Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Elizabeth's Misfits by Arthur Freeman

There are two things that really appeal to me about genre fantasy: magic and history. The attraction to magic is well understood, I think, a symptom of that affliction shared by all fans of fantastic literature. Anyone that reads fantasy, SF or horror knows it, the warm rum of the mysterious, the otherworldly, the macabre, the uncanny and the outré.

The attraction of history is a more specific appeal, more intellectual than emotional. The typical fantasy occurs in some version of western Europe around 1300, before the invention of guns or movable type, but after the discovery of steel, but even those interested in more exotic settings – ancient China or medieval Japan, for example, or Native American or African cultures – have a similar almost documentary approach to the setting.

There's a degree of implied erudition in these worlds, a commitment to a sort of pseudo-historical veracity, although this diminishes the further one departs from real history: John M Ford's The Dragon Waiting, for example, a highly fantastical but recognisable version of fourteenth century England, has more of that erudite quality than, say, Moorcock's The Stealer of Souls set in the entirely made-up Young Kingdoms, despite the latter's pseudo-historical trappings.

As a rule, the historical and magical elements seem to act in inverse proportion: the more history you want, the less magic you can insert; conversely, the more magical the world, the less historically accurate it will be.

Thus, it follows that history is just fantasy with the magic turned down to zero, and perhaps this explains the appeal of books such as Elizabeth's Misfits.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The pile, she grows.

Something I try and avoid is piling up too many books in the "too read" pile. I am basically a childish type, who bristles under the yoke of authority: that's why I never got on with the idea of canon - regardless of any politically tinged rhetoric about dead white men and critical shibboleths, it's more of a matter of "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me".

With The Pile, the "you" in that statement becomes me. I become my own oppressor! How ironic!

So, here's the pile, as it stands:



The problem is that there are just too many books I want to read and they are too readily available. Everywhere I go I seem to be falling over good books begging to be acquired! Where do they all come from? Well, for some classic "boring crap about me", hit the link!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Caterer


 I have to admit that despite considering myself pretty well-read, I hadn't heard of Jeff Lint before I read Steve Aylett's excellent biography, Lint. Since then, I've read everything by or about Lint I can get my hands on. Many of the novels remain out of print and hard to get hold of: the translated Welsh edition of Doomed & Confident is Lint novel that remains  print, and the strange effect that some covers of early Lint editions have on modern computer screens has hampered their distribution through ebay and amazon sellers, and many charity shops refuse to accept them on the basis that they are “full of eels”.

For this reason, I am very happy to see the recent reprint of issue three of The Caterer, the comic Lint created for Pearl comics in the 70s.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is this a joke?

"Kapow! Comic books are no longer just kiddy lit."

People joke about it, but it's been a while since I saw one in the wild! (via A&L Daily, which really should know better!)

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Night's Black Agents by Daniel Ogden

Witches and magicians have been with us since the beginning of literature. In this book, Daniel Ogden identifies the first western depiction of a witch as Circe, a kind of a siren who tempts Odysseus's men to her island and then transforms them into pigs. Pigs had only use in the ancient world, food, and so its pretty clear what she's got in mind. On top of this, though, she Hermes warns Odysseus to not to embrace her, or he'll be enslaved by her forever.

Despite all this, she seems a less threatening figure than our present idea of a witch. In fact, after Odysseus gives her a good talking to, she becomes rather accommodating, telling him how to find the entrance to the underworld so he can chat with Tiresias and provides other aid before saying goodbye.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

My review of Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is now up on The Zone. It's a terrific book that I enjoyed reading and writing about a lot. It's a very clear commentary on 1984, one of my favourite novels, and so I had a lot of fun with it. Plus it's genuinely funny and clever – the dystopian elements are pitch perfect satire of current media and trends and the characters do more than fill their roles as comic types and really come alive.

As is often the case, this review is just a thinly disguided excuse to write about something else entirely, though. In this case, I wanted to explore the divide between literary and genre fiction. I frequent a big geeky message board and it's a topic that comes up there quite a lot, usually in reaction to some statement by a mainstream type eschewing fantasy or SF (J K Rowling and Margaret Atwood are the examples that keep coming up). The last twelve or 18 months seem to have had a few mainstream SF releases and so the issue's been coming up again, most interestingly a discussion between China Mielville and literary critic John Mullan on the question of why SF novels never win the Booker prize. 


Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Butt by Will Self

Well Self is a sci fi writer. He tries to hide it, but a brief glance at his oeuvre should be enough to convince. It's there in the title story of his first collection of short stories “The Quantity Theory of Insanity”, which recounts the results of an experiment at a mental hospital in London. There are clear SF influences in this story – H P Lovecraft, J G Ballard, David Cronenberg, to name just the most obvious. More mainstream readers try to hide it under murmurings about Burroughs, or Kafka or Alasdair Grey or Jonathan Swift, but those of us that are in the know are not fooled!

Monday, 8 November 2010

So, what was I saying?

My apologies. I've been busy on other things and haven't been updating here. Well, never fear I'm still out and will be back soon with a review of Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and some less formal comments on Will Self's The Butt. There's also part four of the 2000AD review to come: rather than just Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante I'm going to cover all the rest in one last post.

So, hang in there all this is coming soon! In the meantime, here's Jackson performed by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.

Monday, 18 October 2010

2000AD Part Three: Savage and Defoe

I keep saying this about different people, but if there's one guy who really embodies the values of 2000AD, it's Pat Mills. He was, of course, one of the motive forces behind establishing the title back in the seventies, and over the years he's never been far away. You could say the same about John Wagner and Alan grant, of course, who were similarly involved in 2000AD's earliest days, but it seems to me that no one quite expresses the conflicting impulses of 2000AD quite like Mr Mills.

While I've been reading the reprint volumes (you can find the reviews by clicking the 2000AD tag, an Harlem Heroes is awaiting review, NB) I think it's his stories that I have – so far – enjoyed the most. I don't think I'll be going back for more Robo-Hunter or Rogue Trooper, but I am hungry to get to ABC Warriors and to read more Nemesis. His stories have a restlessness about them, an impatience that expresses itself in a wilful, almost destructive desire to make us face up to the darkness that the stories are built on. It's right there at the start of Dredd (and Mills wrote a lot of the early classic strips, including the entirety of the Cursed Earth series, which contains a lot of intriguing morality plays), and in Ro-Busters, which starts as an amusing and enjoyable Thunderbirds-style adventure story and develops to combine elements of animal cruelty (via some very explicit references to Black Beauty) and – more obviously – slavery. It's almost as if Mills can't bring himself to write this stuff any more, as if he feels this massive moral obligation to a bunch of comedy boys' comic robots, to take them seriously and address their concerns.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Occult London by Merlin Coverley

Lot's of writers are attracted to the idea of London steeped in the occult. It's certainly got the pedigree: there's John Dee living at Mortlake, and the possibly occult Masonic shenanigans of Hawksmoor, but things really got going in the 19th century. In those years, the city seemed to be at the centre of attempts to reach through the veil, starting with mystical poetry of Blake, and then Swedenborg established the spiritualist church here, Blavatsky settled the HQ of the Theosophical movement here, the Golden Dawn began here.

I wonder why London attracted this sudden flourishing in mystical thought?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Sorry for recent lack of updates!

Man, my work is so behind!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

2000AD Part 2: Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd


Having discussed my personal history with 2000AD in part 1, let's take a look the most recent progs in my possession, progs 1689 to 1702.

