It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on blogger.com but on wordpress.com for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


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The future we used to have, part 12

We lost a bit of the future we used to have only a couple of days ago, when Neil Armstrong died following heart surgery. The US space programme of the 1950s and 1960s has always fascinated me because of its optimism for the future. It gave us “Space Age” as a term of approval, and I for one mourn the Space Age we nearly had within our grasp. Here are some photographs to remind us of lost times…

space

British Aerospace HOTOL

NASA space ferry concept

Nuclear-powered ferry to the Moon (from Look and Learn)

Von Braun design for a lunar lander

Cabin detail from von Braun lunar lander

NASA Moon colony, with LRV in foreground

roads

Ford FX Atmos concept car, 1954

Bubble cars

Still the best-looking car ever, the Lamborghini Marzal

Lamborghini Marzal – so futuristic, you have to wear a spacesuit to drive it

Ferrari 512 S Speciale, by Pininfarina

Ferrari 512 S Speciale – could only be driven by people without heads

fashion

When you wake up in the future, this is what the nurses will look like (Pierre Cardin)

In the future, everyone will wear a bucket on their head because of climate change (Pierre Cardin)

What to wear when the sea levels rise (Nina Ricci)

Even on the Moon, they will need to keep their beer cold (Paco Raban, I think; and Frigidaire)

For when astronauts go hungry (Paco Raban again, I think)

Neil Armstrong can rest easy, knowing the Moon will be kept clean


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Sylvow, Douglas Thompson

Sylvow, Douglas Thompson
(2010, Eibonvale Press, £6.99, 304pp)

Back in the day, fix-up novels were relatively common in science fiction. Authors would cobble together a bunch of stories, sellotape a framing narrative in place, and pass off the finished product as a novel. In most such books, the joins were sadly obvious. If there’s a term for the reverse – a novel which comprises standalone excerpts that have been published as short stories – I’m not aware of it. Nonetheless, it’s a fair description of Douglas Thompson’s second novel, Sylvow. Eight of the book’s seventeen chapters have previously seen print: in Ambit Magazine, Dream Catcher, and the British Fantasy Society’s New Horizons and Dark Horizons. While those chapters read perfectly well as short stories, they are also very much of the novel.

Sylvow is a story in many parts about a small group of people who all live in the invented city of Sylvow. However, the city, and the lives of its inhabitants, are slowly being invaded by Nature run rampant. Leo disappeared into the deep woods which ring Sylvow years before, and sends irregular letters commenting on, among other things, Nature’s campaign of conquest. His estranged wife Vivienne takes up with Anton, who had a nervous breakdown but was cured by Franco, and now works as a forest ranger. Franco’s wife Claudia is a vet, and she sees at first hand how the animal and insect kingdoms are responding to Nature’s war on humanity and civilisation. Franco meanwhile is having an affair with Veronika, a young Goth patient.

According to the background notes at the rear of the book, the city of Sylvow is a fusion of Glasgow, Osnabrück and Novogrudek. Certainly it seems at times to have a Middle European air, and the novel’s cast all possess names more common in continental Europe than in the British Isles: Franco, Veronika, Claudia, Vittorio, Nikolaus… Yet there are references to very British institutions and cultural artefacts. It gives Sylvow a somewhat unsettled feel – further exacerbated by Thompson’s prose style, which at times reads Ballardian and at others like the work of an East European fantasist. There are a variety of voices in Sylvow, but not all feel entirely suitable. Yet this too seems in keeping with the story Sylvow tells. Its narrative is episodic, and nominally linear, but not everything in the novel makes sense, or is capable of being understood.

Thompson aims high, but does not always hit his target. He is better when focussing on the surreal than he is at the quotidian. When read as a novel of disconnect, of humanity’s failed attempts to understand, or come to an accommodation with, Nature and her needs, Sylvow works very well indeed. Many of the passages set in the forest showcase some lovely writing indeed. As a novel of the relationships between people, Sylvow is perhaps less successful. The easy familiarity between family members, and between friends, often feels forced, as if Thompson were trying for the mannered tone of Mittel-Europa fiction but instead found himself writing the banal dialogue of a transatlantic mainstream novel. Nonetheless, despite the uneven read, despite its occasionally patchy nature, Sylvow is an intriguing blend of genres. With this novel, and his debut Ultrameta, Thompson has certainly shown he is a name to watch. Once he manages to write mainstream with the same facility he writes surrealism and genre, he’s sure to produce something special.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #233, March-April 2011.


