Friday, 29 January 2010

Writing tips for SF short stories

A terrific article yesterday from i09 on science fiction short stories. Generally, I find the writing advice on i09 either over-elementary or of dubious merit, but this one is absolutely right on every score.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Marvel vs DC

Thoughts inspired by a message board thread about "Your Biggest Disappointment":

Well, I was gonna say "Blackest Night", but actually, I think I'd say the entire DCU. They've got some great properties, and occasional stand-out creators (they'd be lost without Grant Morrison!) but they just cannot (IMO) get the kind excitement and narrative drive out of them that we see from Marvel.

DC are generally braver, and do more "interesting" things, and when it works it's fantastic (I'm reading Seven Soliders of Victory at the moment, which is absolutely brilliant on pretty much every level) but when they try and do striaght supers of the Marvel-ish flavour it all comes out blah.

Blackest Night is the series that crystalised all this for me. It was very much of a type with Secret Invasion, I thought, but whereas SA was a kind of hop between big set pieces of super folks kicking each other in the face, BN just seemed to be yak yak yak and then a lot of supposedly spooky yak from zombies with folks I couldn't care less about. I mean, a scary Elongated Man - WTF!?!?

That said, though, I did enjoy Infinite and Final Crisis and loved the hell out of 52, but while WW Hulk sold me on Incredible Hercules, and Secret Invasion kept me involved with the Avengers books, none of the DC events have led me to pick up the regular books.

Not sure who's going to be interested in all that really (maybe DC market researchers?) but it interests me so there it is!

Clumsy insertion of detail pt 94

From the Metro:

The iPad is "so much more intimate than a laptop and so much more capable than a smart phone", claimed Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at the launch in San Francisco.

"It is the best browsing experience you will ever have", added the 54-year-old who needed a liver transplant last year.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Is fiction dead?

Last night out with my writerly friends Catherine, David and Jonathan, and we debated long and hard, in a beery way, over whether fiction is dead. I think we all saw the McCrum post on the Guardian books blog (I got a comment in there!), and I also had this article by Ted Genoways (editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the kind of revered and well-established literary journal I've never heard of), article helpfully titled "The Death of Fiction", in mind.

It seems to be the general consensus that "traditional" avenues for short fiction are withering... or are they? As a lot of commenters noted in the Genoways piece, while the old war horses are struggling to make the next hurdle, young, coltish independent mags racing ahead and vaulting the new obstacles with aplomb.

I think magazines tend to become institutionalised over time. They develop a style and approach, and a stable of regular contributors which gradually freezes out new talent and - ultimately - new readers. I don't think there's a solution to his, as I don't think it's a problem. There's no reason that a magazine should last forever: eventually, they all die - just like people!

I think it's true that compared to the nineties, the noughts were pretty harsh on traditional print small press mags. I remember when you could go into Forbidden Planet (on New Oxford Street, back then) and they had a rack of cheaply printed and photo-statted mags; there were also mail order brochures and distributors like Back Brain Recluse. By the time I arrived in the UK, the boom was well and truly busting. I sold a couple of stories to these mags in the mid nineties, but they both dried up before publishing them - that seemed to be the tenor of the times.

On the plus side, though, the internet has led to an explosion of online venues. A few years ago I made a point of reading online fictions very deliberately for a few months, in between the books I read. I read stories from Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Abyss & Apex, Clarkes World, Flurb and a bunch of others I can't remember now. I'd say a solid one-third of those stories was pretty darn good, a similar ratio to what I ever found in the major print mags when I read them in the eighties and nineties.

Jonathan told me that there are a lot of very vigorous independent literary publishers, too., and in fact had a an example in his bag. He'd been making his way through it and said it was really good. A similar point about indie publishers is amde several times in the comments to the Genoways piece.

So, I don't think venues are drying up, but older ones are dying a (probably) natural death and new things are springing up from new, unexpected sources. It raises a question as to universities will be able to support original fiction through prestigious journals in the future - maybe not, as the tertiary education sector seems to be going through a bit of a change, too.

This is good news for writers, but how about readers? Jonathan McCalmont (a different Jonathan, NB) has made the point that short SF seems to be published entirely for the benefit of other writers. I certainly share his suspicion that there are more writers than readers out there, particularly for the online zines. However, I think the online venues are a training ground and source of content for a growing market in original anthologies from independent publishers. These have a much wider audience, I suspect, especially those that can boast a contribution from a big-name novellist.

While I think there's still a sustainable interest in short fiction, it is self-evidently true that the appetite for short fiction has declined dramatically in the time scale of fifty years considered by Robert McCrum. Last night we all agreed that people were reading more than ever, but increasingly less fiction, and not just short fiction but all fiction.

Mobile phones and related items are one of the big reasons why: suddenly, there's a whole NEW way to waste time on the long commute. We've come a long way since Snake, and iPods, iPhones, PSPs and Nintendo DS's are everywhere on the DLR when I catch it every morning. Even the Metro is shifting fewer copies than it did a couple of year's back, to my uneducated eye!

In addition to this, there are message boards, FaceBoook, Twitter, blogs, aggregator sites like Arts & Letters Daily and Boing Boing plus the Guardian and the BBC. Between all that, there doesn't seem a lot of time left in the day to settle down with a good book. (I suppose this blog is part of the problem, but in the end it's a choice to either go with the flow or be left high and dry, so I choose the former!)

I hope that ereaders and multi-media media devices might, ultimately, offer hope to fiction writers. Cartherine mentioned that she doesn't listen to music on her iPod but to book review podcasts, and I suspect that podcasts and audio-books (in whatever format) have a big future. On my last long haul flight I listened to Frankenstein on audio book, somethihng I'd always intended to read, but probably never would have had it not been on the entertainment options.

Hm, I might have just talked myself into buying an iPod, but then the daily commute is the major componenet of my reading day, and I can't imagine spending the time doing anything else.

So, anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think fiction's dead, but the distribution channels and formats might be changing. I guess there's be a lot of work for voice-over artists... maybe I should look into a change of career?

