Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 June 2010

John Lennon: Naked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of Change Part Eight: Cuba Street Improv

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Still Point by Amy Sackville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Wisdom from John K

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

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

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 June 2010

State of Change: no new episode this week

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

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

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

Introduction
Some words of excuse by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction Wednesday

As I've mentioend before, I just choose these stories in a kind of random way, surfing around various sites - often in a bit of hurry - until I find something that looks like it's going to be interesting and isn't too long or too short, and then print them out to read later, on the train or in bed or whatever. I'm surprise how often the stories I pick have similar or contrasting themes. Maybe I make the connections myself subconsciously, maybe they'd appear to connect whatever they were, or maybe the muses guide my hand, who can say? Whatever the cause, this week I have found two stories that deal with questions of the self and identity.

He Angles, She Refracts by Rob Vagle (from Heliotrope) could be fantasy or surrelism, but I think it skirts a fine enough line to a low-context far future SF tale in a pleasingly unfathomable future. In this story, we see the mind turned in on itself in extreme narcissism. In this world, it seems that some people,  perhaps the rich and indolent, care for nothing so much as apprehending their own perfected bodies in a series of mirrors. This is clearly portrayed as a weakness, a moral lapse, that leaves them vulnerable to malevolent seducers who steal their images.

There is some hope for escape shown through the lowly servers, who try and help the main character after she's seduced, but instead she turns to another, a man, who has been similarly robbed of his images. The possibility of connecting with another is there, but it's heavily implied that this is just another form of narcissism, with the two just using each other is reinforce their own delight in their physical beauty.

Vagle the captures the characters' self-regarding natures nicely. While the main character is somewhat obnoxious, we can still empathise with the pain and shock of being tipped out of her comfortable coccoon by the villainous seducer. We see how she's brought this on herself, but we still hope she finds a way out. The ending, with all its ambiguities, is satisfiyingly unsettling and has wider implications about relationships and what we want from those closest to us.

The Night Train by Lavie Tidhar (from Strange Horizons) is a solid piece of bio-tech future post-cyberpunk that aspires to something more than its exotic setting and crime story plot. The writing is extremely vivid, and seems to spring naturally from what I know of the seedier elements of South East Asia, gleaned from travel documentaries and Asian crime movies. Tidhar presents a particularly imaginative take on the transhumanist biotech future that includes extreme body modification and AIs slumming it in rented bodies in a kind of post-human equivalent of prostitution. This malleability of the body and plasticity of a more-than-human mind call into to question where we place the limits of the self if they no longer exist in the corporeal fles,h and the illusion of a constant consciousness is tested to the limit.

It's definitely a story of two parts, though - the pulpy gangland hit and the more intriguing relationship between the body guard Mulan Rouge and the AI (or downloaded human mind) Darwin's Choice. The thought prvoking stuff is wrapped around a rather self-conscious genre frame of cyber-punk hit girls and crime melodrama. Tidhar explicitly references Neuromancer in the opening line - "Her name wasn't Molly and she didn't wear shades, reflective or otherwise." - and Heinlein's Friday shortly thereafter (I don't know who Noi, Porn and Ping are, but they might well be similar references).

This made me consider another issue, that of quality. Short Fiction Wednesday isn't really in the business of qualitative reviews - I just want to draw your attention to stories that interest me and hopefully tempt you into reading them. I've got a lot invested in short fiction, as a reader and a writer, so I want to do my part to make sure the scene is healthy and diverse. However, I have been pondering which of these stories is better.

My gut says that the Tidhar story is better - it's imaginative and vivid, and almost reeks of the South East Asian streets it takes its inspiration from - but my head prefers the careful unity of Vagle's story. The slightly meta genre discussion lessens The Night Train, it's a distraction from the main business of the story that's not adequately enfolded into the thematic thrust. In Vagle's story, the business of the seducers is what triggers the change in the characters, but the gangland murder plot feels bolted on in Tidhar's story, as if it's something he felt he had to include. The business about Molly and Friday sounds apologetic, as if deep down he knows that the story he really wants to tell is the story of mulan Rouge and Darwin's Choice.

It's too much to expect perfection, I know, and I get fed up with the various review sites that do, where good books or stories are castigated for not being great, but in the case of The Night Train it's so close, and the author even seems aware of the problem, that I think it bears comment.

Monday, 14 June 2010

It's oh so quiet...

Isn't it though? I've got a lot on right now - it's That time of the year for me - so I'm not posting as much. Plus, work has gotten busy again, and I have less time to bunk off and spit out posts on this and that.


