It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Best of the Year Addendum

I’ve already done my best of the year blog post – see here – and picked my top five books, films and albums. But as I write this, I’m listening to an album I really should have listed in my honourable mentions. So I’m going to mention it now.

The album is The End Of The Line and it’s by Necropolis, a British death metal band from the 1990s. Formed from cult Newcastle thrash band Atom God and Oxfordshire death metallers Gomorrah, it’s real Old School NWOBHM-influenced death metal. The End Of The Line is their own only album and also features some guitar-work by Fast Eddie Clarke. In fact, the guitar-playing throughout is bloody impressive (although I’m not sure which is Clarke, and which is band-members Billy Leisegang or Keith More).

And just look at the lovely cover-art.


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Make It Real Not Fantasy

Science fiction is apparently dying, or at the very least it will die unless it changes. Mark Charan Newton says that as a commercial literary genre, sf has had the crap beaten out of it by fantasy and now lies bleeding on the floors of book shops around the English-speaking world. Jetse de Vries says he’s not surprised sf is declining because it’s lost its relevance.

Lots of other people disagree.

I can’t deny that written fantasy appears to be in ruder commercial health than written sf. Nor do I think modern science fiction is especially relevant.

But.

These days, sf is more of an entertainment genre, a cross-media genre. And while that’s true, written sf will live on. After all, the vultures have circled overhead before, but it’s still here. For some people, cinematic spectacle, FPSs set in post-apocalyptic wastelands, and spandex-clad loons singing about space unicorns are not enough. They need a regular fix of the pure strain: the written form.

But even as a written genre, sf covers a wide field. The interesting, exciting stuff – the smart stuff – has always been a minority within sf. The populist stuff has always been, well, the most popular. Obviously. All that’s really changed is that much of the populist sf is now media-driven. As sf fans, we like to think that we’re smarter than the average reader – all those Big Ideas, the universe our playground, science… But sf readers are no different to mainstream readers. The majority like escapism, mind candy; they don’t want to think too hard while slurping down their tales of spaceships and robots. They want colourful tales and bright futures. Which just happen to be set in galactic empires or on alien worlds.

It has always been thus.

Which means that sf as a whole has never really been especially relevant. It’s not becoming “increasingly irrelevant” as Jetse would have it, because it’s only a small proportion of the genre which has ever tried to be relevant. Of course, increasing the size of that minority, making more of the genre relevant, is certainly worth doing, and is something I certainly think should be done.

Which is why I feel “Strange Sci-Fi” is a step backwards. Pretending it’s really fantasy, or disguising sf as fantasy, is not doing science fiction any favours. Sf has its own toolbox – why do we need to steal tools from fantasy? It not only obfuscates the story’s genre credentials, it often obfuscates the story itself.

What sf needs to be is real. We need Real SF. Not Mundane SF – there’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The genre has a large catalogue of literary devices, from AIs to faster-than-light travel, and I see no reason why they can’t be used to populate the sf landscape. But they’re devices to enable the plot – not background, not setting, not colour.

There’s a lot we know about the universe, there’s undoubtedly a great deal more we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean sf should go backwards and unlearn what we do know. That way lies fantasy. It’s not just the authorial handwaving, or the bollocks science – if we’re calling FTL a literary device, some of either, or both, is going to be necessary. But I’m a firm believer in rigour. It has to be airtight, it has to be turtles all the way down. You don’t see mainstream authors winging it. Well, yes, all right, you do: Dan Brown makes it up as he goes along, and then claims it’s historical fact. But you certainly don’t see writers of literary fiction doing that.

For sf to show that it’s not at death’s door, it needs to up its game. It needs to ditch the dynastic struggles in galactic empires. It needs to boot the giant space crabs into touch. It needs to forget the kindergarten politics and early 19th Century science. There are ways to write about the Now using the tools of sf. The genre needs to take note of the world around it, and then write about it. If it wants to do so in a story set on an alien world, then fine. If the plot requires FTL in order to make a point about the Present, then no problem. The devices are there to be used.