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Judging by its cover

A recent conversation on Twitter with Alastair Reynolds prompted me to dig out my collection of books on science fiction cover art. I think I bought my first one way back in the mid-1980s as part of the introductory offer when I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. (I think I lasted a year in the SFBC before giving up because they rarely had anything I wanted.) In the decades following, I’ve picked up the odd book here and there, chiefly by those artists whose work I like the most. And yes, I know Chris Foss had a massive retrospective collection published last year, but I’ve yet to buy myself a copy.

Anyway, these are the books I do own…

21st Century Foss and Solar Wind I’ve owned for a couple of decades. Diary of a Spaceperson I found on eBay a few years ago, and Journeyman is an even more recent purchase. There’s a huge number of books like these, for years I’ve been meaning to pick up those by Tim White, Bruce Pennington, Tony Roberts, Angus McKie and other sf cover artists I remember from my teenage years…

Four books by the inimitable Jim Burns. I bought Planet Story at a con in, I think, Scarborough, and Jim signed it for me there and then. The copy of Lightship I think I bought signed. Mechanismo was a lucky find on eBay, though my copy has seen better days. Incidentally, I remember at school having several huge posters on my study walls of the art from Planet Story and Mechanismo.

Two of the earliest cover art books I ever bought. Not sure why I never picked up a copy of Roger Dean’s first book, Views. I did have a copy of Syd Mead’s Sentinel but I swapped it with a friend several years ago for, er, something.

I wasn’t old enough to see Alien when it was originally released in 1979, but I bought every book I could find about the film. Including this one by Giger. I can’t remember where I got The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony from. It includes a double LP by Dave Greenslade, which I’ve listened to several times. I can’t say I like it that much.

Finally, some books about the best two sf comic strips ever produced in the UK – Trigan Empire and Dan Dare. My parents bought me a Dan Dare omnibus in the early 1970s, and it became one of my favourite books – until getting chewed by mice when in storage between Gulf postings. In the past ten years, I hunted down and bought copies of the Hawk Publishing omnibus editions of Dare strips. They are brilliant. Trigan Empire I remember from reading Look and Learn at school. At some point, I bought, or someone bought me, the big Hamlyn Trigan Empire omnibus. I still have it somewhere. Several years ago, Don Lawrence Collection bought out a beautifully-produced twelve-volume set of Trigan Empire. I bought them as they were published.

But Dan Dare and Trigan Empire are, I think, a post for another day…


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300 years from now is 2312

I’ve been saying for a while now that science fiction doesn’t need improbable spaceships and magic technology in order to generate sense of wonder. There’s plenty of wonder in the universe as we know it, once you accept its vast size and implacable hostility. So the prologue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes as a real pleasure to read. It is set on Mercury, and describes a sunrise as seen from the terminator. The world is in fact inhabited, and most of its inhabitants live in a city, called Terminator, which travels around the world on rails, forever staying within the twilight zone.

Mercury is not the only planet in the Solar System that has been settled. Mars not only has a thriving colony but has also seceded from Earth control. As indeed have the many moons and asteroids which have been colonised – and which now form the Mondragon, named for the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of workers cooperatives in Spain founded in 1956. Venus too has also been settled, and it is the fate of the human settlement of Venus which partly drives the plot of 2312.

Such a near-ish future scenario, with its strict adherence to realistic science, and plausible and clever extrapolation of technology and society, seems guaranteed to appeal to me. So it feels a little churlish to complain that 2312 falls a smidgen short of being a truly great science fiction novel.

