It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The humungous Locus poll and my picks for it

I hate polls; polls are stupid things. Picking the best fiction with a popularity contest? Fail. But I had a bash at it anyway. Not that my choices are likely to appear in the final top ten in any category, or cause anything but the tiniest amount of skew in the results. But it was sort of fun as an intellectual exercise.

Picking out the novels was easy enough, but the short fiction categories were hard, especially the 21st century ones. Some stories stay with you for years afterwards, but they’re few and far between. And numbers alone – plus the fact I don’t read every piece of short fiction as it’s published – means I probably encountered few memorable stories during the first decade of this century.

Anyway, for what it’s worth here are my picks:

20th Century SF Novel
1 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
2 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975)
3 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
4 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
5 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
6 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
7 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
8 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
9 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
10 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel
1 Aegypt, John Crowley (1987)
2 In Viriconium, M John Harrison (1982)
3 Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
4 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
5 Lens of the World, RA McAvoy (1990)
6 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
7 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)
8 Tehanu, Ursula K Le Guin (1990)
9 The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1983)
10 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992)

20th Century SF/F Novella
1 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
2 ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, Gene Wolfe (1972)
3 ‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
4 ‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1958)
5 ‘Green Mars’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)
6 ‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
7 ‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
8 ‘Story of Your Life’, Ted Chiang (1998)
9 ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, Richard Cowper (1976)
10

20th Century SF/F Novelette
1 ‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
2 ‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
3 ‘The Time-Tombs’, JG Ballard (1963)
4 ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick (1974)
5 ‘Black Air’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1983)
6 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’, Leigh Brackett (1952)
7 ‘No Woman Born’, CL Moore (1944)
8 ‘FOAM’, Brian W Aldiss (1991)
9 ‘Swarm’, Bruce Sterling (1982)
10 ‘Housecall’, Terry Dowling (1986)

20th Century SF/F Short Story
1 ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree Jr. (1972)
2 ‘Air Raid’, John Varley (1977)
3 ‘Forward Echoes (AKA Identifying the Object)’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
4 ‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts (1973)
5 ‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle (1991)
6 ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’, Sean Williams (1995)
7 ‘The Brains Of Rats’, Michael Blumlein (1986)
8 ‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany (1967)
9 ‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks (1987)
10 ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson (1981)

21st Century SF Novel
1 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
2 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
3 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
4 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
5 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)

21st Century Fantasy Novel
1 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
2 A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park (2005)
3 Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005)
4 Hav, Jan Morris (2006)
5 Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke (2001)

21st Century SF/F Novella
1 ‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
2 ‘My Death’, Lisa Tuttle (2004)
3 ‘Diamond Dogs’, Alastair Reynolds (2001)
4 ‘Dangerous Space’, Kelley Eskridge (2007)
5 ‘A Writer’s Life’, Eric Brown (2001)

21st Century SF/F Novelette
1 ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, Ted Chiang (2007)
2 ‘Divining Light’, Ted Kosmatka (2008)
3
4
5

21st Century SF/F Short Story
1
2
3
4
5

Well, the same names crop up in most lists, but that’s because I think those writers are amongst the most interesting in genre fiction. I did trawl through the lists of suggested titles provided by Locus, but there were few novels or stories I liked or thought especially good – in fact, many of choices above don’t appear on any of their lists. I’ve not read enough 21st century short fiction to pick the five best. I managed it with a handful of novellas and novelettes, but short stories?

(No doubt I’ll think of possible titles the moment I hit the “Publish” button on this post…)

And let me once more ask what on earth is the use of the novelette? It’s an entirely arbitrary and useless category. Anything bigger than a short story but smaller than a novel is a novella. The only places where novelette is used as a category is in the Big Three genre magazines and US genre awards. And it seems to me it only exists so the big friendly and incestuous club of US genre writers have an excuse to give each other yet another award. Get rid of it, please.


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From the Sublime to the ridiculous

The Gzilt are unusual among all galactic civilisations in that the holy book of their religion has proven to be demonstrably true. It predicted scientific advances long before they were made. There was other stuff in the Book of Truth, of course – the typical moralistic posturing, the usual self-serving self-importance around which religions accrete, all that sort of stuff. But people took it seriously because parts of it actually became true.

Now, the Gzilt are about to Sublime. This means they are about to leave this universe en masse for another where everyone lives in– Well, no one really knows because those few who have returned have been mysterious and enigmatic to the point of uselessness. But Subliming is good. And the universe to which races Sublime is apparently infinitely large and infinitely wonderful and everyone there feels infinitely uplifted.

Subliming calls for celebration, so various other races are descending on the Gzilt worlds to wish the Gzilt well and to, hopefully, if given permission, loot what’s left for themselves. A representative of the remnants of the Zihdren, the Gzilt’s original mentors, who Sublimed thousands years before, turns up with some unwelcome news. But before it can be revealed the Zihdren-Remnanter ship is callously destroyed by a Gzilt battleship. This could upset things. As could the news the destroyed ship was carrying.

Also, the Gzilt were one of the original races – they’re humanoid; very much so, in fact – who agreed to band together to form the Culture ten thousand years earlier. But, for whatever reason, they chose to go their own way. There is a person in the Culture who was there at those original negotiations, and he’s still alive and it seems he might know something about the news the destroyed Zihdren-Remnanter ship was carrying. So the Culture ships hanging around to see the Gzilt Sublime are keen to find out what it was…

It doesn’t take long – less than a third of the way into the book, in fact – before Banks reveals the secret carried by the destroyed ship. The Book of Truth, it transpires, was a put-up job. By a group of Zihdren academics. For reasons of their own – which are alien, no doubt – they decided to plant a holy text which could be proven true on the primitive Gzilt. And for more than ten thousand years, that the Book of Truth might not be precisely what it claims to be has never occurred to those who take it as their creed. Even though they are allegedly civilised enough to Sublime.

