Friday, 30 April 2010

Tempus Fugit

So, I've been meaning to post for a while about We3, Civil War and my post man, but it's been a busy week, with the Clarke Awards on Wednesday night and lovely big gobs of day job stuff to deal with.

Now, I hate link posts (although, of course, some of my favourite sites a just link sites, like Arts & Letters Daily) but, well, here's a couple interesting links (erm, vai Arts & Letters Daily).

First off, this nifty review of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci. I used to describe myself as a skeptic, until the likes of Pigliucci infested the scene with a kind of agressively triumphalist scientism that rubs me the wrong way. I think skepticism is about doubt, and Pigliucci's stuff has always had insufficient doubt in it for my liking.

As I get older, I think of myself as increasingly Fortean, partly because I am interested in the social phenomenon of wierd phenomena, and partly because I have doubts about the non-reality of both spirtism and the ETH UFO thing. I mean, they're both highly unlikey, and I don't think either is true in anything like the popular conception, but from time to time, I get the notion of explanations that don't cntradict known science or the available evidence.

Second link is a depressing article about the US national debt, and, by extenstion, the debt of all dveeloped nations (the developing world has its own hair-raising problems).

I take some comfort in the fact that money and value are entirely social constructs, that don't have any objective reality outside that which we care to give them. Regardless of the mind-boggling levels of debts that modern nation states accrue, people still live and work and trade and things are okay for most people most of the time.

Whatever disaster awaits, I think that we can, we the time comes, define our way out of the corner. Although, some rich people might end up less rich than they thought they were (by whom I mean the lower middle classes and above of all the western nations who are - often without understanding it - a global financial elite that most of the world's population couldn't even dream of joining). The question is, can we manage the redefinitions without a global war? I hope so!

Finally, take a look at my new blog, State of Change. This is going to get cracking next week (perhaps not 1 May as planned, as it's a ballet day etc) but expect weekly episodes of my amazing first novel coming soon!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

It's Miéville!

No great surprise to me, it's China Miéville who picked up the bookend last night. What a practical prize it is, so much better than an ugly statuette.

Sources close to the committee tell me that the final choice was a close one between this and another book. I wonder what the other contender was? It could have been any of them!

Ah well, that's that for another year. Now I can go back to randomly finding books at jumble sales and second hand shops.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Arthur C Clarke Awards - decision time!

It's the night of the Arthur C Clarke Awards, and those of us with an interest in such things now face the Ultimate Decision: what to wear?

My tweedy-jacket-and-bowtie look is very dapper but has been colonised by the eleventh Dr Who. Still good look for me, by and large, all avuncular, donnish umbers and earth-toned checks, but I don't wish to be mistaken as a cosplayer at an event like this. Not that anyone could possibly mistake my distinguished (shall we say) phiz for the young and handsome Mr Smith; that would make it worse, in many ways - not just a cosplayer, but a remarkably rubbish one.

New suit? Well, new suit also equals cheap suit. Not bad, but after a drink or two the posture slumps and the Designers At Debenhams structure doesn't have the wherewithal to provide back up.

So, good suit then, even though I appear to have had a very well-catered Christmas between when I bought it and today.

Next - shirt and tie. I mean the next thing to consider, not that I bought my shirt and tie at Next! Just what do you think I am?

The good suit's a little too structured to rock the bow tie look, and I'd ironed a couple of good shirts in preparation. I lost my nerve over the John Francombe liquorice all sort strips, and the Duffer of St George is good for job interviews but a bit business bland. Despite the cuffs beginning to show its age, I opted for my black and white Reiss shirt and black silk tie.

Combined with my silver converse, the whole ensemble has a pleasing unity of colour (grays, blacks, silver with a hint of blue) and if I keep my shoulders back and button done up, no one will even notice the alpha male belly poking out over the waist band.

Ah, well, I suppose I should say something about the books, too.

Let's start out in the territory of the unknown - I haven't read Gallileo's Dream. Only available in hardback and what with all those bills to pay... So, that one might win, might be the best of all but I can't comment.

Moving up, we come to Retribution Falls, which would not be my pick and will not, I think, be the pick of the committee. It's a fine adventure story, but I felt it was pretty thin, thematically, and I wasn't as swept away with it as I might have hoped. The bar to meet here, to my mind, is Jack Vance stuff like Big Planet and The Demon Princes, and this felt half-hearted in comparison, with a rather linear plot and no real gut punches, IMO.