Alex, one of the Mondragon movers and shakers, has died (of old age) and it is up to her friends to see that her plan continues. These friends include Swan Er Hong, Fitz Wahram, Inspector Genette, and others. The nature of Alex’s plan is only gradually revealed to Swan, though she is happy to involve herself. This initially requires travelling to Titan with Wahram. As they travel about the Solar System, the two fall in love, despite not seeming to suit each other particularly well. As they travel, Swan learns that Alex’s plan is a response to a secret conspiracy with unknown aims.

2312 is a novel comprising episodes spaced along a timeline in which a mostly-hidden conspiracy gradually reveals itself and its objectives. There is, for example, the destruction of Terminator. There is the discovery of qubes (quantum computers) in human form – rather than surgically-embedded qubes in humans, such as Swan’s companion Pauline. (Qubes are not artificial intelligence per se, though something like it emerges from their complexity.) There is the destruction of a travelling asteroid terrarium (a common means of transport about the Solar System) and the deaths of all those travelling within it. There is the reseeding of Earth with the fauna which had populated the terraria. There is a covert civil war on Venus.

In truth, the conspiracy is the weakest element of 2312, and not every event seems linked to the story it powers. The reseeding of Earth, for example, is clever and exciting, but doesn’t feel like part of the same narrative which sends Swan and Wahram gallivanting about the Solar System. And the resolution of the conspiracy, when it’s revealed in a disappointingly offhand fashion, feels like an after-thought rather than the resolution of a dramatic narrative.

Yet the Solar System of 2312 is a fascinating place. It feels like a valid extrapolation in ways that many nearish-future science fictions – such as James SA Corey’s poor Leviathan Wakes – do not. To some extent, this emphasis on world rather than plot does make the novel feel somewhat like a travelogue. But 2312 is not a plot-driven novel. It is dramatic in discrete moments, and it is sense of wonder, the continuity of the characters’ perceptions and the deepening relationship between Swan and Wahram, which chains those moments into a linear narrative. 2312 is like its terraria, it is a small world put together from elements of the real world, and in which a life unlike those we can experience ourselves can be lived. It’s no surprise then that the conspiracy which opens with the destruction of Terminator feels like a feeble counterpoint to the journey on which Robinson takes the reader.

As a genre novel – ie, a narrative reliant on plot for its backbone – 2312 is somewhat unsuccessful. As a science fiction in a more general sense, a personalised exploration of an invented universe, with its Dos Passos-seque “extracts” and “lists”, 2312 is superb. It may well be Robinson’s strongest work since the Mars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on a few shortlists next year; and I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t nominated.


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Metal scorchio

Every year, I say to myself I’m too old for this shit; and every year, I find myself in a field in Derbyshire listening to some of my favourite bands and having a great time. I say “every year” but Bloodstock 2012 was only my fourth Bloodstock since 2008 (I missed 2009 and 2010). But it has definitely got better every year. And bigger, too.

After packing the Toyota Tardis Yaris with all our gear, the four of us – Craig, Emma, Rowan and myself – headed to the local Asda for our final pre-festival shop. Naturally, this meant beer. And water. And baby wipes. And items for the Bucket o’SnacksTM. We also wanted something to eat on our way to Catton Hall, since it was already lunch time. Annoyingly Asda makes its pork pies with milk, which is not how they should be made. Fortunately, we found some very nice sausage rolls instead which I could eat.

Then it was back into the car and down the M1 and A38 to Catton Hall, Derbyshire. We made good time and, despite leaving a little later than intended, managed to arrive as planned at two pm. Craig had bought himself a collapsible trolley after the difficulties we had last year carting everything from the car park to the camping ground. It proved a wise purchase, although it did mean he had to drag along about 400 kilos of booze and tents. But at least we never needed to return to the car for the entire weekend.

I’d been worrying for weeks beforehand that we’d have torrential rain during the weekend, so Craig had lent me one of his tents – my pop-up tent would probably have been destroyed by the first downpour. In the event, we had blinding sunshine for three days, and a warm slightly overcast Sunday with a couple of weak showers. In fact, Craig managed to get sunstroke on the Friday.

