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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.


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Moving pictures, #1

The first “films seen” post of 2015… Last year was a bit epic for DVD-watching, and I expect this year to be much the same… Three weeks into the year and I’ve already seen 29 films and rewatched season 1 of Babylon 5. I don’t document every movie I’ve watched in these posts – I mean, the less said about Solar Crisis the better (it was a charity shop find, okay?). Some films were rewatches, some were simply forgettable, and there’s not a lot I can say about Babylon 5 that’s not been said before by many others. So, it’s the usual mix of (mostly) classic films, I’m afraid…

playtimePlaytime*, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I knew very little about this film when I sat down to watch it – I knew who Tati was, of course; in fact, I’d seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot the year before (see here). But I hadn’t known quite how much of an… undertaking Playtime had been, how expensive a production, how enormous a film it proved to be. Apparently, it was a bit of a commercial flop on release, although critics acclaimed it. I loved it. Right from the opening in the mock-up of Orly Airport, with its clean retro-futurist lines. I loved the modernist look of the film, its Brutalist interiors and futurist gadgets. The plot, in which Hulot wanders from set-piece to set-piece, is almost incidental. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, more so than I seem to recall from the other Tati film I’d seen. And, of course, it just looks absolutely fantastic. So I bought a Blu-ray of it on eBay.

fearFear Eats The Soul*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Fassbinder famously based this film on Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows and, to be honest, I was expecting it to closer resemble Sirk’s movie that it actually did. Partly, this was because it was my first Fassbinder, so I had no real idea what to expect – it was probably also the first New German Cinema film I’ve seen; but I suspect my expectations were unrealistic and likely spoiled by Todd Haynes’ take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, which apes the look of Sirk’s film while extending its story. Fassbinder, on the other hand, makes free use of the story, but sets his story in present-day (for 1974) Munich. A widow in her sixties drops into a bar to get out of the rain, and so meets Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter who speaks broken German (the film’s actual title, Angst essen Seele auf, is broken German). The widow, Emmi, and Ali become friends, and then lovers, and she invites him to live with her. When the landlord tells Emmi that her lease doesn’t allow her to sublet, she tells him Ali is her fiancé. So Ali and Emmi marry – much to the disgust of Emmi’s adult offspring. But soon Emmi’s attitude toward her husband begins to align with those of her racist neighbours and friends, even though her children have come to accept Ali. Like Sirk’s masterpiece, Fear Eats The Soul shows a conventional woman entering into a relationship that which is uncomfortable to her family and peers, and then choosing to formalise that relationship (although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson don’t actually get married in All That Heaven Allows). But where Sirk’s film is about class, Fassbinder’s is very much about race, and especially about the presence of gastarbeiters in Germany. It’s a powerful story, and works especially well because of its low-key realist approach (unlike Sirk’s colour-saturated mise en scène, which I admit I love). Having now seen it, I think Fear Eats The Soul is not so much a reflection or homage to All That Heaven Allows as it is a complement to it.

mariabraunThe Marriage Of Maria Braun*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979, Germany). Did I mention I received a boxed set of Fassbinder DVDs for Christmas? It’s the Commemorative Collection 73-82 Volume 2. Obviously, I picked out the two best-known films in it to watch first. In The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the title character marries her boyfriend while he is home from the Front, they spend a day and a night together and then he’s off fighting again. Cut to the end of the war, and he doesn’t return home – she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still a POW held by the Russians. She gets a job at a bar that caters to American occupiers, and becomes the lover of one GI regular. At which point, her missing husband turns up and catches the pair in flagrante delicto. A struggle ensues, and Maria accidentally kills the GI. However, the husband takes the blame and is sentenced to prison for murder. Maria is determined to better her lot so when her husband is eventually released they can live a life of comfort. She meets a rich industrialist on a train, and he hires her as his personal assistant/mistress. She proves to have a head for business, and becomes rich. Meanwhile, the industrialist approaches the imprisoned husband, and the husband agrees to leave Germany on his release and not return to Maria. Later, after the industrialist has died, he returns – Maria has inherited everything, and is now very rich indeed. While Fassbinder didn’t evoke post-war Germany especially well – no doubt due to budgetary constraints; although von Trier, I thought, did a better job in Europa, albeit it was more representational – I thought this film a much more subtle piece than Fear Eats The Soul, and much the better for it. Maria Braun is a well-drawn and well-played character, and if the film puts the atrocities committed by the Nazis to one side (and, like Europa, paints the occupying Americans as heartless invaders rather than saviours), Maria’s profound selfishness and determination gives the story a solid anchor. Excellent stuff.

