Sunday, 29 November 2009

Simple Childish Pleasures Colonised by Dick Heads

We went to see The Fantastic Mr Fox in the weekend, and while I thought it was a great film in a lot of ways, I was also profoundly disappointed by it. My kids adore Roald Dahl stories and are big fans of the original story, so they were very excited by it all. However, in the movie itself I could sense their eyes glazing over while George Clooney wrestled with his mid-life crisis. It made for a funny and joyous mid-life crisis movie, but the pre-pubescent subversiveness of the original had been dispensed with in favour of the longing of aging Gen Xers for their slacker youth.

The upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things are seems to follow a similar pattern of taking a magical childish work, that thrived on a lack of explication, and turning it into a labouriously tedious examination of adulty alienation. A conversation on FaceBook with Jonathan McCalmont about the Christmas window displays on Oxford Street, which have abandoned childish notions of a magical Christmas in favour of avant garde expressions of decadance and sensuality crytallised this issue for me recently. What the hell was wrong with fairies and Father Christmas?

It seems to me that even while we complain about children growing up too fast - over-sexualised, exploited by manufacturers of shitty toys and junk food, opressed by an educational system obsessed with results, and constricted by "PC health & Safety" (tm Daily Mail) culture - our creative people are reaching back and stealing their culture and taking if for the adults.

For god's sake, leave them something other than Transformers and Barbie to enjoy. It's a strange world where a cynical commercial juggernaut like Star Wars looks good in comparison to the alternatives!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Queen-Shaped Hole in the Brain

My kids have been interested in Queen for a while for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there's quite a fun video on youtube, where someone's taken scenes from Thomas the Tank Engine and cut them together with “Don't Stop me Now”. We've enjoyed this as a family since Lou was two, (they love the bit about a minute in where James spins around on the turntable) and they've always been interested in the music, which is nothing like what you hear on Thomas (“They're two they're four they're six their eight...”).

Secondly, there's Gubbins. Gubbins is a toy, a kind of blue bear (in fact the Danone “Inner self” from an advertising campaign of some years ago - my wife sent off a number of labels and we got one through the post) who features in their bedtime stories. He's all the things kids love – daft, rude, flatulent – and gets into all sorts of amusing scrapes and adventures. Among his friends are David Davis (former shadow home secretary and Gubs' best mate, and an elephant as it turns out) Farty Dada, a local who lives with his Mum, and Freddy Mercury, who lives in the Greenwich observatory (Brian May would be proud). They were amazed to discover that not only was Freddy Mercury a real person, but that he made the music for the Thomas video (they don't know about David Davis yet, I figure they're a little young for horror stories). (And hell, if their enthusiasm for Freddy is anything to go by they might end up voting tory!)

So, we spent more time on you tube looking up Queen videos and they were genuinely interested, so I bought the new best-of CD, Absolute Greatest.

I can remember when Bohemian Rhapsody was on Top of the Pops in the seventies, and I liked Queen quite a lot right up until I was in my twenties. I can remember being about 12 or 13 in particular and thrashing the old “Best of” (the current one's a new selection). Now I'm all old and a sophisticated and educated thinker, it's interesting listening to it again. In common with any serious rock fan, I was aghast when the We Will Rock You stage show was announced, but on reflection I think their music has a lot in common with show tunes. There's the obvious music hall sound of stuff like Killer Queen, and the anthemic songs like Radio Gaga, but in their entire catalogue there's something very simple and direct about their songs, despite the famous glossy production and technical expertise of Brian May. Don't Stop me Now, for example, has a real joyous abandon to it. I don't doubt it's all about Freddy's notorious party lifestyle, but still it communicates a pure uncomplicated pleasure in racing around that even little kids can grasp. All their songs are like that: the lyrics don't often make a lot of sense, or say anything particularly profound, but the sound and rhythm of the words fit perfectly with the emotional content of the music.

When listening Queen, it's as if there's a song-shaped hole in your head and even the first time you hear a Queen song it fits right in this places that's just been waiting for the song to come along and fill it. At they're best they can be literally breathtaking as they touch all sorts of strange and sensitive spots inside you, bypassing anything rational and going straight into the lizard brain.

This is one of the reasons why I don't really like them as much as some other performers, though. There's no surprises in there and the music, clever though it is, can be a bit crudely manipulative. As they went on they also depended on the same tricks that get a little tiresome. Later tracks like The Show Must Go On and It's a Kind of Magic, for example, are a bit tired. And let's not talk about fucking Radio Gaga – what's that doing on a best of anyway! (And while we're considering odd choices for an album called “Absolute Best” where are Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race, dammit!!) Their last great period was probably the time of Crazy Little Thing Called Love and I Want to Break Free (the latter one of their genuinely powerful and heartfelt songs, I have always felt).

That natural, uncomplicated sound really appeals to my kids, though, especially to my son. When he gets home from the childminder in the evening, he likes to put it on and lie on his tummy, looking at the booklet and listening along. It makes me really happy to see his musical education getting off to a solid start. It's not Tom Waits or David Bowie (we've just watched Labyrinth, though, and of course “Under Pressure”, so who knows) but it's a start!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Too Clever

I used to think I was too clever by half, but the world is now too clever by three-quarters.