After meeting up with Roger in the car park, we began the long trek to the festival ground entrance and the camping ground. Cat and Sly joined us, and once we had put up our tents – in pretty much the same spot as last year – we headed for the arena.

photo: Craig Andrews

First band of the festival was Saturnian, whom we’d seen last year. They were playing on the Sophie Lancaster Stage, which is in a huge marquee. Beer had gone up a little in price since Bloodstock 2011 – £4 for a pint of Bloddstock Ale, or £3.90 for a plastic bottle of Carlsberg. And Monster were no longer sponsors; this year, it was Red Bull, but their presence was very low-key. After Saturnian, we wandered about the arena, which more or less resembled last year’s. Mr Tea’s was there – which pleased Craig, Emma and Rowan greatly, as they’re big tea-drinkers. There looked to be a wide selection of food available, so it was unlikely I’d have to go hungry or subsist on the contents of the Bucket o’SnacksTM.

When we got back to the tents, Roger – who had waited in the car park to meet friends – had arrived and put up his tent. As had Burnie, Gray and Will. I remember the night being really cold. Though the tent I’d borrowed was double-walled, I was using the same Argos sleeping-bag as previous years and it’s not especially effective. I’d taken the precaution of buying a fleece to use as a blanket, and that sort of worked. Fortunately, Thursday was the coldest night of the weekend.

My first two times at Bloodstock were spent mostly drinking or suffering from a hangover. Last year, we’d decided to focus more on the music, and make an effort to see more bands. The same plan was in effect for this year. Emma had marked down those with female members for Femetalism; other bands we decided might be worth hearing from their write-ups in the programme. And then there were those bands we knew and liked and had always planned to watch perform – for me, that would be Alcest, Winterfylleth, Nile, Paradise Lost and Anaal Nathrakh. Which is not an especially large number for a festival lasting three and a half days…

Friday and Saturday were spent almost identically – wandering from stage to stage to hear bands, sitting out in the sun, taking occasional breaks in Mr Tea’s, drinking beer… As per the last year, for lunch I “falafelated” (the falafel wrap, however, was much better this year). Dinner was chips and gravy. I watched Moonsorrow on the main stage, the Ronnie James Dio Stage, and, appropriately, Dio Disciples, who played a bunch of old Rainbow and Black Sabbath tracks (the best ones, of course, from the line-ups with Dio). On the Sophie Lancaster Stage, I watched some of The Commander-in-Chief, a female guitarist, but didn’t much like her semi-operatic vocals. The following act, Swiss band Gonoreas, despite the unfortunate name were quite good. The main attraction that night was French metal shoegazer band, Alcest. They were good, but it’s music to be sitting down for, I think. We did catch a couple of acoustic sets on the Jägermeister Stage, the best of which was Manchester folk metallers Andraste.

At one point during the afternoon, I was in the audience for Pythia’s set on the Sophie Lancaster Stage, but several people had lit up joints and the smell of weed was making me ill. So I left the tent. There were clearly-posted signs saying “No Smoking” in the tent, but dopeheads seem to think that doesn’t apply to them. Cigarette smokers had the decency to smoke outside, but the smell of weed was constant throughout the weekend. That, and the heat, made several of the sets unpleasant to watch. I’d not noticed the dope on previous Bloodstocks. But then Sonisphere had been cancelled the month before and it was suggested a lot of people that would have attended that had come to Bloodstock instead. Perhaps that accounted for it.

Also that afternoon, I chatted with Leon of Mithras at the Zero Tolerance stall and we had what is turning into our annual moan about not being able to make decent money recording music or writing science fiction – or at least the sort of music he records and the sf I write. Later that night, Cat, Sly and myself had a go on the dodgems. The others were, I think, watching a band on the New Blood Stage. Top tip: when on the dodgems, don’t leave your phone in a thigh pocket. I did. Mine now has a small crack on the screen.

We didn’t stay in the arena to see the day’s headliners, Behemoth, but returned to the tents to drink beer. We hadn’t seen Watain either, as they clashed with Alcest. I don’t think we missed much – Leon had described Watain as “black metal for people who don’t like black metal”.

