Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rise of the Robots: reading log, third quarter 2013

Once more the clock of the year arrives at quarter to midnight... well, practically ten-to now, but I’m doing the best I can here. It’s been a busy quarter covering the summer holiday period, although I know I make that excuse every time. My holidays were particularly great this year and I’ve been enjoying the Indian summer culminating in an amazing, albeit fleeting, literal trip to India for work.

So once again I find myself being thankful for all the gifts that life has brought while working hard to squander, ruin or debase them. Oh well, mustn’t grumble!

In the meantime, I distract myself with writing – the writing by others and writing of my own. In this reading report I’ll mainly be talking about Comixology, the gradual failure of my anti-gadget resolve and a bit more about – perhaps my final word on – the death of science fiction.

This is a blog about words, but from time to time we must consider the medium. There are things about paper books I adore – foremost, perhaps, a good delve into a second hand shop – but I’m not wedded to them. I’ve had an e-paper Kindle for a couple of eyars, and while I still read hard copy books (usually gleaned from second hand shops) I find it extremely useful for books I just want to to read without hassle.

However, I had been resisting smart phones and tablets for a while. I almost bought a smart phone at Christmas, but finally couldn’t figure out why I wanted one and so didn’t bother (the question’s rearing it’s ugly head again, though). As for tablets – expensive toys!

Then my boy got a Kindle Fire for his birthday. We unpacked it and I helped him set it up and within about five minutes I knew I wanted one. I didn’t buy a Kindle though. I salved my conscience by searching for something second hand, eventually settling on a Google Nexus 7 for about a hundred quid.

Why did I want one at all? Well, it’s just irresistibly cool. It is a bit of a toy, yes, but having the internet on hand at all times is enormously handy and I’m filling the otherwise empty moments of my life with pinball and the occasional blast of Real Racing.

It does however cost me quite a lot in terms of reading time. It’s colonised some of the key times when I used to read – breakfast and in bed before sleep. During these hours I’m inclined to play games, check the news, look at Facebook or just fiddle about with the settings.

I can read my Kindle books on it, of course, so I’ve done that a bit, but it’s brought another important addition to my reading life: Comixology. For those of you who don’t know, this is like Kindle for comics.

The colour screen makes the comics look great, but it is a slightly different reading experience. I find it easiest to focus on a panel-by-panel view that zooms out at the end of each page to show the whole page. I’ve found this slows it down, and I focus a little more on each incident, but you can sometimes feels a little lost in a way that you don’t when the rest of the page is in your peripheral vision. But it’s super-handy and you don’t end up with piles comics that you don’t really want crowding out the shelves.

That said, I haven’t been taking full advantage. The only thing I’ve read on it – aside from freebie one-offs – is the Annihilation series from a few years ago. It was enjoyable sci-fi comics bollocks, but it didn’t really leave an impression. The art was mostly pretty good and the story was good fun, but it was all a little bland. Was this a consequence of how I read it? Hard to say.

The problem is that it’s a bit pricey compared with alternatives. The collections are typically more expensive than buying second hand through amazon, although this wasn’t the case with Annihilation, where volume one seems to only be available at crazy prices. I wanted to read it but not enough to pay £60, so it was a good excuse for me to give Comixology a proper try. Even so the whole series probably cost about £30, which is still a lot to spend on cheesey super-hero stories (although in fairness, I’d often spend that much on my monthly pamphlet fix in the olden days).

In addition, libraries remain – while we still have them – a great way to combine a passion for miserliness with civic engagement, and the Lewisham libraries generally have a pretty good selection of comics. I’ve now finished the last few volumes of Astro City, and so I’m reading through Morrison’s Doom Patrol. I read these back in the day, probably picking up around vol 3, but haven’t read any of them since.

At some stage, I’ll probably exhaust the supply of comics I’m interested in that are also held by the Lewisham Library Service, and perhaps Comixology will come into its own then. In the meantime, I’m mostly reading hard copies for now.

