Friday, 30 March 2018

Recently Read: “A Ravel of Waters” by Geoffrey Jenkins

I became a fan of South African sea novelist the late-Geoffrey Jenkins in my late teens/early 20s, when my fascination with all things marine and submarine blossomed – not many years before I learned SCUBA diving and went to work with dolphins for an all-too brief period. I collected the classic Fontana editions with the brilliant Chris Foss wraparound covers and thoroughly enjoyed them. But a few I was never able to grab, and recently found a mint copy of his 1981 novel A Ravel of Waters at a truly amazing second hand book dealer.
South Africa, as a country bordered by three oceans, has produced a number of noteworthy sea-writers, Anthony Trew and Wilbur Smith amongst them. Jenkins wrote principally about the sea, with a military espionage/thriller twist. His first novel, A Twist of Sand was published in 1958 and over the following twenty years he produced some epic adventures set around the stormy coasts of his native Africa, and in the Southern Ocean which fascinated him. Some would say he was somewhat written out by the 1980s, his 1984 outing Fireprint I remember struck me as a bit forced, lacking the creative spark of his earlier work.

A Ravel of Waters was hailed as a long-awaited comeback piece, and I enjoyed his dramatic turn of phrase when describing the wild Southern Ocean, one of his favourite localities for drama (see especially the brilliant Scend of the Sea and Southtrap). The story features the then-current technical proposal to bring back sail power for commercial carriers, and do so with space-age flair, hi-tech materials, computerised control, critical design developed with wind-tunnel experimentation to get far more power from sails than was ever dreamed of in the golden age. The experimental tallship Jetwind is on her maiden proving voyage, the vital leg of which is from Argentina to South Africa, through the turmoil of the far south. One can sense the writer’s enthusiasm when discussing the mechanics of re-imagined sail power, he is at his most passionate when bringing the vessel to life.

In 1981, the political situation down there revolved around Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, which erupted into war the following year. The novel takes place in the period of unrest between Britain and Argentina, though the Galtieri regime is not mentioned by name, nor does the name of Thatcher appear anywhere. This was also deep in the Cold War and the east-west tensions of the period form the over-riding background, that sees an Argentine extremist and his cadre ally themselves with the Soviet Union in preparation for a Falklands incursion with Russia’s tacit support, involving taking over the Jetwind as a political pawn.

The hero is Peter Rainier, a young solo yachtsman who has just crossed the same stretch of ocean in another hi-tech sailing vessel. This prompts him to be offered command of Jetwind after her skipper dies in a mysterious accident, and the vessel’s Argentinian first officer puts her about to Port Stanley in the Falklands where she is laid up for reasons no one can determine. An Argentine warship is dispatched to impound the ship, but Rainier gets them to sea in a hair-raising night escape. The first officer must of course hijack them, and takes them to a rendezvous in mid-ocean where a Russian naval contingent is using a vast grounded iceberg as a secret harbour. The iceberg known as Trolltonga was a genuine object, the largest ever observed to that time, it calved from Antarctica in 1965 and its last remnants melted in the latitudes of New Zealand in 1978; Jenkins used it with artistic license as the locality for his finale some years after that date.

The First Officer, Grohman, comes across fairly manic, as might be expected, but somewhat cardboard in his bad-guy-ness. One must remind oneself, no one on this ship is over 28 years of age, not even those ex-Navy and secret service, and it is a little difficult to relate to men of determination and action who are half one’s years. Ships at sea typically benefit from the experience of many years at the senior level, and though the circumstances are somewhat extenuating, it’s very youth-oriented.

The romantic interest comes between Rainier and the sailmaker, Kay Fenton, a romance which blossoms somewhat haphazardly, crystallizing when Kay goes overboard in a fall from the yards and is rescued by the skipper in a small-boat action. However, Jenkins’ age certainly plays a part in his expression – he was 61 when this book was published and when it comes to romantic dialogue he has twenty-somethings speaking in the vernacular of the 1940s – few young, dynamic types in 1981 called each other “darling.”