The only acts playing the Ronnie James Dio Stage I really wanted to see weren’t on until the Sunday. I did hear the occasional song by those playing on the Saturday as I wandered about the arena, and I did stay for the first few songs by Machine Head, that day’s headliner. But I saw more bands perform on the Sophie Lancaster Stage. Rising Dream, a Croatian female-fronted power/death metal band were the highlight of the day. I’d wandered in to see who was performing at the beginning of their set, and stayed for the entire performance. Winterfylleth, on the other hand, I’d planned to see. I’d seen them live once before at the Day of Unrest in 2008 (see here). They were good and the tent was packed for their set. I may well pick up a copy of their latest album.

That night, there was the usual Saturday night shenanigans in the camping ground. A group of about a hundred tried some bin jousting, but managed no more than two jousts before security staff came and took away the bins. So they made do with finger-wrestling. It was noisy but good-hearted. There was no re-occurance of last year’s trouble.

Sunday was easily the best day for me in terms of music. And it proved even better than expected. The others were taking their time getting up, so at 10:30 I decided to head into the arena on my own. After a bacon sandwich, I wandered across to the New Blood Stage to see what was happening there. It was the first act of the day, Seprevention, and they were excellent – old school death metal with duelling shredding guitars. I wandered round for a bit more, before returning to the New Blood Stage to watch Aethara, who I also thought very good. By this time, Craig, Emma and Rowan had appeared, so we stayed for So-Da-Ko, though I didn’t like them as much as the two bands I’d already seen. Then it was outside to watch Nile. I’d been warned they weren’t that good live, but I thought they were excellent.

The others settled down in Mr Tea’s but I headed off to the Sophie Lancaster Stage to see Ancient Ascendant. They weren’t bad but their write-up in the programme had suggested they’d be better. I wasn’t especially keen on seeing Anvil on the Ronnie James Dio Stage. Yes, I know it’s meant to be bad, but I’ve yet to be convinced metal and irony mix (no pun intended). Anyway, we staked out an area on the grass pretty much where we’d spent the Sunday afternoon the previous year. After Anvil – who were mildly amusing – it was Paradise Lost. They were good, but I’d seen them in the Corporation in April and they’d been much better then.

I had no plans to watch Dimmu Borgir – I’ve caught them live twice before, despite not being a fan – so after a couple of songs I headed off to the Sophie Lancaster Stage to see Anaal Nathrakh. I’d thought the others had planned to see them too, but it turned out I was on my own (though Craig did turn up toward the end of the set). The tent was packed – and filled up even more after Dimmu Borgir finished their set after halfway through Anaal Nathrakh’s. So much so, in fact, that I found myself slowly being herded further back, and I wasn’t even near the stage to begin with. Anaal Nathrakh were excellent, definitely one of the best performances of the weekend.

And then it was Alice Cooper. I don’t get it – an old man playing music for fifteen-year-olds. His music makes MTV sound edgy. And no matter how you dress it up with a fancy stage show, it still sounds like some insipid Hollywood version of metal. I stayed for a couple of songs and then headed back to the tent. The others stayed. But even they couldn’t manage the whole set. After they turned up at the tents, we sat around and drank beer for a bit. I didn’t get much sleep – there was a group near my tent who larked about all night and kept me awake. One of them was apparently on “gas”, and the rest were loudly egging him on. Next year, I think we’ll camp somewhere a little quieter…

So that was Bloodstock 2012. And great fun it was too. Best bands of the weekend for me were Rising Dream, Anaal Nathrakh, Suprevention, Winterfylleth, Aethara, Nile, Paradise Lost and Alcest. So far, Anthrax have been announced for next year. Hopefully, there’ll be plenty of better bands on the bill by August 2013. And if not, perhaps some of those unknown to me will prove to be really good – as has been the case for the Bloodstock 2011 and Bloodstock 2012.

