Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Arthur C Clarke Awards shortlist has been announced!

Yep, here's the rundown at Torque Control, the BSFA site.

I am not suprised to see The City & The City on there, nor am I surprised to see Yellow Blue Tibia. In retrospect, I am not surprised that Spirit made it to the shortlist, either but I'd read this last year and kinda forgotten about it.

I was expecting to see Moxyland there (I have it in my bag to read next, right after I finish The City & The City - I'll post about this one on Friday) as the outlier-designed-to-annoy-traditionalists, but it looks like that position has been taken by Far North, a novel I'd not heard of before now. The list is rounded out by Kim Stanley Robinson's Gallieo's Dream and Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding.

Out of the three I've read, I'd say The City & The City is the clear favourite in my eyes. I'm kinda foxed by Spirit, though, as being not-my-kinda-thing I'm perhaps a little blinded by its finer qualities (although the middle section where the heroine is imprisoned is as fine and moving as writing gets, I'd say).

I've got to go to the bookshop at lunch time anyway (to search out a copy of Sticker Dressing Dolly Popstars, which is inelligible for the award as it was published in 2008), so I'll pick one of the three I haven't read to read on holiday. My wife's gonna start thinking of sectioning me as my bibliomania spirals out of control. And the pile - she is growing, with Moxyland now joining The Still Point and Beyond Black on my bedside table. Don't hassle me man!

Short Fiction Wednesday

Two diverse stories this week. The first is Trombul has Fallen by Dale Carrothers, from Afterburn SF. Afterburn publish "action oriented" SF according to their submissions guidlines, are currently publishing a story every fortnight. This story is set shortly after the fall of a despot of a rather Eastern European flavour. A couple of elements clue us in that this is set in the near future, but the story of tyrants and their cruelty and vanity is a timeless one.

Carrothers shows a good eye for a dramatic incident, and the story packs a strong emotional punch is quite exciting. It's a rather trad style of story, hinging to an extent on telepathic powers which are kind of out of style compared to old days of Slan and Foundation, or the work of Philip K Dick and Alfred Bester, where telepathy was treated as a plausible, even inevitable development.

Next up from Serendipity, which appears to be closed now, but Bishop Patteson's Crocodiles by Lavie Tidhar is part of the final issue "best of " round up. I met Lavie a few times while he was living in London at SF related gigs, and one time snuck him into the London launch of Stephen king's Lisey's Story a few years back. He's a good chap, and I've previously reviewed his novella An Occupation of Angels, which is also worth a look.

I was interested in this one by Lavie's use of pidgin, which features prominentily in the middle section of my current novel. Lavie doesn't write the whole story in pidgin - which would be a struggle to read and a near herculean task to write! - but drops in smatterings of it here and there. It has a slightly unworldy narrative voice, but Lavie is sensitive enough to prevent it sliding into a parody. The narrator tells his story in his own voice, gentle, perceptive and convincing.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Complete Ro-Busters

I rarely buy books new, and then hardly ever from a bricks and mortar bookshop, but sometimes need and opportunity coincide to such a degree that I find myself plonking my money down. When I saw The Complete Ro-Busters in Waterstones at Canary Wharf, I knew I was going to buy it, even if it took me a couple of days to convince myself to do it. Fifteen quid is not a small amount for a book, especially one I've already read (technically speaking), and so I can only conclude that the psychological impulses at work were particularly acute in this case.

I could try and pick them apart, but I'm pretty sure they're tied up with a mid-life crisis that's brewing or, perhaps, right now in full swing. After all mad people don't realise they're acting wierd, do they? It all seems totally normal at the time with careful rationales and comprehensible, if dotty, reasoning. I suppose I should be grateful that my insanity is expressing itself through the purchase of slightly expensive nostalgia rather than, say, massacering my work colleagues with a pair of scissors.

Anyway, Ro-Busters is particularly resonant to me of youthful ambitions. It came at a time in 2000AD's history when it was just beginning to move from playful subversion of boys comics cliches to making real breakthroughs in the types of art and story possible for British mainstream comics. At the same time, I was in my early teens and moving from kid's books to the adolescent world of golden age sci fi, and 2000AD seemed to be growing up alongside me. While much has been said about the developing satirical sophistication of Judge Dredd during the 1980s and 1990s (probably too much, IMO, although that's maybe an issue I will address when an increasingly desperate desire to recapture my youth drives me to buy the multi-volume Judge Dredd files) and Mills's ABC Warriors/Nemesis stories (also definite candidates for volumes to be found next to me in the car with the hose pipe going from the exhaust to the window) are considered benchmarks here, but I think the whole development is contained very nicely within the pages of this volume.

Ro-Busters starts with its "robot Thunderbirds" concept very clearly stated, but right from the start the heroism with a strongly cynical undercurrent. Howard Quartz, Mr 10 Per Cent, is no John Tracy: he doesn't care much for the people he saves and even less for the robots that save them. Bought as scrap, they are treated as machines but have all the personality and characteristics of human beings. They do what they're told and act with honour and bravery that all the humans seemingly lack. It's a classic kids fiction scenario, with the robots standing in for the feeling of powerlessness and naive clear-sightedness of children.

Do you think we're the bad guys?

When the thrill moved to 2000AD, it takes this children's eye view of the underdogs world and gives it a very political twist. Ro-Jaws's life story is clearly based on the children's classic Black Beauty, but when you replace the real-life horses of Anna Sewell's day with intelligent robots, the story takes on a more overtly political context. The obvious parallel is slavery, and the Fall & Rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein story line draws these parallels very clearly, but it also has a more topical resonance in Britain in the eighties, with hardworking and naive workers being harassed by a police in league with their capitalist exploiters. The Robot Interception Patrol - RIP - take wicked delight in kicking and bashing robots and are uniformed in the same kind of nazi deaths-head nazi regalia Mitchell & Webb joked about.

Overt political messages stay just the right side of universal. The story of Charlie, the gigantic robot ships pilot who works at the docks in "Northpool", a generic Northern sea port sees salt-of-the-Earth workers led by a fiery preist do battle with wicked developers to save their jobs. Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein don't appear in this story, and in fact Ro-Busters are really the bad guys here: the developers have hired the Ro-Busters "Terra-Meks" to destory the city and lay tarmac over the land for a new space port. It was first published in 1979, but the theme of redveloping docklands and images of workers men fighting with police for their jobs looks very prescient now.