streetcar_named_desireA Streetcar Named Desire*, Elia Kazan (1950, USA). One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I watched only because it was on the list. I was aware of the film, and that it had made Marlon Brando a star, but that was about all. And, to be honest, what I knew of it didn’t really make me want to watch it. But it was on the list, so I bunged it on my rental list and, in due course, it popped through the letter-box. So I watched it. And… meh. It’s one of those films made on an indoor set whose stark lighting can’t hide the fact it’s as fake as a theatre flat. Brando was widely praised for his acting in the film, but I just found his put-on voice really annoying. Vivian Leigh was better, and managed to evoke the fragility of her character, but the final descent into madness was pure bathos. I can see how people would have liked it back in the day, but it’s all a bit OTT, a stage play turned up to 11, with much yelling and wailing and outbreaks of sudden violence. Ah well. One to cross off the list.

maleficentMaleficent, Robert Stromberg (2014, USA). The title character is, apparently, the evil queen in the Snow White story, although quite how this dark fantasy fits into the fairy tale is anybody’s guess – I think even Disney’s marketing department gave up on trying to persuade audiences of that one. Angelina Jolie, with prosthetic cheekbones and a pair of big fuck-off horns, plays the title character, who is really just misunderstood and not the evil piece of work the Brothers Grimm et al have painted her. Her peasant boyfriend, on the other hand, is. Evil, that is. Well, nasty. He even gets to be king – which is not how dynastic succession or divine right works, but this is a US film and they’ve never really understood the concept of royalty. For reasons I now forget, said king decides to raze the magic wood near his castle and in which Maleficent and her Thumper-y friends all live. So she seeks revenge by cursing the king’s new-born daughter. But I don’t recall the daughter being put to sleep – it may have been me who was sleeping – but instead she gallivanted about the magic forest and played  with all the weird faery creatures, while being maternally looked over by Maleficent. I’m not really sure what this film is meant to be – it reminded me of that other fairy tale mangled into a dark fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman; and while I have no problem with using fairy tales as source material, I’m not convinced Maleficent reflects well on the Sleeping Beauty story.

cranesThe Cranes Are Flying*, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957, USSR). I’m a big fan of both Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s films, and I’ve seen a number of other Russian movies – including bonkers sf film Kin-Dza-Dza, yet more bonkers Через тернии к звёздам, and even mighty Soviet historical epic Ilya Muromets. But I’d not seen much socialist drama, so The Cranes Are Flying was something new for me. It’s a WWII film, centred around the character of Veronika, a young woman. Her boyfriend Boris volunteers to fight, but is posted missing in action. Her parents are then killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, so Boris’s parents invite Veronika to live with them. Boris’s cousin Mark is also staying there, and he begins to pursue Veronika – she, of course, does not know Boris is dead, and she rejects his advances. He assaults her and shames her into marrying him. The family are moved further east, and Veronika works in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers. After an incident in a hospital, she decides to commit suicide, but at the last minute saves a boy from being hit by a car and adopts him. Boris’s father then learns that Mark escaped conscription by bribing an official, so he boots him out of the house. A comrade of Boris’s then turns up and informs Veronika that her boyfriend died a hero’s death… It’s all very grim, and each of the characters quite clearly maps onto roles played by the people of the USSR during WWII, both good and bad. While Veronika’s ending is hopeful rather than happy, the bad guy is caught and punished for his anti-socialist actions. As propaganda goes, The Cranes Are Flying was entertaining, if a little heavy-handed. The stark black-and-white cinematography was effective, and Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova was good as Veronika. Worth seeing.