I’ve only finished two proper books this quarter. One of these is The Air Loom Gang by Mike Jay, which I read on a whim after thinking about it in relation to the story Don’t Look Now. I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s fascinating to look into the lives of recognisably ordinary people from the past. James Tilly Matthews started as a tea broker, and the doctors all around him are middling men rather than the heroic medical types who leant their names to theories and discoveries. It’s a fascinating story and Tilly’s madness is a brilliant device for showing the attitudes and temper of the times, as are the politics and methods of dealing with societies most vulnerable people.

The other book I finished was volume three of The History of the Science Fiction Magazine by Mike Ashley. Just as volume two was more enjoyable than volume one, this was better the volume two. Two of these stories stood out significantly from the rest, Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury and The Last Day by Richard Matheson.

The first is a very traditional SF story – it imagines a plausible futuristic scenario and explores what it would be like to live in it. The device of the ship-wrecked spacers reflecting on their lives allows Bradbury to pack in a lot of convincing detail of the life of a working stiff plying the space ways like a merchant seaman. Unlike so much SF, it’s not a genre story of derring-do and larger-than-life heroics. It’s a story of ordinary working lives and that’s where it draws most of it’s power. The experience of being stranded in space is brought to life all the more vividly because it’s happening to people like you or me.

The Last Day is also a story of ordinary people faced with the extraordinary. It asks us all to look inside us and think about who would we want around us on the day the world ends, how would we face those final moments? It’s written with considerable pathos for people’s failings and a kind of generosity. This makes the apparently dire subject matter strangely uplifting, like the climax of The Road. Perhaps it is as Philip Larkin says that ‘what will survive of us is love’.

Aside from those two, The Fires Within and Hands Off! were both solid stories of SF in the old fashioned style and the only one in this volume I didn’t really like was They Fly So High. In addition there was To Serve Man, which hasn’t aged well; despite this I can still admire the set-up even if I have heard the punchline a billion times before.

The big theme in this volume seems to be aliens. Exactly half of the stories featured aliens: encounters with, paranoia about, invasion by and detailed descriptions thereof. A number of these turned on a paradigm-shifting revelation of a hidden world – suddenly everything you knew is wrong and Uncle Gerald could be from Venus.

A less marked trend was the depiction of space as a workplace. Four stories showed people working in space at more or less normal jobs, demonstrating the kind of pragmatic, futurist vision the characterises classic SF. These worlds, however broadly painted, suggested a highly plausible work-a-day world where the reader could imagine themselves to be.

After finishing that, I started reading The Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by Kingsley Amis. I’ve already started blogging about these stories, and I’m halfway through now.

The stories in this volume are a whole lot better than the History of series! I understand why, of course: Kingsley undoubtedly had an easier job of things without the necessity to represent every year since the 1920s. But it’s still good to read a collection that has one enjoyable, original and well-written story after another.

It’s interesting, however, that all the stories in this volume date from after the war. It seems to follow the pattern set by The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, where the genre grows in power and relevance as the world at large come to grips with the ramifications of the materialist, technological world that SF writers had been exploring for a while.

My whole thesis with these blog posts has been to explore the idea that SF is dead, and Amis kindly lends a hand by agreeing with me. However, he argues that the genre began to lose its power in 1960, which is a bit early for me.

As I mentioned before, by 1981 when this volume was published, cyberpunk happening. I’m a good eighties kid, so I was a cyberpunk, of a sort. In fact I’ve always been awkward with technology and a late adopter, but I believed in the cyberpunk re-imaging of the future.

But this re-imaging was already a work of nostalgia. The Gernsback Continuum, which opens Mirror Shades (and was published in the same year as this volume) longs for the clean art-deco designs of a future that never came around. This is the the undercurrent in so much cyberpunk: the future we never got. It looks back to classic SF and sees the future not as a glory to long for, but as a broken promise.

The big promise of classic SF was that it would explain the world. It’s a way of understanding the implications of living in an entirely materialistic world – if God is dead, then who’s running the show? The answer is very often ‘no one’, sometimes expressed through the nihilistic notion of ‘cosmic horror’.