I remember loving this one at the time, but I don't recall getting the political context. To be fair, I was a twelve yeard old living in Titahi Bay New Zealand, I was a million miles away from this. I just loved the romantic heroic tale. It's brilliantly told by Mills and Gibbons, combining superb dynamic mega-machine wrestling with a stirring story of heroism and sacrifice.

Dave Gibbons and Pat Mills cheering on Charlie the robot dock worker nearly killed by Thatcher

It's not very subtle, but it synchronised exactly with changes in what I was reading and the way I was reading, drawing in particular on Asimov's robot stories, which I was discovering for the first time back then. 2000AD in its classic period had the same unconstrained quality that I used to enjoy in golden age SF. No one's too bothered if the world building doesn't make much sense, and the story makes more of an emotional impact on the themes of inequality and exploitation rather than being a speculative piece about the limits and consequences of artificial intelligence.

Part of that quailty comes down to the art, of course, and here we can see a handful of the great 2000AD artists reaching their prime. The fantastic character designs are by Kevin O'Neil, and fan favourites Dave Gibbons and Mike MaMahon both provide fantastic work here. The lesser known artists who take on the Ro-Busters also provide great work, notably Mike Dorey and Carlos Pino, who drew their early strips and set the tone for much of what followed with terrific page layouts that emphasise the big-screen drama of the disaster stories. O'Neil, McMahon and Dorey really pull out all the stops for the final Fall & Rise of Ro-Jaws & Hammer-Stein story, providing art that's loaded with wit and pathos.

Robots tying one on - terrific character design from Kevin O'Neil

I'm really pleased I gave into the bad chemicals that compelled me to buy this. It's a terrific reminder of where I started and to the aesthetic foundations of my own character and writing. Ro-Busters raises serious points within the parameters of broad satiric comedy. It's a story told with sympathy and emotion and brilliant visual flair. 2000AD really didn't get much better than this.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Brilliant letter from David Mamet to the writers of The Unit

Okay, I don't watch the unit or any shows like that really, and I understand that prose and screenwriting are different disciplines. However, there's something here for... well, maybe not every writer but certainly for me.




Really, I was just thinking about this very thing last night.

The bad news:



This one makes me think of Rogue Moon:

And finally:



Plus, I'm pretty certain that Dave does speak entirely in capital letters.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Words fail me!

Take a look at this Guardian interview with comics writer Mark Millar.
"On the page, Millar's outlandish plotlines have made him the art form's most powerful influence since Spider-Man's legendary co-creator Stan Lee."

Seriously, where to begin?

EDIT: Actually, off the top of my head, comics writers since Spider-Man's legendary creator Stan Lee who are more powerful influences than Mark Millar will ever be:

Roy Thomas
Steve Gerber
Denny O'Neil
Marv Wolfman
Alan Moore
John Wagner
Pat Mills
Neil Gaiman
Grant Morrison

I say this as a fan of the Ultimates (vols 1 & 2). When he's on, Millar's a fine writer. He is not, and never will be, as influential as any of the names above (most of whom paved the way for his own variety of ... material). This is a scientifically proven fact.

It's A Rat Trap!

Cos it totally is.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Two very different stories this week. I don't plan along themes or ideas when I choose stories, and in fact, the whole process is embarrasingly random: I use the fiction sidebar on Futurismic to choose a venue, poke around, see if the content catches my eye and then choose somethihg from the contents. I don't choose anything too long - I'm not reading novellas or even novellettes. I don't comment on the presentation of the stories because I don't read them online. In fact, I copy the text into a Word doc, that's formatted in the style I find easiet to read, and print them out (at work - sh!). It takes me an hour or so to read a couple of stories - I can do it between eating my lunch and the commute home - and another hour or so to ponder and write about them. Fascinating! Let's get on with the stories.

Like last week's publishers, Subterranean Press produce an online fiction zine to help publicise their print products, a print magazine and expensive collectiable editions from well-known writers and fan favourites. It's similar to the model of PS Publishing, but PS is print only. They feature a lot of well-known names in their online offering, and the winter 2010 issue from which this story comes, includes stories from Ian R McLeod, John Scalzi, Kage Baker and Brian Lumley.

Harboring Pearls: A Lucifer Jones Story, is not really fantasy or SF, but a kind of a yarn, a tall tail that makes me think of Damon Runyon or mid-century American humourists. The central charatcter and narrator is a kind of roguish wise fool, which is a hard thing to pull off without it sounding like an annoying Mary Sue. Authors are not roguish brawlers and card sharps, by and large, and when they try to pretend to be they can come unstuck. It requires a kind of affectionate mocking tone necessary to avoid the protagonist becoming a Mary Sue, and successful examples of it are George McDonald Fraser's Flashman and Vance's Cugel. Both these characters are nicely undercut by their authors, balancing the character's self regard with the author's more aware stance on the character. Resnick provides a strong example of the genre here, with crosses and double crosses that leave the central character finally unstuck. It's a gentle, genial story, and I gather part of a series relating to the Lucifer Jones character. I did feel like I missed a bit of continuity jokes, but the tale lived up to its genre and the voice flowed easily and convincingly.

Mindflights is also planning to release print anthologies, but the print side seems less dynamic than the online fiction output. Mindflights decribe themselves as striving "to provide quality fiction, poetry, and exposition, all in means that respects traditional values and Christian principles." It's an interesting market distinction to take, but there's aalways been a vigorous strand in SF that adrresses Christianity rather than ignoring it or lampooning it through subtle or not so subtle fantasy analogies.

It's another tricky genre, of course, and I can understand how materialistic cynics (of which I am one) might be nervous about the genre. Doug Kolacki's The Never People demonstrates, however, that Christian and fantastical themes can be successfully intertwined to create fascinating and insightful fiction.

The Never People addresses a character question: how would you explain to a bunch of immortals the idea of going to heaven? How does it feel to die when everyone around you lives forever? We're not interested in the whys and wherefores here - the world of the immortals is only lightly portrayed - the immortals live in a kind of edenic eternal bliss, childlike and filled with joy and love for the world, and Leo doesn't do a lot of exploring of their world. We never find out what this place is - is it the future? another planet? another dimension? Could it be Heaven itself? THe immortals themselves are childlike and naive, ready to accept everything Leo tells them, but one suspects only lightly. With no concept of death or pain they don't really understand the Crucifiction.