Monty Python Tribute

SCENE: A bar in the seventies. Behind the bar, Eric Idle is polishing glasses. Enter Terry Jones.

Jones: I'd like a cocktail please, bartender.
Eric: Of course, sir, might I reccommend a peanut colada.
Jones: Oh, a pina colada! Yes, yes, I like them, and walking in the rain, ha ha.
Eric: PEANUT colada, sir. Like a pina colada but with satay sauce. Delicious.
Jones: Oh, er no, perhaps something a bit sweeter?
Eric: Maybe an Edwyn Collins?
Jones: An Edwyn Collins? What's that?
Eric: You take a Tom Collins and add orange juice.
Jones: No, no, drier than that
Eric: An old fascist, sir?
Jones: Is that like an old fashioned?
Eric: Not really, sir. You rub a tall glass in nationalist rhetoric and then smash it over the head of the nearest communist.
Jones: No, no, I want a drink.
Eric: A margerita: tequila, lime and margarine, chilled to the consistency of runny lard. Very popular around here, Sir.
Jones: No, look -
Eric: A margetini?
Jones: No!
Eric: A singapore slinky! Gin, benedictine and cherry brandy served in a huge metal spring. It's had them snaking drunkenly down the stairs in Raffles since 1893.
Jones: Look, all I want is a refreshing aperitif, no peanut drinks or margerine or giant metals springs.
Eric: A line punch, then sir?
Jones: Line punch? What's in it.
Eric: Er, well, that's the end of the sketch, sir. Line punch, punch line. Do you see?
Jones: Ah. (pause) So, no chance of a drink, then?
Eric: Sorry, sir, sketch is over. (shrugs) Sorry.
[cue hilarious Gilliam animation]

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Surely the anthem for bloggers everywhere?

So What?

[NB You Tube link, NSFW]

Martin Martin's On the Other Side by Mark Wernham

This is a satirical near future dystopian reality head-fuck, not a hundred miles from The Red Men, and was also nominated for the Clarke Award (losing out to Ian McLeod's Song of Time, which I haven't read). Jensen Interceptor is a minor civil servant in an oppressive future Britain where the population is kept distracted from civil liberties by cheap drugs and game shows and tawdry celebrity crap. Unexpectedly he's drafted into the secret service to spy on a cell of terrorists who believe in a TV psychic messiah from the early 20th century and finds his loyalties tested as he is drawn to their teachings.

This isn't a very original premise, but makes for a hugely entertaining novel, based mainly on the brilliantly sustained voice of Jensen Interceptor. He's kind of an innocent, I guess, wide eyed and good natured charismatic and appealing despite his appalling vacuity. It's effortlessly fluid and clever, with a funny turn of phrase and well-captured jauntiness that make it a pleasure to spend time with him. Later, as he gets embroiled in the plot of the Martin Martinist terrorists, his hapless and wilful attempts at spying generate more humour, and because Wernham keeps Jensen as an affable fool, his moral confusion is sympathetic and interesting. Despite his grotesqueness, I really felt for old Jensen as he struggled to make sense of his experiences.

There are a number of other stand out scenes, not directly connected to Jensen that display Wernham's sympathetic eye for human emotions and ability to communicate them with great power, for example, Emile Henderson's post-mortem confrontation with Jack Jackson or when Jensen is allowed to view the memories of the old lady in the cafe (which reminded me so much of Winston Smith and Julia fiding peace out of sight of the screens in 1984 that I have to wonder if this was a direct reference). Wernham's clearlt a writer of great ability.

It all unravels somewhat in the last fifty pages or so, and I think Wernham made some bad decisions regarding the plot. Making Claire – Jensen's madonna-like moral compass among the Martin Martinists – one of “them” came totally out of the blue, and Reg made for a very unconvincing bomber. These sudden character twists revealed the hand of the author at work, pushing the plot in an unnatural direction.

I was also underwhelmed by the ideas of manipulating humanity's baser instincts with an aim for social control. It seems to me that the thinking behind this wasn't fully explored – what's the goal of this society? It didn't really seem much better than the current world at controlling eruptions of violence, and there was no secret elite protecting their own way of life like the inner party in 1984. I think an accidental tyranny of the lowest common dominator is at once more convincing and more chilling than the “manipulated by THEM” conclusion presented (albeit with great passion) here. I guess part of my problem with this is that I have written very similar stories myself. I think I always aim for a resolution of the conficting impulses of society, between difficult freedoms and easy but oppressive comfort. I don't see why you can't enjoy a weekend caning drugs and fucking big-titted bimbos and then get back to making the world a better place during the week(if only my life were so!)