Next, Yellow Blue Tibia, which is delightfully wry and has a lot of well-turned farce, but once again I felt the thematic material was a bit unsatisfying. It seemed to exist independent of the comic elements and the finale felt shoe-horned in. Aside from Konstantin, none of the other characters was especially believable or sympathetic (although the Asperger's guy was excellent comic material). I also had my doubts about the setting - particularly the way that some of the gags could only possibly work in English, that were articulated nicely in this blog post from Rules for Anchorites. I wouldn't choose this one, but my reservations appear to put me at odds with the critical consensus, so the committee may go for it, who knows? It seems kind of unlikely to me, though.

That's half the list disposed of. Next up, Spirit. I read this one about this time last year, and hadn't started blogging back then, but I discuss it in passing in my post of the year from January. This kind of big space opera isn't really my bag, and I struggled somewhat with the political machinations of the setting. With benefit of many months hindsight, however, the middle section where Bibi is imprisoned still haunts me. The scene where the little baby alien thing dies was like a kick in the guts to me (reminded me a little of the death of Grofinet in Vance's Lyonesse in that regard) and I'm thus inclined to feel that there was definitely some very strong writing here. I wouldn't pick this one, but there's big dollop of prejudice in that opinion. I suspect, though, that I'm not the only one that scratched their head of the setting, and the climax did not quite pay off, so Im don't think it's going to be Spirit.

We come now to the final two books, and this is where I really think the competition is. I have been confidently predicting a win for The City & The City, which I enjoyed a great deal both as a reader and in a more detached critical way. I vacilate on whether the split is a psychological or a supernatural effect, and have recently decided that Miéville leaves it deliberately - and deliciously - ambiguous, a move I admire and applaud. It's let down by the flaccid thriller plot, but the central metaphor is so compelling and beautifully achieved that all other considerations seem like grousing. This one seemed like a shoe in.

However, I am now a third of the the way through Far North and my socks have been knocked entirely off (black, NB, to co-ordinate with the rest of the outfit). Here is a novel firing on all cylinders. The effortless prose is laded with nuggets of insight that shoot from the setting like sparks. The central voice is steady and consistent, believable, likable and wise. Already we've had heartbreak and breath-taking danger. Already we've been moved and unsettled. I'm a long way from the end, so it's a bit early to say whether it will all come together, but right now, I'm just loving this book!

So, I think it's a toss up between those two. If it was me I'd go for Far North, assuming it continues as it's begun. I feel that Méiville is a very fine writer in the SF/F context, but I'm less convinced by his chops in the wider literary scene. Theroux, on the evidence so far, seems like the real thing - intelligent, careful, wise, spurning gimmicks while unafraid of the new. It could be that the sublimity of Méiville's broken city will win through, but it could equally be Far North.

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week, we've got two stories that demonstrate contrasting approaches to fantasy.

Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe by Nancy Fulda, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is shaped like a traditional hero's journey, and maps to Campbell almost exactly – a call to action, the denial, the journey into the underworld and all. Fulda focuses on the “denial” phase of the hero's journey here and Kitjaya's conflicted feelings about being "the chosen one", but plot isn't the focus of the story. The main thrust of this story - it seems to me - is the exactingly realised alien society and, while it's published as fantasy, there's nothing here that doesn't fit within the bounds of science fiction.

K J Bishop's Saving the Gleeful Horse, published at Fantasy Magazine, on the other hand, takes place in a psychedelic Gaimanesque fantasy of a world that overlaps between the material and the numinous. Bishop's sideways portrayal of ordinary objects infuses them with magical powers, and portents. I say psychedelic deliberately because I thought it caught the hyper-real details of life and they way they get infused with meaning by mind altering substances. Molimus the Great, the story's protagonist, is one of those wise fools who is perhaps always living in an altered state, and the local whitch woman White Ma'at tells him as much. The story occupies that curious place where it could just be a fantasy, a hallucination projected on the world by deranged minds, or perhaps a vision of the true world, with its opaque robe of materialistic vision swept away.

Fulda's story reminded me a little of the planetary romances of Jack Vance, with a well-imagined society and distinctly alien aliens. In general, he keeps these creatures relatively remote, as in The Fetish Makers (or whatever) but Fulda goes right into their world. I always have a bit of a problem with these kinds of non-human societies, and Fulda doesn't entirely win me over. While Kitjaya's world is convincingly created, Kitjaya never seems anything other than human on the inside (which can be taken as a compliment or a criticism, I suppose). The insecty elements don't really seem to interact with the nature of her quest, and they are perhaps too exactly mapped to matters of human kinship, to the point where they cease to be metaphors and become alien analogues. However, it's written with a sharp eye for the telling detail that creates a very vivid picture of the world.