At the heart of this story is Leo, at first confused, then angry and finally accepting at being thrust from our world into the world of the immortals without explanation. The story resonates deeply with Christian themes - Eden and the fall, the Crucifiction and the resurrection - but it never asks us explicitly to believe in Chirstianity. This is to the story's great credit, as it explores the ideas of sacrifice and resurrection implicitly and never asks us to believe the metaphysics of Christianity while giving us great insight into Christian ideas.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Things that rhyme with the Call of Cthulhu

I searched for him so long, waiting for him to come to me. Eventually I got fed up with waiting and I found him on Facebook where I left a message on the wall of cthulhu.

In answer to my message he came to me in my dreams. I found my hand driven by his will and scribbled his address on partchment using my own blood in indecipherable runes, the scrawl of cthulhu. I went to the university library and I asked the chief lilbrarian if he could read these runes and he proceeded to give me the most boring lecture of useless knowledge I've ever had to endure. I'd been unlucky enough to encounter the know-it-all of cthulhu.

Soon, though, I was on my way to the spot the runes indicated, deep in the Pacific. As I neared my quarry, my little ship was sunk by a storm brewed by the dark one's evil magic, the squall of cthulhu. The only way I was going to escape was to swim for it, and I felt him reach into my mind and direct my limbs once more for the crawl of cthulhu.

I woke on an island, and spied a mighty temple, atop of which sat a mighty statue of him, monstrous, immense, hideous in its detail! I made it inside the temple and eventually found myself in a high room and from the roof hung a kind of bulb in a fleshy sac of grey, leathery skin. Suddenly I understood everything, and that's when my mind went a little hazy. The creature squatting on the temple roof was no statue and what was before me was no egg sac or polyp. I was face to bollock with the ball of cthulhu. He was sitting waiting, patient, but for what? Looking above, I sensed movement, and then... a terrible smell! With mind peeling horror I realised that far from a prison, I had found myself in the toilet stall of cthulhu.

How I made my way back to civilisation, I do not know. At night my mind races with the question: why was a granted this insight? I believe that the ancient Gods are trapped here, somehow both our prisoners and our prison keepers. We are just the audience to their antics, in a kind of Great Old Gods Big Brother, with their messanger Nyarlahotep a kind of Davina McCall of Cthulhu...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Prog Britannia

It's inevitable I guess that the BBB would follow up Heavy Metal Britannia with Prog Britannia covering - you guessed it - prog rock. Once again I was tumbled back in time to a suburban New Zealand adolescence in the eighties. My musical tastes are based on a mix of what Mum and Dad had lying around (show tunes light classics, occasional Beatles LPs) and records passed down to me by my older brothers Matt and Al (classic rock, prog and metal). Formative experiences involve Graham Newport's basement on a rainy afternoon playing D&D or those little board games from Dragon magazine with Al and a bunch of his hairy mates, while in the background Yes, Hawkwind, Sabbath and King Crimson noodled away. Al bought me Jethro Tull's Aqualung for my fourteenth or fifteenth birthday and I taped Steve Vai and Frank Zappa records from Matt's sparkly new CD player in the early eighties.

One thing they touched on during the documentary was the nature of the album art and construction. I owned Thick As A Brick in LP form, complete with newspaper, but it was also the age of high concept Sci Fi album covers by guys like Roger Dean and Hygpgnosis. I was amazed the documentary never looked at the Alan Parsons Project or Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, which inspired my brainy and bookish little sci fi mind when I was twelve or so. War of the Worlds was the first LP I ever owned, complete with booklet of art and lyrics.

Some of the music managed to live up to this imagery. King Crimson's Twenty-first Century Schizoid Man remains compelling, despite the ugliest cover artwork of the era, and Keith Emerson playing I Like To Be in America is still an enjoyably angry take on a classic song. A lot of it, however, comes over as very flaccid and directionless to me. Even as a kid I wasn't convinced by Yes or Genesis. I liked some of their ideas, but the creamy soft rock sound just rubbed me the wrong way. I liked it to be shrieked or shouted; most of the records just crooned on without ever hitting any emotional high.

In the Court of the Crimson King - hard to look at for long, I find

An important element missing from prog is sex. Metal has a strong libidinal element, testosterone expressed in all it's manly ways, while prog is a more intellectual pleasure. It uses clever words and literary allusions, cunning musical forms and novel changes of tempo and key to engage us, where metal just strives to be old fashioned rock and roll. I think it was Phil Collins who talked about how he noticed (at about the time Peter Gabriel left) that the audience for Genesis was all young guys in great coats and fisherman's hats with stacks of albums under their arms.

I think the backbone of the prog imagery and approach is the kind of placid English intellectualism that first found expression in nonsense verse of the Edwardian era. There's a love of wordplay and imagined worlds, pastoral utopias that inspire an Edenic child-like innocence, but there is no urgency or immediacy. Metal, on the other hand takes directly heroic or dystopian elements of horror and swords and sorcery and aims for high drama. Prog is the music of Wind in the Willows and the Hobbit, while metal is the music of Dennis Wheatley and Conan the Barbarian.

The classic prog bands seem to be mostly public and grammar school boys, some from the Trinity School of Music, they weren't the same as the blues rock influenced metallers. It was rock music for undergrads in the same way, I guess that modern jazz had already become a kind of blues for undergrads, separated from the basic drives of its source material in favour of a more intellectual exploration of form and content.

Typical prog rock fan

In 1983 I was absolutely one of those guys in great coats, although I wasn't much into Genesis (they'd already turned into Phil Colllins, if you know what I mean). It was a useful uniform that was quickly adapted to upcoming goth uniform – same great coat, different accessories – as I discovered Bauhaus, The Birthday Party and alternative rock. Those, of course, are also music for undergrads, and I think there's a connection between those audiences that only comes out over time – Phil Collins wheeled out his old anecdote about Rat Scabies whispering to him that he was a huge fan as evidence of this.

I still like quite a lot of prog, not least the greatest prog band of them all, Pink Floyd. Oddly, the Floyd were only mentioned a couple of times in Prog Britanni in relation to prog's psychedelic precursors. What the Hell is up with that? It was interesting to hear about these other bands, but I thought they should at least mention Pink Floyd. Tubular Bells was big, but if anyone really brought prog to the masses it was Pink Floyd! Come on BBC, why oh why etc...

