BSFA Orbiters

Do you know about the writing groups operated by the BSFA?

Maybe you’re gazing enviously at all those #NaNoWriMo scribblers on their way to a first draft, and a story is starting to stir inside you. Or maybe you’ve been looking around for a while for a community to support your writing.

The BSFA runs the Orbit groups, a series of  online workshopping groups. You can pay a lot of money to sign up to online workshops or writing courses, but the Orbit groups are free to BSFA members. If you are a BSFA member and are interested in participating, get in touch with our Orbit Co-ordinator Terry Jackman. If you’re not yet a member, you can join here.

BSFA Orbit

What is an Orbit group?

BSFA Orbit groups are made up of about five writers, who keep in touch via email. Each writer shares their work with the other members of the group and, in turn, reads and comments upon the stories of the others – offering comments and suggestions about how the writing might be made better.

All Orbit groups are open to writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. There are separate groups for those concentrating on short fiction and those who are working on novels.

Members make their own decisions about how they’d like their particular Orbit groups to work, so groups are free to make decisions that suit their needs.

What do you do?

By becoming part of an Orbit group you’re committing to give other members’ work the same care and attention you’d like your own stories to receive. You commit to read carefully, and to comment thoughtfully, honestly, and constructively. And, even if you don’t include a story in every round, you commit to respond to every story and to stick to deadlines. Orbit groups are cooperative, and Orbiters tend to get out of the groups what they put in.

What do you get?

Most obviously you get different viewpoints on your work. You get the opinions of a group of unbiased readers who, like you, are interested in what makes a strong genre story. You get a range of ideas about what works in your writing and what does not. And, unlike some face-to-face writers’ groups, you get time to mull over the comments in private  – so there’s no posturing or point-scoring, just writers working together to make their work better.

But it isn’t just the feedback you receive that helps you improve as a writer. The process of critiquing itself can nourish skills applicable to your own writing. By exploring what you think works (or doesn’t work) in someone else’s story, you can learn how to improve your own. Members can also share experiences, suggest markets, and offer more general advice and support about being a writer. And, of course, writing can be a lonely business, but in an Orbit you always have someone to share ideas with.

Who will be in my group?

The Orbit groups are open to writers of all levels. Orbit groups can be made up of writers at a wide variety of stages in their careers. Some may be unpublished and just starting out, others may have been published many, many times, there are even some orbiters who are editors or who work in publishing.

Do Orbits work?

They do, and Orbit groups include members who have been published professionally but who stay in the groups because they believe that they continue to benefit from sharing their work with other writers.

Orbit groups let you see your work through the eyes of others. They give you the kind of feedback most editors simply don’t have the time to provide and the honest feedback you won’t get from friends and family. Members are encouraged to be polite but honest even if, sometimes, the truth can hurt. Orbit groups don’t try to make you feel better; their goal is to make you a better writer.

How do I join?

If you are already a BSFA member, contact the Orbit coordinator Terry Jackman.

BSFA membership is £29 standard UK, £20 for students and unwaged, £31 joint and £45 international. You can join the BSFA here (and feel free to get in touch with Terry as soon as you have sent your membership fee).

History of the Orbits

The original Orbit groups operated by post. Members circulated an envelope containing printed manuscripts and in each “round” a member received comments on their previous story, read and commented on new material from the other authors, and added a new story. Until a few years ago, there were still groups that preferred this method. Nowadays, however, all the active Orbiters operate via email.

Here Is The News

Orbital reports and/or discussions can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, linked from here, and no doubt in many other places on this vast internet. You can see a bajillion photos here.

There’s a Spooks spin-off in the works:

The new spy drama, titled Spooks: Code 9, is currently being shot in Bradford and will hit screens later this year.

The drama is set in 2013, when London has been evacuated following a nuclear attack, and MI5 must establish field offices across the UK.