Finally, I can’t write about Bloodstock without mentioning Metal Meerkat. Craig had recently bought house insurance through comparethemarket.com, and so they’d sent him one of their stuffed toys. It was Vassily, dressed in a t-shirt and leather jacket. Throughout the weekend, Craig and Emma took photos of Vassily in various parts of the arena and camping ground. Craig even took some mpg footage. And he’s edited these together. Enjoy…


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Ian’s greatest films

After seeing the BFI greatest films list, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to put together a list of my own. Obviously, I’ve not watched every film ever made, and my tastes probably lean in a certain direction cinematically – I don’t, for example, see the appeal of the films of either Kurosawa or Ozu. Anyway, here – for what it’s worth – is my pick of the fifty greatest films – that I have seen – ever made. I tried to go for a little variety, instead of just listing half a dozen films each by my favourite directors. It’s certainly a more international list than the BFI one.

1. All that Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk, 1955
2. Mirror, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975
3. The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov, 1968
4. Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman, 2002
5. Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
6. Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927
7. Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
8. Autumn Sonata, Ingmar Bergman, 1978
9. No End, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1984
10= Brazil, Terry Gilliam, 1984
10= Mooladé, Ousmane Sembène, 2004
12. 8½, Frederico Fellini, 1962
13. Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó, 1972
14. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, FW Murnau, 1927
15. The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001
16. Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979
17. Passenger, Andrzej Munk, 1963
18= Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979
18= 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
20. Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk , 1959
21. The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973
22. Aguirre, Wrath of God, Werner Herzog, 1972
23. Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1991
24. Daratt, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2006
25= Lady Chatterley, Pascale Ferran, 2006
25= The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, 1957
27. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941
28. On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski, 1988
29. Things to Come, John Cameron Menzies, 1936
30. Drifting Clouds, Aki Kaurismäki, 1996
31. Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut, 1966
32. Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks, 1959
33= Underground, Emir Kusturica, 1995
33= The Bothersome Man, Jens Lien, 2006
35. Das Boot, Wolfgang Peterson, 1981
36. La Jetée, Chris Marker, 1962
37. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976
38. High Society, Charles Walters, 1956
39. Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov, 2002
40. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982
41. Atanarjuat the Fast Runner, Zacharias Kunuk, 2001
42= Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti, 1942
42= The Third Man, Carol Reed, 1949
44. Secret Ballot, Babak Payami, 2001
45. Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean, 1962
46. Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven, 1997
47= The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman, 1983
47= The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943
49, It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra, 1946
50. Mulholland Dr., David Lynch, 2001


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BFI greatest films

Has no one turned this into a meme yet? Then allow me… At the beginning of the month, Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute published its list of the 50 greatest films. It caused a little bit of a stir because Vertigo bumped Citizen Kane from the top spot, a position it’s held for fifty years.

Anyway, meme – you know what to do. Put it in bold if you’ve seen it, italics if you own it but have yet to watch it.

1. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
2. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941
3. Tokyo Story, Ozu Yasujiro, 1953
4. La Règle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, FW Murnau, 1927
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
7. The Searchers, John Ford, 1956
8. Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, 1927
10. , Federico Fellini, 1963
11. Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
12. L’Atalante, Jean Vigo, 1934
13. Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
14. Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
15. Late Spring, Ozu Yasujiro, 1949
16. Au hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson, 1966
17= Seven Samurai, Kurosawa Akira, 1954
17= Persona, Ingmar Bergman, 1966
19. Mirror, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974
20. Singin’ in the Rain, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951
21= L’avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
21= Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963
21= The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972
24= Ordet, Carl Dreyer, 1955
24= In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai, 2000
26= Rashomon, Kurosawa Akira, 1950
26= Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966
28. Mulholland Dr., David Lynch, 2001
29= Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979
29= Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, 1985
31= The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
31= Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, 1976
33. Bicycle Thieves, Vittoria De Sica, 1948
34. The General, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926
35= Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927
35= Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
35= Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman, 1975
35= Sátántangó, Béla Tarr, 1994
39= The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959
39= La dolce vita, Federico Fellini, 1960
41. Journey to Italy, Roberto Rossellini, 1954
42= Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray, 1955
42= Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder, 1959
42= Gertrud, Carl Dreyer, 1964
42= Pierrot le fou, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965
42= Play Time, Jacques Tati, 1967
42= Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990
48= The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966
48= Histoire(s) du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard, 1998
50= City Lights, Charlie Chaplin, 1931
50= Ugetsu monogatari, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953
50= La Jetée, Chris Marker, 1962

I make that 36 I’ve seen out of the fifty. There are also some of my favourite directors on there too, like Tarkovsky, Hitchcock and Antonioni. There are a few I’m surprised not to see, such as Antonioni’s Red Desert; not to mention works by directors such as Kieslowski, Sirk, Lean or Herzog. I also note that only two sf films make the list – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis.