Apologies for using the word "blogosphere" earlier, by the way. It would appear my assimilation is complete.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Aaargh! I LEFT MY BOOK AT HOME!

God, don't you hate that? For lunchtime and hometime I suppose I can print out some stuff from the internet (I'll have a trawl through Arts & Letters daily, may be look around Boing Boing or the Anomalist for a cool article, or see if I can find an interesting looking short story) but I was left cruelly exposed for the that most difficult part of the day, the morning commute. Without some kind of comforting prose to hide my head in the temptation to throw oneself beneath the rails becomes nigh irresistable!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Science fiction, old and new

I was interested to read the article by Jo Walton at tor.com about the mental adaptations required to read SF, linked through various places, and this post on Futurismic, highlighting a related blog post from a guy called Will Gillis, also caught my eye.

I don't quite agree with either post, as it seems to me that both ignore that the problem with a lot of SF is that, in certain particulars it just isn't very good. Walton's argument seems to suggest not that WE see something that non-SF readers don't see, but that non-SF readers can also see it but just don't think it's very important. A non-SF reader looks at The Forever War and thinks "Yeah, yeah, war is heck, but what the hell does a tachyon drive have to do with it?" I think it seems strange to a non-SF reader that we'd need all this tachyon drive bullshit to read a novel about war being heck.

Willis's contention that "old" SF is no longer tolerated becuase the digital age audience expects something different from what earlier SF audiences expected looks like a restatement of the old saw that SF ages more quickly than other forms of literature.

I don't believe that it's inherent in SF to age badly, but I think that poorly written books will eventually fall out favour and that well-written books in any genre will endure. Some books are never convincing, despite the acuity of their eye in some regards.

In my reading review of the year, I discussed the contrast between 1984 and Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants. They came out within a couple of years or each other, and represent the polar approaches to an SF dystopia. Ultimately, it's Orwell's powerful portrait of the gradual destruction of Smith's soul that sticks with you. The cynical hipster who narrates The Space Merchants has no depth, no roots. Orwell spends time exploring Smith's nature and back-story, while Pohl & Kornbluth keep Mitch Courtenay trundling along with the story. 1984 seems real, because Winston Smith still seems real, and he brings reality to the world around him. Courtenay never feels real, and his world is therefore a construction for us to mock.

Thinking about the older writers, Jack Vance and Phillip K Dick still seem fresh to me. Dick is heavy on the allegorical, but is also one of the origin points for today's futuristic writers. His down beat, commercialised future is still recognisable today and this gives his deeper content considerable power. He also addresses his themes through characters rather than just through the futuristic metaphor. The crises of Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Joe Chip in The Three Stigmata of Plamer Eldritch are perfectly embedded in the rising tide of kipple in Deckard's San Francisco or the arid, lifelessness of Chip's Martian colonial outpost.

Vance is a slightly different case. His books are also character driven, but Vance is less concerned with internal struggles. Vance's continued readability comes from his enjoyably orotund prose style and his clever and sardonic allegorical content. The two classic collections of stories (I hesitate to call them novels) about Cugel the Clever – The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga – look more like Rabelaisian satires than psychologically true fiction of the modernist sort.

Vance is also good at firing up a pot-boiling type of plot – a tale of vengeance, or a quest to return home, a search for a murder. He gives his characters a clear goal, and then stretches it out over a long quest across across sparsely populated territory. He subjects them to horrible defeats and reversals along the way, often at the hands of the eccentric, isolated communities they encounter on their travels. I've lost count of the number of times that characters have been imprisoned or kidnapped, losing all their possessions, or when key allies have turned out to be deadly enemies. The injustice of it all fills the reader with righteous indignation, and they demand to know how the hero's going to get out of it this time.

SF's focus on secondary worlds and allegory and futurism leads to a less intensive gaze at the other fictional elements – character and prose, in particular. There are few SF writers who deploy an especially distinct style, even from work to work, and characters are often controlled by other demands that are unique to SF. SF fans are happy to over look this if the rest of the novel is sound. Non-sf fans are not – I'm sure that's true of every genre. The SF novels that can merge their futurism, allegory or secondary world to a strong plot, good prose and deep characters will surely endure.

However, it is perhaps more of a danger for a certain type of "futuristic" SF, that will embody the technological mellieu of its day, to become less relevant. Gillis highlights this flavour of SF in his opening para:

For all the talk of impenetrable singularity, it occurs to me that the modern milieu of SF writers is almost entirely preoccupied with futurism and future-shock, in contrast to yestergeneration’s focus on allegory / thought experiment.


I don't think it's a question of generations but of different audiences, as the allegorists and thought experimenters are still there. When I go into Forbidden Planet and browse the shelves, it looks to me like the SF and fantasy audience is split into three broad approaches: futurism, allegory and secondary worlds.

(Before going any further, it's worth saying that as with every other point in the matter of genre, these divisions are malleable, and become ambiguous at the fringes. Walton quotes Sam Delaney:

Samuel R Delaney argued rather than try to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and of describing it more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions.

So, these three strands represent the centres of these circles, within the broad circle of stuff we call SF. It's like a Venn diagram, I guess. In fact, the Venn diagram is the perfect vehicle for discussing these topics, ins't? It's like it was invented to demonstrate the ways that genres overlap. I guess this is all just three more circles on the great Venn diagram of genre, and if you filled them in the whole thing would be scribbled black by it all.)

Futurism “includes” the writers and works that Gillis talks about: Vinge, Stross and MacLeod, plus people like Greg Egan, Geoff Ryman, Richard Morgan and so on. These are the guys Gillis is talking about, “the modern age has given rise to a very distinguishable modern clique of SF authors interested in worlds with recognizable causal connections to our world.”

I think that Gillis is right when he identifies one of the sources for this as the movie Blade Runner. I've described here before how I felt after I first saw Blade Runner back in the mid 80s[link], that rather than being a seamless new environment of clean design and modernist purpose, the future would be crudely bolted on to the crumbling remains of the present.

