given will inevitably be self-motivated. There will be self-motivated positivity, angling for some reciprocal rave reviews, and there will be self-motivated negativity, from jealous, twisted individuals. But someone at HC devised the system, so you'd think they'd give it some credit. And to be honest, it's actually fairly easy to spot the crits that are borne of some ulterior motives. Among those that are the most transparent are the much sought-after crits that come from the HC editors each month. Their primary motive being, as far as I can gather, 'We'd really rather not publish anything off this site, least of all the really popular books.'

Not for the first time, I'm forced to wonder, what the heck is going on with the publishing industry? Which may be a little unfair. After all, just because Harper Collins are such a major player, should we consider them representative of the industry as a whole? Naturally, in the light of their 'verdicts' and the increasingly questionable worth of authonomy, I'd prefer to think otherwise.

Whatever their advertised claims about the nature of authonomy, unlike any Ronseal product you'd care to name, it's not what it says on the tin. The clue, in fact, is in the name. Authonomy = autonomy for authors. What they would like is to break into the POD business. As authors who have submitted our works to the sorry process, we know this because many of us have been approached by email with a 'special offer', inviting us to self-publish with HC's partners, Blurb, and help establish an authonomy shop, where visitors to the site might be able to buy our books.

Great, you might think, as a means of getting our books out there to the reading public. But no. Not when a paperback is costed at approximately £10 - before any profit to the author is factored in. How is an author expected to compete in that market, even if the quality of the book is better than many of those being produced commercially? To say nothing of the questionable quality control, where the apparent policy is, it's not good enough for us (despite being considered "excellent", for example), but it's good enough for POD.

Or, to put it another way, 'We'd like to make a bit of money off this book but we'd rather not have to pay the author anything, if that's all right with you.'

The worst aspect of all this though is the underhanded nature of it all. Because, whether the clue is in the name or not, those slogans say nothing about POD.

Those slogans invite the author to believe in some mythical new alternative to the slush pile and they wave a carrot of a *possible* publishing contract in front of the author's nose. A possibility that, it's quite clear now, is entirely non-existent. Indeed, they appear to be operating in accordance with some hidden rule that nothing selected from their precious Top 5 is to be granted any serious consideration. Faced with quality books and sometimes overwhelming evidence of readers' comments (even when weighing in the self-motivation factor), the crits offered appear geared towards finding spurious and often self-contradictory reasons not to publish. It's galling and insulting.

Now, in fairness, the smallprint does say that all that is promised is a crit from a Harper Collins' editor. But stop and contain your excitement for a moment before you go racing off to win yourself this prestigious prize. Because even these illustrious acolades are not always what they are cracked up to be.

Have a read of this one, from the latest batch (scroll down to the gold star and the brown banner that says Harper Collins wrote). The quality or otherwise of the book is immaterial. The crit given is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a professional critique. It may be from a HC editor, but frankly a tea boy could produce a nine-paragraph summary and round it off with a two line 'review'.

Me, much as the HC comments on Kip were short-sighted and self-contradictory, I feel I was quite fortunate in the crits I received for both my 'gold-star' works. But the results, coupled with the 'standard' - if we might call it that - of crits being issued in some cases, does lead me to question the worth of the exercise.

"Beat The Slush", they say. But the authonomy system is only an electronic slush pile, albeit linked with some social networking. 'Bookface', as someone dubbed it shortly after they introduced a messaging facility. Speaking from my experience, it took about a month and half for Evil to reach the attention of a HC editor, and two months later, Kip reached the Editor's Desk. They each received their response a month later. That's reasonably comparable to the timescale for a standard snail-mail submission. Now, the crits - for mine - were more detailed than you'd generally receive, it's true... *but* weigh that against the input of time and effort required in promotion and networking in order to get your book noticed among the thousands on the site.

At least with a snail-mail submission, you can post it off to an agent or publisher and forget about it, get on with something else in the meantime as you await a response. The work goes into fine-tuning the initial submission, then there's nothing more to be done. The submission will reach the editor's or agent's attention sooner or later, but you are free to write, be creative and, who knows, perhaps produce another masterpiece ready for a turn at rejection. ;-) You can even send off multiple submissions. Some agents and publishers frown on that and prefer an exclusive approach - check with the agents and publishers in question - but it is an option. Of course you can make other approaches while pursuing the pot of gold at the end of the authonomy rainbow, but you'll be lucky to find the time.

So was it all a complete waste of time? Well, no. The opinions and insights of many fellow authors were invaluable and I'm glad to say I made some very dear friends. Indeed if they adorned the site with slogans advertising a chance to meet lots of interesting people, there wouldn't be an issue. What I do regret is the time wasted professionally, when I probably could have written two other books.

So, if you are an author considering uploading your works on authonomy, all I'd say is, proceed with caution. They are POD people. They are not what they claim to be. They are also (for the Doctor Who fans out there) Chronovores. Major time-eaters.

What the site is good for, I have decided, is for showcasing those works which might otherwise be languishing in a cupboard or on the hard drive, gathering dust - actual or virtual. So my advice, think of it in those terms. It is a place to store samples of your work where they might actually be seen by others. Possibly even an industry professional.

That's why I've since uploaded further samples of my works. It's not my intention to chase after any more gold stars, I'm not even promoting those books on the site. But they are there to be seen and sampled and of course all comments are welcome. I'll have details and links in my next blog for each of the books I currently have uploaded on the site.

As for authonomy, I suspect it's the pet that the Harper Collins family didn't want. But their digital-age kids insisted on getting one and now they're saddled with its upkeep and obliged to feed it five crits every month. It's a strange beast. They might tell you it's a dog or a cat, but whatever they claim it to be, it is more likely a hamster running pointlessly around its exercise wheel and limited to thinking very much inside its box.

And the next time you see the words "Publishing Contract Anyone?" make sure it's on a product manufactured by Ronseal and not Harper Collins.