Monday, 18 January 2021


I wrote this piece on aphantasia for the Guardian last year.

I thought I would reference it here and elaborate somewhat. There seems recently to have been an explosion of people realising this is how they are - I won't say that they "have aphantasia" as that makes it sound like an illness or defect.

One early report on the - again I won't call it a condition - state of being was on the BBC and demonstrated a profound lack of understanding. It included such statements as:

Ironically, Niel now works in a bookshop, although he largely sticks to the non-fiction aisles.

"I couldn't really imagine what it's like to not imagine, I think it must be a bit of a shame really."

I doubt that anyone who has read my books thinks I would stick to the non-fiction aisles or that I can't imagine...

The misunderstanding lies in the fact that visualisation is such a central part of most people's imagination. For many the seeing of images in their head is synonymous with imagination. But aphantasia isn't a disability or lack. Think of it in terms of taking a different path to the same destination.  

There's literally nothing that the majority of people can do that an aphantasic cannot. It's simply a matter of how they describe their own internal workings / experience when doing it. That's why it took so long to be recognised. Most aphantasics don't know that their internal experience is any different from that of the 98% who see mental imagery. 

Various thought-provoking questions have cropped up over the years when considering the matter of artificial intelligence. One of them is to consider a black box that when asked a lengthy series of question responds in a way that leaves you unable to distinguish its answers from those of a person. The question then is: is the source of those answers intelligent, irrespective of the manner in which they were generated? I.e it could contain a phone through which a person was responding, or a computer coded with an AI algorithm, or a cunning array of clockwork, or a trillion ants working collectively, etc. Most consider that if a device provides feedback indistinguishable in character and quality from that of known intelligences then it would in fact be intelligent.

The extension here is that if someone acts as though they have an imagination then ... irrespective of the mechanics behind it (or the subjective description of the experience generated alongside those mechanics) ... that person has an imagination.

I can't visualise a spade, but I know what one is and I call a spade a spade.

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Monday, 11 January 2021

My reading in 2020

I've not done well in 2020 reading-wise and managed a poor (even for me) 9 books this year, down on last year's above average 16. 

I know some bloggers devour 200 or even 300 books in a year. I've no idea how. But I do like the fact that I can remember what happened in the books I've read, and I doubt that would be possible if I read ten times as many.

Here's my reading in 2019. I've been doing this a while so you can step back quite a way.

As ever, every headline links to my review of the book on Goodreads.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Goodbye to all that.

Goodbye to All That - an excellent book and an apt sentiment for the year.

Even in its dying days the twists keep coming. Everything from the bizarre to the disastrous.

Let me regale you with the two latest examples - bizarre first.

I have been (at least according to a man I have no reason to doubt) nominated for a Nobel Prize. Which is - as I'm sure you've just thought to yourself - total madness. And it's neither of the first two flavours you might think of though I've never been within a million miles of qualifying in either Science or Literature.

I have been nominated for ... wait for it ... the Nobel Peace Prize 😆.

Apparently the policy document on police reform that I made a really really tiny contribution to has snowballed into something large and the whole enterprise (and thereby collectively all the contributors) has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by an individual qualified to make such nominations. It will be one of 100+ nominations and has zero chance of winning, but it's still a wholly bizarre thing to be told in a Facebook chat that you're a Nobel prize nominee!

The second, deeply unwelcome, example is happening right now. I'm in hospital with my youngest child and will be spending at least the next five days here while she's on IV antibiotics for sepsis. So we'll be seeing in 2021 from this room:

I hope you all have a better night of it and that 2021 treats us all more kindly.

(update) we were in for 9 days but the medicine did its thing and we're back home!

Friday, 18 December 2020

A Year In Numbers ... Ten!

Each year for the last ten years I've said: "It has been a very good 20** all told!".

2020 ... hmmm ... yeah, I'm not going to say it this year. My books have done fine, but as you know, the rest of the year has been a shit show.

This post follows up from similar posts at the same time in 20192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 I record a year of ups and less ups. I take a minute to do the sums and raid the scrapbook.

