Saturday, April 07, 2012

The origins of Spaceboy


Will Bonneman works at the observatory, searching for meaning in the random movements of the universe. The rest of the time, he's in a hazy world of flat parties and underground clubs, cheap drugs and easy nihilism.
But his horizons shift when he meets Eve, a young anarchist protesting a distant war. Between them, they test the limits of the personal, political and scientific, until a brutal act of oppression brings them crashing back to earth.
When evolutionary cosmology collides with revolutionary politics, a spaceboy can get lost forever.

I recently published a short novel, titled Spaceboy, as an e-book. It's available on Amazon for the Kindle, and Smashwords and allied vendors for other devices. That's the cover and blurb above. Here's a few notes on where it came from, and why it's being published in this form now.

Spaceboy is essentially the first half of a longer novel called Blue Shift. Blue Shift was conceived in 1995, while I was working towards the end of a degree in astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. To be exact, it was conceived after reading in close succession The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg and The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer. I was also reading a lot of JG Ballard and, like everyone with vague literary ambitions in Edinburgh at the time, had recently absorbed Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. That's the book's essential influences, though some of those influences may be less obvious than others.

About half of what is now Spaceboy was written that summer between finishing my degree and leaving Edinburgh to train as a journalist in Portsmouth. I sketched out a three-part structure for Blue Shift but, during the process of actually writing it and getting initial feedback, the middle section condensed to a single chapter interlude. This point was reached in 1997 or thereabouts, by which time I was working in London.

As per the cliché, real life got in the way. The writing slowed to a dead halt some half dozen chapters into the final section.

I picked it up again in the new millennium. By then, I was happily back in Yorkshire and working freelance – an ideal situation. The whole thing had to be retyped, as it existed only on paper and on floppy disks in obsolete formats, and was heavily revised as I went along. But despite the freedom of freelance life, the thing refused to progress: when I did make a start on a new chapter, some big urgent piece of paid work would inevitably appear to displace it.

Another cliché – the journalist with an unfinished novel in his bottom drawer.

Fast forward to something resembling the present. Suddenly everyone's reading novels on their Kindles and iPhones. Print publishing for fiction seems increasingly commoditised, with rapidly shrinking opportunities and advances for anything that can't be easily positioned as the big thing in any particular bracket, whether that's 'teen paranormal romance' or 'literary fiction'.

To a large extent, the e-publishing world may be even worse than print publishing for this ghettoisation – the writers trotted out in the press as making big money from e-books don't do much to break the mould. I'd hate to use phrases like 'sub-Twilight' or 'Dan Brown lite', but...

On the other hand, this struck me as something like the heyday of pulp paperbacks – cheap punchy reads for a mass market, with a heavy reliance on genre and a rather disreputable air, but possibly more scope for experimentation and oddness than mainstream publishing. Maybe the kind of market where Blue Shift could find an audience. There was no reason not to get it out there.

So the text was again revisited and revised, reworked to some extent to allow the first half to stand alone. Shorter serial fiction seems to fit the medium, and the overall structure of Blue Shift was always such that there's a definite climax at this mid-point, then a lull before the narrative picks up again several months later.

And so Spaceboy was released into the wild. The price was set at about as much as a pint, which seems appropriate – and if you buy it and don't like it, I'll buy you a pint back while you tell me why not. Sales aren't breaking any records yet, but at least some are to people I don't actually know personally. As the man said, "Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it."

Maybe most importantly, it's giving me the kick up the arse I needed to press on and finish writing the fucking thing.

2017 update: the complete Blue Shift is now available from Amazon as a paperback or for Kindle. Aye, it took a while.