There's also something a little retro about gender relations Jensen Interceptor's. Aside from Claire and the old lady in the cafe, the only women around are bimbos ripe for the fucking. There's no female equivalent of Jensen, no Fat Slags types getting bladdered and showing their knickers on a Friday night. I have to say that as much as i enjoyed this book, I kept coming back to this point and found it rather distracting. This raises the question of whether writers obliged to reflect these kinds of equal opportunities issues. While I'm not sure I'd say they're obliged to do so, in this case I felt that women were reduced to such shallow clich├ęs that it made me distrust the rest of the setting. Because women were so absurdly under-represented I couldn't believe in Jensen's world as a real place.

Despite these caveats I found this a hugely enjoyable book, particularly for the first 200 pages. Highly recommended!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Kids today don't know they're born

This is a terrific article that sums up a great deal of my discomfort with contemporary "nerd" culture.

"We nerds are spoiled. No longer are we trading rare prints of “Them” and “War of Worlds” or rooting through boxes of old magazines to find a publicity photo from that one really scary episode of “Outer Limits” we saw when we were ten and only half-remember. Now the world is set up for nerds."

Man, I could quote sections of this going "Yeah!" and "Right on!" but you should go read it yourself (it's not long!). This is my world: I've been given all the chocolate I want, and now I feel sick.

Maybe it's jus that I like knowing about things that no one else knows about, that feeling of eclusivity, or ownership: "You can keep your Dukes of Hazard and CHiPs, I'm watching a repeat of The Prisoner late on Wednesday nights," my 12-year old self might have said. Nowadays I can's summon any enthusiasm for this stuff. I remember absorbing original Galactica like a sponge, but I just can't be bothered with the remake. OBG was wierd and exciting, NBG just likes like standard TV product.

As a nerd I feel I've been crowded out of my niche by the cool kids or, worse still, by a bunch of sweaty wierdos desperate to join the cool kids... Bah, I hate being old!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

CCTV Game Show

One more step on the inevitable convergence of surveillance and entertainment just kicked off! Sign up with Internet Eyes and you could become an armchair crime spotter and win £1000 a month! Hell, that's more than a part-time community constable gets!

Registration for cyber-vigilantes is free, so I guess the company makes its money from the owners of the cameras - most CCTV cameras are privately owned (shops, factories and offices, all the cameras in shopping malls and retail/business parks like Canary Wharf) so I guess that's who'll be paying the bills here. Old Raj in the offy over the road can now have someone making sure that no one's jamming short-dated Mr Kipling's up their parka or swiping cans of white lightning.

The BBC reported on this in October, and naturally roped in some anti-surveillance wingnut to chew off a sound bite about it. There's a lot of crazy shrill nonsense written about surveillance and all that crapola in the UK. Take a look at this sober assessment of a plan to monitor the behaviour of problem families that appeared in the corporate cyber-libertarian propaganda rag Wired. There're enough scare quotes there to give Jon Gaunt post-traumatic stress.

Now, the guy here totally got the wrong end of the stick, but there's a tone of desperate desire to believe in the evil of civil-liberties destorying Britain in his grumpy retraction. How long do you think he's been waiting to use that Orwell image? (And the original story came from the Express, for heaven's sake, which is the newspaper equivalent of your creepy conspiracy-obsessed friend, right down to the ads for creepy porn in the back; it's like taking off the top of his skull and looking inside. I mean, you DO have a friend like that don't you? Maybe it's just me...)

Anyway, I think there's a a sea change in our lives going on, where CCTV and reality TV and life blogging are going to meet up and change the way we live in the urbanised world. As technology zooms ahead the tools for snooping will only get more sophisticated; I don't think there's any way to stop a determined spy getting any of your details they want, and it'll only get easier and easier. No more copies of Razzle jammed down the back of the bedstead, no more empty doughnut box surreptitiously hidden beneath the potato peelings in the bin, no more discrete affairs with her next door with the missus is at her book club. All this stuff will be out in the open, and we'll either have to live up to myths we make about ourselves or (much easier, I think!) learn some humility and admit our foibles.

More seriously, of course, no more back-room deals, no more dodgy corporate corruption, no more abuse behind closed doors. In the perfect open society, information radiates out to everyone. There is a real problem of power and elites, of course that gets obscured by civil liberties knee jerkers, one that's tied up with rather boring and old fashioned socialistic ideas of money, power and the state. This is problem of politics, though, not the concept of surveillance itself. The accumulation of power and creation of elites an eternal problem, to which there's no single answer but, as the man said, eternal vigilance. This technology is coming regardless, and the question is, how do we make sure that we can turn the cameras back on those who would turn the cameras on us?

In the meantime, good luck to Internet Eyes and their users, I say! Registration is free, after all! Think of it as a mix of real-time You've Been Framed crossed with Crimewatch. I don't think very many crimes are gonna be spotted this way, but maybe it'll provide a little distraction for students or the unemployed during the ad breaks of Big Brother and Jeremy Kyle.