Since we've hit the decade marker on this I'll be doing a smidgen of looking in the rear view mirror.

The Girl And The Stars came out in 2020 and has been well received. It's heartening that - just like all my other books - more than one person has called it the best book I've written so far.

Folks seem to like it on Amazon.

And here are some Hungarian editions!

April 2021 sees the second instalment:

Pre-order for the win (US or UK)! 

Actually 2020 had two bits of non-covid book-related shitty. Firstly a famous film producer with $100 million films to his credit got really excited about making a Red Sister film and started to write a script for it. Sadly, he fell out with the folks who had purchased the option rights and the effort collapsed. And secondly a games company wanted to make a Broken Empire game/s and made a decent offer for the rights. That all progressed well and contract signing was in sight when internal company stuff led to a sudden change in plans. So film and game went to no film and no game ... yay 2020.

The signed & illustrated special edition omnibus for The Red Queen's War trilogy is now on sale and a significant majority of the 1000 copies are gone. Don't wait too long to get yours or like The Broken Empire omnibus before it it will be sold out.

There are still a few decks of my kickstarted card game at Gallant Knight Games (though the NSFW edition has sold out) and you can pick one up for a mere $4.99! Sadly the international shipping is currently insane so basically it's US only.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics to follow:

I'm very close to a million "books added" on Goodreads. Those are crazy numbers!

Prince of Thorns is very close to 100,000 ratings. It will happen in 2021 and I've said that to celebrate I'll be giving away a copy of the (sold out) Broken Empire omnibus. 

If you click on the 2011 entry you'll see that 5 months after release the book had 728 ratings and an average of 3.98. Additional disapproval or disinterest may have lowered that average to 3.85 but the book got nearly 13,000 extra ratings in 2020, so I'll take those swings with that roundabout. 

Also note that Red Sister now has more ratings than Emperor of Thorns 😮

Amazon have now decided that they're doing "global ratings" for Prince of Thorns ... but strangely the numbers are different on than in

It's worth noting that in 2011 after 5 months on the shelves Prince of Thorns had 43 Amazon ratings in the UK and 53 in the US... I don't know how long the book's popularity will endure - most books are forgotten in a decade, fifty years will obliterate the memory of 99.9999% of them ... but it's been a hell of a run that has totally exceeded all my expectations.

Blogger have jazzed up their stats tool and we can see the sorry tale of decline more starkly. I didn't live up to my do better blogging resolution. I feel that maybe blogs are just less popular now we have so many platforms on social media.

I'm still on InstagramPintrest, and Tumblr

And finally, as ever, our favourite cesspit of witch hunts and fake news: Twitter, where I continue my crawl forward with an extra 2,200 followers this year.

Many thanks to all my readers for keeping me going! I hope you all have happy holidays and that 2021 is much much better for all of us!

Thursday, 17 December 2020

On Grimdark

Grimdark is often called hopeless, but in doing so people miss that it isn't apathetic - it is (for me) characterised by defiance in the absence of hope.

Grimdark is often called nihilistic, but this misses the idea that you can accept a nihilistic truth and still choose to die for a principle you know is an emotional construct.

A grimdark "hero" has a tendency to go all in - to burn their bridges even when they don't need the warmth. They are, in their way, an allegory for hope, in so much as having been shown there's no meaning in the world, they still cling to some elements of it. And in those choices they are revealed.

The way it's painted by the disapproving you would think that grimdark fiction was the literature of surrender to the inevitable. When in truth it is the story of the battle against it - sharpened by the knowledge that there's no ultimate victory to be had. 

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Tuesday, 8 December 2020

My Best Trilogy?

 Over two thousand readers responded to this poll I ran on Twitter!

Which means there were 76 people who thought that the Impossible Times trilogy was my best work! Hooray! I really like it too.

Obviously the results need to be taken with a large pinch of salt - they correlate strongly with the number of readers each trilogy has had to date - and with all three books of the Impossible Times trilogy released last year there's not been much time for it to acquire readers.

