Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


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

Nice shirt, Bob!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

 Sam Goldwyn ponders the two types of stories.

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

Monday, 19 July 2010

Whatever happened to all the fun in the world?

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

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

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

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

Ut! Remember this guy?

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

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

Sunday, 18 July 2010

State of Change

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

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

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

Friday, 16 July 2010


All that said, Kick Ass was a fantastic movie.


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

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

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Noise Within by Ian Whates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 July 2010

State of Change Part Ten: The End

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 July 2010

David Marson Writes Again

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Obscene amounts of money

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

Short Fiction Wednesday

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

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

Sunday, 4 July 2010

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Strontium Dog: Search/Destory Agency Files Vol 01

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

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

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

Johnny Alpha: Strontium Dog