All Good Wizards Go To College

Universities have lots of potential as settings and sources of characters for stories. Anybody who’s spent time in one and seen the range of fascinating people in academia will vouch for that point. And this week I wrote a guest post for fellow writer JH Mae on this subject…

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university
Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

All Good Wizards Go To College

Given how many authors have been through university, and how many geeky interests are fostered by social networks there, it’s hardly surprising that universities turn up in science fiction and fantasy. They’re a great source of characters, who then provide the drive for plot, but could we be doing more with them?

The Faculty

Let’s start with university staff, in particular the academics. I could write a whole other post on the staff who are missing from fiction but keep a university running – the cleaners, administrators, technicians, etc. But let’s focus on what we’ve got, and that’s academics.

Fictional academics seem to fall into two types, which are sometimes combined.

First there are the wild exaggerations, as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Who doesn’t love the PE-teacher-esque hunting and shooting stereotype of Unseen University’s Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully? Or the quietly erratic Bursar? Or the over-enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons? These caricatures of scholarship and of attitudes to learning provide humour and conflict.

Then there are academics as experts. Where the exaggerated academics are prone to causing the problems, the expert academics provide solutions, and sometimes info-dumps. Between lectures and answering questions, they can give heroes and audiences the answers they need to face the big bad. And when the academics are the protagonists, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, their competence in their field makes them likeable, interesting and able to make a difference…


For the full article please hop over to JH Mae’s blog. If you come back on Tuesday then you can read a post from JH, on the subject of fiction and the weird. And if you’re after some academically inclined fantasy then my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus features an academic hunting knowledge in a most unusual library and is available through Amazon and Smashwords, still just 99c until the end of this weekend.

Listen to one of my stories

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionFor Ubu, the gladiator life is short and brutal, but in the shadow of the arena there is a chance for something more.

I know that a lot of people like to listen to their books rather than read. And as it happens the first story in By Sword, Stave or Stylus is already available to listen to. When Wily Writers originally published ‘Live by the Sword’ they included an audio version. So if you’d like a chance to listen to the first short story in my new collection, or just to read a bit of the collection before you buy, then you can check it out over on Wily Writers.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still only 99c for the next week, and the Wily Writers recording is free, so why not give them a go?


And while I’m pointing you towards other reading, I’ve had a couple of guest posts this week on other blogs. Over at the Steampunk Journal I’ve written about moving buildings in steampunk stories, while at Alt Hist I’ve written some more about the challenges of world building for alternate history. If you have time please check them out.

Warren Ellis does retro-futurism

I love Warren Ellis’s comics. The wild and vivid settings, sharp dialogue and fascinating characters make for a great read. Transmetropolitan is a fabulously pointed piece of science fiction as crazed social commentary. Planetary is a great exploration of popular culture through its own story forms.

Last week I wrote an article for The Steampunk Journal on some of Ellis’s retro-futurist comics, and it starts like this…

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Author spotlight: Warren Ellis

Though he’s probably best known for his work on superhero stories such as Astonishing X-men, writer Warren Ellis has dipped his comic-scripting toe in a wide range of genres, from history to crime to science fiction. So it’s hardly surprising to find that he’s written some steampunk, and that it’s really rather good.

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Captain Swing is the most completely steampunk of Ellis’s books. Illustrated by Raulo Caceres, it tells the story of Charlie Gravel, a policeman in 1830 London who finds himself on the trail of a criminal with baffling and powerful technology.

This is steampunk living up to punk’s anti-authoritarian roots…


You can read the whole article here, but I realise now that I missed out one of the best examples – Ministry of Space*. This mini-series explores an alternate history in which the British won the space race. It has a Dan Dare-inspired aesthetic which I love, but beneath its hopeful exterior lies something darker, a balancing of achievements and costs. If you’re interested in 1950s science fiction or alternate history or just great comics then I really recommend it, along with the other comics mentioned in that spotlight article.

Other comics fans – do you have any recommendations for comics that dip into steampunk or reinvent the past? Or favourite Warren Ellis works? Leave a comment, share your recommendations with the rest of us.


* For some reason Ministry of Space is reasonably priced on but insanely priced on the UK site. So UK readers, try a comic shop instead, because this is a good comic, but not hundreds of pounds good.

Diversity in science fiction

As well as hosting a guest post from Austin Dragon earlier this week, I also wrote a post for his blog on the same theme – diversity in science fiction. Here’s how it starts…

Diversity in science fiction

Diversity is a hot topic in science fiction. There’s increasing acknowledgement that the genre has long been dominated by straight white men, and that it would be good to diversify both the creators and the characters.

This is a trend that, as a straight white man, I’m in favour of. So why is diversity important to me?