timesevenWoman Times Seven, Vittorio de Sica (1967, Italy). Shirley MacLaine has made some odd films throughout her career, and this, I think, qualifies as one of them. It’s an anthology film, in which MacLaine plays seven parts, and they’re pretty much all the same. In the first, she’s a widow following her husband’s hearse to the cemetery, while her late husband’s doctor, played by Peter Sellers, tries to persuade her to marry him. In the second, she’s a young wife who returns home to find her husband (a different husband, obviously; MacLaine is playing different women) in bed with her best friend, so she heads out and meets up with a bunch of prostitutes. In the third, she’s a hippie translator who reads poetry, while naked, to a Scot and Italian who are members of the congress where she’s interpreting. The fourth sees MacLaine married to a best-selling author who is more in love with his fictional character than his wife, so MacLaine tries to become the fictional character, prompting the husband to have her examined by a psychiatrist. In the fifth, a society woman goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure a rival doesn’t wear the same designer gown as herself to the opera. The sixth appears to be set in New York and features a young married couple who are determined to commit suicide, except the husband isn’t quite so determined. And the seventh has MacLaine being stalked by Michael Caine after she meets Anita Ekberg for lunch. An odd film, and not even remotely funny.

affairAn Affair to Remember*, Leo McCarey (1957, USA). Unbelievably, I’d never actually seen this TV perennial, and since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I thought I should. I like 1950s melodramas, so I expected to like An Affair to Remember, but… Cary Grant was at his most tea-bag-tan-ish, and didn’t really convince as a French playboy (the former more than the latter). There was a little bit too much singing, and as the film progressed the schmaltz began to heap up in droves. And yet it all started so well – the shipboard romance was nicely handled, with plenty of witty banter. But after Deborah Kerr had been hit by a car… and gives up her singing career to teach poor children (sticks fingers down throat)… Obviously, a happy ending was always going to happen, but McCarey made sure he hit every emotional beat in Hollywood’s lexicon before reaching it. To be honest, it felt like a good 1950s melodrama badly welded to an inferior non-musical remake of An American In Paris.


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My BSFA nominations

I’m not really a big fan of popular vote awards, but having been a member of the British Science Fiction Association for over twenty years, and having attended, on and off, the annual Eastecon for around the same period, I’ve usually voted in the BSFA Award. I’ve also found that the shortlists frequently align quite well with my own tastes in the genre – something, obviously, that isn’t all that surprising when you’re a member of the core constituency.

Recent years have seen several changes to the awards. While the categories have finally settled at four – novel, short fiction (ie, any length shorter than novel), non-fiction and art – rules on eligibility have been affected by the advent of the internet and ebooks. Novels have to be published in the UK in the previous calendar year, which is pretty straightforward. Unless – and this is a fairly recent change – they’re ebook-only, in which case, as long as they’re available to UK residents (except the new EU VAT rules on digital products may scupper that from 2015 onwards). Back in the 1990s, short fiction also had to be UK-published, but now there is no such restriction. Likewise for non-fiction and art.

This year, however, a couple of more fundamental changes have been put in place. First, voters can now only nominate four works in each category. Previously, they could nominate as many as they wanted. And novels don’t have to be published in the UK, providing the author is British. The BSFA has also begun crowdsourcing a list of eligible works – although the list could do with some serious curating as there’s a lot of ineligible and duplicated entries on it.

This is all a long-winded way of presenting my own four choices in each category. Which are these:

novel
1 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
2 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (TJoy Books UK)
3 The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
4 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)

The first two were easy picks. I’ve spent this month completing my 2014 reading, but still failed to get to some possible contenders, such as Bête, Station Eleven*, Ancillary Sword, The Girl in the Road, The Echo, Wolves, Annihilation or The Bone Clocks – all of which sounded like the sort of novels which would appeal to me and might have made the cut. Novels that didn’t make it onto my ballot, though it was a close-run thing, include The Race, A Man Lies Dreaming, The Mirror Empire and Descent.