There’s also the writing itself, of course. In this area too, sf covers as wide a range as mainstream fiction – from the top prose stylists to those whose lack of facility with the language is frankly embarrassing. But I think the bar needs to be raised across the entire genre. Likewise, for characterisation and other hallmarks of good writing.

I agree with Jetse that science fiction as a whole needs to become more relevant. I don’t agree that it’s dying, nor do I think making it relevant will necessarily re-invigorate it. But I’d certainly like to see a shiny new science fiction genre in 2010, one that’s healthier, more relevant, better-written, more insightful, and with much more rigour.

One that’s real.

How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?


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A Post-Christmas Post

That’s one lot of festivities / commercial frenzy over. Next up, the New Year – a celebration of an entirely arbitrary point in time. Bah humbug.

I saw Avatar on Christmas Eve. It was… a spectacle. The 3D is excellent. The film looks beautiful, if a bit too much like the cover art from a Yes album. But the story is about forty years out of date – in plot and in its somewhat offensive sensibilities – and suffers from some dodgy logic and some even worse dialogue. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly involving for its length and, happily, the screen is not always so busy – as it is in many recent sf films – that you’re overwhelmed. Even more happily, it is not monumentally stupid, as Star Trek XI was. Worth seeing – worth seeing in 3D, in fact.

Christmas Day passed in the usual fashion. I watched the Doctor Who episode – the first of a two-parter to be completed on New Year’s Day. It was the usual mad logic-free rush to extend New Who’s mythology. First, they lathered on the angst – he’s the last of the Timelords. Then he drifts a little towards the Dark Side… But now the Master has been resurrected, so he’s not alone any more, and… oh wait, is that the Timelords? Where did they come from? Admittedly, I’ve never understood the logic behind the destruction of a time-travelling race – because they would be present throughout all history, not to mention aware of their destruction so they could avoid it…

Anyway, I have some good watching and good reading ahead.

I even lucked out on a couple of books for the 2010 Reading Challenge. Just before Christmas, I entered a Harper Voyager twitter competition… and won a mystery book. Which proved to be Magician by Raymond E Feist – one of the fantasy novels I’d selected for my reading challenge. So, ta very much to them. And on Boxing Day in a cut-price book shop, I found a copy of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie for 99p, another book for the challenge.

I’m still working on the final 2009 Reading Challenge post on Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It should be appear shortly.


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Being Resolute

So, the year ahead… 2010, another science fictional year. This is a good time to think about my intentions for next year. Not resolutions – they exist to be broken. And not plans – that’s far too… fixed a word. Besides, plans always go wrong. These are things I’d like to do in the coming twelve months.

First up is the 2010 reading challenge. Each month I will read the first book of a modern fantasy series I’ve not read before, and I will write about it on this blog. Should be… interesting. Some I’m quite looking forward to; others I suspect are going to be hard work. See here for the full list of books I’ll be reading.

I also hope to read more mainstream books by selected authors – WG Sebald, for example… Michel Houellebecq… Kazuo Ishiguro… Paul Scott… I have a long list of them, anyway. I’d also like to tackle some of the sf series I have sitting unread on my book-shelves – The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp; Bold As Love and its sequels, Gwyneth Jones; Destiny’s Children, Stephen Baxter; Canopus in Argos: Archives, Doris Lessing… Again, I have a list. There are also a lot of other sf novels by assorted authors which I’d like to read. Yup, there’s a list. And I’d like to be a bit more regular in reading and reviewing books for my Space Books blog.

On the writing front, I have several intentions. I’d like to submit at least one short story a month to magazines. I’d also like to finish one story a month, although that may be beyond me. Because I’ll have other projects on the go – specifically, a new novel-length piece; although, I’ve yet to decide which particular one. Of course, I’ll be majorly chuffed if I sell a novel in 2010. I shall certainly do all I can to make that more likely. I’d also like to sell more stories in 2010 than I did in 2009. I can improve my chances of that by writing more and better, and submitting more.