By contrast, Bishop's is a more metaphorical approach. If a world of magical influence existed, how would it be perceived? She imagines a fantasy where magic isn't a psuedo science – all cauldrons and alembics, and huge tomes of ancient knowledge. Instead, it's a perception of meaning and pattern between objects. It's a world where thoughts can become real and reality can be changed through metaphor. If I have a problem with this approach, it can appear to be a bit random, because it depends on the author making the thematic connections clear without allowing them to crystalise into the gross matter of the other approach. It demands a lot of the reader, too, to puzzle out the skein of symbolism and metaphor, and in this regard I think you need to let it settle a while before deciding if it works or not.

For all people complain about vanilla fantasy, the genre has acquired quite a breadth of approaches over the years. Writers like M John Harrison and Mervyn Peake are no longer obscure or cultish, and the mainstream fantasy has a strong enough hold on the public imagination to attract writers of real ambition like Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan. I think the explosion of fantasy in them last couple of decades has produced a space this more thoughtful material can thrive. On the one hand you have a maturing audience looking for a new take on the old ideas, while at the same time a generation of writers fed on the good, bad and indifferent fantasy of decade gone by ready are ready to take up the challenge.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Peppa Pig is a capitalist running dog: Part 2

Further to my thoughts on the ways Peppa Pig seeks to separate five year olds from their money, I see that she has withdrawn from a Labour-backed event to celebrate Sure Start.

We've all read Animal Farm and I think we all know which way Mummy and Daddy Pig vote, right readers?

(NB - This post intended for satirical purposes only. I avoid politics here, but in these heated times (and in the interests of full exposure) I'll just say thay I'm an old fashioned lefty, by and large, but you should vote according to your own conscience. (Unless you're a Tory.) (Only joking!))

Friday, 23 April 2010

Fungus the Bogeyman

While thinking about something else entirely, I happened across this interesting academic article about Fungus the Bogeyman from the Australian Journal of Comedy (hilarious wisecracks on a post-card to the usual address, please).

Fungus the Bogeyman
is probably the book I remember most fondly from my childhood. I got for my eleventh or twelfth birthday, having seen it in a bookshop and known immediately that I had to have it. I think I was already familiar with Brigg's witty Father Christmas books, and so was primed to love this flowering of his deliciously subversive sense of humour.

It still resonates with me, thirty years later and I still find Fungus's search for meaning incredibly moving. As Andrew Casson says here:

"In its highly inventive and disrespectful way, it is one of the few books that takes children seriously by refusing to accept the conventional image of the child, by highlighting with its gentle satire our most strange society, and by treating the most serious issues of tolerance and, ultimately, the meaning of life with the humour they deserve and need if they are to be taken seriously."

Briggs's work fit precisely in the same irreverent space as 2000AD, which was then just entering its classic period. Interestingly, I remember catching an arts documentary about him in the 80s which showed him working with some of his art school students, discussing pieces for an exhibition: it was Brett Ewins!

Less happily, it was turned into an utterly repulsive TV show in the 2000s. The problems are amply demonstrated by comparing the cover image above with this publicity still from the show:

Why the hell is that Bogey smiling!?!?

Here is another great link, an appreciation by illustrator Joanna Carey.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

One of the horrible glimpses of mortality that mid-life crisis has brought me, is the realisation that I am not as cool as my parents.

Mum and Dad lived in London during the swinging sixties, when Dad was a groovy young newsreader at the BBC. They were never what you'd call ravers. Rock music was never their thing – Dad's fond of George Melly and Humphrey Littleton; Mum likes show tunes – and they are, despite when they lived, somewhat naïve as regards drugs. Their taste in art and culture is that of bright a undergraduate circa 1959, all post-impressionists, Leonard Bernstein and middle-brow writers. But, they really lived life. They had trendy BBC friends, went to all the latest shows and concerts, and took holidays to exotic destinations in the Med.

I've hung out with arty people and taken drugs and liked the right sorts of music, movies and books, but well, what does it all amount to, really? Mum and Dad got enormously into amateur theatre in Porirua, which seemed like the lamest thing ever when I was in my twenties, and yet they both eventually received Queen's Service Medals for their efforts and are quite highly regarded among a particular demographic. And what have I done to compare with that?

For many years, I assumed that my superiority to Mum and Dad was self-evident, a thing as natural as being young itself. That's the trap of youth, I think. When they say “youth is wasted on the young” that's surely one of the things they mean, the wasteful impatient arrogance of the young that drives them out of the nest to urgently re-invent a world that, generation after generation, refuses to change.