Four immediate thoughts:

  1. Hey, more near-future sf on the BBC!
  2. Are they just trying to out-24 24?
  3. This rather puts an expiry date on the original version.
  4. Can anyone think of another example of a non-sf show spawning an sf spinoff?

The debate about genre cover art is doing the rounds again. See here, here, here, here and here.

Chinese sf writers bid farewell to Arthur C. Clarke.

A bit more detail about Anathem:

Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, based in a universe similar to but not our own, where mathematicians and philosophers are sheltered from an illiterate and unpredictable “saecular” world, until the day they must leave their safe haven to save the entire world from destruction, to Ravi Mirchandani at Atlantic Books, for publication in September 2008, by Rachel Calder at the Sayle Literary Agency.

Adam Roberts hasn’t found a new home for his Clarke shortlist review (what with Infinity Plus closing down), so has been snapped up by that eagle-eyed Paul Raven chap to write a Clarke shortlist review for Futurismic. In the meantime, he’s posted some general thoughts on his website and is reviewing the individual books over here. The Red Men gets a kicking:

One of the 08 Clarke nominees, this, and now that I’ve read the entire shortlist I feel in a position to say: by far the worst book nominated, and one of the worst novels I’ve read in a long time. […] The blurb promises a thriller salted with ‘the imminent technologies of tomorrow’, but the novel delivers a very yesterday set of sf tropes: a pinch of Dick, a scattering of Gibson. Most notably. the central topic of the novel, the establishment of an entire virtual town of Red Men upon which marketing and other ideas can be tested, is a tired and belated retread of Fred Pohl’s 1955 story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (from the collection Alternating Currents). The rest of the book reads like a sub-par episode of Nathan Barley, which is very far from being a recommendation

The H-Bomb Girl gets praise, but not without caveat:

The worst that can be said of it is that it’s, perhaps, slight. The difficulty, as far as critical judgment is concerned, is to determine how far such an assessment reflects the novel itself, and how much it simply voices a prejudice against children’s literature as such. The latter position, of course, would not be defensible. Yet I finished reading The H-Bomb Girl with a sense of it as a minor addition to the Baxter canon. It treats the same topics as most of his recent fiction has done: alternate history and timelines parsing the same ethical dilemmas of how individual choice creates our mature selves, how much agency we possess as individuals in the face of larger historical forces, what possibilities for escape and for atonement are at our disposal. These are the themes of the Times Tapestry books; the Manifold novels and to an extent the Destiny’ Children books as well. I don’t think it’s just the larger canvas, and greater scope, that these novels provide that is responsible for their greater sense of heft and sway. I think that Baxter’s current Big Theme just needs more space in which to be developed than a novella-length YA title allows. [… But …] all in all The H-Bomb Girl is a find: splendidly evocative of a place and a time, it manages to be morally serious without ever losing its playfulness, its charm or its scouse nous.

The rest is still to come, but are the books just more of the same?

Overall it’s not a shortlist about which I can say me gusto: not, although this has been the complaint of some others, on account of the proportion of ‘mainstream lit’ titles it features, for I don’t see anything wrong in that, but because it’s all rather samey. All of these books are historically-proximate alt-historical or near-future thrillers/adventure stories. […] The best books on the list are probably the Baxter and the Morgan, but none of the titles here embody the mind-stretching, the sense-of-wonder, the conceptual metaphoricity and poetic, imagistic penetration of the SF that first made me fall in love with the genre. […] apart (to some extent) from the Baxter, they’re all rather straightforward texts. Irony is not their idiom. They are books that if they are serious (about dystopia, the situation of the world today etc) are strenuously serious, and that if they are intertextual are ponderously rather than playfully intertextual.

Of course, elsewhere James thought The Execution Channel had “an ending of hope and wonder and fun and brilliance and audacity.” The most satisfying thing about watching discussion of the shortlist this year, actually, as I was almost saying earlier, is that every book on the shortlist (bar The Red Men, admittedly) seems to have its advocates this year; Cheryl Morgan fancies The Raw Shark Texts, Nick Hubble (in that thread I just linked) is for The Carhullan Army, etc etc. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting the Clarke judges have got it right, or anything; just that it’s fun to watch.

