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Guest Blog by John Ayliff: Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction? - July 16, 2015


Please welcome John Ayliff to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. Belt Three was published on June 18th by Harper Voyager UK.



Guest Blog by John Ayliff: Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction? - July 16, 2015




Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction?

          In my Qwillery interview last month, one of the questions was "Is Belt Three hard SF?", and that question made me pause. Despite having written the novel, I wasn't sure if it qualified. It seemed like a bold claim: to say that a novel is hard SF is to invite criticism of its scientific details from people who know more science than I do. Unlike some hard SF writers, I'm not a scientist; I'm never going to be able to write the kind of hard sf that takes a bleeding-edge scientific theory and wraps a story around it. On the other hand, I love hard SF, and I think (I hope!) my book will appeal to hard SF fans. In the interview I equivocated and said it had a hard-SF sensibility, without actually giving a yes or no answer, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
          Why even attempt to write hard SF as a non-scientist? Partly this was a stylistic choice for this particular novel. I wanted the space-based setting of Belt Three to feel like a difficult and unnatural place for people to live, and the hand-wave technologies one finds in soft SF--artificial gravity, faster-than-light drives, etc.--tend to remove the difficulties of real-life space travel. That's appropriate if those difficulties would be a distraction from the story you're trying to tell, but in the case of Belt Three the difficulties were a part of my world-building.
          Even if I'd included artificial gravity and FTL drives, though, I'd want to put them in a basically realistic universe. A character travelling to a city by magic carpet is a sign of a fantasy story; the character getting there and finding a seaport when the real city is inland is a sign the writer didn't do the research. I tried to treat space as if it were a foreign city I was setting my story in. It's OK to invent a new side-street or asteroid if the plot requires it, but the overall setting should be something a native would recognise.
          I decided to trust the mental image of space I'd built up from being a child fascinated by popular science books, then research specific details as I needed them. Can you use a solar sail to move closer to the sun? Yes, hence references in my novel to "tacking against orbit". Can you fire a conventional gun in a vacuum? Yes, probably, and certainly hand-guns designed in a space-dwelling setting could be built to be vacuum-safe. If the Earth were blown up and the pieces formed an asteroid belt, how dense would this belt be? According to back-of-the-envelope calculations I made when I started writing, it would be much denser than the real asteroid belt--so dense that, occasionally, you'd be able to see two asteroids at once with the naked eye!
          I don't claim that I've got every detail right in Belt Three. Although I think I've got my solar sail ship moving basically correctly, it may not be plausible for a solar sail to move a ship that large; and sometimes I fall back on being vague about distances and travel times rather than risking being wrong. I think, though, that these sorts of liberties are the SF equivalent of adding a fictional side-street to an otherwise accurate city. So I've decided to pin my colours to the mast and say that Belt Three is a work of hard science fiction, and I invite hard SF readers to check it out.





Belt Three
Harper Voyager UK, June 18, 2015
eBook, 400 pages
Trade Paperback, December 2, 2015

Guest Blog by John Ayliff: Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction? - July 16, 2015
Worldbreakers do not think, do not feel and cannot be stopped.

Captain Gabriel Reinhardt’s latest mining mission has been brought to a halt by the arrival of a Worldbreaker, one of the vast alien machines that destroyed Earth and its solar system long ago. As he and his crew flee they are kidnapped by a pirate to be mind-wiped and sold into slavery, a fate worse than death in this shattered universe.

But Captain Reinhardt is hiding a secret. The real Gabriel Reinhardt died six years ago, and in his place is Jonas, one of the millions of clones produced for menial labour by the last descendants of Earth.

Forced to aid the pirate Keldra’s obsessive campaign against the Worldbreakers in exchange for his life, Jonas discovers that humanity’s last hope might just be found in the very machines that have destroyed it.





About John

Guest Blog by John Ayliff: Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction? - July 16, 2015
Photo by David Riley
I honed my writing skills while working in the computer games industry, and still sometimes call my protagonist the ‘player character’ by mistake. I enjoy interesting character drama against a backdrop of hard science fiction, and that’s what I aim to write. Outside of writing, my interests include computer games, tabletop roleplaying games, and going to the opera. I currently live in Vancouver, Canada.