It's this desperate arrogance that drives the characters in Moxyland. I recognise their ambitions, because at one stage or another I have felt them all. Moxyland is a tragedy, in the classical sense, as the good are undone by their better nature while evil exults. Kendra is killed by choosing ambition before art; Tendenka dies when his idealism curdles into self-importance. In the meantime, if Kendra and Tendenka are the world's creative spirit and it's conscience, then Lerato and Toby represent the forces of vacuous self-gratification and cold-hearted corporate control. Both are the product of damaged societies. Toby has been spoiled and indulged until there is nothing decent left in him, while Lerato has been deracinated by the horror and disease of the previous century. Between them, they represent the future of Afirca.

Although Moxyland is full of racy cutting-edge culture, it's message is ultimately that of grumpy old men everywhere. The short-view of youth sees only the waves crashing in, while from the long view of decades one begins to see that these have nothing against the power of the tides. Instead of being a frightening possibility of the future, it becomes a description of the eternal way of the world.

But what do I know? This is a dystopian satire for the BoingBoing generation, what some people call post-cyberpunk, but – come on! - it's straight cyberpunk, through and through, bristling with Sterlingesque futurism and a plot reminiscent of Rainbows End. In fact, all those writers and all those books are still working away at the issues first raised by the likes of John Brunner and Norman Spinrad in the sixties. So, the New Wave keeps crashing and you keep getting knocked over by it until eventually you get tired of it and get out of the water altogether, and sit in the dunes up the beach waiting for the sunset.

A terrific article about the early Games Workshop novels

I'm a big fan of Kim Newman's novels for Games Workshop, particularly his utterly bonkers Dark Future trilogy. I know he has rather rueful take on them, but they hit a real soft spot for me of over the top action and pop referentiality.

In the absence of an easy segue, here's the article!

Lady Gaga - donchta haytah?

Here's a great article on Lady Gaga, deconstructing all the reasons why she is, in fact, not that interesting.

In my own beardy rockist opinion, it all comes down to the choons. If she was pumping out great pop or disco, I'd say the all the other stuff (which I'm inclined to like) is just cream. As it is, it's like getting a present that's beautifully wrapped, but there's nothing in the box.

In the meantime, Grace Jones's version of Nighclubbing is stuck in my head today.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Idle Thoughts

It occurs to me that had I booked my holiday just a week later, I'd still be on it.

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week, it's the latest from Futurismic and Strange Horizons (or at least, the latest when I made my selection last week, so not actually the latest at Strange Horizons any more - tempus fugit!) These sites are both great examples of how thoroughly fansites have occupied the ground once held by fanzines and the amateur press. I miss the old print zines for very non-scifi reasons of cultural conservatism, but these sites provide everything the old fanzines did and much, much more.

Out Walking the Streets By Eric Del Carlo is one of those low-context stories that makes few concessions to the reader, but gradually builds up the detail to communicate what's happening. I'm going to try and not give it away, because I think that knowing it before hand spoils the effect, but it does kind of limit the points I can make here. After all, I'm trying to encourage you, dear reader, to go read 'em (and dontcha hate people her refer to you as "dear reader"?) These types of story often reward a re-reading, to catch the hints you might have missed before, or to appreciate the author's subtlety, but you can only get the feeling of dawning realisation once!

The intriguing premise opens up a host of questions, and this story lets us take a peek at just one. It's a dynamic situation well portrayed by De Carlo, and the emotions of the protagonist and his wife are portrayed with great conviction. The resolution relies perhaps a little too much on co-incidence, and rather conveniently closes off the myriad other questions raise. There's a limit to how much one can do in a short space, of course, and Del Carlo's intriguing premise has a lot more drama inherent in it than he has room for here.

I was drawn to Middle Aged Weirdo in a Cadillac by George R Cruikshank by the laconic title, and the story doesn't disappoint. It's a funny and well-observed slice of life with a brimstoney whiff of suburban diabloism. Cruikshank keeps the character goals focused and low-level – both Bob and his hitchiker are looking for a way home, and maybe a little company as the night drags on into the Tom Waits hours of the morning. In fact, Tom Waits would make a pretty good Bob in the Twilight Zone version of this story.

These stories are great examples of the quality short fiction being published online at the moment. Securing great material doesn't seem to be a problem for short fiction publishers right now, the problem they really have is the same problem the old fan publications have always had – how do you make money from it?

A common tactic I've seen on these short fiction Wednesday is to treat the webzine as a loss-leader for print products, such as at Weird Tales or Apex Book Company, which featured in a previous Short Fiction Wednesday. Some others, I guess derive some income from advertising, and others have a link to paypal for donations. However, recently there's been a bit of news on this front, with Ether Books announcing an iPhone-based short story service and Orbit US hoping to sell shorts from their popular authors at £1.99 a time.