I feel Jenkins underplayed the ending. Short sentences are a fairly transparent device to imply pace, and his staccato narrative jars against his smooth expression earlier in the book. The closing chapters would have been too late to introduce new characters, so the Soviet naval squadron remains impersonal, mere background to the conflict of the principals. The action is at least a little contrived – times and distances are mysteriously ignored – are we dealing with fifty metres or five hundred? We have a few minutes before everything blows up, can a man in a survival suit really swim X distance in the time available? Can a cold water survival suit really cushion a man against a fall from the heights, inside a cylindrical metal mast? And so forth.

The Russian naval flotilla is blown sky high during an operation to refuel from a special reserve sunk on the oceanic bank which had grounded the berg – somewhat convenient, perhaps, yet Jenkins mysteriously underplays the episode. Perhaps we are inured to vast SFX sequences in Hollywood blockbusters, the sort of imagery this novel cries out for, but the visuals of the narrative fall short by today’s expectations.

Overall, A Ravel of Waters was an entertaining read, at its best when rhapsodizing about the mechanics of sail propulsion and the lonely, terrifying reaches of the Southern Ocean. If you enjoy a pacy thriller with action and exotic locales, and can overlook the odd shortcoming in dialogue and narrative, it’s well worth a look, and the international tensions of the pre-Falklands War period are interesting to look back on from nearly four decades hence.

Cheers, Mike Adamson.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

When Research is Fun: Peter Ackroyd’s London, the Biography

Maybe it takes a geek, nerd or dweeb to revel in a textbook, but we do exist and sometimes textbooks are a joy. I’m not talking calculus, nor French syntax, though I’d warrant there are mathematicians and linguists who would get a real charge from them. I’m talking more from the standpoint of a history buff who scans for writing inspiration, and recently had the pleasure of working through 800+ pages of delight.

Peter Ackroyd’s London, the Biography is not strictly a textbook, of course, but a popular volume: one of my most enjoyable reads in a long time. It was picked up in a book exchange for me last year by my family, and when I finally got around to tackling the intimidating brick of a book, I discovered a lively, light-scholarly text so packed with fascinating information it amazed at the turn of every page. This is Ackroyd’s academic field, his works are numerous and I will be on the lookout for others. As a Brit ex-pat I have an enduring interest in my mother-country, and have visited London on a few occasions. The city as a focus of historic development, of empire and a crossroads of the world is a story of almost unimaginable scope; Ackroyd traces human habitation on the site from the Bronze Age to the present day, though the volume, while trending from the ancient to the modern, is not in fact arranged chronologically, but by topic areas.

Fascinating information, facts and figures, spill from its pages. Past ages are brought to life through the words of those present from Roman times onward, and the city is seen as a separate entity from the country around it. The city remained, snug inside its Roman walls, throughout Late Antiquity, when Britain returned to a largely tribal state and the few civitates struggled to preserve the order of Imperial times within their own boundaries. Yet Londinium remained, prospered, spread and sprawled, and was rebuilt many times. The city burned over and over, the great fire of 1666 is the one best recorded by history, but it was merely one of many in the ages when flammable structures crowded close in rookeries and warrens.

Every topic is covered – religion, civic planning, architecture, ethnicities and immigration, the royal seat, trade and empire, ancient and modern warfare, pollution, transport, sewerage, technical innovation, art, literature, disease, crime and punishment, the horrors of the old prisons – I never knew the gallows at Tyburn were designed to hang 24 at once…

A fair few stories suggested themselves to me as I worked through the book, and I wrote up notes for some. The volume provides an extensive bibliography so the sources for further reading on specifics are there. As a window on the London of medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan, Cromwellian, Georgian and Victorian times, this book is remarkable, bringing the ages to life both with direct citation and a pithy and perceptive interpretation of the ocean of records which still exist.