I'm also holding off blogging about Shine until my review goes live on The Zone - I'll provide a short, complementary perhaps entirely tengential commentary here when it does. Otherwise, reading has been slow - I found Shine a slog, perhaps an early indication of which way the review's gonna go and The Still Point is a fine novel, but not my usual thing, so that one's going slow, too.

Not sure what I'll read after that, but I'm inclined by some crime. I'm also tempted to re-read Vance's The Demon Princes (for the zillionth time) cos it's been a few years and I do realy enjoy it. And, since I read Beyond Black, maybe Wolf Hall.

In the meantime, here' the video of that Bjork song, leached from youtube:

Sunday, 13 June 2010

State of Change Part Seven: Psychedelic Super Nazis

I've posted part seven of my novella State of Change over at its own blog. Things start to get really weird now, and a life time's reading of Fortean and conspiracy stuff begins to show. Some questions get answered, some new ones come up and a Belgian gets machine gunned. There's something for everyone this time around!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

My Father's Singularity by Brenda Copper (published at Clarkesworld) has an illuminating take on what's become a bit of clich̩ in recent years. The story cleverly shows us two sides of the imminent (yeah, right!) techno-rapture, when old stick in the muds like me won't be able to tell our children from our home appliances. The narrator finds himself on the cusp of manhood just as the wave of new tech crashes. Just as he is leaving home, it happens all around him and he grasps all the opportunities it offers. When he returns home, though, he discovers his father Рwho has meant so much to him Рno longer recognises.

The prose is a little rough here and there, particularly at the start, but it's still a wonderfully poignant story that keeps the loving relationship of a father and son at its heart. It outlines what we stand to lose in the rapid uptake of technology, without becoming a dire warning or a propaganda tract. It presents both sides in an even handed way, a beautiful exploration of ideas rather than a harangue.

This weeks second story comes from a new webzine called Lightspeed. These guys have hit the ground running, with an excellent publicity campaign that saw them prominently featured in i09, and elsewhere online, announcing their arrival. They have, correspondingly, garnered quite a bit of attention – well done you Lightspeed folks!

If this story  is anything to go by, this could be one to watch. I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You In Reno by Vylar Kaftan is a beautiful, poetic story of love and separation that effortlessly weaves it's science fictional elements into the characters' lives through incident and metaphor. It's a wonderful poetic piece that I found absolutely breathtaking.

Between them, these two stories offer a fantastic lesson in using relationships in SF stories in a convincing way. Very often, stories of this type clumsily spread relationships over a concept without the two ever quite meeting (I've written a few like that myself). Here, the two are intimately entwined, the one growing out of the other as naturally as in life.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Where is hope and wonder?

So, this week a book blog Guardian thing decided to make the point that Philip K Dick's prose was a little kldugy, from time to time. I wouldn't really argue with that, after all Dick wrote fast under heavy financial constraints and often the influence of drugs, so if there's the occasional flub we shouldn't be surprised, but even so it's a small-minded and stupid criticism to make.

By and large Dick's prose is pretty good, and often wonderful. Deckard's dialogue with Mercer in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for example, of the creepy descriptions of the half-life clinic in Ubik are magnificently controlled. Also in Ubik, there's the hilarious opening scene where Joe Chip argues with his door over whether the 25 cent opening charge is a fee of a gratuity. These scenes - plucked from the top of my head - are brilliantly realised, and there are moments like this all around his books and stories.

You could go through any great writer, it seems to me, and isolate a few paragraphs where the prose doesn't quite measure up - even Homer nodded - but why would you?

Well, the answer is simple - web hits. This silly little piece has generated a lot of hits from flabbergasted commenters (yes, me included) spluttering refutations. That's what it's all about.

"Pink Floyd are over rated!"
"Martin Amis is an Arab-hating hack!"
"Dali was a sell out nutter!"
"Mozart is bourgeois toss!"

This kind of commentary infects the web as bloggers - both professional and amatuer - attempt to generate traffic. The blogosphere (sorry!) is alive with puffed-up little attention whores, wannabe giant killers flinging their vapid feaces in an attempt to attract attention without creating one damn thing of value of their own.

This is why I'm not linking to the article. You can find it easily enough on your own, if you like, but don't bother. It's dreary pretend controversy for its own sake that will only make you cross.

I suppose the rejoinder is to point at all the review blogs that give superficial, fawning reviews off the latest ARC to hit the blogger's doorstep. That's just part of the marketing machine, just hype that's easy to ignore. Even hype is a more defensible practice than generating attention through wilful ignorance and stupidity.

Well, here at Pointless Philosophical Asides you'll find none of either. On the one hand, I want to share the things I love, communicate what's special and brilliant about them. On the other, my reading log includes a honest appreciation of books and stories, acknowledging the good and the bad. I guess that's why I never get any traffic...