These writers are the descendants of the cyberpunks, who swiped the baton of critical acclaim from the new worlds crew and ran off with it in the 80s. You can see it evolve in the work of Bruce Sterling's work, starting with the allegorical, second worldy Involution Ocean to ultra-engaged works such as Distress and Zeitgeist (natch), via a stint in technology journalism. He's now almost entirely concerned with material futurism, re-imagining the world environment in terms of imminent tech.

These guys get some mainstream recognition – as they appeal to social critics and the politically minded, who can see through the SF fa├žade to the economic and sociological implications. For this audience, it's informed by the new journalism, particularly in pop culture and the tempting world of electronic gadgets. Sometimes I think that the ideal neo-cyberpunk story would be a mash-up (good neo-cyberpunk word there) between a gangsta rap video and a detailed review of the latest high-end mobile phone. It's a thrilling and exciting subject, of course, and one that quickens our pulses with the imminence of it all, just as the promise of a life on Moonbase did when I was growing in the seventies.

But I think that they are in their way as out of touch with the main audience for SF as the dinosaurs of the golden age were at the time the cyberpunks first appeared. Gillis talks about “limited focus authors” who I think occupy the other two strands, allegory and secondary worlds. Gillis dismisses these as if they are no longer relavent to SF, but I think that between them they represent the biggest and most influential actual audiences for SF

Allegorical SF is a bit rarer now than it used to be, and was last in critical favour within fandom at the time of the new wave writers. Ray Bradbury is probably the proto-allegorical writer. It's this sort of SF that seems to attract the most attention from outside the genre. I don't think it's a coindidence that the new wave was the last time SF received attention from the mainstream literary establishment. It's the route taken by literary types who do SF – Atwood, most obviously, but also Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It's interesting to compare Cloud Atlas with Richard Morgan's Black Man for a contrast in how they use the genetic engineering. I think this is difference that confounds Walton's metaphor fan. Mitchell uses genetic engineering as a metaphor in his examination of character; Morgan's book really is about genetic engineering.

The third strand is perhaps most often ignored in this type of argument, secondary worlds, those works dominated by M John Harrison's “the great clomping foot of nerdism” (remember that little kerfuffle? Good times!) My feeling is that it represents the majority of what's bought and sold under the banner of SF and fantasy, when taken at its very broadest.

This category includes everything that depends on a well-developed secondary world for its impact, be that the hard SF distant future, battling galactic empires or medieval fantasy worlds, from Star Wars & Trek to hard sf epics by the likes of Alistair Reynolds and Dan Simmons to Harry Potter. The big franchises mix heavy doses of allegory into world building, but it's usually of the more banal and aphoristic sort, to an extent that it becomes so divorced from reality or context that it it is no longer a useful philosophical or moral observation but only makes sense in the context of the setting itself.

This is the stuff that tomorrow's young firebrands are reading: Warhammer novels, Star Wars tie ins, Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman. This is what that generation will think of as the golden age. Those guys won't be getting to Charlie Stross or Peter Watts for years, in just the same way as I was feverishly reading everything by Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison and Robert E Howard when I was a kid, I wasn't ready for Philip K Dick or Ursula K le Guin or 1984.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Touch typing is like flying in my dreams

If I don't think about it I can rattle on quite confidently. The minute I think "Hey! I'm touch typing I am sudeentlgf; - am suddenly incapable.

I have the same experience when I start flying in my dreams. I'll float along quite happily for a little while and then I'm all "Hey! I'm flying!" and then - crash - I'm awake.

Life's complicated sometimes.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Secret History of the World

I have had to give up on this book by Jonathan Black.

Giving up on books (and movies, for that matter) is not something I do lightly. I'll generally soldier through no matter how heavy the going gets, partly because of pride and partly out of a misplaced belief that it must get better than this, mustn't it? With this one, though, I've lost interest to such a degree that even my over-weening pride can't carry me through. It's doubly difficult because this was a Christmas present from my wife. In these cases one is obliged to clear one's plate and end the meal with a smile, but on this occasion I wasn't able.

This one came from PostScript. PostScript is a rather nifty mail-order clearing house specialising in remaindered academic and specialist books. We've been customers for a long time and I've gotten some really fabulous books from them over the years. That slightly interesting academic books you saw reviewed in Fortean Times becomes a whole lot more attractive when the RRP of £24.99 is reduced to £4.99!

It was listed as a trawl through the history esoteric thought, which, as I noted in my review of the year, is a subject that I find intriguing. I used to devour this studff as a kid: Peter Haining "true mysteries" books, Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World, Chariots of the Gods and Unexplained magazines. In my twenties I discovered Colin Wilson's books on the topics, which were the same sort of thing for grown ups, and of course the wonderful Fortean Times.

I'm not a believer, although I suppose I maintain a healthy Fortean scepticism on scientism, and as an artsy fartsy type I'm inclined to believe that there's more to life than flesh and dirt. I think, though, that I enjoy this stufdf as a kind of REAL sci fi or REAL fantasy. UFOs generate the same kind of sensawunda that SF does, and poltergeist reports create the same frisson of the uncanny as MR James. It all comes form the same place, I think, but when you start believing it... well, next stop Scientology, I suppose.

Which brings us to this volume. It's a very handsomely produced hardback, with thickl creamy paper and packed with interesting illustrations, inlcuding two sets of slick, colour reproductions of various bits and pieces. It's from Quercus, a major non-fiction publisher, and so one would hope the content would match these high production values. It doesn't, though, not by a long shot!

It is, essentially, a detailed overview of the kind of devolutionary theory that's familiar from theosophy. Humanity starts as pure spirit, and slowly degrades through various stages of corporeality to rude matter; and the purpose if life is to pierce the veil of maia and return to the spiritual thingamabob. This is described through one of those great esoteric crawls through history where anything cross-shaped is a crucifix, every flood myth is a memory of Atlantis and every archway is a wink from the freemasons.