Headlines make me laugh sometimes

Chocolate giants vie for Cadbury

The story's very boring, sorry, and linked for the sake of the curious only, but... chocolate giants!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

This novel was short-listed for the Clarke awards in the same year as Richard Morgan's Black Man, a novel I really disliked and that eventually won the prize. By contrast, I enjoyed The Red Men a lot – it's well written, by and large and played close to a lot of my own preferences and interests – but there are few points that prevent it from being a great novel and I guess these are why it didn't win.

In the inevitable review style, I'm going to write more about them than why I liked it, but don't get the wrong impression - this is a very cool and funny book. That out of the way...

I think it shows a few first-timer mistakes. It's frequently over-written, with a lot of fancy word work of the sort that writers often think sounds good but is in fact empty word play. In one place (by way of example) we get “Florence inspected her wet hair, found a split end and plucked it out, as unfeeling as a one of The Fates cutting a thread.” This doesn't throw any light on the conversation being had and just seems to be there to nudge us in the ribs with a classical allusion. Where there is a closer relationship to matter of the text, they often over-explicate something that's already been said it seems to me that he had a few ways of describing some action or emotion and rather than choosing one he leaves them all in there. I feel, by and large, you're better off choosing one, and the simplest one at that in these situations.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there's a lot of embroidered autobiography here, too, another first-timer characteristic (I hesitate to say “mistake” here). The Nelson character doesn't seem a million miles from De Abaitua's own biography, although of course I don't know all that much about him. A lot of the writing about Hackney clearly comes from personal experience, and there are a few places that reek of real characters used without much fictional dressing. The latter half of the novel set around Liverpool also has an autobiographical air to it as the narrator deconstructs the place he grew up.

De Abaitua writes particularly well about the domestic reality of a young family. I really like this description of domesticity: “no task was ever finished: there were clean clothes drying in the hallway; half-completed application forms on the desk; party decorations from the previous year still hanging around,; this was the half-done, in-betweeness of domesticity, neither victory nor defeat, just an ongoing obligation”. I also liked his characterisation of the tension between work and life (“The corporation and the family are rivals.”)

The best part of this novel, IMO, is the first section dealing primarily with the poet Raymond and his experiences at Monad. This seemed to me to be the most fully realised fiction in the novel, where De Abaitua wasn't just writing about himself, but imagining a new person in a new situation and describing and discovering them.

I do agree with the notion that authors, by and large, write about versions of themselves, but I think better novels come from burying these elements more deeply than they're buried in the Nelson character. I wondered if a better novel might have focused on Raymond, ditching the Nelson character altogether.

The Red Men is a bit messy, as well, as if De Abaitua was trying to get everything in at once. The strange point of view gymnastics that were required to fit Raymond's narrative into Nelson's first person voice were nicely done in a dream like way, but it was rather distracting. I realise that i am overfond of focus and efficiency in fiction (I find it paralysing, sometimes) but I think this would have been a smoother and better novel with a bit more focus.

I'm probably too over-familiar with the kind of drugged out gonsticism this novel is based on to give a decent commentary. I have to say I'm heartily sick of all that Alan Moore-ish, Throbbing Gristly New Age occulty hoohah, having been heavily into it in my time and then woken up one morning and thought “wait a second! It's all bollocks!” This sort of stuff seems like a young man's game. It's a kind of adolescent view of the universe as a spooky place you can change to your will, as if a toddler stamping their foot can get what they want.

I think this novel is expressing a drift away from that kind of thinking on De Abaitua's part, but he kind of wants it both ways here – clearly the powers behind Monad are nutters, but on the other hand it seems to be true, and at the end Nelson expresses a final acceptance of these ideas. It's a credit to De Abaitua, though, that I enjoyed this novel despite my over-familiarity and (dyspeptic middle aged) hostility to these concepts. Maybe the drift away from the drugs and occultism chimed with my own experiences over the last decade or so.

So, I can see why it missed out the The Black Man, which is a more coherent work and plays a lot closer to mainstream SF concerns (and stupid populist machismo, which is what really turned me off). I don't know if The Red Men deserved that award – I haven't read the other nominees – but I definitely enjoyed it more than Black Man. I doubt I'll read another Morgan novel, but I'd be inclined to give De Abaitua another whirl.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A Short Play About Brian Eno and Gerry Marsden

Scene: It is the mid-70s, probably about 1974. Waspish, arch and balding Brian Eno has left Roxy Music and finds himself adrift in London. Gerry Marsden, plump, dispeptic and rubicund ekes out a living touring working men's clubs with a disparate group of musicians that he has to bill as Gerry Marsden and His Pacemaker Band for copyright reasons. This unlikely duo meet up on a chilly night in november at a party in the west London pad of Arista Records UK business manager Bernie Madeupenstein.

Eno: By the fates! Tis Gerry Marsden!

Marsden: Alright, Bri, wotcha.

Eno: Wotcha indeed, like a televisual eye! Ha ha!

Marsden: Aye, yes yes. Er howzabout dat other Bryan what was in yer band then? He alright is he?

Eno: Alright? No, never all right, how many of us can boast of that, hm? Partially right, I suppose, as that is the best any of us could hope for, do you not think?