* Having said that, I find most literary post-apocalypse novels, no matter how beautifully written, extremely banal.

short fiction
1 ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, July 2014)
2 ‘Four Days of Christmas’, Tim Maughan (Motherboard, 24 December 2014)
3 ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Val Nolan (Interzone #252, May-Jun 2014)
4

I really went off short fiction in 2014. Everywhere I looked, the same sort of genre short stories were being published, and it wasn’t a sort I much cared for. As a result, I had to do some last minute reading, which meant some skim-reading of various magazines (I only read one anthology published in 2014 and it was poor; I didn’t buy any published during the year), some clicking through of links on posts of recommendations… and even then I couldn’t actually find four pieces of short fiction I felt were any good. The three listed above were ones that stood out for me during my headlong reading. It’s not the best way to pick something for an award, but then is there a best way?

non-fiction
1 Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
2 ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’ (Strange Horizons, 28 July 2014)
3 ‘Short Fiction and the Feels’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture, 6 October 2014)
4 Nina Allan’s “live blogging” of her read of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (The Spider’s House, November 2014)

Paul Kincaid has been an insightful genre critic for a long time, so a collection of his essays gets my first pick, especially since the book contains pieces on many of my favourite genre writers. The Strange Horizons Symposium I thought particularly well done, and I’m surprised it didn’t generate more comment. McCalmont has been writing some really interesting stuff about genre fandom for a while now, but I thought his piece on current short fiction was especially good. Allan is one of my favourite online genre critics, and her extended review, over some twenty posts, of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women was a text-book example of the right way to review a large anthology.

art
1 Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)
2 Hyperluminal, Jim Burns (Titan Books)
3 Cover of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, Andreas Preis (Gollancz)
4 Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)

mars_evacuees hyperluminal The-Gospel-of-Loki ings-wolves

My first choice was an easy pick. That really is a striking piece of cover art. I wasn’t sure whether Hyperluminal counted as art or non-fiction, but it’s a book about art, and I’ve always loved Jim Burns’s art, so I’m putting it here. I then spent one evening last weekend trawling through SF Signal’s forthcoming books posts for inspiration… and both The Gospel of Loki and Wolves jumped out at me. So to speak.

ETA: Apparently, the art award is for “single image” only, which means Hyperluminal is ineligible. So I need to find something else to nominate instead. I’ll update this post when I’ve found something, but for now I’ll Hyperluminal in place even though I’m not nominating it.


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Space opera trilogy to be published

The news is out… Tickety Boo Press have picked up my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, to be published in 2015 and 2016. The three books are A Prospect of War, A Conflict of Orders and A Want of Reason, and they’re sort of a steampunkish widescreen baroque space opera sort of thing. The official press release (see here) describes the general story as…

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but those who ignore history do so at their peril. The Empire was born in civil war and now, 1,300 years later, a fresh civil war is brewing. But who is the mysterious “Serpent” who threatens the Imperial Throne? And what can the renegade naval officer known only as the Admiral, and her single battlecruiser, do to combat him? Casimir Ormuz, a young man of low birth, may be the key. Whoever controls him is most likely to win—but he is determined to be his own master.

And then the historical origin of the Serpent’s conspiracy abruptly intrudes into the present… And the civil war becomes a battle for the Empire’s survival.

Set in a colourful and richly-detailed universe, An Age of Discord tells an epic story of derring-do and intrigue, while subverting space opera sensibilities and traditions.

… which is all a bit vague and tantalising-y. As all good blurbs should be.

acoo

I wrote a back-cover blurb for the first novel, and while it may or may not appear on the actual book when it’s published, here it is to give a flavour of the trilogy:

Lieutenant-Commander Rizbeka demar Rinharte is lieutenant of intelligence aboard Vengeful, a renegade battlecruiser commanded by the mysterious Admiral.