I have a high tolerance for bullshit (obviously, otherwise I'd have poisoned myself by now) but the problem with this book is the flaccid vacuity of it all. Mr Black makes a great deal of assertions that are not backed by references to original sources or really discussed in any detail at all. I usually come to a book like this looking for the author to winkle out shades of meaning or detail and cast new light - however incorrectly - onto various bits of myth or history, but this guy does none of that.

The "classic" volumes of this sort for me are the Colin Wilson books The Occult and Strange Powers. Colin's obviously a trifle deranged, but he examines his subjects in great depth and argues for his conclusions quite forcefully (if memory serves, a mix of Gurdjieffian and Crowleyian occultism-as-mind-focusing that produces psychis experiences). There's none of that here. It's more of a man-in-the-pub ramble where the history and evidence is made to fit the preconceived notions of the author.

Sigh, such a shame! I really love these types of book, but I am, perhaps, now too well read in this subject for this particular strain of book to hold much new information for me. Certainly when I see the same old well-debunked names popping up (Graham Hancock, Robert Temple, David Rohl) my eyes begin to glaze over. Better are the recent works of Gary Lachman based on original research and often new interviews Those In The Know, the work of Erik Davis (such as the superb Techgnosis) or, as recommended in my round up of 2009, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington. These authors manage to illuminate the history of esoteric thinking in level-headed yet skepticism light way that eludes Black here.

There's a couple of other odd things about this book, both pointed out by Hilary Mantel in her funny review that appeared in the Guardian in 2007. First off, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that this is just a cash in on the Da Vinci Code. Black name checks Dan Brown in the first few pages and the facts-light tone of the thing and welath of illustrations hints at a rush-job by a publishing insider with a whiff of easy money in their nostrils.

The other puzzle about this book, is that Jonathan Black is pen name for Mark Booth, former head of the Century imprint at Random House who has recently (google reveals!) moved to Hodder & Stoughton. Mantel says: "Here's an age-old mystery before we start: why do authors do that? Surely you must either assume a false identity, or publish under your own name; how can you do both?"

How indeed!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Seinfeld in the morning

So, I was flicking aorund the TV channels this morning and landed on a Seinfeld repeat on Sky. Now, I love Seinfeld, but is it really a "morning" sort of show? Watching it felt like I was doing something really decadent like drinking a beer with breakfast. Or maybe like it's half-past six at night and you've just got up cos you were out partying the whole damn night.

That's parenthood, though. You take your decadent pleasures where you can, however meagre.

Did computer games improve the prose of a generation?

Well, it seems unlikely, but I was reading this article about good writing, and its call for simple, Anglo Saxon subject-verb-object sentences made me think of those old fashioned text adventure games from the 80s.

I'm sure my reader(s) who is (are!) all crusty oldies like me (except Tom!) will remember games like The Hobbit on the Spectrum or those old Infocom games such as Hithhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which depended on verb-object input to act in-game (the subject "I" being elided due to... well, mysterious comuter reasons, I guess).

I wonder if being forced to think in these direct terms shaped the prose-cortex (you know the one!) of a generation to favour plain writing of the type William Zinsser praises in his article? I admit that I have seen little evidence of it in my twenty-odd years as an editor!

It's a great article, by the way, that I heartily recommend. I'm going to be repeating his conclusion to everyone that asks me:

Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long latin nouns are the enemy
Anglo Saxon active verbs are your best friend
One thought per sentence.


EDIT: Holy cripes, that Infocom link is like crack cocaine! Or Pringles without that sort of nausea you get after eating Pringles.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

They are remaking Yellow Submarine

Why? Because THEY CAN!!!

I haven't really written here about the Beatles, who are as formative an influence on me as Python or Marvel. To do so would mean revealing that the first LP I ever bought was the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. THE SHAME!!!

Still, I got over it. What's Zemeckis's excuse?

Rudy tells us how it's done

Over on the Edge, their annual World Question asks great and the good "how is the internet changing the way you think?" Rudy Rucker's response provides an interesting commentary on novel writing:
I am a novelist, and the task of creating a coherent and fresh novel always seems in some sense impossible. What I've learned over the course of my career is that I need to trust in emergence also known as the muse. I assemble a notes document filled with speculations, overheard conversations, story ideas, and flashy phrases. Day after day, I comb through my material, integrating it into my mental Net, forging links and ranks. And, fairly reliably, the scenes and chapters of my novel emerge. It's how my creative process works.

That first sentence seems particularly comforting. I'm struggling with something new at the moment, and that sense of impossibility is extrememly disheartening.

I read his brilliant novel Postsingular a couple of years back, and he made his notes document for that available on his website. They give an amazing insight into this process. Both the novel and the notes are highly recommended!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia

This one attracted attention last year when Kim Stanley Robinson suggested it should win a Booker prize in his article about SF for New Scientist last year. I'm not that interested in awards, by and large, and I rarely read “new” books, but I was curious about what the book was actually like. I've read one of Adam Roberts's previous books – Polystom – which was okay, but not really a barnstormer and had a somewhat weak ending.

I'm danger of seeing YBT only through the Booker Prize lens, which - let's be frank! - does it no favours. I don't think it's Booker material for a number of reasons (which I shall relate shortly) but it's a funny, clever and enjoyable book nonetheless. When you expect eye-peeling excellence, merely being funny and enjoyable can sometimes seem like failure when it's clearly not.

There's a lot of well-played comedy, particularly in Skvorecky's encounters with his hapless nemesis Frenkel and his various subalterns. The climax of the novel in the Number Four reactor at Chernobyl is nicely done, beginning a train of consequences that leads to the wonderful line:
“To be clear,” I said, “by smoking a cigarette, inside a nuclear facility, whilst having my skull blown up by a radioactive RGD-5 I have extended my life expectancy.”