Conventions… Sadly, I’m not going to the Eastercon in Heathrow. I do plan to attend alt.fiction and Fantasycon. I’ll definitely be at the latter – that’s where they’re launching Catastrophia. I’m also considering NewCon5 and Novacon 40. But we shall see…

I shall, as I have for the past couple of years, attempt the gig-a-month. Didn’t quite make it in 2009, and so far 2010 isn’t looking like it’s going to be too good for live music. Having said that, 2009 didn’t start off too auspiciously either, but it did pick up around April / May. There’s always Bloodstock and Damnation, anyway.

I think that’s enough for the time-being. I don’t want to tempt fate too much, and we all know which road is paved with good intentions. Things will happen, or they won’t. As they say in the Arab world, “life is like a cucumber…”


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That Was The Year That Was… 2009

Well, 2009 was certainly a year to remember – for both good and bad reasons. Three of my stories were published, and my employer made me redundant. Some of my favourite authors had new books published, and I discovered some authors new to me and who I intend to continue reading. I saw some of my favourite bands in concert – some of them for the first time. And I watched a whole bunch of films – although only two of them at the cinema, and those I didn’t rate all that highly (for the record, they were Star Trek (see here) and Watchmen).

Books
Up to December 20, I’ve read 185 books in 2009 – down on last year’s total of 213. Admittedly, I did read less graphic novels this year (only 36, compared to last year’s 54). I might be getting a bit tired of the form – certainly, I went off a couple of superhero titles I’d previously enjoyed. Having said that, I did discover both Orbital and The Chimpanzee Complex, sf graphic novel series translated from the French and published by Cinebooks. They’re much more to my taste. I also read a number of novels by non-genre authors, more than I had done since leaving the Middle East and being reliant on a subscription library for reading material.

The reading challenge this year proved educational, if not entirely entertaining. I reread books I remembered as good books from my early years as a fan of science fiction. While it gave me a chance to revisit sf novels I see quoted all over the tinterweb as “classics”, it did often seem I was poisoning my childhood memories of those books. Few of them I now remember as fondly as I had done before starting the reading challenge.

My actual reading broke down as 35% science fiction and 14% mainstream – plus assorted other genres. So just over a third of my reading this year was sf – compared to more than half last year. Admittedly at least half a dozen books I read I’ve classified as mainstream, because they were published as such and written by mainstream authors… even though they are sf novels. Books such as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, and… well, they all got honourable mentions so you can see the titles below.

But on with the actual best books of the year…

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’d planned on purchasing this but I was sent it to review by Interzone. I also had to interview Sterling. The results can be found in Interzone #221. Suffice it to say, The Caryatids is a return to form after the disappointing The Zenith Angle. In fact, it could be Sterling’s best book yet. There are more ideas in The Caryatids than many sf authors have in their entire career. There’s also a great deal of relevance in it – something many sf authors never manage in any of their novels.

Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2009). I admit I’m a fan of Jones’ writing, so it’s no surprise to find it was one of my best books of the year. It’s a smart literary sf novel cunningly disguised as new space opera. I wrote about it here – and yes, that is a positive review.

The Discovery of Heaven, Harry Mulisch (1992), I read after reviewing the film adaption for VideoVista (see here). A good film adaptation should, I think, encourage you to read the source novel, and that’s what this film did for me. The book proved to be just like the movie, but, well, more. Mulisch is one of the Netherlands’ big three post-war writers, and The Discovery of Heaven is his most popular and successful novel. It’s a long rambling story about the friendship between two men, about religion, about philosophy, about God’s compact with humanity… about a whole bunch of stuff, in fact. It is eminently readable, entertaining and thought-provoking. I lent my copy to a Dutch friend, who loves the book in Dutch but wanted to see how well it read in English.