Sliva demar Finesz is an inspector in the Office of the Procurator Imperial, and involved in investigating a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor Willim IX.

Murily Plessant is captain of the data-freighter Divine Providence. She is also an agent of a secret order dedicated to protecting the Empire against the clandestine machinations of its internal enemies.

Although all three women do not know it, they are fighting the same enemy.

Vital to this fight is the young man Casimir Ormuz, a member of Divine Providence’s crew.

Only Plessant and her secret order know the role Ormuz will play… and even then he is far more pivotal than they realise.

Did I mention that the plot is really complicated? There’s wheels-within-wheels and sword-fights and space battles and no space opera cliché is left unmangled by the Sales treatment…

Oops. Forgot to mention. A Prospect of War will be launched at Edge-Lit 4 in Derby on 11 July this year.

PS: An Age of Discord will feature quote marks for dialogue.


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On awards eligibility posts

It’s that time of year again when the blogosphere is suddenly full of awards eligibility posts. Some people consider them useful and some people think they’re a bad thing. I used to believe there was something a little bit off about them, and I put that down to being, well, British. Blowing your own trumpet and all that. Bad form, you know. But my opinion on them has hardened of late. Having seen what a mockery the Hugo Awards were last year – which is not to say they haven’t been for many, many years – but in 2014 I was more than just an observer on the sidelines…

In 2014, I joined the Worldcon, which allowed me nominate works for the award. I took my vote seriously. I read novels I believed might be award-worthy, so I could put together a reasonably well-informed ballot. But the way everything worked out only brought home to me quite how corrupt is the culture surrounding the Hugos. And part of that culture is the awards eligibility post.

So why are they bad?

For one thing, awards are not about authors – they’re about what readers think of individual works. When an author enters a conversation about their book, they skew the conversation. We’ve all seen it happen. It usually result in authors bullying fans. When an author does the same with awards, they skew the awards.

It’s not a level playing-field. If Author A lists the eligible works they had published in 2014 and a couple of thousand people see that list, and Author B does the same but hundreds of thousands of people see their list… and if 0.01% of those people then nominate a work, guess who’s more likely to appear on the shortlist? Popular vote awards are by definition a popularity contest, so to make it acceptable for those with the loudest voices to shout across the room just makes a mockery of the whole thing.

Awards are fan spaces. Authors should not invade fan spaces. This is not to say that authors are not fans themselves. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t behave as fans in fan spaces. But an awards eligibility post is an author-thing not a fan-thing. (This leaves posts where authors recommend others’ works in something of a grey area. Big Name Authors have Big Loud Voices, and their endorsement can still skew an award.)

Authors get no say in how their works should be received, and that includes whether it is deserving of an award. (Whatever they might think privately, of course.)

If fans are serious about voting for awards, then they should make an effort to stay informed. They shouldn’t nominate works because they were reminded of that work’s existence by its author. You don’t nominate on a fucking whim. Yes, the field is large, and it’s easy to miss something worthy of an award. But voters have a responsibility to make an informed vote, and while no one expects them to have 100% information – those days are long past – just waiting for their favourite author to provide a list for them to choose from is just plain irresponsible.

And, needing to be reminded of something you consider one of the best pieces of fiction of the year? Seriously? It’s so good, you’ve completely forgotten it a few months later? Awards, as a general rule, are supposed to go to the “best” of something – the Hugo Awards actually include that word in their title. You’d imagine a work which is the best to appear during a year would at least be memorable.