Skvorecky's encounter with red haired death in shape of a KGB assassin while recuperating from the above is probably my favourite bit, a sequence of brilliantly timed farce that I shan't spoil for you. There's a lot of satirical fun had at the expense of UFO nuts and – by subtle extension – SF fans, and of course the ultimate combination thereof, the Scientologists, particularly in the first half.

There are a few things, though, that I wondered about. Roberts has a breezy style that slips down easily, but he never really puts his prose to work in a deep or heavy way. There's a sense of language serving the needs of the plot and not really aspiring to anything more. There were a few places, indeed, where the language was still a bit tangled and clunky. That's okay, but I'd have thought that a potential Booker Prize winner (sorry to harp on about it!) should be a bit more ambitious in this regard.

While I enjoyed most of the comic banter (there was too much in a few places), I did wonder how some of the punning dialogue would have worked in the Russian tongue, and there were moments where the turns of phrase struck me as somewhat anachronistic. And I got a little weary of the sunset descriptions – I wasn't sure what they were there for and they fell somewhat short of poetry to me.

I did like the idea of the quantum aliens, but it was fairly clear where we were headed quite early on (the reference to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was the first thumping great clue) and then the nature of the aliens isn't discovered by Skvorecky, but they rather drop in at the end as a deus ex mechina to tell us who and what they are. The equation of of Soviet Communism with science fiction made real is a fairly well worn one, and rather explicitly stated, I thought: a more confident work might have made the comparisons between SF and the Soviet Union without coming right out and telling us about it. I enjoyed the jokes and satire on the way, but these revelations didn't really seem to amount to much in my, perhaps jaded, opinion.

Although I have only two points of reference, I'm drawn to ponder a pattern in Roberts's work. Both Polystom and this were fun journeys that stopped short of anything especially profound, although this one had a far more satisfying shape than Polystom, which just kind of stopped. Both had - to my eye - more fun with the elements of their created worlds than a driving story about people behind them (characterisation was somewhat thin in YBT, and Skvorecky's love for Rosa Plot Device never really convinced me, although Skvorecky himself was a very appealing lead).

Now, see, I've done what I didn't want to do which was spend more time pondering the books faults than its positive qualities. It's a good book, and well worth a read, but the idea of the Booker Prize puts it under more pressure than it really deserves (in either sense). So it goes - I'm sure there's some bleakly ironical Russian aphorism about negative consequences of positive attention!

The Billboard

An interesting snippet from this article about Joan Didion:
Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, had drilled into her the need for a “billboard” — a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what it will be about.

I often say something like this to people in workshops: "tell the reader what to expect from this story - is someone going to die? are they going to break up? where's all this headed?" Maybe it's anti-intuitive to show your hand in this way, but I think it helps generate narrative tension. It's like Hitchcok showing us the ticking bomb under the table - we know there's a bomb there, but when's it going to go off and who's gonna be caught in the explosion? Er, just to use a really extreme example...

Michael Parkinson Condemns Care of Elderly!

The true nature of the story is obvious, and it's not even the proper headline (just the title of the link on the fornt page) but on a Tuesday one grabs a smile where one can.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Life Begins at 40

While we're talking about 1980s noatalgia...



While we're at it, I used to think this one was quite funny... when I was 12!! The comments say it was filmed at Spats night club - good Lord!

Blade Runner the Director's Cut

Do you remember when you could walk into a theatre knowing NOTHING about a movie and be completely blown away? That's what I remember most about Blade Runner, the unexpectedness of it all. I knew it was a SF movie with Harrison Ford, and that it was made by the guy who did Alien, but otherwise I was just a teenager sloping off to the films in the weekend to get out of the house.

It was April, I think, a blustery early winter's day in Wellington, at the Embassy Cinema at the end of Courtney Place. I can remember the day quite clearly, clouds whipped across the blue sky by the wind, even what I was wearing, because this movie made such a huge impression on me. I was about sixteen, which is probably the prime age for the kind of angsty business that this movie deals in, the live hard die young philosophy embodied in the Rutger Hauer's closing speech.

When I came out of the cinema, I looked at Wellington in another way, too. It was nothing like like the sparse, sanitised modernism I expected from the future. The dowdy mix of rundown colonialism mised with failed seventies futurism (as it was back then, nothing like the slick glossy place it is now) instead it had a lot in common with the rundown future of Blade Runner's 2019. For the first time I felt like I could feel the future coming into being around me, not something that would wipe out what existed already, but something that would grow on top of it.

Well, the next weekend I dragged my best friend along to see it and I raved about it to everyone I knew. It got luke warm reviews when it came out and wasn't a smash hit, but as the years went by it was a video rental regular along the "Oh man you've never seen this?" cult movie lines. By the time I got to Uni, anyone who was slightly cool knew all about, or would be on the TV with the sound turned down at cool parties or projected onto the ceiling in nightclubs. It's a New Romantic movie, I guess, taking the doomed youth themes of punk and adding a glowing romantic yuppie gloss to it all. I think there was a generation (my generation) primed for it by 2000AD and Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant, while the older generation (it seemed to me at the time) didn't know quite what to make of it.

Famously, it basically reverses the message of Dick's novel - for Dick, an android could never be a person - but more interesting to me this time around were the changes to Deckard. Harrison Ford plays a romantic outsider, a classic bruised but sensitive private eye. Dick's Deckard is much more of a working Joe - he has a wife, debts and neighbours. he never sleeps with Rachel, finally deciding against it. In reference to my earlier comments about Richard Morgan vs David Mitchell, the movie Deckard is a Morgan character, an angsty bad-ass, while the Dick Deckard is a an entirely more down-to-Earth type (er, religious hallucinations notwithstanding).

I watched it again at Christmas time, the first time I've sat and watched it all the way through for a very long time, a decade at least. I'm sure I've seen the director's cut before (in fact, I saw it at the Wellington Film Festival back in whenever it was released) but I think that back then the original was burned into my retina after multiple viewings. It's taken me the intervening years to forget the movie enough to enjoy it again. (This must be one of the benefits of aging, I suppose: I recently watched This Is Spinal Tap after a long time and it was like finding an old friend.)