It’s also a fiction that acknowledges that change happens. It came along at a time when great leaps in technology were changing people’s lives immensely. World War 2 saw one of the most extraordinary periods of technological advance in history, and it’s no coincidence that the period immediately afterwards was the most fruitful in the genre’s history.

We’ve now come to grips with these ideas. We don’t have answers, maybe but the problems don’t seem to worry us quite the way they did even as recently as forty years ago. The best response to a godless universe seems to be to ignore the idea or laugh about it, which is just another way of ignoring it really. Technological change is now built it into the fabric of our lives. We live in the age of the upgrade where we await the next amazing advance on tenterhooks.

In reaction, the fantastic genres have returned to something closer to their pre-modern roots. Unlikely romances of heroism and derring-do, given the contemporary anti-heroic (or ‘grimdark’ as the children call it) gloss, metaphors of varying degrees of satirical fruitiness and a kind of distaff role to realism to be called upon as required but not necessarily as a life-style choice. The imagery of science fiction or fantasy is interchangeable, because the types of stories being told are now the same.

It think that’s all I’ve got to say on this topic for now. What I’d really like to do next is a comparative read of the last couple of decades, but I’m not sure how that works. However, when I’m done with Amis, I’m going to take a break from short stories and maybe SF for a bit too, but we’ll see.

In addition, I feel I should alert regular readers to some startling developments. A bit rough and ready yet, but the future of me is on its way!


  1. People keep recommending "The Air Loom Gang" to me. My only knowledge of the whole thing is the part it plays in Richard Hayden's novel "The Influencing Engine", which I think you might like - I remember feeing that he conjured up early 19th century London well.

    I always felt that "The Gernsback Continuum" was a critique of those art-deco futures: isn't his point that those high-modernist futures are *really creepy*, and that our somewhat beaten-up world is actually preferable?

    Thanks for the link to "Harrison Bergeron" by the way, it was a bit lazy of me not to check if it was online. I'll get round to reading it soon. Your take that it's an idea Vonnegut didn't take particularly seriously fits better with my impression of him than with it being a serious political screed like Rand's stuff.

  2. Ooh, Comixology - it's almost the only thing that makes me read comics!
    I mean, I'm not really a regular comic reader, but the "guided view" thing is something I really like and it encourages me to give stuff a go. I got Mouse Guard recently. That was good.

    My keeping track of layout method is the opposite of yours, though -- full page before zooming in, rather than after.

    (I also have a small niggle with how sometimes a frame will zoom in on a speech bubble, so you wasted time reading it in small-o-vision, but then sometimes it won't, so you find yourself skipping ahead and then back. But hey.)

  3. Stephen: The Air Loom Gang is great, highlt recommended. A real breeze of read, too really interesting and entertaining. The Influencing Engine sounds like quite a similar tale.

    On 'The Gernback Continuum': Hm, I can't say I recall exactly with it's 'about' in that way ... I'm sure you're right. Well, I guess the point still holds that cyberpunk is essentially backwards looking. It's forever got its eyes on Classic SF and holding it to account, one way or another.

    Tom: I'm sure Comixology's will come into its own for me in due course come! A lot of it's making my way around the interface so I can find what I want. I should give Mouse Guard a go one day.

    One thing that would be agood would be shared acocunts so I could share with the comics I bought with the boy. We read through the Grant Morrison vols together earlier in the year, and he'd probably enjoy Annihiliation, too, but it's stuck on my Nexus as far as I can tell.

    Did either of you click on the link at the very end? It's my new thing, not quite ready for launch.

  4. I *did* click on the link at the end - the site is shaping up nicely!
    And it reminded me I should give Panoptica another read soon.

  5. Hurray! You are perhaps the first non-spammer to visit. Hand over hand I am dragging myself into the future.

  6. I did take a gander at the link - looking forward to it!

  7. You are on the crest of wave that will change the face of blogging!

    Not the whole face, of course... just that bit where the ears connect. Technically that might be part of the head.


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