Marsden: Er, yeah, yeah... 'Ow's 'e geetin by then, going it alone, an' all?

Eno (is levitating slightly now): Am I my Bryan's keeper, Gerry? He has Phil Manzera to watch over him still while I float free.

Marsden: Oh. Yes. (Looking around, finding no opportunity for escape, says) An 'ows about you, then? Keeping busy?

Eno (clutching forehead): Wait! Wait! Falling! Mists on water!

Marsden: I beg yer pardon?

Eno: I have a story of Bryan's doings that may interest you.

Marsden (wary): Oh aye?

Eno: Aye! And eye! Yes!


Marsden: Er....

Eno: Bryan has been in New York, dabbling with the Warhol scene, you know?

Marsden (doesn't know, but nods): Aye.

Eno: He was working on a ballet, with famed avant garde choreographer Merce Cunningham. You know Merce?

Marsden (frowns): Did 'e use to do lights down the Cavern?

Eno: Nay, tis another of which you think! The Cunningham of which I thought-speak to you is leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He was working with Bryan on some kind of film.

Marsden: Well, sounds grand! How'd it work out?

Eno: Alas, it buckled under the weight of acrimony.

Marsden: A divorce and that?

Eno: Something of the sort.

Marsden: Oh, that's bad luck, that is.

Eno: Indeed so. (Waggles eyebrows mischeviously) No good can come when Ferry crossed Merce C.

Marsden (thinks): Are you taking the piss?

Eno levitates off stage like a shooting star and...


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Duran Duran Bassist In Interesting Point Shocker!

The last person on one would expect to say something thoughtful and interesting is a member of the band Duran Duran. I admit to being a fellow of a certain age and having a sneaky appreciation of some of their songs, but really they never struck me as very thoughtful. Then the bassist goes and spoils this impression with a rather interesting speech at UCLA marking the 40th anniversary of the first message sent over the Internet (because the bassist of Duran Duran is obviously the person one turns to in these circumstances).

John articulates a point that's been rolling around in my increasingly grouchy sensorium for a while, the tyranny of plenty. John recalls seeing Roxy Music for the first time and having his tiny Brummie mind blown: John puts it thus: “The power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in and I had to respond as I know now previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, or The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix.”

Now comes the interesting bit! He says:

“I believe there's immense power in restriction and holding back. When artists today are asked to Twitter their every thought, their every action, to record on video their every breath, their every performance, I believe they're diluting their creative powers, their creative potency and the durability of their work.”

I wouldn't go so far as saying he's right, but there's been a change in the relationship of creator and audience. Creation used to be such a solitary affair. A band would hack away at an album – or a novellist a novel (and let's face it, that there's where I'm really going with this) – in isolation and then out it would come, at some mysterious time. Fanzines ad the like formed a tight-bandwidth (and resolutely one-way) communications channel, but by and large we fans had to sit on our hands and wait.

I think this gave the whole process a mystery and intrigue that's interesting and important. Further down I talk about Jack Vance and how much pleasure I take in finding his books in second hand shops and what have you. Before the heady days of ebay and amazon sellers this was how one filled out one's collection. I haunted second had book shops for decades, that's how I managed to read everything by PKD, Michael Moorcock and Isaac Asimov back in the good old days.

Nowadays you could get it all tomorrow. John says: “I wonder - if I'd had unlimited access to that first Roxy Music TV appearance, if I'd had unlimited access to knowledge of their personal quirks, if I'd been able to access film footage of every performance, every rehearsal, every interview they gave that year from around the world, then I believe the bubble of my obsession would have burst a long, long time ago and I'd have ceased being a fan a long time ago.”

I'm reading Matthew De Abaitua's The Red Men (which I'll post about in more detail when I'm done with it), which posits a rationing chic culture of demob suits, spam fritters and mend and make do. It's an appealing picture when confronted by the swarming choices that greet us every time we sit down to relax.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Day of the Dead

Here's the portrait of my kids from the British Museum's Day of the Dead celebration that I mentioned in my rambling misanthropic blather below. Isbo had her face painted like a skull, btw.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Long Post About Jack Vance's Durdane

One of life's great pleasures is hunting out old Jack Vance paperbacks. Wherever we are, if I spot a second hand book shop and can spare a moment, I'll nip inside and check the shelves for any of those old old Sphere, Coronet or New England Library paper backs (always with great covers by Chris Foss or Jim Burns) that I haven't read before, hoping for a new treasure.

Vance was terrifically prolific, and it seems there's always something new to find. A lot of those books are forgettable pot boilers, of course - The Five Gold Rings is one I read recently that was just a threadbare pulp fiction detective plot mechanically articulated through wooden characters, barely held together by Vance's deft turn of phrase. I suppose it's the latter that keeps me buying, as there's always some wry turn of phrase in a Vance novel to make it worthwhile. Plus they're always short and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, the sort of book you can finish between Tuesday and Thursday on the commute to work.