Under the streets of London are the cities of the past, and it is amazing to discover that there are streets which have followed the same course for over a thousand years. Layer upon layer of foundations can be located, Roman relics are common, and throughout the city one may chart waves of development and redevelopment, the poor in the industrial warrens of the east, the wealthy in the swank suburbs of the west, while south of the river burgeoned in crime and squalor from the 1600s onward. And what about the old London Bridge? A marvel of medieval engineering, a castle-like span bearing over 100 buildings, many four stories tall, which lasted until only a few hundred years ago – what a feat for the age!

Similarly, the people of the past are brought to vivid life, with verbal portraiture of the maladies of congested urban life – the effects upon people of vast population and great want. London was known as the deepest pit of poverty, filth and disease in Western Europe, and possibly the world, European travellers were appalled by the conditions they encountered. Yet every voice is heard, from guildsmen of Chaucer’s day to the journals of Samuel Pepys (his eye witness account of the great fire is especially evocative), the writings of Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, a host of civil commentators throughout the ages – too many to enumerate, but all serving to bring history to life.

If, like me, you enjoy history for its own sake, with or without the archaeological perspective, and have any affinity for Britain, I thoroughly recommend London, the Biography. It was my bedside companion for some two months and I have not reshelved it yet – it is so natural to pick it up and immerse myself in history for just a little longer!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

Sunday, 4 March 2018

In Print, March 2018 (and Progress)

I’m delighted to start off the month with my very first podcast! My fantasy short Devotions (first published in 2013 in the online mag Spirit & Spell) was picked up by Centropic Oracle and the podcast went live on March 2nd. Read by Charly Thomas, it’s a nice seven-minute listen. Interestingly, though I did not specifically describe the first-person narrative character, CO has interpreted the protagonist as female, while it has always been male in my own mind, and indeed was illustrated male for S&S.

Listen to the podcast right here.

Also going live is the promotional blog at Flame Tree Publishing for their next pair of anthologies going on release, and I scored a placement with Endless Apocalypse for my SF short Flight of the Storm God, one of my “Post-Habitable Earth” stories. The blog showcases author Q&As, and you can catch my commentaries on this and the next instalment with regard to my piece.

A rather special accolade came my way recently, as my story Hostile Intent, which appeared in Compelling Science Fiction #10, has received a first-round nomination for this year's Hugo Awards in the Best Novelette category. Of course, this means very little, as those which become official nominees are the five stories in each category which garner the most overall votes, and it's doubtful the story will have enough exposure to draw that kind of attention. There again, if anyone reading this is a member of the World Science Fiction Society and eligible to vote, you know which story I hope you'll vote for!


The second round promo blog for Endless Apocalypse went live on 8/3/18, you can read it here.

And on the same day I picked up my seventh simultaneous shortlisting (a new personal best), my historic-horror tale "The Moth and the Candle" has passed first readers at the anthology Dies Infaustus.

On March 14th an eighth short-listing came up; this time my "Middle Stars" piece "The Dreaming Giants" is currently held for further consideration at Aurealis. Definitely a new record!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

Monday, 19 February 2018

Further Progress

Since my last post I’ve had a run of success (droughts and monsoons seem to go in cycles…) and I have some new placements to record here.

Lovecraftiana have taken another story from me, Arcanum Miskatonica, for the Walpurgisnacht, 2018 edition. This is a modern day story which sees the shadow of terrible things stir in the ivy cloisters of a certain New England university.

The political anthology After the Orange has accepted my dystopian piece Hellrider, which looks at the horrors of facist America in the decades ahead.

Also on the future political theme, my SF vengeance piece Hunters in the Maze was picked up for the anthology Unrealpolitik, from Jay Henge – my third piece with them.

And finally, my “Middle Stars” piece On the Shoulder of a God placed today with Selene Quarterly, sister publication to Helios Quarterly in which I was featured early last year.