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974), was one of the books I read as part of my Apollo 40 celebration on my Space Books blog. I’d been told by several people that Michael Collins’ autobiography was the best of the astronaut (auto)biographies. They were right. Collins’ prose is excellent. An insightful and well-written book. My review of it is here.

Austerlitz, WG Sebald (2001), was my first exposure to Sebald’s fiction, although I’d fancied trying one of his books for a year or so. Written without paragraph breaks, and with dialogue often reported at second or third hand, I’d suspected Austerlitz might be a difficult read. Instead it proved extremely readable, and I was much impressed. I will certainly be seeking out more of Sebald’s work.

Honourable mentions this year go to… Atomised, Michel Houellebecq (well-written but bleak, wasn’t entirely convinced by the epilogue); Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (lovely prose, but a lack of confidence in the deployment of sf tropes); Journey into Space, Toby Litt (again, very nice prose, but somewhat old-fashioned as sf); The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (easily the most confident of the mainstream novels which are really sf that I read this year); The Hidden World, Paul Park (excellent end to a beautifully-written fantasy quartet which confounds genre expectations); Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov (fine return to print after a ten year absence; tightly-plotted, oddball but likable characters; reviewed for Interzone #226); First on the Moon, the crew of Apollo 11 (has the most authority of any book on the first Lunar landing; review here); Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (an interesting experiment that didn’t quite gel for me); and The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (worth reading for the committee scene alone).

Films
In 2009, I watched 240 films, all but two on DVD. Many were rented. Those DVDs I purchased were unlikely to ever appear in this list, as I bought most chiefly crap sf films on eBay for a quid or so. But you probably already knew that from my Reading & Watching round-up posts. After much thought, I decided to expand my top five to six this year, because, well, because six films made the grade. And they are:

All That Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk (1955). For the last couple of years I’ve been working my way through the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Film List. Some of the titles I expected to find impressive cinema. All That Heaven Allows wasn’t one of them. Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman… Nineteen-fifties US melodrama… Not much there, despite my love of Hitchcock’s films, that’s likely to appeal to me. Or so I thought. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that I loved it. I loved the look of the film, I loved its irony, I loved its subtlety. I loved it so much in fact, I went and bought the Directed by Douglas Sirk boxed set. And most of the films in that set are nearly as good as All That Heaven Allows. Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are close seconds; the rest occupy a respectable third place, although Written on the Wind is Dynasty dialled up to eleven and gets overwhelming after a bit. On the strength of this film, and the boxed set, Sirk has joined my favourite top five directors.

Lady Chatterley, dir. Pascale Ferran (2006). A French adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A faithful adaptation. Set in England. But in French. Right. It is not, on the face of it, something you’d expect to work especially well. And for the first half of the film, it does seem a somewhat typical languidly-paced French historical drama – although all the writing in the film, on shop-fronts and so on, in English adds a touch of strangeness. But there is a scene in Lady Chatterley, after Constance’s first sexual encounter with Mellors (Parkin in this film), in which she is walking through the woods, and the noises of the woods, bird-calls, etc, start to intrude, and then orchestral background music begins playing… and it completely transforms the film. You get a very real sense of Constance’s sexual awakening. And Ferran manages to maintain that mood for the rest of the film.

Daratt, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2006). I’d enjoyed Haroun’s previous film Abouna, enough to put this one on my rental list. I like world cinema, and while I don’t have any especial preference for one region over another I do have a soft spot for Arabic films. Haroun, however, is Chadian. Which is sort of nearly but not quite Maghrebi. Anyway, Daratt proved to be a better film than Abouna. It’s a slow-burner – sixteen-year-old Atim heads for the capital, N’Djamena, to kill Nassara, the man who murdered his father during the recently-ended civil war. Unable to kill Nassara when he meets him, Atim hides his purpose and accepts a position helping Nassara in his one-man bakery. As he gets to know Nassara, so he finds it harder to take his revenge… A powerful film.