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99 shades of grey

Who needs BDSM when you can have CSM or LM? Who needs fifty shades of grey when you can have so many more shades? Just look at the photo below. That’s the Moon, that is.

And that’s where Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, takes place. Copies are still available – in paperback, hardback, epub, mobi, or on Kindle in the UK and US. Go on and buy yourself a copy. It’s competitively-priced and it’s very good (see here).

This has been a blatantly commercial post brought to you by Whippleshield Books. Normal service will resume shortly.


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Starcombing, David Langford

Starcombing, David Langford
(2009, Cosmos Books, $14.95, 223pp)

David Langford is a British institution. I picture him as resembling a faculty building in a concrete-and-glass university campus of the 1950s, possessing neither Gothic grandeur, nor the ivy-clad and leather-elbowed academic elitism of a red-brick. And certainly not the imposing belligerence of a Brutalist edifice. Rather, an unassuming but welcoming façade, one which would not look out of place in a city-centre precinct, one which speaks of learning that is open and available to all. Within the building, with its foyer lined with twenty-eight Hugo Awards, is a labyrinth of passages. Small signposts indicate the ways of “science fiction”, “literature”, “nuclear physics”, “Thog’s Masterclass”, “Harry Potter” and other areas of knowledge. The corridors are quiet, and those who pad their lengths do so silently. Every so often, a door can be heard softly closing. There is an atmosphere of erudition and wit – the halls are thick with it. And it is said, in hushed tones of course, that in the labyrinth can be found a vast library, containing many legendary arcane tomes. The library is searchable too, by means of an elegant user interface programmed by the man himself.

At semi-irregular intervals, Langford issues prospectuses. Starcombing is the most recent. It contains eighty-five articles, drawn from a variety of sources – Foundation, SFX, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Nature and Nature Physics, assorted fanzines, and even some previously unpublished pieces. The earliest is from 2000, and the latest from earlier this year. They are arranged chronologically. An author’s note describes Starcombing as a sequel to both Up Through an Empty House of Stars (2003) and The Sex Column (2005), both previous collections of Langford’s writings.

Starcombing is a book in which one should wander around; a plan is not necessary. Nor, in this labyrinth a thread, narrative or otherwise. Alternatively, there is the index, which signposts the route directly to whatever is sought. Some might consider that cheating… because this is a book in which aimlessness is an advantage, in which dipping in and out is a valid use of it. The articles Starcombing contains are short, often no more than a page or two. They can be read as and when desired. Not that Langford’s writing needs to be taken in small doses. On the contrary, his writing has always made it appear as if his learning and humour came easily to him.

Highlights of Starcombing include ‘Maps of Minnesota: Stalking John Sladek’, a piece from The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2001 about tracking down Sladek’s unpublished stories and poems for a posthumous collection; three previously unpublished essays from 2004 on James Branch Cabell, John Myers Myers and Thorne Smith for a project which was abandoned by its editor; an essay on HG Wells from Fortean Times; and four short-short stories from Nature and Nature Physics. I suspect I am not alone in wishing Langford would write more, and longer, fiction. Much of Starcombing comprises Langford’s column from SFX and, while they are entertaining, their nature, intended audience and shortness weighs against them. If I have one complaint, it’s that the contents page does not give the origin of the various articles; it is only given as bulleted note after each piece.

Those familiar with Langford’s writing will know what to expect from Starcombing, and probably already have their copies on order. Those who have yet to read Langford should begin immediately, and Starcombing provides as good as introduction as any of his non-fiction collections.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #224 September-October 2009.

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