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Let God sort them out!

The desire of the descendants of Jack Kirby and Siegel & Shuster to claw back rights to their antecedent's creations is in someways understandable (and in others looks like a pure money grab), but it highlights a number of oddities in the modern way of dealing with these types of story.

Whoever came up with Snow White maybe got a meal for their trouble, the attention of village for a half an hour and that was it. They got nothing thereafter from the legions who did very nicely from it over the ensuing centuries, including the zealous Mr Disney whose company has contributed so much to modern intellectual property law!

This way of doing business changed when the production of cultural artefacts became an industrial rather than a craft process. As soon as it became possible to easily manufacture creative properties (ie, around the time of the printing press, good old wikipedia tells us sometime around the 17th or 18th century) it became necessary to protect ones assets. Characters who might once have quickly passed into folk lore became something else entirelty, and as printing and distribution and literacy rates rose, the first pulp characters appeared - Sherlock Holmes, Fantomas, Carnacki the Ghost Detective (or whatever his name is). (NB- Like "pop", I think "pulp" is in many ways a description of the means of production and distribution rather than of a genre.)

Suddenly, exclusivity was important. The way these works were distributed was no longer a matter of tales around a fire, and there was more at stake for the creator than just a meal and bed for the night. But even then, the idea seemed to be that a creator should be granted the right to profit in their lifetime, but that after that (plus a seemly interval thereafter) there was no need to to protect these rights.

However, the humble business of telling tales became a huge industry and quickly things spun out of control, aided by the complicated nature of sheet music, films and music recordings. Fast forward, and here we are with children and grandchildren demanding the rights to things made before they were even born.

As a creator myself, I am of course concerned to monetise my own (modest) creative abilities as much as possible. After I'm dead though, well. I don't know. Do my kids really deserve to live high on the hog on Dad's toil? Are their hands any safer than anyone else's in regards to my legacy? Bearing in mind I'll be a defunct unit by then, should I even care?

More interestingly (or less interestingly, or just as tediously, depending on one's caffineated state) is the idea of competing franchises based on the same character. Comics fans famously have an obsession with continuity, but there's no reason why these characters should be treated any differently from any other folkloric character. They already have numerous competing franchises created by the current owners, aimed at different segments of the market (young children vs adults; casual vs committed readers; in-conitnuity vs out of continuity).

I'm genuinely torn in these cases, with sympathy for the families of Kirby and Siegel & Shuster, who were definitely shafted by today's standards but who did okay based on the situation that pertained at the time (less so Siegel & Shuster, IMO, who had their creation basically swiped; Stan had the good grace to rip Kirby off in a more legally defensible way). No one thought of Sipdey or Iron Man persevering that long, not even Stan and Jack, and who would have thought the rights they were signing away, adn seemed worthless at the time, might one day be worth millions and millions.

I guess that's at the heart of my ambivalence over this: are these people fired by a creative desire to serve the powerful and awesome (in the proper sense) creations or is it just a grab for the sudden seam riches that they've opened? The latter seems more likely to me. Old Jack wouldn't have spent his time in court, he'd have just sat down at the drawing board and created another mind bogglingly brilliant comics strip.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week, two stories from publishers that complement a traditional print line up with a vigorous online presence. This seems to be the way ahead for independent publishers, who are able to utilise a free online fiction to help publicise print books and magazines. Apex Online, is a free fiction webzine, from a publisher of print novels and collections, including The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. Wierd Tales is a name that I imagine any of my readers will know, and it's interesting to see it's still going. I bought an issue as recently as the late 80s, which is over twenty years ago, I know, but still relatively recent when considered against the magazine's 1930s hey days. I'm pretty sure it's had its ups and downs (you could check out wikipedia if you were interested) but right now it's edited by Ann Vandemeer, and enjoying something of a resurgence thanks to a revived editorial mission and a great web presence.

From Apex online, Scenting the Dark by Mary Robinette Kowal, is a planetary exploration story with a neat twist. Penn is a blind perfumier, who travels the galaxy with his partner and his guide dog, tracking down alien scents to sell to wealthy clientele. Making the main character blind presents Kowal with a technical challenge that she pursues diligently. It's the sort of thing where you start to really look for fluffs in the point of view, but of course Kowal doesn't put a foot wrong. I read her earlier story "Evil Robot Monkey", and enjoyed it's hauntingly pathetic intelligent chimp a great deal (if enjoyed is the right word... I'm not some sort of monster!) This story is also an animal story, of sorts, dealing with the relationship of a blind person and guide dog. I really liked Penn the intergalactic perfume hunter, and Kowal does a great job of depicting his interactions with Cody the guide dog. The situation is a clever one to get them to work together and show them surviving against the odds.

Weird Tales offers up Ambient Morgue Music by Richard Howard, a nice bit of oblique fantasy that hints at the darker corners of the obsession of the music fan. It's a little like last week's The City of Dreams in this regard, but drier, and played for irony rather than tragedy. In the end, the mysterious music with the ghastly origin doesn't lead to the narrator's destruction, just a kind of madness that is indistinguishable from the manic enthusiasm of the rock journo for a new discovery. It uses the form of mordern rock journalism - part life writing, part non-fiction, part opinion - to build a clever variation on the same theme as Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann".

While we're at Weird Tales, though, checkout sixty seconds worth of "micro fiction" not much more than a poem really, presented with music. Click the link, It'll only take a minute... you know you want to!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Where are my napkins?

So, rather pathetically, I collect Pret a Manger napkins here at my desk, as a useful resource for mopping up spilled water (better than tissues!) or dealing with short-term food/moustache management issues.

I come in this morning, and my napkins are gone! Where are they? Why have they been taken? What unspoken rule have I broken by accumulating napkins? We may never know!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Fantasms & Magics by Jack Vance

I have a horror of being left without something to read on public transport. Even if I don't actually read whatever it is, it's a comfort to know it's in my bag, ready to hand if I need it. On the other hand, though, I don't like to plan my reading out too far in advance. I find a big pile of books lined up to read gets intimidating after a while, and is often populated by things that were a good idea at the time, but are now no longer attractive.

These competing impulses and delivery snafu on the part of amazon UK (I had to pick the parcel up from a warehouse on a side street off the Old Kent Road on Saturday morning) have coincided to leave me without anything new to read. I had Rogue Moon on hand as an emergency book, but that was the last of these I had to hand.