Orbital: Day Four


  • It Was Ten Years Ago Today. My last panel of the convention, and one of five panels looking back at different eras of British fandom and sf to mark the 50th anniversary of the BSFA (the others being It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, etc). I didn’t make it to any of the others — though I wish I had, so reports would be welcomed — but I thought this went pretty well, managing to cover some of the big events of the 90s (i.e. Interthingy) as well as actually talking about the sf of the period a bit. The other panellists were James Bacon, Claire Brialey, Pat Rigby-McMurray, and Ian Sorensen.
  • You’re Reading It Wrong. The description for this said, “Do you need to know genre to read genre? Do you need to know an author’s previous work to critically assess their latest work? Is it even possible to “mis-read” a book? To whose opinion (authors, critics, fans) shoul we give the most weight?” All interesting questions, but I felt the panel talked around them rather than talked about them, more than I would have liked, anyway.
  • Darker Than Potter. Another YA panel, and aside from some of the panellists occasionally ignoring the moderator’s question and choosing to answer an entirely different question, I thought this went really well — lots of insight into how the YA market has changed over the last 15 or so years, particularly from Neil Gaiman.
  • Closing Ceremony. This was at times a bit shambolic (particularly when announcing some of the art and cyberdrome awards, to the point of being disrespectful to the winners), at times charming (particularly with regards to the big pink pig, and Judith Proctor’s evident glow at how the con has gone). So everything you expect from a closing ceremony, really. Eddie Cochrane picked up the Doc Weir award.
  • Decoding the SF of 1958. Another BSFA-related panel, in that the jumping off point was to discuss the shortlist for the BSFA’s special 1958 award. Although they never got into the specific works in as much detail as I would like (and although it was moved at the last minute from a room that admittedly may have been larger than required to one that was smaller than required) this was still a very interesting panel, with a good spread of opinions and lots of audience input. May also be transcribed for Vector; the panel was Graham Sleight, Claire Brialey, Tanith Lee and Peter Harrow.

Purchases. Oh dear.

Interzone: the first anthology, edited by John Clute, Colin Greenland and David Pringle
Interzone: the second anthology, edited by John Clute, David Pringle, and Simon Ounsley
Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J McAuley
Red Dust by Paul J McAuley
Synners by Pat Cadigan
The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod
Let’s Put the Future Behind Us by Jack Womack
Babylon Babies by Maurice G Dantec
Was by Geoff Ryman
The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
The Deep by John Crowley
Roderick by John Sladek
The Shores of Light by Edmund Wilson
Classics and Commercials by Edmund Wilson

In my defence, (1) the last five came from Graham, with whom Nic and I stayed for the duration of the con, and who was having a book clear-out; (2) several of them are upgrades-to-hardback rather than additions to to-be-read; (3) I got six for £10; and (4) none of the others cost me more than £1.50. But still. I suppose this is what Mondays in the dealer’s room are for. (Oh, and I picked up several back-issues of Foundation as well.)


  • I saw badge number 1501 today, although I gather that due to a technical hitch they didn’t actually use every single number, and that the final warm body count was something like 1300. Which is still double last year.
  • I discovered today that I hadn’t really ventured into the labyrinthine corridors of the Radisson. I thought I had, but no. It is more confusing than I could possibly have imagined. There are occasional internal windows, and you think, “how on earth have I ended up looking out over that?”
  • Most incongruous recommendation of the weekend: Tanith Lee recommending Neal Asher “if you like 50s sf”. Well, yes, in some ways, I suppose
  • I really hate it when conventions end, particularly ones like this that felt so full and busy all weekend. Thanks (and congratulations) to all involved for a job very well done indeed.

And … collapse.