That's 13 progs, three-month's worth. It's amazing how quickly they pile up! I only make it to the comics shop once a month or so (Gosh in London, by the way, and consider this a plug for the friendliest friendly comics shop in London) and so I've been reading them in a slightly different way to how I read it in the past. Instead of three or four page bites, I've been reading the stories in longer stretches. Some of them, I've been hoarding up and reading all in one go, and some of them I've gone through and re-read again for the purposes of this review.
 
This is more like how I've been reading the reprint volumes I've been reviewing than how I used to read progs in the old days, and it's thrown up a few contrasts between then and now, but I'm probably going to hold on to these until the end of the series. Howzabout that then, suspense fans? In the meantime, though I'm going to look at each story in some detail (some more than others), starting with two of 2000AD's most enduring characters, Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson

This week's short story club at Torque Control is The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson. This has previously featured here as part of Short Fiction Wednesday, but it's great to read this again and think about it all once more.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Second Journey of the Magus by Ian R MacLeod

One in a taxi, two in a car...
Well, as some of you may have noticed Short Fiction Wednesday has yet to make a re-appearance. The fact is that, on reflection, I don't think I can dedicate the reading and writing time to a weekly short story post like that. It's sad, and if I was a proper writer rather than some arsehole farting out words in his spare time I'd like to do it, but I have got to prioritise things. I don't want to disengage from short fiction entirely, however, so I'm going to try and keep up with Niall Harrison's short story club over at Torque Control. I've often meant to do this, but keep forgetting (and may forget again!).

This time I've remembered, though, so here are my thoughts on The Second Journey of the Magi by Ian R MacLeod. I'll hopefully get into the chat with the knowledgeable folks there, but leave a comment here if you like!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I sleep too little, I work too hard. I have ambitions – material, professional, artistic – that go largely unrealised and spend most of my time doing what Ian Dury summarised in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll as “business you don't like”. Life is hard and full of compromises and yet I wake up and face it day after day. Why do I do it? I make a good wage but I'm not really fussed by fancy stuff or expensive crap, and I reckon I could be just as happy – happier even! – dreaming my life away sitting in a public library in a malodorous alcoholic fug. Yet, I go on. What drives me to it, and keeps me going back for more?


These are the questions that literature asks us to consider and – at it's best – answers for us. The purpose of literature (I think) is to tell us truths that are not easily or convincingly conveyed in other ways, things that might sound banal or straight forward when articulated directly, but that inform our whole beings. To really know them, to really understand we have to see them in action, to be shown not told (to paraphrase that crusty old rubric) how life is.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

2000AD Part 1: I Remember the Good Old Days


It must have been the summer of 1977 to 1978. This is New Zealand, of course, where summer straddles the New Year, and it was probably after Christmas, so that means 1978. I remember particularly because we were on holiday around the North Island, one of those touring holidays we used to go on, all packed into Dad's old Fiat 128, Mum riding shot gun, three in the back and one lucky child in the coveted space in the boot lounging on duvets (don't worry, it was a hatch back). No seat belts, no car seats, Dad smoking like a chimney the whole time – this was the 70s, and life, among other things, was cheap.

I remember the day itself very well. We were staying in a motel, somewhere in Rotorua, somewhere far from the centre. It was a blazing hot, sunny day, that intense piercing sun you get in New Zealand that you can feel cooking your skin through your t-shirt. I don't remember the circumstances exactly, but all of us got a few coins to spend at the local shop. I don't remember what my brothers and sisters bought, but I bought a comic.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 01

Rogue in action - brilliant work from Dave Gibbons.

War was a staple of boys' comics when I was growing up. In those days, I guess some of the older guys working on the comics could well have actually fought in the war. Certainly, guys of our Dad's generation were steeped in WW2, having grown up with it as a background to their own childhood. I guess the comics had to pass muster with the parents as well as the kids, so this stuff still sold. Even so, many of my contemporaries, not to mention my own older brothers, were intensely interested in World War 2, and all those Airfix kits and 1/32 scale model soldiers were a huge part of my childhood.
 In the dark days before 2000AD, when my brothers were reading comics like Valiant and Hotspur, and later Commando comics, WW2 stories were really common. While I was kind of interested in the violent action and tales of heroism, I found the historical context pretty boring. I'd be looking for the space or futuristic stories, but they were few and far between. That's why I fell on 2000AD with such enthusiasm as a kid: it seemed to be a comic made just for me, with all the boring crap cut out and just the futuristic and space strips.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Looking for Jake by China Miéville

This book was given to me by my not quite uncle Alan. Alan married my Mum's sister in the sixties when I was a wee baby – the tale of me vomiting all over everyone has been retold many times both by my aunty and my Mum. They were regular visitors to our home when I was a kid living in the UK and seemd seemed impossibly glamorous and interesting to me. They were somewhat younger than Mum and Dad and were the sort of couple who always knew about the cool interesting things. They were always fashionably dressed – leather jackets or Afghan coats, Chelsea boots and granddad shirts, the whole thing. Birthday presents were always interesting and quirky – unusual children's books or odd toys perhaps from their travels in exotic places, and whenever they came to visit – or when we went to visit them – it always an interesting and exciting time.

I knew Alan for the first eight or so years of my life and, aside from my Dad, Alan was the other ideal of manhood that my little six year old brain latched onto. Dad liked show tunes and trad jazz, Alan liked The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Dad was patrician and dignified, fashionable in his own way, of course, but a little staid and old fashioned, while Alan was zany and trendy and made a big impression on me.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Mark Millar's CLiNT


Sometimes I hate being a man. It seems churlish to complain too much, of course: being a straight white man in the west is pretty much like winning the birth lottery and I have done pretty well by it, despite being lazy, stupid, ugly and unfriendly. I'm not conflicted by it, I'm cool with having a penis and a beard and a beer belly and all that, and I manage the psychic balancing act of having deep respect and admiration for my female friends and colleagues while maintaining an appreciation of a fine set of tits without too much inner strife.

No, the one big downside of being a man is other men. Other men are, by and large, a pack of colossal wankers. It's been pretty clear to me since I was old enough to notice that 99% of men are stupid, close-minded bullies, with narrow interests and little of interest to say. In the interests of fairness, it's worth pointing out that I don't necessarily have a lot of respect for most women either - I'm an equal opportunity misanthrope in most regards - but if you want to find the source of most everything that's toxic and horrible in western culture, you just have to take a look at men's magazines.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Big Babies - New Series!


Looks like there's a new series of Big Babies on CBBC. Yesterday the boys went to the market where they met - inevitably - the Gonch, selling dodgy gnomes. You can still watch it on iPlayer, if you're quick - Rocco and Brooks's version of Hookey Street is worth hearing!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology by Russel Hope Robbins

I grew up in a house full of books. Thanks to Dad’s voracious appetite for popular fiction, and Mum's school teacher's instinct for filling the house with improving volumes, our house was like a Greek temple held up by unsteady columns of glossy volumes on history, art and cheap paperbacks and that never got thrown out, but were packed three deep in bookshelves that lined the living room, dining room and all the bedrooms.