I clearly need to pay a visit to my regular second hand haunts, but in the meantime, I reached for Fantasmes & Magics by Jack Vance. I've read this short story collection before, but Vance is a writer who rewards revisiting. The fine details of his musical style, are always a pleasure, and he is a canny thinker on matters of practical ethics and human nature, and his quaintly told stories have the the sonorous authority of fairy stories.

In Fantasms & Magics, Jack provides a foreword reflecting on the theme of the paranormal that could come straight from the mouth of one of his quick-witted protagonists:

Phenomena such as telepathy and poltergeists may well be manifestations of different and distinct principles: there may be two, three, four or more such realms of knowledge, each as rich and intricate as physics or astronomy. There is little systematic study. Conventional scientists shy away from the field because they are, in fact, conventional; because they fear to compromise their careers; because the subject is difficult to get a grip on; because scientists are as susceptible to awe and eeriness as anyone else.

This is the ostensible theme of the collection, but Jack himself admits that “the stories in this volume are by no means homogeneous” and it includes reflective shorts like “The Men Return” and “Noise”, a format that allows him to express pure atmosphere and character without directly addressing any particular theme, let alone that stated in the foreword; Guyal of Sfere from The Dying Earth is also reproduced here, but I admit I didn't read it this time around.

The foreword seems to have been written with the opening story in mind, a novella called “The Miracle Workers”. The action takes place in a typical Vance setting – a distant planet separated from the mainstream of human civilization, a closed society with its own rules and morés. In this case, the descendants of star ship crews fleeing a galactic war have degraded into warring medieval clans, battling for supremacy with swords and bows and the occasional piece of ancient technology, no longer understood but lovingly maintained.

As well as lords and knights, there is a technocratic class of wizards called jinxmen, who arrange for supernatural aid in their masters' battles, using powers of sympathetic magic and possession. These are clearly based on the voodoo cultures of the Caribbean and given a gloss of sci fi psionics of the type that was popular in the fifties and sixties. In these skeptical times it's easy to forget that ESP and psionics were respectable, if speculative, subjects for believable SF - it's integral to classics SF like the Lensmen, Dune, the Foundation series, Stranger In a Strange Land, Slan and numerous novels by Phil K Dick.

This “explanation” of the jinxmen's hoodoo is a trifle ambiguous, the question of how much we're supposed to credit the power of suggestion and how much is genuine psychic phenomenon is left open. The jinxmen themselves are typically Vancian martinets and acerbic rivals, competing for the favour of their commanding Lord while pretending lofty aloofness from material matters.

However, while effective against human opponents, the jinxman's powers turn out to be no use against the insectile hive mind of the First Folk, the winsomely named indigenous inhabitants of the planet. When the First Folk attack the humans, the jinxmen turn out to be unwilling to accept new ways of dealing with the problem. This being Jack Vance, there's a an iconoclast on hand to save the day. On this occasion the roles is split between the wise head jinxman Hein Huss and the free-thinking apprentice Sam Salazaar who finally triumphs using the discredited ancient principles of evidence-based research.

It's a wonderful story told with the wit and imagination I love Jack Vance for, and rendered with great clarity through his typically well-judged prose. It distils so many of Vance elements themes into a single small package – petty rivalries, erudite debates on based on imaginary metaphysics, the challenge of the new, and in the First Folk, matters of colonialism and the nature of the alien.

This was well worth a re-read, and its good know there are writers like Vance that one can return to again and again. On the other hand, I'm glad I've got my amazon package at last and can get on with reading something new now.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Wild Child

On the other hand, here's Wild Child by Lou Reed which gets better everytime I hear it.

Don't Fear the Reaper

I heard this bit of "classic rock" on the radio last night, and it reminded me what an overwhelming disappointment of a band Blue Öyster Cult is. When I was a kid, I was not averse to a bit of nasty, sticky rock goodness, but only knew BÖC from album covers and the occasional reverential whispers of friends. I knew, though, that they had an album called The Black Sword, which was about my emo teen hero Elric. And they had an umlaut, like Mötorhead, and the word "Cult" in their name, like Southern Death Cult. How much darker could this shit get, dude?

Bear in mind that at this stage in my life, I was just discovering Bauhaus and Southern Death Cult and The Birthday Party, and was beginnign to think of even shredding metallers like Iron Maiden as a little bit stodgy and old hat. But I still had faith in BÖC - Elric! The Reaper! You know, the ACTUAL GRIM BLOODY REAPER!!!

Well, sometime in my teens, I actually heard this song. Far from the wild, frightening horror rock circus I imagined it's like a slightly overly serious ELO record, Queen without the knowing wink, like Jeff bloody Wayne's War of the bloody Worlds, for god's sake. The intro sounds like R.E.M!

So, no, Don't Fear the Reaper. Judging by this, the sound of death is the sound of an old man gently farting. Laaaa lalala!

Look at them! Gah!

Gobekli Tepe

An ancient temple complex in Turkey. I liked this in particular:

The artists of Göbekli Tepe depicted swarms of what Schmidt calls "scary, nasty" creatures: spiders, scorpions, snakes, triple-fanged monsters, and, most common of all, carrion birds. The single largest carving shows a vulture poised over a headless human.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Committed to paper

Mulling over Will Self's rules for writing again, I was struck in a moment of pychedelic insight by the punning phrase "committed to paper". In these days of the internet and ereaders, it's a strangely resonant phrase.

Short Fiction Wednesday

Welcome to the third short fiction Wednesday here at Pointless Philosophical Asides! Still no sign of my package from amazon, so I think next week's will be a bit of a special edition.

Bad Ideas by Rudy Rucker from Flurb
I really like Rudy Rucker. I've read a lot of his short stories, from the cyber punk era to today, and a number of his novels, notably the 'Ware series (Software, Wetware and Freeware) and his superb Postsingular from a few years back. Despite (or perhaps because of) having a name like Scooby Doo with Tourettes, he can be relied on to deliver and if I'm stuck for something to read I'll check out his site see what he's got (Bruce Sterling is another). His short fiction site Flurb is a constant source of interesting new stories from both new writers and more familiar names, including himself. This is from issue eight (Spetember 2009), but issue nine just came out this week.