Two things occur to me. Firstly, as I've learned – and hopefully shared here – there's a great deal of excellent fiction available online for free, and I haven't even started with the websites of popular authors like Cory Doctorow or Charlie Stross, who have tons of stuff on offer, nor, which has been putting out free stories from it's star authors for a couple of years now. Possibly it's different in mainstream, literary fiction, where Ether are hoping to make an impact, but Orbit have surely got an uphill battle. Tim Holman made the point in the comments on John Scalzi's blog that the existence of free stories doesn't necessarily mean people won't pay for other stories, and that's certainly true. However, it does bring me to my second concern: does the audience exist in sufficient numbers to make Orbit's and Ether's efforts turn a profit?

It'll be interesting to see! As the owner of neither an iPhone nor a Kindle, I guess I'll miss out on making my contribution for now!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Big Babies on CBBC

EDIT: Okay, I can't scale the youtube vid of the credits right so here's a link instead. Bloody web 2.0 harshing my social networking mellow!

We've become big fans of this show in my house. It revolves around an old fashioned comedy duo - uptight Brooks and genial fool Rocco - and their small, baby adventures. They've got some recurring friends - notably baby rapper The Gonch - and their toys (featured in the credits) provide a chicken littley sub-plot for each episode.

The effect of grown-up actor faces combined with baby bodies is wonderfully grotesque, and the faces and dialogue occasionally makes witty use of the random flailing of baby limbs. The design and voice work on the toys is also very nice.

The toys aren't quite as funny as Brooks and Rocco, but I suspect the big babies might get tiresome without the toy plots to break them up a little, and at fifteen minutes an episode it never quite outstays its welcome. Highly recommended to parents and stoned students/unemployed!

FURTHER EDIT: Ooh, here's a cool clip featuring The Gonch from the CBBC site.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Believe it or not, I was once quite a cineaste. I studied film at uni for two years. When I lived in Wellington in New Zealand in my twenties, I was a member of the film society and a film festival regular, and in London I used spend a lot of time in the cinemas at the NFT, the ICA and those live soundtrack events at the Royal Festival Hall (John Cale doing The Hidden, Kronos Quartet on Dracula, Faust on obscure silent horror Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages). God, I had an opinion on everyone and everything, and if I'm drunk enough I can still dredge up some of the fragments, but everything I ever thought or knew about the great art of cinema has been kicked to death by a parade of children's movies.

People tell us that we're living in a golden age of kids movies – don't believe them! If this is the golden age, then I can only assume that previous generations of children's films were long lectures where kids were called idiots and instructed to go outside and murderously toxic fast food and deadening imagination-free toys.

Look what's happened to Disney! It's a crime what they've done to one of cinema's great pioneers. Say what you like about Walt, he was driven to create movies that stand the test of time. Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty have become iconic representations of the tales with good reason – both are filled with dark and light, with all them menace and redemptive power of folklore. Things started coming unstuck with the insipid Cinderella, and the fifties ushered in a period of less interesting films occasionally saved – as in The Jungle Book – by a great soundtrack. Nowadays they shit out inexplicable horrors like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid with the instinctual robot cynicism of Skinner's pigeon.

But Walt wasn't in the movie business anymore. He'd set his sights on something else, and his ambitions took him away from film making down a path that led to a creepy ersatz multiculturalism and utopian futurism that was just a Hubbard away from being a mind-controlling puritanical religion. By the time of One hundred and One Dalmations and The Aristocats, they couldn't seem to create a movie that didn't seem cheap, lifeless and oddly creepy. I mean, while Phil Harris is great as Baloo, he sounds like a drunk in Robin Hood and a child molester in The Aristocats.

I didn't go to the movies a lot as a small kid, before I was ten or so, but I can remember stuff like Escape to Witch Mountain, Herbie, Charlotte's Web, Benji, Bugsy Malone, Pete's Dragon – yeah, okay, the seventies was pretty thin, but in those days movies were feeling the bite from TV. When I think of my early media education it's all Sesame Street, Vision On, Playaway, Dr Who, Bagpuss, The Clangers and shows of that kind of vintage. It was a great era for children's TV, but for movies, it was an uphill battle.