This was my treasure trove, rooting though the shelves looking for something new and exciting and generally finding it, at least up until I was older enough to get out to the library or the bookshop myself. It's during these expeditions that I discovered Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock, and the fat anthologies of Golden Age SF that Dad devoured at a rate of two a day. I found all manner of intriguing non-fiction - Pelican English histories (a bit dry for me); slightly outdated large-format histories, especially of the ancient world, and occasional gems such as the Encyclopedia of Demonology and Witchcraft.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Vol 1

Robo Hunter is another series I remember well from when I was a kid. I knew Ian Gibson's art from some early Judge Dredd stories (I think he did the Mutie the Pig/Rico stories, which were the first Dredd stories I ever read) and this was the first time I'd seen him in full flight. Just as Ezquerra – in my eyes – “owned” Strontium Dog, Ian Gibson seemed to me to “own” Robo Hunter. I see now that the strip was written by “T B Grover”, being a nom de plume for John Wagner and Alan Grant, with Grant and Wagner working occasionally alone, nut for me it was entirely Ian Gibson's strip.

This has a much lighter tone than the series I've reviewed here so far. The others I've reviewed here have taken an at least partly serious look at some of the thematic implications of their settings. Ro-Busters addresses issues of slavery, Nemesis and Strontium Dog both address issues surrounding racism and prejudice, albeit in the context of space wizards and inter-stellar bounty hunters, respectively. Robo Hunter also has a satirical message, but the whole thing is treated without the gravity and pathos that you occasionally get in the other series and played strictly - and brilliantly - for laughs.

READ MORE AFTER THE JUMP!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Quantum Thief

This is Rajaniemi’s debut novel, which - rumour has it - sold to Gollancz on the basis of the first chapter alone. The back cover blurb of this advance reader copy - which may or may not be the same as the final blurb - tells us it comes from “the same team that brought you Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and Joe Hill” and exhorts us to “be there from the start.”

I hate this sort of hype. I'm the sort of dreary guy whose natural reaction is to sneer "yeah, sure!" and go over to the remaindered books and second hand shelves looking for the undiscovered rubies in the dust. I can't help feeling that it steals part of the joy of a great book, that sense of discovering something unexpectedly marvelous. 

I understand why it's there but we seem to be on a hype rollercoaster these days....

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

And.... we're back!

Well, summer's over here at Pointless Philosophical Asides. The renovations are all finished for now - although "Posts of note" remains conspicuously empty - and we're all putting away our surf boards, dusting off our school blazers and contemplating the harvest of all the lovely seeds we planted before we went away.

First up, some comments I had on the subject of hype, inspired by reading The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. It's no reflection on Mr Rajaniemi's fine book, but hype does rub me the wrong way and... well, just read the post to learn more.

Next up, probably on Friday, we'll finally serve up my much-delayed review of Robo-Hunter vol 1, which has been in the drying cupboard since before the end of July, and then further fine flowers such as China Miélville's Looking for Jake, a collection of the first six issues of Marvel's wonderful What If?, my first thoughts in the current issues of 2000AD and much more besides.

But what, I hear you cry, of short fiction Wednesday? Well, I'm keeping that one mothballed for the meantime until I've caught up with other matters. It'll be back towards the end of this month, probably as a fortnightly rather than weekly feature from now on - I do have a day job, you know.

I hope you've all had a nice summer (or winter, depending on the hemisphere) and look forward to the comments that surely going to come flooding in!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Back soon!

Well, August is nearly over and the summer holidays draw to a close. Writing time has been very disrupted for me, thanks to various holidays and summer events eating into to my time. Just to complicate things, after a week away I discover my desktop has mysteriously given up the ghost. So I've had to dust off the spare laptop and rely on that, wonky keyboard and all.

I've also wasted a good proportion of the day trying to get the old desktop working, and thus didn't get done get half of what I wanted to do today, including much needed updates here. I've had a pretty frustrating couple of months, productivity wise, and that's why I took this official break, to try and catch up with all the chores and re-focus what I wanted to do... God, it never frigging ends does it!

Ah well, I still plan to get cracking again in the beginning of September and there's all sorts of treats ahead, assuming I can get them out of the hard drive of my old PC. I've got a review of Robo Hunter Vol 1 coming up as part of my series of retro-reviews of 2000AD, plus I've started buying new progs again and I'll be casting my world-weary eye over them.

Book-related OCD is satisfied!
I've been busy buying and reading books, and you can expect reviews soon. My formal review of The Quantum Thief is live on the Zone, so you can check that out, and I may or may not provide some further commentary. There's more I wanted to say about the hype surrounding this one that didn't fit in the review (and I think it's unfair to criticise the book based on my dislike of hype), but is increasingly relevant, I think, in today's hyped up world.

I've also found a cool, second hand bookshop while I was away (in Much Wenlock) and will have a couple of reviews of the obscure treasures i found there. One treasure was a Coronet edition of The Brave Free Men by Jack Vance, to match with the vols one and two of the Durdane series I already owned. I can now chuck away the ugly Ballantine edition I've had to make do with  up to now and have lovely matching spines on the book shelf. Hooray!

So, come on back on 1 September when Pointless Philosophical Asides will ride out of the wildnerness and back into action... if the wobbly internet connection on this shitty laptop will allow. Grrr!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Still Working!

I've replaced the temporarily closed notice with my new header image, but I'm not quite done yet. I've updated the pages on My Fiction and Reviews, but About Me and Posts of note are both still waiting for that magical Patickal pixie dust.

I have a couple of posts nearly ready to go, and we'll be back in action in September, so hang in there chums!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Short fiction Wednesday summer time semi-hiatus

I'm kind of busy over August, and I'd like to get some other work done for a bit. I'll be keeping up my reading log, as and when (and there's a review for the Zone coming up, so stay tuned for more unforgiving forensic work) but short fiction Wednesday is taking a break for a few weeks.

Don't worry, short fiction fans, it'll be back in September. In the meantime, why not enjoy some stories from the archive?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Your Life Sentence by CC Finlay
The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson

I really hate those types of articles that start “As some one once said...” and then go on to offer some really famous quotation - “As someone once said, ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...’” I mean honestly! If they don’t know that, how can you trust anything else they have to say? 

Was it him?
It is therefore with some annoyance that I begin this week’s short fiction Wednesday with, “As someone once said, drama is conflict.” Was it Brecht? Was it Shaw? Was it Chekhov? Gah! It doesn’t turn anything up on google... maybe it’s just a truism from days gone by? Maybe it was Aristotle? Answers on a postcard please! 

Anyway, whoever it was, it's good point. Fiction thrives on conflict: some one has something that some one else wants, and the story hangs on how they about getting it, or not getting as the case may be. There are others sorts of fiction, I suppose, that can work in the hands of someone that knows what they’re doing or strikes it lucky, but the vast majority of fiction uses this very simple formula (usually, as Sam Goldwyn observed, hinging on the matter of fighting or fucking).  




Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Ut!

Apropos of this recent post about old timey comics we loved, here's the man himself, Bob Burden, creator of The Flaming Carrot.
That's him on the right with Jonathan Ross in the middle and illustrator Tommy Lee Jones on the left, at Comic Con in 2010 (just this last weekend).

Nice shirt, Bob!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock Volume 1: Books 1-4

Credo!

 The big questions for a long-time 2000AD fan are this: when did 2000AD change, and what did it change from and to?