Orbital: Day Three

Yet more panels:

  • Politics in YA SF. With China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, Amanda Hemingway, Ruth O’Reilly, and Martin McGrath moderating. One of the best panels I’ve been to — lots of discussion and debate, and they touched on a lot of interested points, such as whether or not growing up is an inherently political state, if it is then in what way, and to what extent YA fiction tends to avoid structuralist political critique in favour of individualistic political critique (and to what extent that’s a problem). This is another one I hope to include in Vector at some point.
  • Neil Gaiman’s GoH spot. Not really my thing, I have to admit. Two readings, one of which (“Orange”, from The Starry Rift) worked pretty well, the other of which (part of the first chapter of The Graveyard Book) worked less well, a story about Neil Gaiman’s Eastercon Experiences which had the feel of being told many times before, and a question and answer section in which someone would ask about an upcoming project and Gaiman would answer without giving any indication as to what said project actually was (which meant I had no idea what he was talking about in response to half such questions).
  • Arthur C Clarke Retrospective. Graham Sleight moderating, Edward James, Martin McGrath, Ian McDonald and a man whose name I have temporarily forgotten but who was Clarke’s secretary for a couple of years in the eighties. Good discussion of Clarke’s work and influence. Made me want to go to the dealer’s room and buy all the Clarke I don’t have, although I resisted the urge.
  • BSFA Awards results discussion. Unfortunately (but understandably) focused on the novels, in the order in which they were eliminated in the STV ballot — Chabon, Reynolds, MacLeod, Talbot, Morgan, McDonald. I was surprised/impressed that Chabon and MacLeod were in the bottom half and Talbot/Morgan was in the bottom half; I think I also disagreed with everything the panel (Chris Hill, Mattia Valente, Liz Batty and, er, someone else whose name I’ve temporarily forgotten) said about most of the books, but there you go.
  • Everyone’s a Critic. The “online reviews” panel, with Coln Harvey moderating, and me, Paul Raven, Andrew Ducker and Tony Lee as panellists, although it very quickly evolved int a whole-room discussion. I’m not sure how much new ground we covered, but it was a fun discussion.


F&SF, March
Asimov’s, April/May
Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
Hereafter and After by Richard Parks
A bacon sandwich

As you may have guessed, I don’t have any fiction magazine subscriptions at the moment, although I hope to start renewing around July/August, so I’ve been picking up issues on the strength of what I’ve heard about individual stories. The bacon sandwich was served late night in the atrium — how did I miss these on Friday and Saturday?


  • Mitch Benn, as they say, rocked the hizzay. I think my favourite bit was probably Burt Chewbaccarach.
  • I didn’t go to the panel for obvious reasons, but my spies tell me the Not the Clarke panellists ended up split 3-2 in favour of The H-Bomb Girl over The Execution Channel (but The Execution Channel people could all live with The H-Bomb Girl and two of The H-Bomb Girl people couldn’t live with The Execution Channel winning. The were also unanimous in their disapproval of The Red Men. Elimination order was The Red Men < The Raw Shark Texts < Black Man < The Carhullan Army < the last two.

EDIT: Also, it’s SNOWING!

Orbital: Day Two


  • Mythology in Fantasy. I have never seen a 10am panel as well-attended as this one. The power of Gaiman, I suppose. Good discussion of how and why writers use pre-existing mythology in their fantasy, though; the other panellists were Maura McHugh, Nic Clarke, Sarah Singleton and Liz Williams.
  • China Mieville GoH talk. Probably the programme item of the convention so far: a vigorous defence of intelligent, in-depth reading, and an exploration of why some people get so annoyed by the same, to the point of saying “it’s only a story”. I recorded it, so if the transcript coms out ok hopefully it will be appearing in a Vector near you relatively soon.
  • Fantastic London. More Gaiman, along with Geoff Ryman and Sci-Fi London chair Louis Savy, all modeated by Graham Sleight. Much talk of the palimpsest effect of London, and stories of how even when you make something up about London it turns out to be true.
  • Right to Reply. This was my panel of the day; moderated by Edward James, and the other panellists Christopher Priest, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Adam Roberts, a discussion of how and whether (and indeed why) authors should respond to reviews. Much livelier (and funnier) discussion than I was anticipating from a 9pm panel about reviewing.