Sunday, 6 June 2010

State of Change Part Six: Mind Fuck/Body Fuck

You'll be excited to hear that part six features some of the harshest of the sex scenes. By this point I was really trying to push myself in that direction, dealing with my own prudery and thinking a bit about buttons that no one likes pushing (I suppose some sickos do). I've pared it back a little for this version, and added a few lines to emphasise the tediousness of it without actually making it tedious, a fine line to navigate!

The egregious Curtis is based ona guy used to know, vaguely, but in retrospect I don't think this little bit of "comedy" works so well. I think it's happening too much in my head, not enough on the page. MUST TRY HARDER!

This part also explicitly introduces some of the philosophical content about reality, causation and how (and if) events follow one from the other. There's more in part seven, where the events depicted here throw a spanner into whatever it is that the blue guy – Manisola the Teacher, as I call him right now – is up to.

This is obviously the climax of the novel (if you'll excuse the expression) and the pieces are now all in place for the denoument (such as it is) to play out.

Friday, 4 June 2010

A cracking review of Sex & the City 2

I was in no danger of seeing this movie anyway, but this review epitomises the pleasure to be taken from seeing something disgusting washed away with bleach.
If this is what modern womanhood means, then just fucking veil me and sew up all my holes. Good night.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Comedy and Crime

There's an interesting article on the decline of light crime novels by Colin Bateman over on the the Guardian books pages (you'd be forgiven for thinking that I don't read any other news website... that's cos I don't!)

It's a topic close to my heart, as I am working on a comedic SF crime novel, and Bateman ends with the heartening observation that "if you want to find something new and challenging, comic crime fiction is now the place to go." Perhaps I'll be able to catch a wave in twelve months or so, whenever I get it finished (about 12% through, at the mo, by my reckoning).

However, I don't think he quite answers the question in the standfirst, "when and why did it [crime fiction] lose its sense of humour?"

I blame critics.

Now, obviously, I am something of a critical bod myself (and although lately in abeyance I'm heading back into critic territory again shortly, God help me) and so I don't want to be mistaken for an anti-intellectual type. And I don't think it's just a matter of critics, individually, being humourless, but I think the act of criticism pushes us towards more serious works. I can't recall who said it now (frustatingly, as it's a point I'm forever bringing up) but some famous critic (yes, I know) said that the emergence of literary criticism had led to the development of the lit crit novel, that is novels written by writers raised on lit crit and written (unconsciously, perhaps) to feed critical debate rather than just be good books (I'll leave the question about the difference between those for another time) (I'll also try and lay off the parentheses for a bit).

I think that happened to a lot of genre fiction during the sixties and seventies. Left to itself, it was funny and scatological and wild and zany, and mixed up in the same way as the readership. When critics started paying more attention to pop culture, I think pop culture got all nervous and self conscious and got all serious.

Look at Philip K Dick novels: when he thought he was writing trash, he gave us Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? When he suddenly realised he was a great writer all along, we got Valis and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, fine books to be sure, but without the zany edge that characterises Dick at his best. Suddenly, we get more gnosticism and questions of identity and less arguing with the pay-as-you-go front door over whether the quarter you have to pay to leave your apartment is more in the nature of a charge or gratuity.

Back when I started my MA, and I introduced myslef as a sci fi writer, my tutor nodded sagely and said "Ah, speculative fiction"! I said no. I said that I'm a sci fi author, with all the whacky baggage that entails. Hopefully I can hang on to that and ride it to fame and fortune. And then I'll buy the bloody Guardian and the centre spread every day will be my fat, smug smiling face.

Cyclical

Cyclical: what a snowman rides to work.

Hm, too much of a reach?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Comics Crossroads!

I've got friends who can't really fathom the appeal of super hero comics. In fact, I'm pretty sure that a number of people I know think that it's an entirely unseemly pre-occupation for a grown man with literary leanings and that I'd be better off directing my time and money elsewhere.

Well, I can't really argue that it's an a pretty risible genre, a ridiculous and bizarre mix of adolescent fantasy and naked commercial opportunism. What does it say about me that not only do I find these stories innately appealing, but that I have lost count of the times I bought a comic long after I've stopped enjoying the series out of a misplaced sense of completionism or brand loyalty.

Well, I'm working on the latter – a family man now and I can't really afford to drop thirty or forty quid a month on comics – but I can't see myself ever losing that innate love of reading about guys and gals men and women in skin tight spandex knocking the crap out of each other. With end of Marvel's Dark Reign storyline, though, I find myself at a crossroads. It definitely feels like the end of an era. It feels like the events that started with Civil War have finally run through the system, and the themes and plots that it engendered have run their course.