I think it's clear that it started out as a fairly traditional boys comics, updated for the post-sixties era, taking in some of the creative lessons learned from Action and giving them a sci fi twist. Early thrills were pretty much boys' comics staples – Invasion! and M.A.C.H. One were old fashioned tough guys; Flesh was a twist on the exotic jungle great white hunter story, with Old One Eye at its heart as a kind of animal anti-hero like in those Jack London novels; Harlem Heroes was a sports strip; and Dan Dare was a very clear indication that they were aiming for that core “boy” audience, probably with an average age of about twelve and a long tail going back to six year olds and petering out quickly after about fourteen.

Judge Dredd – which only began in prog 2, remember! - was an early indication of the direction the comic would take, with social satire and black humour similar to the types of sci fi movies we saw in the late sixties and early seventies – Silent Running, Logan's Run and especially the triumvirate of Charlton Heston apocalypse movies, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. This was definitely something new in a boys comic – I'd seen the space adventure comics that had been brought out by the Commando comics people, for example, and they were much more trad space adventures than really engaged sci fi in the way of Judge Dredd.

Well, maybe we'll get to Dredd one day, but today I want to take a look at a story that signalled a similarly profound break from boys' comics that had gone before and was one of the clearest antecedents for the way the comic is today, Nemesis the Warlock.


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Bridesicle by Wil Mcintosh
Non-Zero Probabilities by N K Jemsin

 Sam Goldwyn ponders the two types of stories.

I think it’s Sam Goldwyn who said “There’s only two stories, fucking and fighting.” SF and fantasy tends to focus on the latter, with the former usually only present in its grosser forms, rather than in the form Goldwyn was - referring to (love stories, of course - what sort of movies do you think he made?) Both today’s stories are love stories in their own way.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Whatever happened to all the fun in the world?



An interesting essay in the Guardian today (or yesterday, rather) about the somewhat subdued non-genre comics scene.

Every few months since the dawn of time – or, at least, since Superman first fled Planet Krypton – articles have appeared in newspapers announcing: "Comics grow up!" God knows, I've written a few. You go from a jocular paragraph or two about "underpants worn outside the trousers", via the obligatory reference to Alan Moore's Watchmen and a cap-doffing to Art Spiegelman's Holocaust epic Maus, before rounding off with an overenthusiastic payoff.
 I too have grown heartily sick of such articles, although at the same time my own comics consumption has narrowed to more-or-less exclusively supers. In the olden days, when I was young and  full of spunk, I read a lot of "alternative" comics. I tended to like the funny ones, so I was a bit iffy on stuff like Love & Rockets and Cerebus, but I really loved the early Eightball (and I think Icehaven is possibly the best comic ever made), Chris Ware's hilarious Quimby Mouse and Potato Man, Reid Fleming the World's Toughest Milkman, Flaming Carrot and, of course, Robert Crumb and the Freak Brothers.

 Maybe it's still in a box somewhere...

I'm a sci fi guy in general, so I'm not that keen on things I probably wouldn't read if they were a book - the works of Seth, eg, or Persepolis or Tamara Drew by Posey Symonds thing (although I did read that when it was serialised int he Guardian, it wasn't really my cup of tea, as much as I appreciated the craft). What I really miss, though, are the wild satirical and funny books - some of the early stuff by Joe Sacco (although I like his reportage work a great deal), Charles Burns or some of the sillier things in RAW.

Ut! Remember this guy?

I like this article, because it sums up my problem with independent comics right now:

It's as if half the movie industry is Hollywood and the other half is Todd (Happiness) Solondz.
I am - as Monty Python memorably put it - an intellectual midget who likes giggling. I enjoy my "Hollywood" comics well enough, but I'd really like to see the comics equivalents of The Office or Mitchell & Webb, clever, funny, perhaps a dash of satire and black humour and fewer gloomy tales of dispossessed loners.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

State of Change

Well, that's it: all ten part are out. State of Change is now available as a single pdf document here, but if you want to read it online the links, in order, are:

Part One: The Fear
Part Two: The Offer
Part Three: A Bit Like A Lobotomy
Part Four: The New Direction
Part Five: The Silver Machine
Part Six: Body Fuck/Mind Fuck
Part Seven: Psychedelic Super Nazis
Part Eight: Cuba Street Improv
Part Nine: The Not Quite Death of Arlo Makepeace Dylan
Part Ten: The End

I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Friday, 16 July 2010

However....

All that said, Kick Ass was a fantastic movie.


ETA:

Yeah, okay, so i saw it the other night (in one of those teeny-tiny late run cinemas in town) and really enjoyed. One thing Millar does really well is hit those moments in an action narrative, all that hero's journey stuff, I guess: the Call, denial of the call, trip to the underworld etc etc. When it's connected with strong characters and a sharp execution - as here, and in the Ultimates vols 1&2 and (mostly) in Old Man Wolverine - it's breathtaking. When it doesn't work it feels empty, like he's going through the motions (the current Ultimate Avengers series). When he tries some other story arc - his FF run, eg - he comes adrift.

So, I think he's really good at one thing, and when that one thing works out it's hard to top him. That structural sensibility is not to be sniffed at: plenty of fine writers lack it. Sure, they have other fine qualities (fine prose, eg, or a fantastic imagination) but the structure stuff is what tips a story out and gives it forward momentum. Millars really good at that.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Well, I'm a little constrained this week, because we have a guest and I am thus typing this on the lap top on the dining room table while my wife and her niece watch TV. I've always felt a little constrained writing "on display" in this way. I don't know why, it's not like I do the voices or anything, I guess I just have a kind of kiwi jeezwhadarya reaction. So forgive me if I come across as a little stilted this week. However, I've got a couple of good stories to share, so just ignore them and let's get cracking.

First up is Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi, available from Nightsahde books as a free download, a teaser for Bacigalupi's collection Pump Six and Other Stories. This story clearly takes place in the mellieu of his novel Wind Up Girl (which I haven't read). Building up a novel setting in this way is not that unusual in SF. It's a little different from the "fix up" process that was so common years ago - Asimov constructed the Foundation stories from a series of stories in this way, and the way Bradbury bult up the Martian Chronicles, less a gradual accrestion and more a flexing of muscles.

Bruce Sterling has done this a couple of times, with the Maker stories that fed into the novel Schismatrisx, and the character Leggy Starlitz who later turned up in the novel Zeitgeist. William Gibson has a few Sprawl stories - Johnny Mnemoinc, eg - and I'm sure Alistair Reynold's space operas came about in a similar way, and ... hm, I'm struggling to think of other examples now. Feel free to chip in with a comment!

Anyway, this is a terrific story of refugees struggling to survive in futuristic Bangkok. There's a very strong sense of place in this story, and Bacigalupi does a magnificent job of evoking the heat and misery of the streets. The daily battle for survival provides an irresistable forward motion, a story that resonates with the history of the twentieth century. This could be the story of White Russians in aris, Jews in New York, Vietnamese in Sydney or Afghanistanis or Iranians in London.

Tranh was once a wealthy businessman  in Malaysia who is now humiliated from having to grub in the dirt to survive and virtually beg for scraps from those he previously spurned. He's haunted by the violence that preceded his exile and the the turn of the wheel of fortune that has seen him brought low, but hasn't quite exhausted the last of his ambition.

Next up is the first story in the July issue of Lightspeed magazine, No Time Like the Present by Carol Emshwiller. This story has a more traditional feel, a certain Bradbury-like feeling of old timey American youth culture. It's hard to place the time exactly - it feels like the fifites, though, and the arrival of strange new people suggests the kind of lessons about intolerance that feels a lot like a SF story from that era.