The lack of the voice over makes a good movie great; and Harrison Ford in particular gives a brilliantly physical performance that the voice over totally buried. He's a classic American tough guy - rugged, tough, noble and, in his own way, sensitive. It's beginning to show it's age a bit. There's a lot of 80s zeitgeist in there and I don't think you could get away with the near-rape love scene (not sure that Ridley gets away with it here) but it stacks up with any of the noir classics for the forties and fifties.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

My Reading Year 2009

So, this blog is mostly supposed to be about the books I read, but I can't help drifting off topic from time to time. By way of remedial action, here is a lengthy review of the books I read in 2009. To cut to the chase, of all the books I read this year, these are the ones I'd recommend:

Escape From Hell by Hal Duncan
Madam Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Five doesn't seem like many - a mere handful! - but clench them and this handful makes a fist! Furthermore, I don't wish to over-burden you! Don't we all know the problem: so many recommendations so little time! If you want to know more about why I recommend these books, read on!

This is not a review of the “books of 2009” as you might see in the broadsheets around Christmas time because I don't read many books in the year they're published. I generally know about new books as they come out and they get added to the list in my head of “things I'd quite like to read”, but then they have to make it through the difficult selection process to make it into my hands. They make their way to me in many different ways, and while I try to direct matters, to a large extent it's the elements out of my control that dictate what I read.

At the start of the year, for example, I was working on an essay on the topic of SF dystopias, and consequently I mostly re-read the books I'd chosen to focus on in that essay. I focused on The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth, 1984 by George Orwell, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Grey by Jon Armstrong.

I've read the former pair many times, and I enjoyed them immensely again this time around. They make an interesting comparison as they appeared at about the same time and show the divergent concerns on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, we were reeling from the shocks of European fascism, in the USA they were worrying about being taken over by a system of untrammelled corporatism and consumerism.

While 1984 is the better book, it's the illusion of freedom criticised in The Space Merchants that seems to have come about, perhaps precisely because 1984 is the better book. There's more to it than Newspeak and Big Brother. In fact, that's the least of it, and it's filled with intriguing little eddies and backway, but it is Orwell's portrait of a human soul crushed and destroyed by the brutal system that makes its message so powerful. Kornbluth & Pohl's larky tone, on the other hand, makes their horrific world less shocking, easier to dismiss. Their book hasn't survived changes in literary fashion as well as Orwell's, either, mostly in the tone and style of the prose.

Little Brother and Grey occupy similar places on the spectrum. I admired Little Brother more than I enjoyed it, as it's hectoring tone got to me a little. I'm a middle aged guy and I find clever, energetic and good-hearted teens wearying. I think it works better as a primer for general teen rebellion than for its more overtly stated political purpose. The exhortations to read and to understand the political structures that support the world of western capitalism are well made, but Mikey's antagonists were just a little too pantomime villains to be believable.

In comparison, I was drawn to Armstrong's outrageous sense of humour and his eye for dead-pan fashion surrealism. Grey has a glam rock vibe that resonated to me from the classic silver-age era, cynical and mocking, revelling in excess and ludicrous melodrama. It reminded me of The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling, Moorcock's Dancers At the End of Time, Pohl & Korbluth, and 2000AD and Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant cicra 1985.

At this time I also picked up copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch thinking I might use them in my essay, but I never did. Having bought them, I read them anyway, because I was still feeling am bit stressed wrestling with everything and didn't have the necessary spare mental energy to select anything else.

However, these are among Dick's best novels, a couple of the handful of classics he turned out in the mid to late sixties, and worth returning to from time-to-time to remind oneself of how the master does it. Both of them see him treading. They are masterpieces of straight, novelistic sci fi, that express the feelings of their age through the emotions of its characters. PKD has always been the epitome of what I think good books are – funny, sad, wise and entirely individualistic, and in these two he treads the fine line between surrealism and madness, staying just the right side of self-discipline the whole time.

Having made it through all these re-reads, I ordered a bunch of stuff from amazon (or amazon sellers...) based on reviews and what-have-you, and ended up with Escape From Hell by Hal Duncan and Spirit by Gwyneth Jones. The former was a lot of fun: Hell imagined as New York and the novel a kind of homage to Escape From New York. It gets a little bogged down in all that Lucifer's-the-good-guy-and-God's-a-bastard stuff that we're all slightly tired of from comics and movies, the first half in particular is really quite excellent, and the whole thing is refreshingly short. Duncan's other novels don't look like my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this a lot! This one goes on my "recommended" list for being well-executed, funny and short.

Spirit was a more difficult experience. It was well done, but a really good example of what I don't like very much. It's a sprawling space opera epic thing with a cast of dozens and a complex plot of political and personal intrigue, plus aliens and crazy space travel effects. All those elements were well done but I found it hard to keep track of the plot, partly because of the fractured way I was reading it (I had much else on) and partly because I'm a bit dim about that sort of thing. It was good to take a look a contemporary space opera, but it was a reminder that I'm just not that kind of guy.

Also around this time I read a trio of books about the kind of new age/occult stuff I find endlessly fascinating.

Sex & Rockets was about the rocket engineer and occultist Jack Parsons It provided a fairly even-handed look at both his professional life and outside interests, although was perhaps a little less salacious than I'd hoped!

Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall was about the influential new age philosopher, who was most active in between about 1920 and 1950, and increasingly irrelevant thereafter as the sixties took hold. He was the last of those Blavatsky-style autodidacts to really capture mainstream appeal. This was an okay book, good on the fact, but a little light on interpretation and background on his actual beliefs (maybe because they were somewhat wishy-washy). Much coverage of his comings and goings, very little on personalities or conflict. The final chapters covering his decline and death during the seventies and eighties were the most interesting - maybe these should have been the focus of the book, rather than trying to cover all the decades of his life evenly.