That changed in 1977, when Star Wars began the cross-marketed licensing juggernaut that forms the basis of the film industry strategy today, but the technology they were really waiting for was CGI. As soon as Toy Story showed it could be done, it opened the flood gates for a new generation of movie franchises that could hide their creative vacuity behind pin-sharp CGI and, now, 3D. As a parent, I have bravely sat through a steady run of witless crap like Monsters Vs Aliens, Kung Fu Panda, Ice Age (1,2 &3!), Antz (with Woody Allen!), The Bee Movie (Jerry Seinfeld!) and the Satanically repulsive Cars.

I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, though. Toy Story 1 & 2 are both genuinely great films (I am dubious about a third outing), Monsters Inc is saved by terrific performances from John Goodman and Billy Crystal, and there's a lot of inoffensive stuff, no worse than Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, for example, a movie I still love while recognising it's limitations. I'm thinking movies like Desperaux, Spiderwick Chronicles, Madagascar (another one saved by great comic performances) and, the subject of today's non-review, How To Train Your Dragon.

I mean, I am thankful that there aren't shitty toys, McDonald's tie-ins and a trailer for How To Train Your Dragon 2, but this film didn't have much going for it outside the production design, which was extremely imaginative and evocative. The kids get a typical believe-in-yourself story, a lot of lines that have the size and shape of jokes without having any witty content and some really dreadful voice acting. In particular, I have no idea why they wanted to have the grwon-up Vikings have Scottish accents and the young kids be voiced by horrible American stand-up comedy voices. It was like the whole thing was cutting between Terry Jones's Erik the Viking and Bob Saget providing the voice over for America's Funniest Home Videos.

Oh well, the kids enjoyed it well enough and at least I got out of seeing Nanny Mc-shitting-Phee.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Grant Morrison on Batman and writing comics

For a long time I had a pretty ambivalent opinion of Grant Morrison. While I liked Zenith a lot, I felt that on the whole his influence on 2000AD led to a disastrous decline in quality (Big Dave, ffs!). I appreciated his work he on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, but I felt there was a lot of acting up in those books that was less to do with a commitment to a fictional vision than about freaking the nerdy comics norms. I thought that The Invisibles looked like pretentious crap (I only lasted a few issues before chucking it in).

Recently, however, I've been re-assessing him. I think it started with reading his Kid Eternity update for The Zone a few years back. I remember rolling my eyes at it when it came out and giving it a swerve, but reading it for the first time at a couple of decades remove, I was struck by what a solid piece of work it is. There was a still a bit "ooooh edgy!" going on, but to be honest that looks more prescient than wilfuly obnoxious now.

What really impressed me was his control of the fractured narrative - he'd broken it apart in a way that was a little hard to follow, but, with due attention paid, made rock-solid sense. He wasn't just showing off, he knew exactly what he was doing!

At about this time, I was getting back into supers comics after a period away from the genre and one day in the comic shop my kid asked for Batman comic. I ended up getting him one of the Morrison issues (it was the latest one out at the time - about 650, IIRC). I'm not really a fan of Batman as a character, but I read it and was really impressed by it. It was a cool and interesting story (ending in the revelation of Damien Wayne) and I checked the writer - yep, Grant Morrison.

Now, I'm not really big on the DC characters, for various reasons, but I've been following Morrison's work at DC every since. I thought 52 was fantastic and Final Crisis was genuinely brilliant. I bought up the Seven Soldiers trades and loved them to bits.

I've been reading his Batman regularly since the Batman RIP storyline offered a nice hopping on point, and his work on Batman & Robin is first-rate. It doesn't matter that I don't like Batman much, as Batman's not really what it's about - it's all pure Morrison mind mess and crazy super-hero fun.

This little puff piece on i09 makes a couple of interesting points about the Batman character, but also about Morrison's approach. I particularly liked this:
Comics can do a lot of things that movies can't do, and vice versa. It's a shame when so many comics are storyboard-style, low-budget pitches for movies. Let me see the weird stuff.

This is why Grant Morrison is a brilliant comics writer: he loves the medium and he understands it. That's all any writer really needs.

(NB: I thought this little critical piece on Morrison from i09 a couple of weeks back was also pretty interesting, but I don't have much to add.)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Back from holiday and here's a couple of new stories for short fiction Wednesday. Had I been smart, I would have chosen the stories before I left and taken them on holidays with me to read. Never mind, though, cos I read these over the last couple of days in the little corners of the day; stories of this length are ideal for my short commute or over my sandwich at lunchtime. This, of course, is one of the great things about short stories - it's a low commitment, especially when it's all free on the internet!