There's more going on here than that, of course. It's also quite a sweet coming of age story (shades of Bradbury again) and hints at troubles with the environment and other darker messages. Of course, at its heart it's a very trad time travel story (it's not really giving anything away) that will satisfy those of us who still enjoy the old tunes!

There was some discussion over on the Torque Control about Lightspeed and whether it was really taking chances and "pushing the envelope" as its blurb suggests. Without making any comment on the story singled out in that discussion, Lightspeed does so far - after two months - look like quite a trad venue, and Emshwiller's story does nothing to dispel that impression.

The blurb suggests variety, and it's perhaps too early to say whether they're going to push the envelope or not. There is nothing wrong with trad stories, and I feel that the desire to burn the old genre to the ground that surfaces from time-to-time is generally misdirected. Lazy and tired writing are legitimate targets, but the goal is always to write "great stories about characters that I care about," as David Barr Kirtley eloquently put it in the discussion over there on Torque control.

If you look at all the angry, millennial SF movements - the silver age satirists like Harrison, Vonnegut and Dick, the New Wave in the 70s, the cyber-punks - they were all aimed at flabby, lazy, self-satisified stages in the genre's development. I'd say the insular nature of SF fandom positively encourages this slide into self-congratulatory blah just as it breeds these little pockets of cankerous resistance from time-to-time. In fact, I'd say that the whole idea of cankerous pocket of resistance is now past its time - the mundane movement and the Shine anthology looked like attempts to create these types of movements, and they both seemed horribly deliberate and self-satisfied to me. (Perhaps the difference being that these were attempts to create them, rather than crystallising moments that brought diverse new generations together.)

I'm well past the age where I'm interested in shocking people or being shocked, or where I care if an idea is new or not. I've been shocked enough these days, and literature, of any flavour, is not  a kind of technology that improves over the years. We can still thrill to the Foundation series or the robot stories, or the stories of Bradbury at his peak; we can still read Dickens and Feilding and Shakespeare and Chaucer. Great stories about characters we care about - that doesn't change and no matter how far the envelope is pushed or not, that is always a constant.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Noise Within by Ian Whates

My review of The Noise Within is now live on The Zone. This is a bad book, and hence a bad review. I hate bad books, and I hate it even more when I have to write a review of them - having wasted a week of my life on some crap it seems just to add insult to injury to have to spend even more time - valuable writing time! - writing a bloody review as well.

I didn't finish this book and I thought long and hard about writing a review at all. On the one had, I was clearly going to have to say some hard things about this novel, and I don't think there's anyone out there, really, who wants to hear that - not the author, not the publisher, not potential readers, not even Tony at the The Zone. On the other hand, I had accepted the free book and I felt I had an obligation to fulfil my half of the deal.

I hummed and hahed for a few days before almost accidentally scribbling out nearly three thousand words in my note book on a short train journey between Canary Wharf and Bank and back. In its raw form it had a lot of the sarky, sneery stuff you see in bad reviews on the internet, and are one of the things that I hate so much about bad reviews, so all that had to go, but there was still fifteen hundred words or so of pretty solid analysis about where this book goes wrong. I just had to sit down and sort it all out.

Writing a bad review is actually quite hard work. A review of a book you like is a pleasure to write, and what's more you can say any old thing and no one minds too much because you love it and everything's cool, even if you're wrong or can't support your observations. If you see "This book overflows with beautiful, vivid futuristic imagery," then by and large there's no one who's going to stop and ask you to prove it. Publisher, author, editor of the review site - everyone's happy.

Pointing out a book's flaws, on the other hand, requires more care. You have to be able to defend your points and make it clear that it's not just a matter of it not being your thing (that's another type of tiresome review, though) but that there are technical matters in the craft of fiction that go beyond taste, and that this book's got them wrong.

Oh, people will say stuff like "it's all just a matter of opinion, isn't it?" but that's horse shit. The craft of reviewing is separating out the bits of taste from the actual issues of bad writing. Certainly, I start a review from the very basic first principle of "did I like that?" but the next question is "why" and you have to be able to explain that stuff objectively. What a drag!

Books like The Noise Within cause me extra pain, though, because as an aspiring (which is to say, failing) writer it presents me with two rather disturbing possibilities.

The first, is that quality means nothing in terms of getting published, and it's basically a kind of lottery.

In fact, I think this is at least partly true; plenty of great books don't get published for one reason or another. But what burns me is that their places are taken not by other great books (and I'd lay money on there being a surfeit of great unpublished books out there if we just knew where to find them), but by shit books.

I suppose that's the way of the world, but I've always felt a writer has to start by writing the best book they can. Maybe that's bollocks, though. Maybe it's more important to meet the right people and do the right things - publish small press short stories and be part of fandom, in SF - and in fact you can do just as well flicking out any kind of lazy shit. That shows me!

The other alternative is that I'm not even this good. More hopefully, one could frame this as being that I'm just out of touch with what people really want from sci fi stories. I certainly get feedback along the lines of "nicely done but can't see the market for it," so maybe that's true.

I mean, take a look at these other reviews for The Noise Within, for example.

The Fantasy Book Critic says:
The Noise Within is an A+ for me and the series it debuts has a very high potential and I expect it to develop to be among the best space opera series around.
The Speculative Book Review says:
I also found the setting very captivating. Not only the history of the known universe but also the various planets, various technologies such as AI or union of organic and artificial life tickle the reader's curiosity. The details such as wric (wrist-information center), shimmer suits, intelligent gun unit, computer generated reality and the concept of "partials" improve the story's sense of completeness and create a satisfying degree of background. The story never becomes absurd and the futuristic concepts remain still familiar and believable.
9.5/10

A+? 9.5/10? Where do those scores come from? What do they see that I don't? Are my ideas of what makes a good book really so out of step with the rest of the world? Have I got the ridiculous wric all wrong?

On the other hand, if you poke around those sites you'll see an awful lot of As and 9/10s, and perhaps those particular sites need to haev their qualitative settings re-aligned.

Total Sci Fi Online and Space Time Industries are more circumspect in their assessments, but the former still gives this a 7/10.

But what's a review for? Is the kind of objective assessment that I'm attempting really serving any purposed? A review has to be able to place a book within the context of its peers, of course, but again I think this is a fairly objective process of thinking about a "good" book of this type (in this case, say, Banks's The Player of Games or Reynolds' Revealation Space) and then pondering whether the book under review measures up.

I still wonder if I'm really right for this gig, even after all these years (and in fiction writing, especially after all these years). Maybe I'd be happier in pottery or basket weaving, something where simple aesthetics weren't so openly flauted. Oh well. I'm used to being a lonely deluded genius. It fits me, I think.

Here's the song "Bad Review" by Half Man Half Biscuit, as comfort for maligned authors everywhere.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

State of Change Part Ten: The End

Well, here we are, the final part. How does it all end? Well, only one way to find out, right? I know how it ends up, of course, but I didn't know when I wrote it, and that's quite obvious to me now. I'd go so far to say that things don't really end well.

Looking back, it's very clear that this is the work of a writer figuring out how to write a longer work. I'd already published a few shorts, and felt I had that under control, but how to make a longer work? How to sustain an idea through the complete movement? I now think the key is to have your end, however vague it might be, in sight. No matter how lost you get - and I got very lost here - you've got that ending standing in as a pole star keeping you on track.