Finally, I re-read Madam Blavatsky's Baboon, a fascinating account of the theosophical movement and various of its offshoots, taking in Gudjieff, Ouspensky and Steiner and some of their late 20th descendants. I've read this one before and its an enjoyable parade of loons, grifters and the occasional person who really seems to have insight to offer. This one gets on the "recommended" list for being an enjoyable "shadow history" of twentieth century thought. These are the people who started from the same places as many of the founders of history and science, but who got it all wildly wrong!

These books reveal how people might behave if magic was real, a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I've been thinking for quite some time abut a horror/supernatural novel set in colonial New Zealand using this sort of 19th occultims as a background. The basic research material is built – the basics of NZ's colonial history were drilled into me at school and researching Bridges of New Zealand and Churches of New Zealand all those years ago bolstered this and gave it a social context of how the country developed. The above reading was to supplement my thinking on this, but I've put the project on the back-burner. I've got all sorts of interesting things to say about myth and the nature of The Other and stuff, but I don't have any compelling characters to embody it all. Without good characters with clear ambitions it's hard to write and so, away it goes, for now.

This thinking was going on the context of my MA course, and the only complete book I ever read, cover-to-cover, on the subject of creative writing is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, which I read next. This was excellent book, pithy, direct and uncompromising, while also genuinely enthusiastic and inspiring. He praises Asimov and Howard the Duck - what's not to like! I'd also reccommend this one to non-writers as I think it illuminates some of the mysteries of fiction in worthwhile ways without touching on the more academic reaches of lit crit.

After this, I read Hangman's Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers, a collection of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and her lesser-known creation Montague Egg (wine salesman and amateur sleuth). I was interested in reading some short detective fiction, just to see if I could figure out how it works. And I discovered here one annoying stylistic quirk: just before the mystery is solved, she cuts to a scene where Whimsey/Egg explains it all, summarising the “detective” part of the story. I guess it keeps things short, but talk about telling not showing!

Next up, I re-read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, again for an essay I was working on. I first read this when I was twelve or so, and probably read it two or three times more over the course of my teens. It's safe to say that they don't write them like this any more! It was VERY fifties USA, with a lot post-war angst topics explored - consumerism, conformism, fear of children, apocalypse. The stories were well done, but seem somewhat cliched now - that whole mode of story telling created a little sub-genre that flowered and bloomed over the next quarter of a century. Even for soft-SF these stories pay little attention to science - they're mostly fantasies, some of which take place in the back drop of rockets.

Of them all, I think "The Rocket" stands up best - I found it genuinely moving. "The Veld" is still pleasingly creepy and "The Long Rain" and "Kaleidoscope" work brilliantly. The rest are a mixed bag. No real stinkers (of course!) but stuff like "The Other Foot" and "The Visitor" seem somewhat mawkish now.

I flung myself back in to the present day with Market Forces by Richard Morgan, which I picked up for a couple of quid at a second hand shop. I remember enjoying Altered Carbon a lot and Black Man was a critical hit and award winner, so I was hoping for something really keen here. Instead, it was a rather stolid take on a very hoary old cliche - capitalism red in tooth and claw. I guess the bombastic airport-thriller style suited the subject matter, but there didn't seem to be any irony in the machismo - fast cars, fine whiskey and unlikely sexual shennanigans were apparently to be taken at face value.

I also read Morgan's Black Man later in the year. This was the Clarke Award winner in 2008, and while I'm not a big believer in awards, I was willing to give this a go on the award and good will that lingered from Altered Carbon. Maybe Market Forces was a problematic second novel blip. In fact, I ordered it new from amazon rather than wait for it to make its way through the second hand bookshop coincidence-based system I usually rely on.

As it happens, I didn't enjoy that one much, either.

Like Spirit, I think these are books that I dislike in a categorical rather than for specific reasons (although I enjoyed Spirit more than these). There are lots of elements that are part of the genre furniture that you have to accept when you put your behind on the genre settee and your feet up on the genre occasional table, they're just not my kink. I did think that both Morgan's books were a bit undercooked – there seemed to be a lot of padding in Market Forces and Black Man's narrative drive faltered about two-thirds through – but these are the kind of faults I'd be likely to dismiss if I had more sympathy with the genre. I'm a Jack Vance fan, after all!

Well, before Black Man, I actually read more Dorothy L Sayers, in Unnatural Death, a Lord Peter Whimsey mystery. This was a real pleasure. Light, but not insubstantial, a complex but not complicated mystery and a beautiful, unfussy prose style with wry tone that never undercuts the action. I really enjoyed this much more than I enjoyed Hangman's Holiday.

Next up a few second hand bookshop specials. These are the sorts of book I often think about reading, but without sufficient ardour to seek them out. If they happen across my path cheap – either second hand or from a cancelled lines outlet – I'll always pounce. Sometimes they sit on my pile for a time, maybe years (as with Galactic Medal of Honour) but one day their day arrives and they are taken down.

On this occasion, though, I read them when I bought them, one summer afternoon after a haircut in Greenwich, I believe. First up was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I actually read this before Black Man (which I actually read after A Perfect Spy), and I was struck by the similarity of theme in the two books, and the different ways it was approached.

The one that speaks most tellingly to me is the choice of characters to write about. In the futuristic section of Cloud Atlas we get the story of Sonmi~451, a genetically engineered fast-food restaurant worker, while Morgan gives us Marsalis, the super-powered tough guy. Sonmi~451 seems to me to be a type of character more firmly rooted in the real world than and Marsalis. I feel I have some insight on what working in a fast food restaurant is like, certainly more than I have in being anyn kind of tough, super-powered or otherwise. For me, I prefer Mitchell's imagining of the future in terms of the lives of the types of people I might meet on the street today. I guess I just don't believe that people like Marsalis exist in the real world, while Sonmi strikes me as a very realistic character indeed.