(The above, of course, applies to the nomination process. The actual voting usually settles things out. No matter how bad the shortlist, voters usually pick the right one – as they did last year. But the more shit the shortlist, the more the probability of an unworthy winner approaches one.)

bsfa2012

We’re currently in the middle of the BSFA Award nominating period – it closes on 31 January. This year, they’ve changed the rules. Now, we only get four nominations per category, instead of an unlimited number. It’s going to make for a very interesting award. Will the shortlists skew to popularity much more than they have done in the past? Or will they do the opposite… and end up with such a wide spread of nominations that only a handful are required for a work to be shortlisted? I guess we will find out in the months to come…


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Moving pictures, #14

These are the last films I watched during 2014 – or at least, the last films I watched worth noting. One or two you might have heard of. As on previous Moving Pictures posts, asterisked titles are on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list.

josephine-and-menJosephine and Men, Roy Boulting (1955, UK). I bunged this on an order from Amazon as a) it was cheap, b) the write-up sounded interesting, and c) I like 1950s films. Unfortunately, it proved less good than expected. The title character is played by Glynis Johns, who was apparently big in her day but was new to me. She plays the sort of woman who is attracted to men in need – fortunately, she comes from a well-off family, so she doesn’t have to suffer while attaching herself to them. Her first is a struggling playwright who, after marrying her, becomes a commercial success, so they retire to the country. Then an old beau who’s a rich and successful investment-something turns up, and apparently his firm has collapsed owing lots of money and his partner has probably done something fraudulent. So Josephine falls for him and… There’s probably a word for these sort of 1950s Brit rom coms, where everyone is terribly-terribly and the women all wear mink coats and you know the men all went to the best schools. It’s all very frothy and no more representative of this country than any contemporary Hollywood film or indeed a present day Conservative Party political broadcast. A film for a wet Sunday afternoon when you can’t be arsed to switch your brain on.

xmendaysX-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer (2014, USA). From what I’d read, I was expecting a twisty-turny plot that was more twisty and turny than a twisty-turny thing. Not quite up to Primer‘s level, but something a bit like, say, Looper. So my expectations were somewhere around the middle, and yet X-Men: Days of Future Past still failed to meet them. There’s no cunning time-paradox plot. The film opens in a future Earth decimated by the Sentinels, and the surviving X-Men use some magic superpower to send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to prevent the Sentinels from being built. It’s mildly amusing, although perhaps chiefly entertaining for the po-faces pulled by the cast as they speak their ridiculous lines or strut about in their ridiculous costumes. I remember being really impressed with the first X-Men film when I saw it. I’d always had a fondness for the group and used to buy the comic as a kid. (I did try later rereading the Dark Phoenix Saga – I shouldn’t have done. It was shit. Don’t piss on your childhood heroes, keep them safely dry under rose-tinted glass.) Anyway, X-Men: Days of Future Past was I suppose entertaining, but this superhero movie thing, it’s all getting very silly now and I think it should stop.

lastdaysonmarsThe Last Days on Mars, Ruairi Robinson (2013, UK). I sort of feel a very tiny sense of ownership of Mars since I’ve written a novella and several short stories set on the planet’s surface, and I researched them all thoroughly… But seriously, having researched Mars, I’m somewhat sensitive to attempts to portray it realistically – and there have been several attempts. Sort of. Who remembers Red Planet and Mission to Mars? The Last Days on Mars makes a reasonable effort to depict the Martian surface – it was filmed in Jordan, apparently – but the plot is your usual sci-fi cinema nonsense. One of the scientists disobeys orders to go on one last survey – why are astronauts and scientists in films so unprofessional? Seriously, no one’s going to spend billions of dollars putting some maverick prick into space or on another planet. Anyway, said scientist discovers a weird hole in the ground, falls in and gets contaminated by some alien gunk that turns him into a zombie. And it’s contagious! And it’s zombies on Mars! And that’s it!

Les-DiaboliquesLes Diaboliques*, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954, France). The only reason I watched this was because it’s on the 1001 Movies To Watch Before You Die list, but it’s one of those films which proves the worth of such lists. I’d seen another Clouzot earlier in the year, Wages of Fear, which I’d thought good if somewhat over-shadowed by later uses of the same formula. But when I shoved Les Diaboliques into the DVD player, I knew nothing about it. The title promised… Well, pretty much like Wages of Fear, the title promised a different story to that which unfolded as the film progressed. An abused wife of a schoolmaster gets her revenge, with the her husband’s mistress, also a teacher at the school. They drown him in a bath-tub, then roll his body into the school swimming-pool so it looks like an accident, but the body is never discovered… Casting his actual death into doubt. It’s all very cleverly done, but I did think it took a while to get going.