Each of these trilogies qualifies as my favourite under different but valid criteria. The Red Queen's War was, for example, by far the most fun to write, and I love hearing how people enjoyed Jalan's antics. The Broken Empire is the closest I got to LITERATURE. The Book of the Ancestor is the best at presenting an ensemble cast. And Impossible Times is my most real work, drawing most heavily on my own experiences. And these things qualify each of them as my favourite.

You should definitely read them all and make up your own mind. Then read The Book of the Ice trilogy and tell me it's my best yet 😀

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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Constellations, conspiracy, and coalescing.


Prime among the party slogans in Orwell's 1984 was the chilling IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Like all the best lies this slogan is build around a core of truth. Ignorance often conveys a false sense of competence and ability. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a more formal encapsulation of this truism. I can't count the number of times people have felt confident arguing with me on topics where my knowledge vastly outweighs theirs - technical topics on which over the course of my Ph.D and decades as a research scientist I have spent more than the 10,000 hours that pop culture says will make you an expert. And yet, on the basis of skimming a few new articles, or watching a youtube video, a still profound ignorance gives these folk the self-belief to consider their own arguments more compelling than mine - whereas someone who had spent months (but not decades) studying these topics would be far less quick to say their understanding was equal/superior to mine.

There's a name for the phenomenon because it's human nature. I have to battle the same instinct in areas where it's me that has the passing interest and the expertise lies on the other side of the conversation.

Moving on: We as a species have a talent for pattern recognition. We have it because it's a great survival tool and so evolution has embedded it in us as deeply as it will go. In fact we have an overdeveloped instinct for pattern recognition as it turns out to be more advantageous for our survival if we see patterns where there really are none and miss fewer patterns that actually are there. Our dial has been turned to 11. This is why we see faces in the bark of trees or the random swirl of wallpaper etc.

Constellations and conspiracy theory share roots. Do your own research - join the dots. Wow, there really is a great big bear in the sky. The gods must have positioned the stars themselves to draw it for us. What's the message behind that?

In truth, the universe is a chaotic place, humans do not have an instinct for understanding probability, and you can draw what you want to draw in the sky by joining the dots you select.

In antiquity ignorance made us think the stars lay spread upon some surface for our inspection. In truth, even these strained associations we manufacture for our constellations only hold together for our own narrow perspective. Like those alarming hole-in-the-road drawings, they fall apart when viewed from another angle.

Here's Orion. And then again seen from a different angle.

The world is chaotic and largely ungoverned. Ignorance allows us with confidence to join random dots until we've drawn a monster that we can blame for it.

Let me finish with a word about writing, since I'm a writer.

I'm often praised for the meticulous planning that must go into my books. People are amazed how the many disparate elements of a plot come together over the course of three books. Particularly in the Impossible Times trilogy they congratulate me for the intricate relationships between elements of the story that finally come to fruition at the end of the last book. Readers say the foresight astounds them.

The truth is that I'm a gardener, not an architect. I scattered ideas and events across the pages without consideration to any grand design. And when I have populated the heavens of my fictional world, when I have strewn the darkness with a sufficient number of stars ... I start to join the dots and see what I can draw. I think of this as a coalescing phase. A coming together. A time when structure starts to crystalize out of the solution, the brew into which I have dissolved so many raw ingredients. But it wasn't planned any more than the stars were planned so that you could see a great bear and I could see a saucepan. And yet the impression that such planning took place is compelling.

It's comforting to think that good thing happened because some good person secretly designed it to be so. It's comforting to think that when something you consider bad has happened that there is a person or people behind it and your cleverness has identified them. You can fight against these people. You can - potentially - make things right again. If it were just part of the random currents of the world - if it were just 'how things were' - how much more powerless would you feel? How much more scared?

In conclusion: I'm not trying to be holier than thou. I am not without prejudice. I am not objective. I am blinded to many things by my own ignorance. All I'm suggesting is that we all try to take off our tinfoil hats together and check out the view from another angle.

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