One element of Rucker's writing I always enjoy is his distincitvely humane approach to characterisation. He specialises in slackerish types somewhat bamboozled by the odd twists life takes, but smart and kind enough to roll with the punches, by and large. It's always a pleasure spending time in Rucker world, becuase there's no problem so big that it can't be mastered with a bit of thought and a big heart, and in it's own odd way Bad Ideas is no different. He seems really interested in the idea of ideas given reality, or perhaps just the potency to change the world at a physical level. "Surrealism" is a rather devalued word these days, but Rucker's work is the real deal, and here he uses dream-like imagery to a few interesting psychological connotations and a wierd take on the idea of the body snatcher invasion.

The City of Unrequited Dreams by Claude Laumiere from Chizine
ChiZine specialises in dark fantasy, and this is definitely what you get here. The search for pleasure takes on the character of the sublime against a backdrop of fashionable European decadance - casinos and fashion magazines and ambiguous sexuality - that evokes Warhol's Factory scene and the films of Fassbinder and S&M porn. It relies heavily on ornate furnishings and chic lifestyles for its atmosphere, and does a nice job of weaving the narrator's longing for his lost lover and a life of indulgence into a tale of self-destructuve, even self-loathing, obsession. There's a weirdly old fashioned quality to it, a bit like catching The Story of O on late night TV, and there's something studied and remote about this style. The world of credit cards and people in suits sitting at computers seems rather distant from the fantasy of European decadence that is the mysterious city of Venera, but in Laumier's capable hands it still packs in the emotional charge.

While being very different in tone, both these stories use a dream-like, surrealistic atmosphere. Both deal with interior states made real, for surely Verena is just as much an expression of a Bad Idea (the narrator's insatiable desire) as those expelled by Bea & Nils, and both storie are about love. Both Laumiere's narrator and Rucker's married couple refuse to give up on it, but while it destroys the former it staves off anhilation for Bea & Nils.

Dreams of red apples

A few nights ago I dreamed I found an agent. A few nights later I dreamed I had a tick. Last night, I dreamed of eating red apples.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Inglorious Basterds totally is not SF!!!

John Scalzi writes here explaining the self evident truth that Inglorious Basterds is not a science fiction movie. Of course, a sensible thesis like this is greeted by the world at large as a challenge, and like the pantomime characters the internet types (we, mea culpa!) are, back comes an all mighty "Oh yes it is!" from Philip Palmer.

Well, Oh no it isn't!

There are two decent definitions for sci fi - the academicky one about elements of change examined using the tools of cognitive logic within a fictional framework, and the more pragamatic one of "that thing with space ships and time travel and that".

Inglorious Bastards is neither of these, and saying "Aha! The Man in the High Castle! Eh, eh?" isn't going to make it so. The Man in the High Castle does two thing Inglorious Basterds does not do. Firstly, it poses the "What if...?" question, what if the Nazis won. So, we have re-imagined present day world with America divided down the Rockies between the Nazis and Japan, and some thinking around how that world might work.

I'm inclined to rule out alt histories as another sort of speculation, but what separates The Man in the High Castle from - say - Fatherland by Robert Harris is that it explicitly addresses the concept of the alt history. It's not just about the Nazis winning WWII, it's about what we do when we imagine those things. It addresses the fictional form and the metaphyical questions it raises - this is what makes it SF, although even then a particularly rarefied and Phil K Dickian variety.

Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream is more easily dealt with, as the main narrative is in fact a parody of a  secondary world that is very clearly of the SF/fantasy type. The stuff about Hitler as less of an alt history tale than a deliciously toothy satire on the nature of SF and fandom at the time Spinrad was writing.

Why would you want to call Inglorious Basterds a sci fi movie? What particular insight does it bring? How does it help us read and understand the movie, particularly when one considers QT's consumate - perhaps unrivalled - ability to manipulate genre and scare out the truth that often hides in the easy shapes that genre offers creators. Trying to out do him in this regard puts any critic on a hiding to nothing: genre is the tool he's using and he uses with great care and deliberation. To try and second guess him in this regard nullifues the enterprise.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Hooray for the Pet Avengers!

This is turning into parents' day here at Pointless Philosophical Asides, but I see with great happiness that a new series (hope that link works) of The Pet Avengers is imminent. Both my children enjoyed this alot. It made a really special end to our monthly(ish) trips to the comics shop that we could sit together on the train home and all read and enjoy this. Hats off to Marvel for creating a real family friendly series!

Peppa Pig is a capitalist running dog

I was delighted when I first found Peppa Pig on TV. It's a charming, funny series made with style and panache. Both my kids enjoy it (although Himself feels too old for it now) and it doesn't revolve around anyone, male or female, with an unfeasible physique (allowing for the expressionistic extremes of Daddy Pigs rotundity).

However, as the years have passed I've become increasingly bewildered by the depth and tenacity of the cross marketing. There are books, obviously, and then toys - well, okay - but then you start burrowing down into the wendy houses, bed sheets, party invitations, puppet sets, Easter eggs, cultery sets and anything that any child is ever likely to need ever.

This seems to be the strategy for kids properties these days. It's almost impossible to buy toys that are not related to media or to watch a show that's not trying to sell you toys. Star Wars is the worst (obviously!) but at least it aims for an age group outside for the nursery (even if nursery age kids are sometimes caught in the cross fire).

Lego is a serial offender these days - Star Wars Lego was cute, but the new Ben 10 Lego toys are wearyingly awful. (Himself looked them over long and hard at the most recent disbursement of pocket money before opting for a couple of smaller Lego Atlantis toys - a good decision, in my opinion). These are not cool toys created by people who love children. These are cynical marketing ploys aimed at fleecing kids from their cash. Adults are somewhat to blame, as the trend of Peter Pan-ish nerds to buy toys like this has already made the Star Wars line overly model-oriented (rather than emphasising free building).

Ah well, I suppose it was ever so. They'll be old enough soon to see for themselves, I hope. In the meantime, I guess we'll just have to renew our subs to Okido and keep our fingers crossed.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Heavy Metal Britannia

I watched the BBC documentary Heavy Metal Britannia on Friday night, as the missus was out and I could indulged in a bit of sweaty maleness. It was a good history of the genre, from about 1970 to 1990 or so, just at the period when it's place in the teenage life as complicated by the arrival of grunge and goth.