I prefer to hunt my Vance in the wild rather than purchase farm-reared Vance from Amazon sellers - the hunt is part of the thrill, and life is long so why use it all up at once? - but even after twenty-odd years of foraging there are some gaps in my Vance reading. I recently got to fill one of those gaps by reading the Durdane trilogy: The Anome, The Brave Free Men and The Asutra. I owned volumes one and three for quite some time in a couple of nice matching Coronet editions (from 1975, I think) but hadn't been able to track down the middle volume until late last year. Alas, it's not a match to the other two, but a rather nasty Ace edition (from 1978) with paper so coarse you could getter a splinter from it. Maybe I'll have to replace that rotten tooth in my collection using Amazon sellers...

Anyway, Durdane is second-tier Vance (in my estimation) but still contains much of interest especially for the Vance afficianado. It has all the classic Vance elements – isolated communities with eccentric customs, a wilful boy who rebels against the local martinets, Vance's famously melifluous prose and dark imagination. I could write about all that, about the interesting political questions that Vance raises or his curious treatment of women in this story, but since finishing my course, I've been thinking a bit more about books from a technical writerly persepctive. I find myself trying to peek behind the curtain to see if I can spot the writer at work, and this series of books gives quite an interesting perspective into Vance's development.

What follows is a rather lengthy rumination on plot and structure in Durdane. Just as a warning, unless you're really, really interested in jack Vance, you might find this a bit boring. Fair warning, this is me in full three-sheets to the wind boring SF didactic mode. A few years back I wrote a profile of Vance for the Zone, and that's an altogether easier place for the casual reader to begin, and the Vance afficianado might be interested to read my review of Vance's last (perhaps last ever) novel Lurulu, also on the Zone.

First published in 1970 (serialised in two parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) it was only the second series he completed, after the four Planet of Adventure novels, having apparently abandoned the Demon Princes series after three novels in 1967.Both of these earlier series are very rigidly structured around concrete setting details: the hunt and destruction of each of the five Demon Princes and Adam Rieth's encounters with the four civilisations of Tschai. In each series, every new book starts with the plot dial set back to zero, with the previous events having little impact on what comes next. I think that's why Vance likes these isolated communities. He can have a bit of action there and then move the cast along somewhere else without having any impact on the long-term narrative. In Durdane, I think he's attempting to produce a longer narrative with rising action that relies less on the this type of episodic picaresque.

He nearly pulls it off. The first two volumes tell a reasonably seamless story of Gastel Etzwane, a young man native to the continent of Shant on the Planet Durdane. He escapes religious slavery in the canton of Bashon and vows to return home one day and and free his mother and sister from indenture to the vile chiliites. To do this he must petition the Faceless Man (the titular Anome), the unseen ruler of Shant who controls the population through explosive collars around their necks. What follows has a restless quality as Vance searches for the main narrative: Etzwane's escape from the Chiliites occupies the first third of The Anome. Over the next third he seeks his fortune as a travelleing musician while saving the money to pay for his mother's freedom, as instructed by the Anome. When he returns to Bashon, though, he finds that the inhabitants have been slaughtered by rampaging Roguskhoi, beast men who have been sweeping into Shant from north. He petitions the Anome to fight this scourge, but is refused. Incensed, Etzwane sets about to rouse the people of Shant against the Anome, and this, and fight against the animalistic roguskhoi, take the action to the end of volume two, The Brave Free Men.

These first two volumes read very much as a single narrative. In fact, The Anome doesn't end, so much as stop almost mid-scene. There's much less of the wandering picaresque in this story than Vance's earlier and Etzwane returns to various locations and meets up with continuing characters who develop and change. At the end of The Brave Free Men, however, this story is done, and the new government of Shant is established. The roguskhoi have been traced to their source (the Asutra, spidery-squiddy aliens that can infiltrate the body of a human being and control their actions) and driven from Durdane.

Unable to extend the narrative beyond the first two books, Vance falls back on old habits to wrap the story up. The third volume finds Etzwane and his ally Ifness travelling to Durdane's other large continent, Caraz, to trace the Asutra. Posing as a travelling merchant, Ifness is secretly a Fellow of the Earth Historical Institute and provides Etzwane with assistance throughout the series. He's a convenient deus ex mechina whose handy Earth gadgets get them out of many a pickle. Ifness can only be of limited assistance, as the Institute rules certain interventions as illegal. In this regard he's more of a Vancian wizard, in particular of Shimrod from the Lyonesse series who acts under principles enforced by the master magician Murgen. These two travel around Caraz for half the final novel, and the characters and situations that had been the focus of the previous two volumes are forgotten. After a series of encounters at isolated communities, Etzwane finds himself kidnapped and taken to the Asutra homeworld, where humans are being used as cannon fodder in the course of some internal conflict. There he fights and finally defeats the Asutra on their own turf.

Or so he thinks, because the ending has got a really strange coda.