Website  ~  Twitter @johnayliff  ~  Facebook


Interview with John Ayliff, author of Belt Three - June 18, 2015


Please welcome John Ayliff to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Belt Three is published on June 18th by Harper Voyager UK. Please join The Qwillery in wishing John a Happy Publication Day!



Interview with John Ayliff, author of Belt Three - June 18, 2015




TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

John:  Thanks, it's good to be here! I've been writing most of my life and I can't remember the point at which I started. Let's just say that my first SF stories were about a spaceship called simply the Falcon, because I didn't know what "millennium" meant or how to spell it! I've been writing with the serious goal of getting published for about fifteen years. The first story I submitted to a magazine (British SF magazine Interzone) received a personal, hand-written rejection slip, which I found enormously encouraging.



TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

John:  As I've developed as a writer I've become more and more of a plotter. I can't start something without knowing at least roughly where it's going to go--although I'm very likely to rewrite my plan entirely before each new draft. I think the most challenging thing for me is overcoming the fabled "inner editor" in order to write the bad first draft that needs to happen before the decent second or fourth or eighth draft.



TQYou've worked in the computer games industry. How does this affect (or not) your prose writing?

John:  The writing I did in the games industry was for a game in which the main character is heavily customisable by the player, which meant I wrote them as a blank slate onto which the player could project their own personality. When I wrote Belt Three, I found this habit hard to break: for the whole first draft, my point-of-view character was kind of flat, less interesting than the characters around him. It took until part way through my second draft before I really worked out who my main character was and re-wrote the novel around that.

The games industry taught me some useful habits as well. When I'm writing I like to think in terms of game mechanics: what interesting abilities do the characters have, and how can they solve problems by using those abilities in clever ways? So, for example, the main character (as I eventually developed him) is very good at reading people and finding the best things to say to manipulate them. The other major character isn't good with people but is a genius engineer, so she'll approach the same problems using a different set of skills.



TQWho are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?

John:  My first favourite author, the one who got me interested in science fiction, was Isaac Asimov; his style influenced me greatly, including in ways that I've later tried to un-learn as I developed my own style. A couple of favourite authors from more recent years are Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. I try to read widely within my genre and don't really have a list of favourites, though.



TQDescribe Belt Three in 140 characters or less.

John:  A grieving identity thief is kidnapped by a space pirate, who makes him join her futile crusade against the robots that destroyed Earth.



TQTell us something about Belt Three that is not in the book description.

John:  Although it doesn't look like a typical one, Belt Three is really a post-apocalyptic novel. The Earth has been destroyed by alien 'Worldbreakers'; they have already won, and all people can hope for is to survive in the wreckage. The Worldbreakers are more like a natural disaster than an invading force: they're dumb and predictable but have destroyed Earth due to sheer power and numbers. This means that rather than being a story of humanity versus the Worldbreakers, it's a story about how humanity is surviving in the wreckage and the kind of society they've built there. For most of the novel the conflict is between human characters and the Worldbreakers are part of the backdrop.



TQWhat inspired you to write Belt Three? What appealed to you about writing SF? Is Belt Three Hard SF?

JohnBelt Three started out because I saw a prompt to write a story about a female pirate, whom I decided to make a space pirate who was obsessively hunting alien robots. When I showed it my writing group, some of them said it read more like the start of a novel than like a short story, so I kept writing.

SF is the genre I most love to read, so it's where I have most of my ideas and it's the only genre in which I think I'm experienced enough to write. I love hard SF, and I tried to give Belt Three a hard-SF sensibility, not because I think hard SF is always better but because I thought it was what was appropriate for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted the Belt Three setting, in which people are hanging on to existence on asteroid colonies after the planets have been destroyed, to feel like a difficult and unnatural place for people to live, so I avoided soft-SF comforts such as artificial gravity and faster-than-light drives. Want gravity? You'll have to spin up your ship or habitat--which ended up having interesting implications for culture, because I realised that gravity close to Earth's would be healthier and therefore a marker of higher social class. Want to get somewhere? You'll be doing so slowly, according to real orbital mechanics. With the Worldbreakers I took more liberties, since they're meant to be products of a technology far in advance of our own, but even then I tried to make sure nothing they did was impossible: they can't create something from nothing and they can't travel faster than light. Belt Three isn't the sort of hard-SF novel that makes scientific details at the focus, though. The hard-SF setting is a backdrop for a character-driven story.