Aesthetic variety

I’m a fan and writer of science fiction and fantasy. A large part of their appeal for me is the range and variety of things they contain. The potential to read about something new, whether it’s a new place, a new culture, a new technology, a new point of view…


You can read the full article over on Austin’s site.

Medieval Alternate History

Medieval Europe is all the rage in the fantasy genre. Though settings inspired by different places and times are becoming more popular, the main flavour of heroic and epic fantasy is knights, kings and feudal oppression. Even when settings aren’t medieval European-looking, they still pick up that era’s traits by default.

The doorstep evangelists got a real shock at Tod’s house

But in the other genre spinning unreal worlds from the real past, that of alternate history, medieval settings are fairly rare. The different way of combining the familiar and unfamiliar used in that genre leads to a lot of setting rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the overwhelming volume of variant Second World Wars.

Redressing the balance, I wrote a piece for Alternate History Weekly Update looking at three possible alternate medieval pasts. So if this stuff interests you at all please check it out.


Photo by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons

Enough with the ‘steampunk’ already! – a guest post on JoshPunk

I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to words. Precision matters. Meaning matters. The subtler implications of words matter.

And on that theme, my blog post for today isn’t actually here, but is over at Josh Stanton’s excellent JoshPunk blog. It starts something like this…

Enough with the ‘steampunk’ already!

I love the things that make up steampunk. I love the strange, half-historical style. I love the adventurous literature, comics and music. I love dressing up as a Victorian manservant with a tea tray full of cake and bullets, ready to take on Rasputin and his automaton minions (OK, they were ninjas not automata, but other than that that’s how I once spent my Sunday).

But there’s one thing that bugs me more and more. It’s the word we use to identify this style and this culture. It’s the signifier of what it’s all about. And for me, it’s starting to fall flat.

It’s calling it ‘steampunk’.

To read the rest of the article, please hop on over to Josh’s blog.

Joshua Stanton – gentleman, scholar and steampunk gunslinger

Guest posts

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m trying to be more sociable in my blogging. I want to reach out to more readers, both for this blog and for the stories I’m planning to self-publish in the near future. Guest blog posts seem to be a good way of doing this – I’ve enjoyed writing a few for everwalker, and occasionally contribute to the Curnblog film blog.

So if you’re a blogger and you like the sort of things I write here, and if you think that they might interest your readers, then I’d be delighted to write a guest post for your blog. Just leave a comment below and I’ll get in touch. We can decide between us on a suitable topic that fits both your blog and my interests, and that will hopefully get us both a few more readers. I’ll also link to the guest post from here, so that my readers can go find your blog.

Equally, if you’d like to write a guest post here, if you think you have something to say that my readers might enjoy, then get in contact. It’s another way to get more eyes on what you’re writing, and for me to vary my content – everybody wins!


Let’s Get Down to Business

Today I’ve provided a guest blog for the ever-eloquent everwalker. In return, she’s been good enough to write a guest blog for me. I definitely get the better of this deal, as do you if you’re reading this. So sit back and enjoy her words of wisdom…


To defeat the Huns… no, wait, that’s Mulan. What’s I’ve actually been invited to talk about is the biggest lesson that I have learned from completing my first full-length writing project (and by that, I don’t just mean finishing the novel, but several rounds of editing and then submission for publication as well). Well, it’s probably not going to be a popular lesson, and you are very welcome to ignore everything I’m about to say and go on about your business in your own way. This is just what I learned works for me.

Writing is work. If you really want to get to the end with the best book you can write, you need to approach it with a fairly rigorous mindset. Plan it in advance, with chapter outlines and character arcs, and all that jazz. Use spreadsheets for cross-referencing and graphs for plotting tension progression. Compile research notes and read up on weird things (my latest included the original names for various German cities, the outward symptoms of criminal child neglect, and medieval medicines for an arrow to the knee). And then, when all the prep is done – or at least has a solid foundation – you keep strict working hours. That takes discipline, whether it’s self-inflicted or imposed by other factors. Write for at least an hour every day, and try to make it the same time so it becomes part of your routine. When you hit editing stage, do the same (that part’s harder). Try not to jump around within the story too much – writing linearly is actually easier in the long run, no matter what your unreliable mind might tell you. Be business-like about it.

I know, it was a shock and disappointment to me too. Writing used to be a hobby, of sorts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the more impulsive approach. But I don’t think it’ll get the project finished.

There’s one other important lesson I want to mention, and it’s a word of warning. I found that, by approaching it in this way, I got more done. But I also thought about it more, to the point of obsession. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all, and you have to work and eat and sleep in some of them. Now, I’ll be honest – I’ve never been that great at keeping a good work-life balance, and when you’re juggling work and writing and life, one of them is bound to lose out. Just be careful you don’t ignore one completely.


You can read everwalker’s blog here.