Another important lesson I learned was revision. Early on, writing this on an Amiga, I had a catastrophic disc error which left me to type the whole thing in again from a print out. This gave me the freedom to drop stuff I didn't like, stuff that ultimately wasn't worth re-typing. The tyranny of what's there - you've got to break away from it.

Twice this thing attracted a publisher, and never made it to print. Well, it's still not published, but I feel it's out of my system now, even if only ten or so people have looked at it, let alone read the whole thing. Well, onward. I have other unpublised novels that I hope you'll be able to enjoy in the future - stay tuned for something else at some unspecified time. Maybe not coming soon, maybe not coming at all, but... er...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

David Marson Writes Again



Following his fantastic series on matters political, David's following the new East London Line from Dalston to Croydon.

Like Amy Sackville, I met David during the course of my MA at Goldsmiths. I recall from his first workshop story that his character took a long walk across South East London, from Wollowich to Hilly Fields, recalling his long life in the area and all the places that had been important to him, just like David does here.It's something he does really well.

It was David who suggested I start this blog, and it occurs to me that I am trying to do something similar with books to what David is doing with place. I don't want this to be a review site, and despite the occasional links posts or one-liners, I think the reason I started this was to try and pick away at how books shape and colonise us, how they occupy parts of our lives.I can feel more of this coming on as I probe the back catalogue of 2000AD - probably the most important reading from my childhood, for various reasons - as if I'm picking at the old wounds to uncover the secrets books have left in me. "A book is a mirror," I tell people. It never shows you itself, and it only shows you what  you bring to it.

But enough about me! David's journey begins with him lost and stranded in Shoreditch. From there, he's wandering south, uncovering history both national and personal. He's good company, you ought to walk with him.

The photo at the top of this post is by flickr user kaka pugh and used under the terms of the creative commons license.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Obscene amounts of money

He said they'd asked for an obscene amount of money, so I gave him a tenner with a knob drawn on it.

Short Fiction Wednesday

Many apologies, but there will be no short fiction Wednesday this week. To be honest, I'm suffering from a combo of work hassle and London heat.

In the meantime, I found this really cool link that will throw up a link to a random SF/F story (inclusing novels!) everytime you refresh the page. I particularly like how it includes Golden Age stuff that's archived at project Gutenberg. I'd like to include some of that in future short fiction Wednesdays.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

State of Change Part Nine: The Not Quite Death of Arlo Makepeace Dylan

Part Nine of my short novel State of Change has been posted at its own blog. I quite like this bit, and I think it worked well on the whole. The Dick reference is a bit heavy handed, but I think it does a good job of slowly moving to the inevitable. My opinions on dystopias haven't changed, either.

Nearly at the end now, one more part and that's it. Then what? Hm!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Strontium Dog: Search/Destory Agency Files Vol 01

It's one of those things that I just accept that 2000AD isn't what it was. Well, nothing is, is it? But in 2000AD's case, the feeling is particularly acute because what it was was so special. It's hard to articulate fully what 2000AD meant to those of us that found it at the right time, I guess the aphoristic “Golden Age” of science fiction, which is to say about the age of 12.

The first issue I remember buying was prog twenty-nine or thirty, picked up one summer holiday in Rotorua. It was immediately obvious to me that this was something special. I was already keen on comics, and had read plenty of Superman and Marvel stuff, but British comics had never really appealed to me before – too much football and World War 2, two topics that I found utterly boring. Not only was 2000AD not like that, it wasn't like the Marvel or Superman comics either. It just didn't look like the stiff muscle men I was used to, and the jolly good chaps of Battle or the silly cartoons of Beano or Whizzer & Chips where nothing like this.

You can argue about which artist is most responsible for this, but one of the top contenders has got to be Carlos Ezquerra. He did, after all design Judge Dredd and the look of his world, which have probably done more than anything to sketch out the 2000AD territory. However, I think that just as influential as his work on Judge Dredd is one of 2000AD's other great thrills, Strontium Dog.

Johnny Alpha: Strontium Dog


Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Part of the mission of Short Fiction Wednesday is that old SF standby, exploring new worlds and seeking out new civilizations, or, more prosaically, new fiction venues and new writers. Electric Spec is a venue that's featured in a previous entry (I really enjoyed that one) but which I hadn't heard of before I started Short Fiction Wednesday, and Prinkipria is newly found for this week's instalment. Prinkipria has been publishing just this year; maybe I just have a weird perspective because of the whole short fiction thing, but it seems to me that there are not only a lot of venues out there, but that they are steadily multiplying.

Print is dead, chums. Charging for stories, well, sadly that's also probably dead. Pay-walls are for half-dead Australian tycoons, not short fiction sites! It's hard enough to get people to read, let alone read short fiction, let alone pay for the (sometimes) dubious pleasure.

On that note, you may notice that Short Fiction Wednesday isn't the most critical review feature on the internet. I'm totally up front about this: Short Fiction Wednesday is about promotion and celebration, not frowning critical engagement. “But surely, Patrick,” I hear you say through the bugging devices I have installed in your skull, “Surely some stories are just no good?” Indeed so, and these stories don't make it to Short Fiction Wednesday. If I can't find something positive to say about a story, then I put it to one side and an appearance in Short Fiction Wednesday can be considered as a mark of quality from my wobbly old sensorium, whatever that may be worth.

I'd say, though, that easily three-quarters of what I read is just fine, not always perfect but well worth the investment of time (minimal) and money (zero) to read. When you take a look at the crappy novels that commercial publishers expect you to spend eight quid and a week of your life with, you will find that the stories featured here are pretty good alternative. So, without further ado, let's take a look at this weeks offerings...

Streetwise by Phil Emery is a slice of vaguely dystopian cyber-punky life. It examines the idea of the second chance, of the possibility we can use our children (although here it's a clone self) as a way to avoid the mistakes we've made through our lives. In this case we get to see the narrator in crisis when he sees his plans falling apart (or are they?) and he examines his own life and hopes and dreams.

Plenty of people (it seems to me) complain about the darkness of the SF vision, but I'm not sure if it's entirely fair to call this sort of story dystopia. It lacks the political engagement of a true dystopia and if your idea of hell on Earth is “some folk are rich some folk are poor; some folk are happy, some folk are sad” then, welcome to the jungle, creeps!

Instead, stories that are sometimes labelled “dystopia” have a more personal sort of misery in their sights. I think that SF's need to create a consistent world can make a subjectively negative world view seem like an overly objective description of a world. In stories with this kind of close POV and short window of exploration, the setting is more an expression of character. Some people are just downers, and I think Emery's narrator is probably one of them.

Emery does a particularly good job of creating a consistent world through the persistent use of neologisms, any of which on its own might be dubious, but add up to a highly individualised world. Perhaps there's a little too much going on, but Emery keeps us going through his story and offers his troubled protagonist a hope of something better in the future.

Interview With the Bigfoot is a really fun story (think about the title for a minute!) from Chris Morrow, who I hadn't heard of before. He's Pinkipria's featured author for June and he has a few ebooks out with Aspen Mountain Press - they've got an interview with him, too if you want to find out more.