TQWhat sort of research did you do for Belt Three?

John:  As much as I like the mental image of a writer buried deep in a public library, most of my research was online. Being a writer in the age of the internet makes simple research questions so much quicker to answer. Can you use a solar sail to move closer to the sun? Yes, hence the references in the book to "tacking against orbit". Can a conventional gun fire while in a vacuum? Contrary to that Firefly episode, probably yes, hence one character keeps firing after falling out of an airlock.



TQWho was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

John:  The book has two main characters, Jonas and Keldra, and I think they were the hardest and easiest characters to write. Jonas was the one who was initially a bit flat, and the little personality he had was so unsympathetic as to put off my beta-readers. Half way through my second draft I stopped and invented a new backstory and personality for him and rewrote the book with that in mind. This new backstory also included scenes that I found quite difficult to write, but I decided I had to go where my story logic was taking me so I stuck with it. Keldra, on the other hand, seemed to spring from the page fully-formed in my first draft--I fleshed her out, but I didn't change her central concept--and writing her was both easy and fun.



TQWhich question about Belt Three do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

John:  Wow, this is a good question. I can't think of anything major I want to reveal, so I will go for something more whimsical:

Q: Do you use any special techniques to visualise your characters?

A: I have been known to spend ages at the character-creation stage of a computer RPG, trying to recreate a character's appearance...then play through the whole game roleplaying as that character. Not that I count this as time spent writing!



TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Belt Three.

John:  I'm quite proud of this one-sentence character description:

"Her facial tattoos were neon-blue today."


And here's something a little more lyrical:

"Here at the heart of the solar system Keldra had found the last real clouds, and they were clouds of fire."



TQWhat's next?

JohnBelt Three is a standalone novel, but I don't intend it to be my only novel. I think you'll see more novels and short stories from me in the future.



TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

John:  Thank you for having me!





Belt Three
Harper Voyager UK, June 18, 2015
eBook, 400 pages
Trade Paperback, December 2, 2015

Interview with John Ayliff, author of Belt Three - June 18, 2015
Worldbreakers do not think, do not feel and cannot be stopped.

Captain Gabriel Reinhardt’s latest mining mission has been brought to a halt by the arrival of a Worldbreaker, one of the vast alien machines that destroyed Earth and its solar system long ago. As he and his crew flee they are kidnapped by a pirate to be mind-wiped and sold into slavery, a fate worse than death in this shattered universe.

But Captain Reinhardt is hiding a secret. The real Gabriel Reinhardt died six years ago, and in his place is Jonas, one of the millions of clones produced for menial labour by the last descendants of Earth.

Forced to aid the pirate Keldra’s obsessive campaign against the Worldbreakers in exchange for his life, Jonas discovers that humanity’s last hope might just be found in the very machines that have destroyed it.





About John

Interview with John Ayliff, author of Belt Three - June 18, 2015
Photo by David Riley
I honed my writing skills while working in the computer games industry, and still sometimes call my protagonist the ‘player character’ by mistake. I enjoy interesting character drama against a backdrop of hard science fiction, and that’s what I aim to write. Outside of writing, my interests include computer games, tabletop roleplaying games, and going to the opera. I currently live in Vancouver, Canada.

Website  ~  Twitter @johnayliff  ~  Facebook



Guest Blog by A.F.E. Smith - City as character: building Darkhaven - June 12, 2015


Please welcome A.F.E. Smith to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. Darkhaven will be published on July 2nd by Harper Voyager (UK).



Guest Blog by A.F.E. Smith - City as character: building Darkhaven - June 12, 2015




City as character: building Arkannen

The ways in which people and places interact with each other have long been a fascination to me. It’s self-evident that we act upon our environment, shaping it to suit our own purposes. That’s what humans do. But perhaps we tend less often to realise just how much the environment influences us, too. Our surroundings affect us at all levels, from the individual rooms in which we find ourselves to the wider landscapes we navigate every day. Think of the peace we find in a beautiful vista, the irritation that can be evoked by just a single flickering overhead light, the unease or contentment we experience – without even knowing why! – when entering certain buildings. Every tiny detail of the places we inhabit contributes to our mood and the way we perceive the world. So as a writer, I’ve found it important to remember that setting isn’t just backdrop. It’s not like the scenery on a stage, a flat background in front of which the characters move. It acts on, and is acted upon by, the characters.