While he's on Asutra, Etzwane witnesses a huge space battle between the Asutra's flying bronze disks and the familiar black globes of their enemy, but this time a new type of ship intervenes sleek and silent and powerful. A couple of black ships are destroyed before the silver ships arrive, but then the bronze ships flee. Etzwane and his companions fight their way back to the camp and over-run it. They lay a trap and hijack an Asutra bronze disc space ship to take them back to Durdane. The Asutra are strangely passive, but Etzwane is exultant – he has rescued hundreds of humans and returned to Dyrdane.

But what of Ifness? Over the many months he was a slave for the Asutra, Etzwane held out hope that Ifness would come to the rescue, but he never turned up and Etzwane assumes that Ifness was unable to convince the authorities of Institute to break their code and intervene. When he returns to Caraz, he collects Ifness's boat and returns to Garwiy on Shant to discover what has happened to his ally. He discovers Ifness in Fontenay's Inn, somewhat displeased to see him. Etzwane asks why he did not rescue them and Ifness explains bruskly that he returned to his masters on Earth where he arranged for all the humans to be freed from the bondage of the Asutra. The sleek ships that Etzwane and his fellow slaves saw were Earth ships. By the time of the battle that Etzwane witnessed, the Asutra were already defeated, that's the only reason Etzwane and his fellow slaves were able to escape: they were to be evacuated in any case.

Suddenly, Etzwane's victory is snatched from him. His enemy was already defeated. And what's more, the man whom he assumed was coming to his rescue had no such intention, and dealt with matter without regard to Etzwane's safety. In the end, after all their adventures together, Ifness hardly seems to notice Etzwane at all. Etzwane longs to travel the universe, see Earth, but Ifness dismisses him as he might dismiss a bumpkin. The series ends on a sour note: in the end, Etzwane even refuses to join his old musical band. He sits and broods and drinks.

Vance could easily have contrived matters to have Ifness and Etzwane reunited on Asutra during the attack, but he deliberately marginalises the hero and really you've got to wonder why. I think Vance was always attracted to tragedy and melancholy, but the standard heroic narrative doesn't really allow for it. The Demon Kings ends on a similatly down beat note (as noted by David Langford in Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (ed. A E Cunningham).

His first great work, The Dying Earth is a kind of very fractured mutiple viewpoint novel, but subsequently he stuck to close third-person narratives until the later, longer series. In Durdane and The Demon Kings he pushes this linear plot scheme as hard as he can. In this series, he might have had a strand with Finnerack and Ifness and thus extended the action and added a bit of depth to the tale. It has the structure of those later series, but not the breadth. The multiple view-point narratives allowed him to explore levels of success and failure, and to weave in patterns of set back and victory for the main characters to drive the narrative.

This is where I need some neat homily to wrap this all up, but I haven't got one and it's my blog, you know, not a PhD panel, so I'm gonna just stop. I've read the Lyonesse trilogy quite recently (in the last couple of years, at least) but it's been a while since I read the Cadwal Chronicles, and I don't think I've ever read Throy. Consequently I'm interested now to dig them up and see how they measure against my theory here. On the other hand, I've already got a pile (three books!) and so I'll wait for now. Time is so short, the number of books to read so huge, and ever-growing!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Geology humour

I've stopped giving my friends slabs of metamorphic rock: no more Mr Gneiss Guy!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

"Presentism" in SF

This article by Cory Doctrow explains to the uninitated (the people we called "mundanes" in our whacky, seventies pre-teen hey day!) that - duh! - SF is about the present, not the future. Since emerging from my pre-teen coccoon, I've always assumed this was self evident. I guess not, and one has to say it again and again.

However, it's not quite that striaght forward. It seems to me that SF could be divided into adventure novels with a futuristic or fantastic background provided for exoticism, and examinations of current trends into a "if this goes on..." formulation (as, I believe, Heinlein put it). Now, I like both, but they're doing different things, and I think this is what's at the heart of those writers who like to enrage SF fans by claiming they're not writing SF (Atwood, Vonnegut etc). They are writing "presentist" stories, and not the adventure fluff that gets lumped in with them. Sometimes people call this speculative fiction.

I can understand why Atwood doesn't want to sit on a shelf next to John Ringo or Peter F Hamilton, and I'd say it's important for her readership that she say these things. Similarly, J K Rowling's got too much at stake for people to "mistake" her HP books for stuff like Wheel of Time or the Shanara series (in practice, though, I'd say these same readers are an important segment of her readership).

These arguments expose the divide between the literary concept of science fiction, and the bookshop category. The bookshop category encompasses romances (in the old fashioned sense), satires (closest to the literary definition) and symbolist works (where the SF "novum" is highly symbolic). This spread of ideas is often missed by the SF community itself, where Steve Aylett of Tom Disch literary wierdness can sit cheek by jowl with a fat comics fan dressing up as Servelan from Blake's Seven.

It's a topic I mull over as I sit at the hopeful early stage of my career pondeirng agents and publishers. What sort of writer am I, actually? Am I satirist (as my current project is very squarely a satire) or am I bookshop SF writer (I enjoy those adventure-romance types of books and could easily write one if I turned my hand to it)? I think I want to avoid being stuck doing one thing over and over. My current project shares some similarity of tone with Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but I wouldn't want to feel I had to write a giggle fest everytime. At the same time, though, I don't think I could do straight writing, with no comedic or absurdist elements - that stuff is etched into me with a laser for some reason. Well, maybe it'd be a nice problem to have...