I'm a bigfoot fan myself, an old Fortean from way back before it was cool and everything, so I particularly found this very appealing. Beyond the subject matter, I really liked Neal the amiable loser who has hooked up with the BFHA (the Bigfoot Hunters of America) as a way to get out of the house. The story has a sweet undercurrent about friends and friendship, but the main thrust is the enocunter with the big hairy bloke himself. He seems like a good natured source, but ... well, I shan't give away any more. Just saying “but” probably enough of a spoiler!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

John Lennon: Naked

I just watched this. The first thing that struck me: when the hell did British film-makers lose the ability to make a show that didn't look like a bunch  of luvvies in wigs? Eccleston did OK (bearing in mind that Lennon was seven years dead before the age Eccleston is now) but he had his performance to sustain the illusion. We could get inside him, so the visuals weren't that important, but the others didn't have that. They mostly just sat around wearing comedy moustaches bouncing us out of the dream everytime they opened their mouths.

It was worst with Paul, who was a vital part of the drama here. That fraternal bond was surely part of what sustained John for a while, but the Paul actor just never gt a chance. Plus, he played him like a mumbling druggie, like someone who has never been a mumbling druggie would play a mumbling druggie.

Next thing: okay, that's some sad shit, but there are millions of boys/men who go through this who aren't John Lennon. The doco tried to play it fair - "What about your son?" asks one of the many the sneering journos as John fucks off to America - but that just left it unfocused. John came out of that as selfish and spoiled instead of selfish, spoiled and damaged (which was surely the whole point).

It was almost redeemed by the scene where John plays his Dad "Mother". That should have been the whole show - a two hander based around that encounter, maybe 45 minutes. That could have been interesting, penetrating, revealing. That could have taken these specifics about a famous pop singer and made them universal about fathers and sons and the holes left in so many people's lives. That scene was the crux of it, the meat, but it was so meagre, and surrounded by so much pointless crap, about the lovable mop tops, it got lost.

The art of autobiography and biogrpahy is to make the particular universal; without that, all you're left with is tittle-tattle. With "Mother", Lennon managed that with startling brevity, directness and honesty. I guess that's why he was John, and these fuckers are just the fuckers they are.

There's a good video for the song from youtube (originally from the Anthology DVD?) but due to size I can't embed. Therefore, here's a link, sorry about that.

Combine it with this one, and the film's entirely superfluous. Anything you can't infer from them isn't important.

State of Change Part Eight: Cuba Street Improv

Ah, Cuba Street! This, of course, was written years ago when Cuba Street was still (just) clinging to its boho vibe. Midnight Espresso was run by lunatics, the Working Men's Club operated out of that disgusting old hotel (the name of which I've forgotten), Mr Smiles had yet to be bull-dozed for the benefit of the motorway, the dusty empty World Trade Centre was still home to dodgy go-nowhere importers and East European trade missions. Silvios and Slowboat, Konditerei Aida (that used to advertise before the movies) and The Hole in the Wall Club. It may be hard to believe now, but the Matterhorn was once a poky little coffee shop selling sausage rolls and watery tea.

Time was, there was a line-up of second hand bookshops, and dole day could be happily spent sifting through the shelves looking for ancient artefacts at a bargain price. They've all been replaced by coffee shops now, feeding kiwi coffee snobbery (one of my old home's least appealing features, although food snobbery in general was well under weigh before I left). The Ferret bookshop still endures, as of my last visit, and I urge you to poke your nose in to its dusty, quirky wilfully anti-commercial corners to see if you can still catch a whiff of the way things were.

I guess if there's one thing I got wrong it was which way the Street would go. Obviously, I was writing about the present then, not the future, and I did understand how it was all being compromised and commodified, but little did I suspect the extent of the puke-inducing yuppie-fication that has occurred.


All of which doesn't have much to do with part eight of State of Change. Here we find Dylan at last backed into a corner and seeking a way out. What options are the left for him? Can he find a way out? Is a dignified exit still a possibility? Read on!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Still Point by Amy Sackville

“I will reach it,” Edward Mackley tells his new bride; “I will wait,” she replies. He doesn't; she does.

I know Amy Sackville. She was in my class at Goldsmith's and it was clear, right from the start, that she was working on something that was in a different class from the rest of us. I remember very clearly reading the passage depicting Edward Mackley's death for workshop, moved almost to tears by the horror of it. I didn't know what to say: “Don't change a word.”

Amy was quickly snapped up by an agent and found a publisher. The Still Point was adapted for Book At Bedtime on Radio Four, and part of the long-list for the Orange Prize. It's the sort of thing we all dreamed of happening, and there's something magical about seeing someone I know with genuine talent getting recognised after half a lifetime backing beautiful losers. In this case I have the added pleasure of congratulating myself for spotting it early on.

I'd only seen it in bits before, so reading the whole thing, and seeing for the first time how it all fits together, it's even more impressive. I hadn't read much of the modern story of Julia and Simon, and I see now how this part of the novel provides resolution to the old wounds of the Mackleys. The interplay of these stories enlarges them both. There are secrets to come out, and an enduring legacy of loss that reaches out across the century that separates the two stories. In isolation the passages are clever, moving, musical but seeing how it all comes together, reading all the connecting elements I hadn't seen before, I love it even more.

Edward Mackley turns back from the pole, but never gives up on life, even when all hope is lost. “I can't go on without”, Emily writes a single unfinished sentence in the notebook he gave her before he left, unable to finish the phrase, as if by finishing it she'll finish herself. It's a very British sort of failure, the unsuccessful Polar explorer who might be a footnote in some volume of exploration, the precursor to some else's more heroic tale, but here we look at the consequences of ambition gone unrewarded.

When do you stop? When do you give up? What do you do when all hope is gone? A friend asked me once “How can you sit there writing day after day, knowing that you'll never make it?” To be honest, I don't know. Once you set out there's no going back. Eventually you find yourself stuck on an island in the middle of a blizzard and there's no where else to go.

“I will reach it,” I tell myself, skin turned black beneath the ice. “I will wait,” I reply, and like Emily I'm waiting still.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Wisdom from John K

Ren & Stimpy was probably as important in the development in my sense of humour as Monty Python. Just the other Sunday I spent a couple of hours chuckling over old R&S cartoons with my daughter (who's four) and loved all this stuff about farts and nose picking.

John K's blog (linked on the left there) is generally about cartooning and animation (and often, by extension, comedy in general). Just today we get this bit amazing wisdom:
Jimmy Hatlo is one of these towering giants of cragginess. He appeals to the middle aged man in all of us. Even as a kid, I loved these man cartoonists and identified with them. I think in every lad - and especially in every red blooded cartoonist boy, there lurks a fascination with the world of adults. Adults are funny, with their rules, their bulbous noses, their red-faced frustrations, their mottled, moley skin and scraggly hair- their wrinkly knuckles and crooked stinky toes. Why are these people in charge of the world most kids wonder...and so do the cartoonists.
Yup, I'm certain of it.

Short Fiction Wednesday

Last week I mentioned how often the stories I pick, more or less randomly, often turn out to have some kind of thematic connection... well, not this week!

This week we've got stories from familiar venues Futurismic and Flurb. Although I try and find new places, and I'm keen to highlight interesting and obscure venues publishing good quality SF and fantasy, there are places I keep coming back to. These two - along with Strange Horizons – have had a few of entries here before, partly because of quality, and partly because of how regularly they update. Regular updates, great content - not hard to figure out that successful recipe, I guess.

Of course, if you know of somewhere interesting then drop me a line via the comments and I'll check it out. Publishers and writers, don't be afraid to pimp your own gear – that's what makes the world go round!