Playable Characters by Eric J Juneau combines online gaming with a kind of town-vs-corporate-muscle-round-up-the-posse-western plotline to create a fun take on the fantasy quest. The situation is a clever one: in a fantasy MMO the quest that Cyril wants to complete is being squatted by Real Money Traders, who complete the various quests and sell the in-game prize items for real-world money. Cyril's stubborn desire to fulfill the quest has just the right combination of righteousness and Quixotic absurdity to carry the dramatic and humorous needs of the story.

Much of the comedy comes from the self-aware characters who can wise crack about the foibles of their users. Cyril is a great take on the put-upon protagonist of farce and his fellow characters Peachbutt and Bolbadir provide fine comic support. It's a a clever idea, and yields some great lines, but I did find myself wondering how aware these characters were supposed to be. The division between what they could and couldn't do was a bit confusing, and I was never certain about the rules of player-character-hood. In the end, I figured it was best to just not worry about it too much and enjoy the jokes.

Electric Spec looks like a great venue, too, with a regular schedule and new content four times a year. I shall definitely be checking in again.

The next story, Autumn Leaves Falling by Greg Mellor, is from Cosmos, which looks like an Australian general science magazine. A poke around their site reveals that the fiction editor is the noted Australian SF critic Damien Broderick, which confirms the Australian connection and raises one's expectations.

Autumn Leaves makes powerful use of a central image – the falling Autumn Leaves of the title, embedded in the text as a quote from TE Lawrence – to represent the SF concept, the novum again, the uploading of one's mind to a computer. The situation is complicated here by the suicide of the narrator's father, and I found his final resolution of those emotions very moving. There's a bit of a distracting swerve into the psychological effects of The Singularity which doesn't quite work and diverts the momentum away from the climactic build up that had been going on, but aside from that this is a rich and well-crafted story.

Both stories this week are solid, trad SF of the sort that grey beards like me find very satisfying. Plausible futurism and a good eye for character gives a glimpse of how we might be, if things go a certain way. Stories of this type make small observations about big changes in the world, small, human moments that capture a flash of something eternal about the human condition.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Retribution Falls

I used to think that holiday reading is a publishing market segment that is constituted almost entirely of non-readers. Books promoted as perfect for the beach and the sun tan oil are aimed at people who only read one book a year or those that only ever read shit. When I go on holiday, it's a chance to tackle something hefty, something challenging and new. I can do with the brainless stuff, when I'm semi-conscious on the DLR in the morning shambling my way to work like a Romero zombie, driven entirely by habit. At these times I want easy to understand plots, broad characters and logical sequences of action.

That's what I used to think. Then I had children.

Before I had children, days in the sun spent darting on guide book tours of temples and museums were punctuated by leisurely longueurs in cafes (street or beach-side) with a cool glass of the local lager and a plate of whatever strangely preserved morsel was the local nibble. Before I had children reading time was provided by long bus trips to remote attractions post-it noted in the guide book before we left. Before I had children, there always seemed to be time to snatch a few dozen pages, or even settle down and read a hundred at a stretch if there was nothing else to do.

Alas, those days are long passed. Today, every historical site or local attraction is a headache-inducing dredge through high school history and classics at a quarter century remove, in an attempt to answer questions that begin with “where are we?” and inevitably end somewhere like “is God real?”, “when was the first person in Europe?” and “what was there before moon appeared?” Today, every long journey requires a constant stream of patter, tricks and reassurances to get the children through without having them scream everybody's nerves into jelly.

Today's reading is restricted to the last withered hours of consciousness at the end of a day, when excited, excitable children have finally worn themselves out into sweaty somnolence, and towels and toys and piles of interesting shells and rocks and bits of wood have been cleared aside. On my most recent trip, two things helped me to get some solid reading done on my latest journey:

The first was the invention of the Nintendo DS, a boon to parents everywhere and a mind-numbing joy for children.

The second was Retribution Falls, a jolly adventure story from Chris Wooding that suited exactly the sun-struck and child-shocked days of spring holidays. It's an old fashioned story of blazing airship combat, hair-raising dogfights and a dash of criminal shennanigans. While the airships suggest steampunk, this novel is set in a secondary world fantasy realm, where steampunk engineering mixes with supernatural phenomena and daemonic magic. It's a kind of post-enlightenment heroic fantasy, where the old magic (and suggestions of forgotten and proscribed knowledge) sit side by side with a variation of ordinary science.

If you've ever played a computer adventure game called Arcanum, you'll have an idea of the sort of thing. In fact, and I mean this with utmost respect, this book reads a lot like the better sort of gaming fiction. The major skill gaming has taken from sf and fantasy is world building. I don't think it's a coincidence that mainstream heroic fantasy and pen and paper games evolved at the same time, and I think the fictional approach to world building cross-fertilised. More and more writers began creating worlds for stories to happen in rather stories around which worlds were created.