To me, this often seems to be particularly true of cities – because cities, more than any other kind of man-made environment, have a character of their own. If you live in a city, you can probably list a handful of things that make it unique without having to think too hard. Even to a stranger walking the streets, it’s clear that no two cities have quite the same feel to them. Yet a city’s character runs deeper than that. A city is animated by its inhabitants. They are the blood that runs through its veins. And sometimes, the city gets into their blood, too. There’s a symbiotic relationship between a city and its long-term citizens that’s very hard to break.

When I created Arkannen, the city in which all the action of Darkhaven is set, I wanted it to be the kind of city that a person could spend their whole life in without ever wanting to leave. The kind of city that people outside it long to visit one day. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s alive. And creating a living city means being aware of how it shapes, and is shaped by, its inhabitants. To build a city with character, you have to know the city just as well as you know the people who populate your story. You have to know where its inhabitants live, where they work, what they eat, how they spend their time. As the great Terry Pratchett once said, know how the water comes in and how the sewage gets out. Most of the details don’t go into the book, of course, but being able to refer to them if necessary brings the setting to life.

In addition, a city is not a static thing; it’s a growing, changing beast. So as well as knowing what it’s like now, you have to know how it reached that point. Most cities start as small settlements and then grow because they’re well placed in terms of resources or trade routes, so you can cut down through the layers of the city and find its history like fossils embedded in the rock. Arkannen is a little different in that it was designed and built to order, so rather than having grown organically it has a very precise structure: seven concentric rings, each accessed by a single gate. All the same, its relatively recent history is there to read, if you know where to look. It was built as a military stronghold in a less mechanical age, so it still has many of the features that come with that: narrow streets and crooked buildings and cobblestones, arrow slits and lookout posts and gates that are easy to barricade. But since then, it has gone through something of an industrial revolution. The lower rings, in particular, have become a place of steam trams and factories, airships and machines. Yet the impact on the higher rings has been less; apart from the new gas lamps, the training grounds of the fifth ring and the temples of the sixth are much the same as they ever were. And Darkhaven itself – right at the centre – doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built. It looks like what it is: a show of power and a warning to the world. Here be dragons.

So what effects does my city have on my characters, and vice versa? Some of them are obvious: for instance, the city’s structure – with its rings and gates – puts a very specific set of physical constraints on both the characters and the plot. A person trying to get up or down through the city has to take certain routes and pass through certain points. Yet there are also more subtle variations in attitude and mindset between different areas of the city. The lower rings are a place of innovation, of movement and industry, of the old and obsolete being swept away. Up in Darkhaven, things continue much the same as they have for hundreds of years; the emphasis is on preservation and tradition in order to maintain the family bloodline and its supremacy over the rest of the population. So the contrast and conflict between old and new in the city is directly representative of the contrast and conflict between old and new in the book: the shapeshifter family that rules from Darkhaven, and the new technology that could destroy them.





Darkhaven
Harper Voyager (UK), July 2, 2015
eBook, 400 pages

Guest Blog by A.F.E. Smith - City as character: building Darkhaven - June 12, 2015
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.

When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?

Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.





About A.F E. Smith

Guest Blog by A.F.E. Smith - City as character: building Darkhaven - June 12, 2015
A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.

What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.

Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter @afesmith

DARKHAVEN on Goodreads

2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars - May 2015 Winner


The winner of the May 2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars is Unexpected Rain by Jason LaPier with 29% of all votes.



2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars - May 2015 Winner





 The Final Results

2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars - May 2015 Winner





The May 2015 Debut Covers

2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars - May 2015 Winner



Thank you to everyone who voted, Tweeted, and participated. The 2015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars will continue with voting on the June Debut covers starting on June 15, 2015.

Guest Blog by John Ayliff: Is Belt Three Hard Science Fiction? - July 16, 2015Interview with A.F.E. Smith, author of Darkhaven - July 2, 2015Interview with John Ayliff, author of Belt Three - June 18, 2015Guest Blog by A.F.E. Smith - City as character: building Darkhaven - June 12, 20152015 Debut Author Challenge Cover Wars - May 2015 Winner

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