The Yacoubian Building, dir. Marwan Hamed (2006). There are some films you watch because you suspect they will be “good” without actually being very entertaining. I was aware of Alaa Al-Aswani’s novel of the same title, and I had a vague intention to read it one of these days, as I do enjoy Arabic fiction. Which was one of the reasons I rented this film. And… it was not at all what I was expecting. Its story is painted on a much bigger canvas and covers much greater topics than I’d expected – the clash between democracy and Islamism, women’s roles in Egyptian society, homosexuality, government corruption… I’ve seen a few Egyptian films before, and most of them are over-acted, over-played soap operas or comedies. But The Yacoubian Building is well-shot and well-acted. Now I definitely want to read the book.

In the Dust of the Stars, dir. Gottfried Kolditz (1976), is one of four films produced by East German studio DEFA during the 1960s and 1970s. Of the four, three are available in the DEFA Sci-Fi Collection – the earlier Der Schweigende Stern (1960, The Silent Star (AKA First Spaceship on Venus)), Eolomea (1972) and Im Staub der Sterne (AKA In the Dust of the Stars). Another, Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, Signals: A Space Adventure), is not yet available on DVD (I want a copy, of course). A spaceship from Cynro lands on the world of Tem in answer to a call for help. The Temians treat the Cynro crew to a party – which has to be seen to be believed – and insist nothing is wrong. But one of the Cynro cosmonauts is suspicious, and discovers the secret of Tem. The production design is sort of 1970s television sf, but bizarrely different. The plot is more science-fictional than most Hollywood films manage, but it still feels weirdly off-kilter. I thought it was great.

Let The Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008). I feel like I ought to have at least one recent film in my top five, but – what a surprise – it’s not a Hollywood film. Since it’s Swedish, I suppose it qualifies as “world cinema”, although it’s actually a horror film and was marketed as such. It’s an adaptation of the novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a vampire novel. I’m not a big fan of vampire films, and especially not of the Anne Rice doomed romantic hero school of vampire rehabilitation. The vampire in Let The Right One In may resemble a twelve-year-old girl, but she’s a scary predator all the same. The film never lets you forget it. The ending is perhaps a bit obvious, but the journey there certainly isn’t.

Honourable mentions? Well, the rest of the Directed by Douglas Sirk boxed set for a start. But also: The Baader-Meinhof Complex (perhaps makes the eponymous group a little too sympathetic, ); WALL-E (great first half, rubbish second half); The Piano Teacher (the best of the films in the The Michael Haneke Collection, although all are excellent); Robinson Crusoe on Mars (makes a surprisingly good fist of the story… for most of its length, anyway); The Sheltering Sky (made me want to read the book; which is now on the TBR pile); and the contents of boxed sets by François Ozon (not to mention the supreme silliness that is his Angel) and Lukas Moodysson.

Albums
A tricky one this. Only a few of my favourite bands had new albums out in 2009. However, I did discover some new bands, so that’s all right. I attended eleven gigs, so I didn’t quite make the gig a month average. I didn’t make it to Bloodstock this year – the line-up didn’t interest me… although at the last minute they went and added half a dozen bands I would have liked to have seen. Ah well. Maybe next year. I did attend one festival, however – Damnation, at the Leeds University Student Union. Where I got to see some great bands – Anathema, Mithras and Akercocke.

But here are the albums:

Imidiwan: Companions, Tinariwen (2009). I’ve liked Tinariwen’s music since seeing them on a documentary about the Desert Festival six or seven years ago. This year I got to see them live for the first time. They were excellent. As is their new album, Imidiwan: Companions. Stand-out track is the heavy bluesy ‘Tenhert’.

As Night Conquers Day, Autumn Leaves (1999). Autumn Leaves, despite their name, are a death metal band. From Denmark. They formed in 1993, but split in 2001 after releasing two albums. As Night Conquers Day is the second of those albums. It’s progressive death metal, but also quite melodic. I’ve been playing it a lot.