Retribution Falls has that intense level of granularity and detail. It is easy to believe in the world beyond the characters, that there's business and goings on off screen. Secondary characters all have a well thought out place in the world, they all come with a back story consistent with elements of established continuity, they all fit their little niche in a calculated milieu.

There are times when this maybe goes a little too far. Combined with the old fashioned story and broad characterisation, it sometimes feels a bit like flavour fiction in a gaming manual. This is perhaps because of the main cast's habit of over analysing things, and so piloting the Ketty Jay sometimes reads a little like a series of skill rolls, and Crake often seems to be totting up his magic points before he cooks up a little deamonism.

Under other circumstances I might have been more impatient with the straight forward plotting, and I can't help wishing that Wooding was a little harder hearted and killed off a character or two on the way through, just to show us he meant business. Maybe things are a little easy for the crew of the Ketty Jay, but even so they make good company for frazzled evenings semi-conscious on the sandy settee with a glass of the local poison to ease the sandblasted headache.

Did I miss anything?

I dunno, it seems like you just turn around and suddenly everyone you know is changing on ya, or just up and leaving. You just can't depened on anything anymore. It's enough to make ya stay home forever.

Friday, 2 April 2010

There Will Now Be A Short Break

I'm taking an Easter break, and will be away from the blog for a week or so. I'll be back around the thirteenth with more rambling reviews, watery jokes and flaccid ranting. In the meantime, here's the Bonzo's with the housewive's favourite, Urban Spaceman.

The City & The City

This arrived as part of a much delayed shipment from amazon, and so I fell on it like a starving man. It was just what I needed,- - not so heavy or rich that it was hard to digest, but also not so light and bland that it lacked savour.

I have previously only read Miéville's Perdido Street Station, which I had a hard time with. I can think of material problems I had with this: large sections were in italics. It's a convoluted story with some bits more interesting than others. Most of the characters are pretty miserable most of the time, and spent quite a lot of pages mulling it all over. Often in italics. But despite all this, a lot of the reason I turned against it was the circumstances of when I read it.

It was a hot summer holiday in Rome, and we stayed in a cheap hotel that was close to the monuments, but down a back alley in a nasty part of town. It was built into a dark corner of an old office block, one window looking out to the gloomy street, the other into a bird shit stained lightwell. The breakfast room was in a stairwell, and we'd fill up on cheap euro breakfast of cheese and bread rolls before heading out to wander the city's ancient ruins. Rome is the closest place in the world to a real life fantasy city, where the spirit of forgotten magic rises from the ruins the randomly erupt from the streets around every corner.

My copy of Perdido Street Station was a cheap paperback that I read lying in bed, propped up on pillows during afternoon siestas in a stuffy hotel room, while Jane snored beside me. I remember hot afternoons with aching feet, frowning intently at the tiny, close set pages of type, feeling the weight of ages all around me. No matter how well imagined or well-described it was, my mind was never really in New Crobuzon.

Reading this on the DLR and in the cafeteria at work, looking over the buildings that have been written across the Docklands, Miéville's divided city had the compelling power of truth. It is only a tiny step from the divided cultures that co-exist all around us to the eerie superimposition that Miéville portrays with such effortless conviction.

The divided city had the dark surrealism of Dick/Borges/Kafka and it was combined with the spy and thriller genres, which I've been reading a lot recently.I'm pretty sure Miéville wants us to see this as a supernatural phenomenon - some kind of fold in space - but the writing is ambiguously poised between this and the idea of two populations occupying the same place, but deliberately ignoring each other due to some bizarre ancient schism. It's a brilliant idea that lets Miéville in to all sorts of interesting observations about society and politics.

It particularly resonates with the state of Eastern Europe following the break up of the Soviet Union. Tiny ethnic communities are drawn apart by the pull of East and West, with dividing line now between Islam and Christianity rather than the communism versus capitalism that fuelled the split in Berlin. The City & The City feels a bit like the Cold War, but Miéville's political concerns are right up to date.

It's let down a little by the thriller plot, which lacks drive and resolves into a bit of a damp squib. The big problem is with characterisation: we just don't care about Borlu or Mahalia enough to be pulled through the story by the mystery. The final revelations are all a little mundane, particularly Breach who have all the eerie menace they exert in the first half of the book stripped from them in the second.

The richness and consistency of the central metaphor keeps you reading, though, and the atmosphere is sustained through masterly control of the reader's attention. The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma are real and distinct, and Miéville examines the cultural and psychological consequences of their separation with great insight.