It's been a wild ride, and I feel it's led to a real flowering of the whole idea of continuity as it was created by Stan and Jack all those years ago. The writers and editors in charge of Marvel right now come in for a lot of flack online, but they seem to me to have really understood the mix of cliqueishness and huckterism that made classic Marvel such a joy.

I think it's good, though, that the last few years have seen the Marvel Universe basically re-set. I can see the appeal of wanting the world and story to develop in real time – DC's Earth 2 titles All Star Squadron and Infinity Inc were what drew me away from Marvel to DC back in the 80s – but I also think that that these types of developing story gradually alienate new readers. Original characters become stale, the pillars that made them interesting gradually give way after they've been explored over and. The classic example is the romantic tension of the Clark Kent/Lois Lane variety. You've got to choose – they either get hitched or they move on. Either way, the tension that fuelled so many stories goes away.

So, Marvel's hit the reset switch. They've gone for a soft reboot rather than the universe bashing “Crisis” tactic of DC (who claim to have sworn off Crises for now), although the Spider-Man “Brand New Day” story line was a rather heavy handed way of doing away with various elements of Spidey-lore that had become inconvenient. It's fair to say, though, that Spidey works best as the frazzled college student/twenty-something than the thirty-ish family man with a public identity he had become.

Much of Marvel's realignment is based on the movies, of course, and its no coincidence that the new Avengers feature the movie heavy weights of Wolverine, Spidey and Iron Man, as well as upcoming movie stars Thor and Cap. DC seem to be playing catch up a little with their “Brightest Day” storyline, which will eventually see Bruce Wayne back in place as Batman, Hal Jordan as Green Lantern (he's been back for a while after an ill-advised sojourn as the Spectre, of all things), Barry Allenas the Flash and... er... whatever they're doing with Wonder Woman this year. (I'll post about the wonderous Grant Morrison's Batman later in the year when that story wraps up.)

So, what to do? I'm inclined to stick with Bendis's Avemgers, as he's regularly delivered over the last four years. Aside from that? I don't know. Maybe I should be heading back to underground andf arts stuff. Maybe I should dig through the Marvel Essentials and trade paperbacks and enjoy classic stuff. Maybe I should grow the hell up and start putting my money in the bank... NAH!!!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week, I've found two stories with interesting takes on the topic of difference.

The first is a sweetly wry fantasy. On Not Going Exctinct by Carol Emshwiller (published at Strange Horizons) that captures wonderfully the natural adolescent sense of difference that we all, to one degree or another, feel as adulthood burgeons. I suspect that writers – neurotic types, by and large – feel it somewhat more keenly than most others, even other creative types, although I suppose any calling that requires one to think too much encourages it. The quest to find a place or a group where one belongs is a powerful story that will strike a chord of recognition with many readers. The narrator's efforts to discover her "secret talent" rang a particular bell of recognition for me.

In keeping with this sense of adolescent searching, Emshwiller says something important about how subcultures work, about how we make connections with like-minded people. It evokes the hope and fear that persists around exposing something important about yourself, something that could be met with either crushing indifference or terrifying hostility. This story is about all those differences – from just being a nerd (surely we all recognise that one) to being gay or simply being a creative and thoughtful person in a dreary, lumpen world of literal minded arseholes. Being a fantasy, it heads to another place that has its own satisfaction. It's a really terrific story that combines this sense of universal recognition with a delicious genre gloss, and it speaks to all the strengths of fantasy. Highly recommended!

Dione by Jess Kaan (published at Aberrant Dreams) is another fantasy of difference, but this one heads into horror and madness rather than the weird acceptance of Emshwiller's tale. It starts with a sensitive portrayal of childish confusion as the adults behave in ways that seem at odd with the easy platitudes that adults hand down, then builds nicely from confusion and tension to an atmosphere of menace and genuine, gory horror. It ends on a note of fateful pessimism that characterises the best short horror. Horror novels usually have to build to a more positively cathartic release, but in the short form, horror is at its strongest when underlines the malevolent emptiness of existence. This story definitely delivers in that regard.

This is a translation (by Sheryl Curtis) and I think the prose shows that oddly fragile stiltedness one often finds in translation. I have read a great deal of translated material over my life (including, ironically, a few Fantomas novels), but this slightly unsatisfying quality of the prose – the sense that something is being said that is just out of reach of the reader – is why I generally prefer to stick with original English.

In a story like this though, it works to its advantage. On Not Going Extinct shares this slightly stilted tone, which gives both a timeless, exotic timbre. I love this slightly jarring, eerie quality. It's a hard thing to do without being a little bit (or a lot) pretentious, but both these stories nail it.