Lexicon V, DesolatioN (2007). I’ve had a sample track from DesolatioN’s Lexicon V for a while, but I’d not listened to it much. Then this year I replaced my 4 GB Samsung Yeep with a 120 GB iPod… which meant I could carry my entire MP3 collection about with me. Including that DesolatioN track. And it kept on popping up when I set the iPod on shuffle, and I started to really like it. So I bought the album (from here). And it’s bloody good. It’s a mix of death and progressive metal – as opposed to progressive death metal – and it works really well. It’s been getting lots of plays.

A New Constellation, NahemaH (2009). Unlike their previous album, The Second Philosophy, NahemaH’s A New Constellation was not a “grower”. I was already a fan of their music, so I loved this from the first listen. Great metal soundscapes, with melodies buried in them – predominantly progressive death metal, but there are other genres in there too. Good music to work too, and good music to just lose yourself in as well.

Those Whom The Gods Detest, Nile (2009). Each time Nile bring out a new album, I buy the limited edition. For Annihilation of the Wicked (2005), it was a collectible tin. For Ithyphallic (2007), it was a pyramid some ten inches high. And for this year’s Those Whom The Gods Detest it’s a seventeen-inch-long sarcophagus. Musically, there’s no mistaking Those Whom The Gods Detest as anything but a Nile album, but it also seems a more varied, and yet more coherent, album than the last two. One of my favourite Nile tracks is ‘Wrought’ from their first EP, Festivals of Atonement. Those Whom The Gods Detest reminds me a lot of that track.

Honourable mentions this year: Across The Dark, Insomnium (new album by Finnish death/doom stalwarts; not as good as the preceding Above the Weeping World, but a good album nonetheless); Shin-Ken, Persefone (another excellent concept album, of sorts, by Andorran – yes, from Andorra – progressive death metallers); Anno Domini: High Definition, Riverside (Polish progressive rock band, who get better with each new album); and Metamorphosis, Magenta (a band new to me in 2009, discovered at the Classic Rock Society’s Best of the Year Awards in January – they performed live, and then won Best Band – this is polished modern prog rock).

Finally, I must mention the new project by Jussi Hänninen and Tuomas Tuominen from the disbanded Fall of the Leafe. It’s called Wait, Stone and Sure. They’ve uploaded some demos to their MySpace page here. It’s not as metal as Fall of the Leafe was, but it’s definitely by the same people. I hope they get a recording contract soon and release an album. I’ll even buy the limited edition…


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New Host, Not So New Blog

Those of you who followed my blog at its previous address will have noticed that it was down for five days. This is because it was locked by blogger.com on suspicion of being a spam blog. In the civilised world, where people are innocent until prove guilty, the process would have gone something like this: blogger.com’s anti-spam bot flags a blog as a spam blog, a human checks the flagged blog and determines that it is indeed a spam blog or is perhaps a false positive. In the latter case, the blog is left untouched. But no, blogger.com prefer a more direct approach. Lock the blog and wait for the owner to complain. Yup, the blog owner is guilty, and must ask to be investigated in order for their innocence to be determined. They screwed up, and I had to beg them to fix their mistake.

So I have moved to WordPress. And I encourage anyone else on blogger.com to do the same.

As for why my blog was mistakenly locked as a spam blog… No idea. Blogger.com’s definition as a spam blog includes the phrase “…with a large number of links, usually all pointing to a single site.” So it could have been my Amazon associate links. Or it might simply have been that my name is Sales.

At the moment, and probably for the next couple of weeks, I will be moving in here, rearranging the furniture, repainting the rooms, etc… Undoing all of blogger.com’s nasty HTML, adding in all the widgets and links and stuff I had on my old blog… So this blog may change appearance a bit. Not to worry, the content will be just as it was. If that’s a good thing…

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