Space-Station-76-2014-R2Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick (2014, USA). A person of my acquaintance encouraged me on Twitter to watch this film by telling me how bad it was, because they quite clearly knew I’d be unable to resist it from their description. In actual fact, it wasn’t quite as bad as advertised, it was just mostly very dull. I can see how someone might have thought the central premise – it’s set on a space station! but like a space station from a bad 1970s sci-fi show! – might have sounded awesome for about, oh, a nanosecond or so. But really, this film should never have been green-lit. I’m having trouble remembering the actual story – in fact, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. Some of the jokes, piss-takes of 1970s sensibilities, were either not funny or borderline offensive. Like the gratuitous nude woman who appears a couple of times. She’s a hallucination by one of the male characters and serves no purpose in the plot. It was all a bit like an episode of one of those 1970s science fiction television shows, where you look away for five minutes, look back and it’s like you never looked away at all except it’s just struck you that you no longer give a fuck what’s happening.

lolaLola*, Jacques Demy (1961, France). I think this is the first Demy I’ve ever watched. When this movie opens with a big American convertible driving around the streets of a French port, the first thing it put me in mind of was Aki Kaurismäki. But then it sort of turns into a Nouvelle Vague drama, with a US sailor who falls for the eponymous singer/dancer in a bar – which looked a bit too wholesome and clean, to be honest – but Lola is still pining for her previous boyfriend, who left seven years before to make his fortune. There’s also an ingenu, who knew Lola as a teenager and bumps into her in the bar where she works. There are one or two musical numbers, which are cleverly integrated into the story. It’s all very charming and not what I was expecting. There was a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism, to Lola, which contrasted well with the various concerns of the supporting cast. By the time the film had finished, I’d decided I’d like to see more films’by Demy… but, of course, only two or three of them are available in the UK. Typical.

element_of_crimeEuropa, Lars von Trier (1991, Denmark). This is the third film in the E-Trilogy box set and it’s so much better than the first, Element of Crime (see here). An American, played by Jean-Marc Barr, visits Germany just after the end of WWII, and gets a job as a sleeping car attendant with the Zentropa train line. (Von Trier later named his production company for the train line.) Germany at this time is suffering due to a crashed economy, blasted infrastructure, demoralised population, heavy-handed and brutal occupiers, pogroms against anyone with Nazi connections, and a group of resistance fighters known as Werewolves. Barr gets involved with the daughter of Zentropa’s owner, and through her becomes embroiled in a plot by the Werewolves to bomb the train on which a new mayor is travelling to his town. Europa consciously mimics the old pulps – and it’s especially interesting comparing it to Kerry Conran’s un fairly-maligned Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow. Europa is B&W, and often superimposes characters and action against blown-up backdrops, something pulp serials often did. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, on the other hand, was filmed in colour, and used that back-screen technique less. The later film’s plot, however, better suits pulp cinema techniques than does the post-war noir of Europa. So far, I seem to hate one von Trier film and then like the next. Europa definitely falls in the “like” column.

transcendenceTranscendence, Wally Pfister (2014, USA). Johnny Depp is like top of the field in AI research, but he’s sort of at odds with everyone else because, er, because no one in the film actually seems to know what AI is. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer and he hasn’t gone long to live, so he records his consciousness, and his wife and best friend/colleague upload him into his superfast quantum computer. And that sort of gives him god-like powers, not to mention overweening arrogance. And yes, it all pretty much plays out how you’d expect. Actually, bits of this film I liked. I thought the attempt at utopia versus AI-led autocracy made for an interesting story, which, of course, rapidly devolved into a shoot ‘em up, but never mind. Depp never really convinced in the, er, title role, but to be honest there’s only a handful of films where he has done – which doesn’t actually make him either a bad actor or one that isn’t entertaining to watch. Transcendence wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it liked to think it was, and while it looked pretty in places, it was still as shiny and glossy and plastic as any Hollywood product. Meh.