Cynicism is just unharvested naivety left in the fields to rot.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Loving Our Museums to Death

In the weekend I took the kids up to the British Museum for their Day of the Dead celebration.
We had a great day, but didn't get to see everything because it was insanely busy. We got there early (eleven in the morning or so) and were able to leap right in to mask making, but we queued about half an hour for face painting, then another half an hour for making (extremely cool!) Day of the Dead portraits in the digital suite. When went up to the Grand Court for the procession but could only see the guys on stilts.

There was more to see - an exhibition and the altar - but by then the kids were getting fractious and - to be honest - I too was ready for a bit of fresh air, so we left at about about three-thirty. By this stage there was a massive queue just to get in stretching around the front courtyard and through the gates and on to Russell Street. The queue was making slow progress and it looked like a good twenty to thirty minute wait for entry.

This brought to mind a trip we'd made to the Natural History Museum a couple fo weeks before. It was kind of off the cuff thing - we hadn't been for a while, and the kids like the dinosaurs, so we hopped on the train and off we went. What did we find - queues! Massive queues just to get in the front door (although the back door didn't have a queue so we cunningly got in quick) but we queued for dinosaurs for twenty minutes or so shuffling slowly through like shades shuffling around Hades. I'd wanted to take the kids around some of the more obscure bits, but by the time we'd done this they were fed up. Isbo's verdict on the Natural History Museum was "it's hot and boring".

I think one of the great things about living in London is the easy availibity of these fantastic resources but I'm beginning to feel crowded out of these places. Admittedly, the dinosaurs at the NHM are possibly the most popular museum display ion the city, and the Day of the Dead thing was a special occasion, but dear god, the idea of queuing just to get in fills me with horror.

I think that a great museum needs to give you space to share with the exhibits. In crowded museums I spend more time resenting my fellow curiosity seekers than in relaxed contemplation of the richness of human culture. In the interests of justifying their funding, I'm sure they have to reach out and attract people, but they've become part of the tourist treadmill now, filled with people ticking off a page in the guide book rather than pursuing an interest in the objects on display - bored looking gaggles of Italian, French or German school children and oddly dressed gangs of Japanese stopping in front of everything and taking a photo (a stereotype, I know, but if you want it confirmed just follow them around!) The only ones that that are getting a real kick out of it are the roving patrols of Bible Study tours, and they should clearly be forbidden entry unless they can prove they aren't Creationists.

I'll admit, I don't get this scalp-hunter approach to tourism. When I'm on holiday there's nothing I hate more than "doing" a museum in an afternoon or something. I'd rather not go than race around in a lather out of a sense of obligation - it's supposed to be a holiday for Christ's sake!

The same thing's happened to South Bank and the Royal Festival Hall - it used to be (like, a decade ago) a nice, slightly underdeveloped out of the way place to have a drink buit it's turned into a circle of Hell. It's hard to find a place to eat even on a Wednesday night these days, and cool in-the-know type things like the Meltdown sell out completely before the catalogues even hit our doormate.

So, what's to be done? I think the Museums are doing their job too well and need to introduce a greater level of elitism and incompetence into their public communications. Tourists need to examine their priorities - will filing past the Elgin Marbles really improve your life? Why not mill around Harrods and get your photo taken with Kylie's bum at Mdme Tussauds like you really want to. And finally, I'll be changing nappies at the Wallace Collection or the Wellcome Institute in future, I suppose.

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson. It was quite enjoyable, with a well-paced plot and good juicy messed up family dynamics. It hinted, gently, at a couple of agreeable political slants (white-collar crime and violence against women) without them becoming intrusive on the one hand or particularly urgent or relevant on the other.

It avoided the machismo and nihilism that puts me off a lot of crime thrillers without either having a tougher-then-nails she-devil as the protagonist or being twee and bloodless. Actually, I suppose the character of Salander is rather a tougher-than-nails she-devil, but there's an awareness of how difficult and damaged such a character would be. I was little disappointed when she fell for 50-something financial journalist, but that's part of the genre, I guess.

My wife had this one haging around from her bookgroup, so I figured I'd give it a whirl. I'd seen all the ads on the tube and although I generally don't read a lot of commuter fiction. , I was curious about it. I wonder if public transport is the only thing that keeps for the market these things healthy? Translation rights for any territory with a big commuting class are a gold mine for thrillers with the bland international style of an economy hotel - Freddy Forsyth and Len Deighton, back in the day, and now Robert Harris and Andy McNab. At the upper extremes you've got writers like John le Carre, I guess, and The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum struck me as just smart-arse versions of the same thing. Anything to pass the hideous half an hour to ninety minutes spent jammed up with your fellow homo domesticus as you're ferried from field to barn to milking shed and back again!