Metal comes across in the doc as a kind of decadent form of the blues rock sound that had been evolving since the early sixties, a lineage coming via Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and a few power chord-based rock classics like The Kinks's You've Really Got Me Going and the harder sound coming out of LA via The Doors, Steppenwolf and Iron Burretfly (the documentary does a great jobon the musical forebears and some guitarist (I forget who, might have been Ian Gillan, who's a singer.... but anyway) illustrates the evolution of a standard blues riff (from Brooke Benton's Kiddyo) into Led Zep's A Whole Lotta Love.

The hippy dream showed youth in the ascendent, but metal came along at a time - the early 70s - when the hippy dream was over and things took on a more hopeless tone, singing about apocalypses to come and self-abnegation through hedonism, a lot like glam but without the sexual ambiguity and artsy pretense. In fact, the lack of depth that characterises metal versus glam (and later versus punk and indie and various other flavours of rock) is what makes it so easy to mock. The limited intellectual scope for the genre makes it best when the pratitioners just get on with rocking out. As soon as they introduce elements of fine musicianship or intimations of a message, metal becomes rapidly unstuck.

Goth is pretty much the metal of the punk generation and it's interesting that metal and goth are both heavily associated with the fantasy genres, which also often dwell on past glories of vanished empires. The vampire is to goth what the rampaging Conan-esque barbarian is to metal, with Elric as a kind of intermediate figure. Metal comes at the end of the space race and the huge push that SF got from it, but by the seventies fantasy had so occupied the genre space that a blatant fantasy movie stole all SF's best toys. Goth comes at the end of the initial cyberpunk phase, pushing out the rationalistic fantasies of the burgenoing cyber world with fantasies of parasites and monsters.

Fantasy is a turning away in many ways, a way of saying things that are too hard to say in unadorned terms, a way to place the loss of hope or the death of the old away from us. These decadent forms grow out of the unfulfilled hopefulness of the previous genre - the hope offered by rock in the sixties and punk in the 70s turned sour, the hope of the rocket age and the computer age turned rotten. In these times, people turn to fantasy, but the next wave of hopefulness is never far behind.

Non-dom tax status is the ultimate cyberpunk accessory

Another great article in the Guardian, this time a background piece on non-dom tax status by Stephen Armstrong.
Ultras, according to Frederico do Valle, are the world's new refugees. By Ultras, do Valle, lead consultant in wealth management at CapGemini Financial Services, means Ultra High Net Worth Individuals – otherwise known as multimillionaires. They are a growing group, these super-rich nomads, and they're on the move like mammoths in an ice age. Driving them on is their desire to avoid paying as much tax as they possibly can, while remaining within the law. Do Valle calls this "wealth preservation", and he says it is getting harder every day.

"Ultras are now basically globetrotting," he explains. "They don't want to commit, because there's a lot of uncertainty out there about tax rules and regulations. It depends how long you reside in each place before you pay tax and the laws are changing, shifting. We have one client who lives on his boat and just moves around because he doesn't want to be stuck with one tax jurisdiction permanently."

I was thinking that this way of liffe would not be possible without the amazing communications links that all that money can buy. The unamed wandering mariner likely has a hugh mega-million pound thing the size of a small car ferry with high bandwidth sattelite communications sufficient for him to play World of Warcraft from middle of the Antarctic Ocean if he cared to, let alone shoot off a few emails instructing his proxies to shut down a car plant in Sheffield or assassinate a journalist in Latvia.

The increasing speed of information exchange has led to wealth pooling around individuals. In the history of wealth and power, a rulers reach has only extended as far as they could extend their communications. Instant communications allow plutocrats direct control over more and more of their empires, and the reulting efficiencies in control have given them a tighter than ever control of their finances.

One wonders what the future holds (being a sci fi writer an all). As communications efficiency increases, there'll be more of this. Will it ever cross over to the middle classes? Can't you imagine a newly nomadic commuter class depending on complicated international flat share arrangements and tele working saving  them a few grand a year tax. My own tax bill is in the region of £20,000 a year - I could almost do with some of that back.

The only thing saving us from an anarchistic technocratic dystopia are the heroic actions of the revenue so secure what's owed! That sounds facetious, but if you think of it, they the people who go around collecting all the money that runs our schools, keeps the NHS working and the roads open, the police walking our streets and the army protecting us from foreign threats (such as they are... a topic another day).

So, let's close this with a hopeful cheer for the tax man! I hope you screw the rich bastards!

Great article by David Mitchell on the BBC

I expect that anyone reading this blog probably saw it already, but David Mitchell does a nice job of idenifying the current threat to the BBC and outlining why we should fight to keep it.

It seems obvious to me that Britain's exceptional cultural presence is sustained in a large part by the BBC in many indirect ways. They employ a large number of technicians and creators across media creating a pool of talent from which independent broadcasters draw for their own operations. BBC radio's creates an atmosphere that supports genuinely great music as opposed to the commercial demands of heavily cross-marketed chart heavy weights. Active arts coverage generally promotes the fine arts to many who wouldn't otherwise have access to even know these things exist.

Most importantly you just have to look at the output. Now, critics will point to BBC 3 or Total Wipeout as evidence that BBC spews as bigger torrent of nonsense into the country's living rooms as anywhere else, but don't jusge them by the worst, judge them by the best. Horizon, Newswipe/Screenwipe/Gameswipe, the documentaries of Adam Curtis, the Rock/Pop/Blue/Jazz/Folk/Metal Britannia strand, great comedy like Outnumbered, That Mitchell & Webb Look and Bellamy's People (which both started on comedy lab that is BBC 4) and a whole ton of worthy stuff that is of no interest to me whatsoever but passions of the great British public.

And that's just TV. Across platforms the BBC represents the leading edge of content and technical services. It's a high water mark that keeps the commercial players standards up. Why else would Channel 4 exist - the BBC creates an audience for this programming, and Channel 4 aims to capture some of it. Channel 4 has stuggled to match BBCs quality, and has resorted to cheap time filler programming like Big Brother, but they still put out high quality dramas and documentaries from time to time.

ITV is suffering, of course, and the reason for that is simply expressed: they are crap. They are not deliberately crap, I'm sure a lot of very talented people work to gert those shows out, but the formats they depend on game shows, anodyne "variety" shows, cheap melodrama - are inherently crap. Viewers endured them for many years because there was no choice: if the only alternatives were Match of the Day or War & Peace on the BBC, a lot of people tuned in for The Golden Shot in the name of brain numbing post-work zone out.