Eight days remain in the month – I wonder if a fifth placement might come along? If so, it would be a new personal best!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

(Header image obtained from a royalty-free site)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Lost in the Rush

Talk about missing one completely – here’s the anthology Sword and Planet, from Rogue Planet Press, published March 6th last year! My story By the Moons of Grolph is featured, a fantasy/SF mash-up establishing a world I’d love to return to at some point.

All told I now have five placements with Horrified Press/Rogue Planet, and I should think there’ll be others in due course.


Mike Adamson

PS: I passed 800 submissions yesterday!

Friday, 2 February 2018

In Print, February 2018 (and Progress)

Kicking off February in style with two publications – first out of the gate is the Candlemas 2018 edition of Lovecraftiana, featuring my story Monarch of the Shadows, an eerie tale of subterranean mystery. This is my third appearance in the magazine, which is just completing its second year. Here’s the Lulu POD order link.

Next up, releasing later in the month, catch my story One Shot Kill in the brand new 2018 volume of Spring Into SciFi – sales link when available.

Also releasing on Amazon and Create Space is Mind Candy Vol.1, featuring my SF short Existential Bliss. Word is there'll be a new cover design coming along, so the initial release becomes a collector's item!

In other news, the problem with my story Stalking Nemesis is all squared away – just an oversight – and it’ll be in the May 2018 edition of Bloodbond. Links when it’s released!

Also, my long-outstanding submission to Spark has been confirmed as still in the works/short-listed, so fingers crossed there. I have my first podcast coming shortly from Centropic Oracle; you’ll be able to catch my short fantasy Devotions performed online from March 2nd 2018.

I should pass my 800th submission this month, and am currently in a dry spell between acceptances – looking for it to turn around soon!


Mike Adamson

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Taking Stock at the Two Year Milestone

January 7th, on the Australian side of the dateline, is the anniversary of my beginning my campaign of submission to the short fiction market, and it’s an interesting exercise to compare figures with the first year.

After 730 days I have made a total of 750 submissions, 449 in the second year. I have a total of 41 placements, 32 falling in the second year. Currently I have 76 stories on submission, my record being 81. I have 633 rejections (392 in the last year), therefore my ratio of rejections to acceptances is running at 15.44:1 across the board, or a 6.47% acceptance factor from the beginning. For year two alone, the ratio is 12.25:1 or 8.16%. Both of these figures are way up from data one year ago (3.73%).

Averages can be misleading, but are interesting to consider. Average time between acceptances in the first year was 40.5 days. Given that there was only one acceptance in the first eight months of effort, you can see how meaningless this figure really is; in the last four months of the year, considered separately, it drops to 15.25. In the second year it ran at 11.4 days per acceptance, while both years taken together return a value of 18.8. That long dead spell in year one constantly skews the data. In absolute figures, during this last year time has varied between a maximum of 38 days to a minimum of less than one day.
I have scored four Honourable Mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest before becoming ineligible by qualifying as a professional – I now have seven placements paying US 6c/word or better.

Productivity has risen in some ways at a corresponding rate, while falling in others. In calendar year 2017 I completed 62 stories, ten more than the previous year, for a total annual word count of 247, 782 words (49, 999 words less than in 2016). I currently have 147 stories registered at The Submission Grinder.

As with last year, I can say the future holds a lot more of the same, maintaining pressure in every possible way, perhaps including some screen writing work, journalism and other areas, plus developing my presence with a number of titles – I have appeared twice with Flame Tree Publishing, twice with Compelling Science Fiction, twice with Phantaxis, and three times with Lovecraftiana, and improving on those numbers would be an excellent goal. I have penetrated the pro end of the market more successfully than I dared hope a year ago, and the third year will be an intensification of every aspect. There are times this is a seven-day-a-week job. My one thousandth submission will occur later this year, a milestone in its own right.

Stay tuned for developments!

Cheers, Mike Adamson