realmofsensesIn The Realm of The Senses*, Nagisa Oshima (1976, Japan). This is perhaps chiefly famous for being, well, pornographic. And it is, it really is. I was expecting something typically 18-rated (if that rating still exists), plenty of artfully-framed sex scenes that reveal little but suggest plenty; but it’s not, it’s outright porn. The plot is based on a true story, about a maid at hotel in 1930s Tokyo who enters into an affair with the hotel’s owner.’The affair soon turns obsessive, before eventually ending badly with some consensual, er, bondage. To be honest, I found it all a bit slow and not every engaging. Despite being a period piece, it felt somewhat 1970s. The characters felt a bit flatly drawn and the scenery all looked a little washed out. I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – honest! – but at least now I can cross it off.

athrowofthediceA Throw Of Dice*, Franz Osten (1929, Germany/India). Apparently, in the 1920s and 1930s, Osten made 19 silent films in India – although he was arrested in 1939 as a Nazi and held until the end of the war. Many of his films were based on stories from the Mahabharata, with an Indian cast but mostly German crew. A Throw Of Dice tells the story of two kings who want to marry the same woman. They gamble for her hand, evil king wins, good king becomes his slave. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal from this film – it’s been a few weeks since I watched it. It’s not especially long for a silent film, and the intertitles were neither too intrusive nor too opaque. It all looked very good, although a hunting scene I recall being a little, er, over-acted. But I’m glad I watched it. I’d watch more by Osten.

guardiansGuardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn (2014, USA). I have a soft spot for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in the 1970s, I used to buy the occasional Marvel comic, and when they weren’t X-Men ones, they were usually the anthology UK reprints which included Guardians of the Galaxy. And I quite liked the Guardians – I liked that they were actually science fiction, I thought Star Hawk an interesting character, I liked Vance Astro… Of course, this movie is based on the rebooted Guardians from the mini-series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the early 2000s, although Disney have made a number of changes to the property. Cosmo the telepathic dog is out, although he does make a cameo, Knowhere is not their headquarters but some clichéd lawless frontier place, and the Guardians aren’t actually the Guardians but a group of roguish criminal misfits who sort of band together in adversity and become the Guardians. Which is just fucking nonsense. It would be a bit like the Kray Twins being made police commissioners. It only happens in stupid films. And, er, comics. But the film… It all felt a bit formulaic. New character, quick give us the back-history! There were huge indigestible chunks of exposition. Not to mention lots of things that made no logical sense. A galactic prison. And guards who wander among the prison population carrying powerful firearms. And the watch-tower can sort of detach and turn into a spaceship… except there’s no way out for it to go except the normal entrance. And, of course, prisons normally park inmates’ vehicles in their own parking lot, don’t they. And… why bother? Guardians of the Galaxy was a text-book script-writing in parts, narrative tools that really need to be retired in others, and the usual Hollywood nonsense when it came to world-building or logical story progression. Whatever they’re teaching scriptwriters these days, it’s complete bollocks.

snakepitThe Snake Pit*, Anatole Litvak (1948, USA). The title refers to a ward at a mental institution to which Olivia de Havilland is sectioned (although I don’t think they use that term in the US). De Havilland does legitimately suffer from a mental illness, and a sympathetic doctor eventually uses regression therapy to figure out the event which led to her condition. Which is not to say, of course, that all such conditions are the result of past trauma. The institution was a pretty uncivilised place, with the inmates either treated like criminals or wild animals, most of the staff were stuffed shirts, although the nice doctor and the husband were sympathetic. De Havilland screamed a lot, and it all seemed a bit overwrought in places – but I actually thought it much better than I’d expected. And one scene where de Havilland is interviewed by the staff to see if she’s ready to leave, but a doctor’s wagging finger sets her off, was done well. I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movie list, but I’m glad I watched it.

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