Nowadays viewers don't have to put up with that. At worst, there'll be a repeat of Last of the Summer Wine or an old episode of The Saint with Roger Moore, and of course, I don't have to describe the infinite temptations that come with DVD players, watch on demand, gaming consoles, and the internet.

Commercial broadcast TV channels are faced with a stark choice: raise standards or cut the costs. ITV has taken the Iceland option, stack em high and sell em cheap. They're not entirely without enterprise - they coin it in from viewer phone ins, for example - but in search of a niche they have opted for ultra-cheap crappy programming in a bid to make the sums add up.

Putting a cramp on the BBC will represent an inevitable decay in the cultural life of the country. We punch well above our weight in this sectopr, and while some of that is the benefit of an anglophone culture that latches easily onto the enormous US consumer market, the rest is entirely the result of a directly funded media that works for viewers instead of advertisers.

It's a uniquely British thing, slightly imperious and paternalistic, but ultimately painfully aware of its responsibilities to the diverse population that it serves.

And, most importantly, no ads.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

This book was suggested to me long ago by James Gunn while I was attending the two week Workshop in Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I was working on the story that became Looking Out For Number One and he spotted some similarity in subject matter, with the whole duplication as teleportation thing. Rogue Moon also has a strong reputation in SF circles as a neglected classic, and I've frequently seen it on lists of great SF novels of the past, so when I saw it in a second hand shop for $4 during my last trip to NZ I snapped it up (and what's more it's a first edition, albeit in poor condition).

Well, I'm glad I didn't read this novel back when I was trying to worm this story out, as I would have ended up wondering what the hell Jim was was on about. This is a dreadful book! Padded, pretentious and dull. It sets up an intriguing mystery - the killer wotsit on the Moon! - but then pretty much ignores it, and neither does it spend a lot of time on the the idea of duplication. Instead, we get talk, lots and lots of talk.

The characters spend a lot of time talking about themselves, about their lives and motivations. In fact, it's a lot like being stuck in a lift with a bunch of irritable coke heads unable to shut up about their tedious problems. "Oh I didn't like my Dad! I use sex as a weapon! Why does no one love me!" In chapter eight the sceince guy invites the girl he's met out on a date and then rants at her for seven pages about his life, after which she simperingly grasps his hand and offers sympathy. Jesus Christ, man, at least buy the poor girl a drink!

If I was to be really cynical about it, I'd suggest that all the suggestions of sex and martinis perhaps seemed daring to the straight-laced 1950s sci fi crowd. All this existentialism in the beach-side California setting brings to mind Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, but the characters here are not motivated by anything as understandable as lust or the desire to get loaded. In fact, it's hard to know what, precisely, they are being motivated by, as we only ever see them at teeth-clenching loggerheads, sometimes violently and aggressivley agreeing with each other in utterly baffling displays of bravado.

Well, look, I suppose there's something going on here about the construction of personality, how memories make us. The perfect duplicates quite quickly become separated from the original (symbolised here by a very dubious telepathic connection upon which the entire Moon exploration idea uncomfortably reposes), and the long existential monologues cover similar thematic ground, but this is really just a bunch of talking heads. We do not get to see the characters in action, they spend precious little time interacting with the fantastical elements at all, and I did not feel that the thematic elements were well meshed with the plot elements.

The whole Moon thing, in particular, seems utterly contrived; I couldn't understand how they built the receiving station on the Moon in the first place if they couldn't use rockets, and if they could use rockets, well, why not use rockets? The Moon object remains ambiguous. The questions about duplicates and identity are opened, but not resolved. The appeal and reputation of this novel elude me!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Welcome to the second short fiction Wednesday here at Pointless Philosophical Asides! So, it's just a week and I've read a couple more stories around my usual reading. It's been easy this week cos I did not enjoy the novel I was reading (I'll post about that tonight or tomorrow). I'll almost certainly be back next week, too, as I'm now I'm waiting for an amazon order that was delivered on Monday and so I have to wait for the weekend before I can go to the post office and collect it. What a pain! And by the way, why is the universe so arranged that the very week I order Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, it is serialised on Radio 4 in the regular tea time serial slot? Why is that, eh?

Anyway, a couple of interesting stories this week and i urge you to check them out for yourself, plus of course all the other fine stuff at Fantasy Magazine and Abyss & Apex!

A Stray by Scott William Carter and Ray Vukcevich
This is one of those stories that makes me wonder if I really know what fantasy is. At one end of the field you have bookshop genre fantasy – long series of epic tales in secondary worlds - and at the other you have something bleeds into mainstream literature. It's to this second sort of fantasy that A Stray belongs. It's the story of Jim, a rather troubled man who retreats to the house in which his father killed himself thirty years before. While he tries to come to grips with his numerous problems, he adopts a local cat and, well, things kind of kick off from there. The witty style nicely captures Jim's neuroses and nervous disposition and sketches in his background with deft efficiency. As with any story of madness and psychic collapse, the narrator is notoriously unreliable and all the moments of overt weirdness could be products of Jim's mind. I particularly admired the switch in point of view in the last few paragraphs, which was extremely effective.

However, I felt that the actual matter of the ending perhaps betrayed an uncertainty of purpose. The authors deliberately swerved aside from the more obvious ending heavily hinted at elsewhere, but I don't think they offer up something better than the familiar but emotionally satisfying conclusion they identify. As ever, though, the journey is just as important as the destination, and here the journey is a masterful display of literary madness.

The Tortuous Path by Bud Sparhawk
Abyss & Apex seem to deal in a very traditional style of SF tale that appeals to me very much. I've been following them for a few years, and you can depend on them when you crave some good old sensawunda SF. The Tortuous Route is very much in that mould. It's the story of Alessandro, a novice in a holy order that pilots interstellar space ships by “twisting” space in some kind of religious ritual. The future of the order is under threat, however, because of new computerised ships that can do the same thing and because of the secret behind the Order's initiation rituals. I really loved the setting of this story, wilfully improbable and contingent on assumptions designed to justify the drama rather than worry too much about actual plausibility.

By drawing on real-world analogies Sparhawk is able to sketch in the background quickly, but of course those real world analogies come at a cost: if you follow the story's holy orders metaphor through to the real world, it's an excoriating critique of organised religion! However, it's easy to miss this in the charming coming of age tale of Alessandro and the story leaves a very sweet taste despite the bitter ramifications of the subject matter.