So, first up is Miguel and the Viatura by Eric Gregory from Futurismic. This is a solid piece with a great line in extrapolating from a few key concepts. The idea of the viatura is similar to riding in last week's Lavie Tidhar story, The Night Train, but it's given a distinctly more ghoulish twist here. The obvious underlying theme is the exploitation of the third world by the first, and the lengths that the poor will go to help give their kids a leg up out of poverty.

Of course, life is never that simple and there are plenty of shades of grey here beyond a simple north-bad/south-good moral message. Gregory makes particularly good use of family relationships and the bonds of community expressed through gang and style-tribe loyalty to explore the different forces that push and pull in various moral directions.

This week's second story is one of those that comes out of the blue, and really blew me away. It's not a big story, or a huge message, or even that novel, but it's often the small and focused things that appeal to me most. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the high standard at Flurb, but it gives off such a casual and easy going vibe that the discipline and razor sharp professionalism of the stories always catches me unawares! A lot of short fiction sites have fancy design and slick sci fi graphics, but the Rudy Rucker is happy to follow his own lo-fi aesthetic and let the stories speak for themselves.

Clod, Pebble by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz is a really brilliant example of the classic short story form. It's got the really tight focus that all great short stories have. It has the penetrating gaze of the modernist masters, Katherine Mansfield or Anton Chekhov, zeroing in on a single incident with a tiny cast that opens up a whole raft human feelings and interactions.

It concretizes contrasting views of love described by William Blake in his Poem The Clod and the Pebble:

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."
Blake's poem is nicely weaved into the incident of the story to lead the reader to it without bashing them over the head with it. All the events of the story point towards one or other view of love – Davies desire to present a gift to his daughter, his conflicts with his ex-wife, and the contrasting receptions of the two authors at the signing. These are  classic enduring themes beautifully articulated with breathtaking efficiency and lack of sentiment.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

State of Change: no new episode this week

I've been at a wedding and therefore have missed a week of updating State of Change. Part eight will appear next Sunday. In the meantime, here's a handy catch-up sheet for those following at home

The Epigraph
Which is pretty important and, I think has come true in the years since I first read it. Here it is, since it's not very long:

“No longer content to wait for social movements to bubble up from the ‘burbs, young, fresh and sniffing for product, a cute symbiosis of media outlets and cultural product firms synthesize them between themselves. ...Far from being a credible claim to futurity, the Marketing Plan follows a relentlessly sideways logic of replacing one product-rhetoric-art’n’theory mix with the next, different from the last in exactly the same way as the last was different to the batch before that. ...Hype may very well be the future of culture.” - McKenzie Wark, “Cyberhype”, World Art, November 1994.

Introduction
Some words of excuse by the author.

Part One: The Fear
In which we are introduced to our hero, Arlo Makepeace Dylan, and his millieu.

Part Two: The Offer
Dylan hears some bad news and is thrown a lifeline.

Part Three: A Little Bit Like A Lobotomy
Dylan undergoes brain surgery and meets his new flatmates.

Part Four: The New Direction
Dylan has some unusual experiences and attends a party.

Part Five: The Silver Machine
Some more unusual experiences, and another party.

Part Six: Mind Fuck/Body Fuck
Things get a bit nasty and a decisive event occurs.

Part Seven: Psychedelic Supernazis
In which a Belgian is accidentally murdered.

Only three(ish) parts to gonow, true believers!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Shine: An Anthology of Near Future Optimistic SF edited by Jeste de Vries

Back in 1995, when I arrived in the UK desperate to become a writer I was looking for a way "in" to the  UK SF scene. I think it was Andy Cox (then editing The Third Alternative, now editing Interzone) who put me in touch with Tony Lee of Pigasus Press, editor of the small press mag The Zone. Tony didn't buy any of my stories (at that time - he later bought my story "Insured for Murder" for the Premonitions anthology) he suggested, with charming naivete regarding national rivalries, that as a New Zealander, I might be interested in writing a profile of the Australian writer Greg Egan. Well, as it happened I was already a huge fan of Egan (we all were back then!) and that was the beginning of a non-fiction writing blitz that went on for nearly a decade.

Between 1996 and 2007 I wrote dozens of reviews and articles for The Zone, first the print magazine and then the website. I'd previously been working as freelance editor and journalist in New Zealand, and I'd been keeping a reading journal for a while so I was already tempered for this type of work, and I picked it up pretty quickly, I think. Among my favourites are my reviews of The Emperor of Dreams, the Fantasy Masterworks collection of Clark Ashton Smith stories, my double review of The Day of the Triffids and the authorised sequel, The Night of the Triffids, Lint by Steve Aylett and Jack Vance's last novel Lurulu. I was also very pleased with some of my longer pieces, such as this overview of Jack Vance's work and my interviews with Micheal Moorcock and Kim Newman (who were both utterly charming).

I wrote quite a bit about comics, too and was pretty pleased with my reviews of the marvel Essential volumes for The Fantastic Four and Howard the Duck, and some obscure eighties numbers I remembered from the 80s such as Skreemer and Kid Eternity. Most particularly, I wrote quite a bit about Alan Moore, including this profile that I was very happy with, a review of The DC Stories of Alan Moore, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol 2 and finally Black Dossier.

That was the last review I wrote for The Zone, an oddity in 2007 that came out of the extraordinary day I describe in the review, because by that time, I'd more or less given up on it and it was the first thing I'd written for them in nearly two years. (I wrote a variation on this piece for the Kapi Mana News, which I posted on this blog here.)

Why did I stop? Well, there are a few reasons. Most importantly, I'd only ever got started as a kind of distaff project to my own fiction writing, and I'd found that it was beginning to take over from fiction all together. As my life changed (kids, new job) I found that I didn't have so much time for writing and I really wanted to concentrate on my fiction (a bit like this blog...). This seems to have worked and I've published stories in each years since then and written another novel, so I think I was right to give that more space.

I had also grown a little jaded with reviewing, for a few reasons. It had started to become a bit formulaic for me. I was getting tired of random "if you like x you'll like y" style reviews, and I wasn't interested in pushing the pseudo academic direction that seemed the only alternative to me then. I was also getting bored and annoyed with the books. I realised I took much more pleasure in old second hand things or reprints than i did in the new novels coming out. I wondered what the point of it all was - who cared what I thought? Who was I really writing for?

That review of Black Dossier is an important turning point. Because of the events surrounding it, and the influence of the MA in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths that I was in the middle of just then, I began to see another way. I began to think of books not as puzzles to be taken apart and solved, but as mirrors that reflect who we are when we read and that reflect into the past of our lives, and as experiences we carry with us into the future. I started this blog on the advice of David Marston (of David marston writes) and I've been influenced in this by his blog, especially his recent entries about politics and the election. I became interested in the idea of the letting the personal and subjective elements of  myself leak in to my reviews, and that's when I thought I might be ready to write reviews again.

So, my review of Shine is kind of an experiment. I'm reasonably happy with it, although I think I still felt perhaps overly obliged to address the work and not myself (perhaps it was just that sort of book). There's a balance to be kept, of course, and I don't think my reviews for The Zone will be as personal as the writing I do here about my reading, but I think I can do a bit more than I do on this occasion. It'll be a bit more occasional than it was at my height (and I have a blog to care for now, as well!) but hopefully I can find new ways of thinking and writing about books in the future.