I enjoyed all the wrapped together stories of Cloud Atlas immensely, but I'm going to do a wee bit of carping here. I read some where not long ago once (maybe it was something by John Gardner; maybe it was just some bullshit I read on the internet) saying that the rise of literary studies over the last century had led to the creation of a "type" of book (I hesitate to use the g-word here) written with the class room in mind. Find the themes, find the recurring images, look for echoes and action in the structure. This is absolutely one of those books! I don't think Mitchell does it deliberately, but he is nonetheless a product of an education system and a publishing industry that encourages a type of book. As a product of the same system, I am of course wired to enjoy the same, so this isn't really a complaint, more an observation. It gets a little close to the “literature as genre” argument, which I'm not fond of!

Next up in second hand bookshop bingo was The Dog Catcher, a book of short stories by Alexei Sayle. I like Sayle's old comedy shows – I mentioned how I lost hours to a youtube search on him a few months back – and have been meaning to check out his writing for a while. I enjoyed most of these stories, although some of them are a bit thin, vituperative mockeries of various sorts that don't measure up (pompous architect, vacuous user woman, TV arseholes). The two big stories - "The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of" and "The Mau Mau Hat" are excellent. The rest are nicely done, by and large, but I could take or leave them.

Finally, I picked up a cheap copy of A Perfect Spy by John le Carre in an appealing classic le Carre paperback from Pan, silver-with-red-lettering and an abstract cover image (in this case, a man and a boy in silhouette). It's got the small pages of tissuey paper and cramped print I associate with the “grown up” books my Dad used to read when I was kid, including most of le Carre's output. Anyway, this is Le Carre in classic form. Perhaps he clung too much to the more spy-ish elements, with the business surrounding Jack Brotherhood (a heavy-handed name, too) and his search for the errant Pym. I found myself skimming the non-Pym sections, impatient to get back to the story of the best pals ever.

About this time I went to New Zealand. I used to read a lot on holiday, and a trip to New Zealand was a particular opportunity to scour the second hand shops of NZ for second hand book finds, and I used to come back with a case half-full of musty old paperbacks. The addition of children to the holiday retinue has changed things somewhat, and time that might once have been used reading is now devoted to entertaining the children. I can bribe the kids by buying them a book (and instil the second hand book habit early) but they just don't have the patience for the kind of examination a good used book shop requires. (It's even worse at the book stalls under Waterloo Bridge.)

So, it took me a a long time to finish the book I took on holiday with me, Sideways in Crime, an anthology of alternative history sf crime stories edited by Lou Anders. This wasn't a great collection. The better stories were:

"Fate & the Firelance" by Stephen Baxter, which had the best alt-history rationale.

"G-Men" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which was generally well-written and interesting with a good central mystery.

"Chicago" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, while not among his best work, had a good solid SF mystery maguffin at it's centre.

"A Murder in Eddsford" by S M Stirling was nicely done, if not terribly mysterious.

"Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel" by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint was funny and sported a great turn from Jimmy Hoffa as a loveable rogue. I enjoyed this one the most, I think.

"The People's Machine" by Tobias S Buckell, which was quite poorly written but had an interestingly probing political slant (and lost points for having aztecs/incas/whatever, as this seemed the running cliche in this vol).

We're now up to about the time I started this blog. I finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson, and wrote written extensively about The Durdane Trilogy by Jack Vance.

Red Men by Matthew De Abitua and Martin Martin's On the Other Side by Mark Wernham are connected by being recent “dark horse” Clarke Award short-listees. Awards are funny beasts, as these are the places for novels that we all know won't win but the judges want to acknowledge anyway. I think these both did a lot with startling imagery and language rather than amazing ideas. They were able to get under the readers skin through the sound and visions they aroused rather than the ideas they explored.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and Doll by Ed McBain, an 87th precinct novel were both picked up for a few pence from an Amnesty International church hall sale we happened across coming down the hill from Blackheath one afternoon. The kids made their selection and sat down and read them by the altar while I spent about an hour picking through the hundreds of book stacked up higgledy piggledy in the pews. I wish I'd gotten more, but at the time I reasoned that I didn't want to be lumbered with a huge to-read list, and that two was plenty for now.

I finished the year with Galactic Medal of Honour by Mack Reynolds. An ignominious end, but I will always remember this coming home from Shoreditch on the night bus at 1am one wintery Tuesday night in December, struggling against the drink and the cold and the noise of the bus, trying to absorb the words. Happy times! And that's the last book I finished in 2009!

I read other stuff, of course. I read the first four vols (out of 11, I think, at present) of The Walking Dead. It works okay on its own level, about that of the current crop of “intelligent” genre TV – Heroes, nBSG, True Blood, Lost and the rest. It treats its subject matter seriously, makes a few rules and applies them rigorously to well-drawn characters to produce hard-hitting and believable dramatic situations.

I sort of enjoyed these on that scenery-chewing TV drama level, but ultimately I find them poor bang to buck value. I know that's a ludicrous way of looking at it, but they cost the same as a paperback and I can read them on the way home from town in the train. I suppose we should be grateful that comics have come down to the price of a paperback – in my day they were relatively quite expensive. These days 9.99 doesn't seem that much in comparison to a few beers, but I'm kind of mean. Even considering you can get them for seven or eight quid on ebay or amazon, I decided it was too pricey for the pleasure I got from it. Eleven volumes would be seventy quid or more, even bearing in mind the availability less than retail offers.

Similar emotions made me drop DC's Blackest Night event from my pull list. I enjoyed the whacked-out Grant Morrison-ness of Final Crisis, but Blackest night is more main-stream supers fare of the DC variety, that I find pretty bland. I've been having much more fun with marvel, in particular the Dark Reign “event”, which has been great fun, as was the Old Man Logan storyline although I thought the end was a bit blah, somehow.

So, that's 2009, or as much of it i can bothered with here: I could talk about the latest chapter of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Dodgem Logic, I guess, but they might make a better post on their own... Anyway, I'll be blogging as I read in 2010, so next year's round-up will hopefully be a bit shorter, you'll be relieved to hear!