Celebration, edited by Ian Whates
Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley
Interzone 215


  • It’s confirmed: the 2010 Eastercon will be back at the Radisson, with Guests of Honour Alastair Reynolds, Liz Williams, Mike Carey, and Fran and John Dowd.
  • The Gollancz table in the dealer’s room has copies of some of the shiny new fantasy promotion they’re doing:

    Not pictured are Lud-in-the-Mist, The Dragon Waiting, and one other I can’t remember. They’ll be out in late April, apparently.

Orbital: Day One


  • Reassessing Heinlein. You know something’s gone a bit pear-shaped when the panel starts debating, “which is morally superior: Starship Troopers or Ender’s Game?”
  • With Friends Like These, aka the “is fandom too aggresively hegemonising” panel. I was moderating, and John Jarrold, Christopher Priest, Caroline Mullan and Chris Garcia were the panellists. I think it went pretty well: Caroline Mullan talked about the nature of literary conversations, Chris Garcia talked about differences he saw in the US market, Christopher Priest talked about pressures on writers, and John Jarrold utterly failed to rise to the bait to re-iterate his objections to this year’s Clarke shortlist, and instead made useful comments about how the UK market worked. So it was all very civil, and we agreed (I think) that it would be nice if Jeanette Winterson et al were generous (per Le Guin) about their sources, but that we should recognise they’re in their own conversation.
  • When it Changed. Five women writers discuss their experiences. Lots of interesting ground covered, and certainly a better panel than last year’s “is SF publishing overly masculine?” effort, but I did sometimes feel the panellists didn’t delve as deeply into some of the issues they raised as they might have done. (Oh, and yes, Jaine Fenn was on the panel, and yes, she talked a bit about the marketing of her book.)
  • The UK Short Fiction Market. Another panel that I thought might be a bit controversial but wasn’t; I wasn’t moderating this time, but I was on it, with Jetse de Vries, Colin Harvey, Gary Couzens, and John Meaney (who, while entertaining, did tend to run away with the discussion a bit at times). There was one conversation about the technical/economic aspects of the market — where we agreed that markets will probably Find A Way, even if we can’t quite see what it is yet — and another about the creative aspects of the market — where we agreed, to my surprise, that British short fiction is in something of a creative slump, relative to say fifteen years ago. New writers aren’t coming in through short fiction, and short fiction is in no way setting the agenda. But having more or less agreed on this, we didn’t really have anywhere to take the conversation.

Book haul:

What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid
The Reef by Mark Charan Newton
The Coyote Kings o the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
A Tour Guide in Utopia by Lucy Sussex
The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford
The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson


  • I would have bought a copy of Celebration, the BSFA 50th anthology, but they ran out of hardback copies at the launch party before I got to the front of the queue. So an early trip to the dealer’s room is in order today.
  • The hotel is labyrinthine! And there’s no second floor, which is confusing. But I do like the atrium area.
  • I saw someone wandering around with badge number 1243. This is a big Eastercon.
  • Went out for a Friday Curry with a large contingent of third row and hangers-on, which was thoroughly pleasant, except for the walk from the hotel, which was bloody cold.
  • Geoff Ryman is still taller than me, the bastard.
  • The Independent’s view: “Orbital 2008, Britain’s 59th annual National Science Fiction Convention, which started yesterday, is dominated by the death of Clarke last week. And that has meant a hastily re-arranged programme to celebrate the legendary figure’s achievements with a series of talks and lectures. So, there is no place in this year’s programme for Klingon language seminars…” and then they talk about the bondage workshop and the slash panels.