But, well, they’re not really civilised at all. And Subliming doesn’t appear to be a reward for being a good bunch of highly civilised people either. Because the Gzilt response to news of the Book of Truth’s, er, true origin becoming known is to go on a berserk murdering spree. The politician in charge during the last days of the Gzilt sends one of the Gzilt Regiments to massacre another who had got wind of the destruction of Zihdren-Remnanter ship. Said politician had also promised scavenger rights to one alien race, the Liseiden, but when the Ronte win the rights instead, he causes a situation in which the Liseiden destroy the Ronte fleet.

And the final action-piece of the novel is an all-out high-bodycount attack on a blimp full of partygoers by a single-minded special forces colonel and his band of lethal attack robots.

Somewhere threading her way amongst all this is Vyr Cossont. Who has four arms. Which she needs to play a piece of music on a preposterous instrument called an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. The piece of music, which was written thousands of years before and is allegedly unplayable, is called…

The Hydrogen Sonata‘.

This is the tenth Culture novel and even before it appeared The Hydrogen Sonata was being heralded as a “return to form” (which is quite a good trick) after the disappointing Matter and Surface Detail. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In fact, I think Matter was a much more interesting novel.

The Hydrogen Sonata is pacey, Vyr Cossont is an engaging protagonist (though she’s somewhat at the beck and call of events), there are one or two nice bits of invention, and there are a number of conversations between Ship Minds which are fun. But. The secret of the Book of Truth is revealed early, which robs the rest of the novel of all tension. You keep on reading expecting the other shoe to drop – but there is no other shoe. The way the violence mounts is stupidly cartoonish, particularly for a people who are days away from Subliming. In fact, the second half of The Hydrogen Sonata reads more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaption of a Culture novel than an actual Culture novel.

And that title? What relevance exactly does that have to the story? I know Banks’ Culture novels usually boast titles peripheral to the point of irrelevance, but Cossont’s attempt to play a piece of unplayable music has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps the title is a joke, perhaps it needs to be decoded… and since hydrogen’s symbol is H and a sonata is a word for a type of musical piece, it could read as…

The H(ot) Air.

Because as Culture novels go, The Hydrogen Sonata contains far more bluster than the other books in the series.

(Sorry, could not resist the title to this piece.)


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Did we get there?

Peter Tennant has reviewed Where Are We Going?, edited by Allen Ashley and published by Eibonvale Press, in Black Static #31. The anthology contains my bathypunk story, ‘The Way The World Works’, and Tennant says of it:

“… the story beguiling with its elaborate build up and the mythic resonances attendant upon its final revelation, but having arrived at his destination Sales doesn’t seem to know what to do and so the story fizzles out with the literary equivalent of an actor knowingly winking at the audience. It felt anti-climatic.”

It’s always fascinating to see what other people make of your fiction. To me, the last line was the story’s payload. Nor do I believe in neatly-tied up endings – see Adrift on the Sea of Rains, for example. But I can’t control how people read my fiction; and a story’s success lies as much in how people read it as it does in how well I’ve written it; if not more so.


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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

I like stories that play around with the structure of their narrative. I like reading them, I like writing them. I particularly like the way they allow you to hide things, so you can drop them all on the reader at the end and blow their mind. I call that the B-52 Effect – not after the bomber but after the drink, which you knock back and it sort of goes whoommppfff when it hits your stomach. If I can do that in my fiction, then job done.

While I was thinking about interesting narrative structures, it occurred to me it’s not something genre fiction does often, but when it does it generally does it quite well. And I tried to think of ten excellent novels that boasted interesting narrative structures. But I could only think of five:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), has perhaps the most common form of non-linear structure used in genre fiction, comprising two separate narratives – one of Byron’s fictional novel, which is also glossed with historical notes; and the second narrative is an email exchange set in the present about Byron’s life and his novel. One narrative informs the other and is in turn informed by it. I like that.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000), shares a similar structure to Crowley’s novel, in that the main narrative is – perhaps – a fictional work about the title character, and this is wrapped within another narrative which comments on Ash’s narrative and is in turn changed by her narrative.

Use Of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1991), famously has two narratives intertwined and chronologically opposed – one moves forward in time, like your average normal linear plot; but the other alternates with it and moves backwards in time. It makes for a mind-blowing climax, but sadly it’s a single shot: once you know the ending, you’re not going to get that B-52 Effect again.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974), equally famously has a non-linear structure narrative, with alternating chapters set on each of the story’s two worlds, Anarres and Uras, but not in chronological order. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, the chapters if re-ordered chronologically would go: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968) is, given that I’ve only read eight of Compton’s seventeen sf novels, the only one I’ve read so far that isn’t a two-hander. Most have a pair of protagonists, typically one male and one female, and the viewpoint alternates between them. Interestingly, in The Steel Crocodile the sections overlap so the reader sees events from both viewpoints. Synthajoy, however, has a single POV. At the start of the book, the protagonist is in an institution being “cured” after committing a crime. The narrative then starts to seamlessly slide into the past and describes the events that led up to the crime, and throughout the novel drifts back and forth between the two narratives. It is very cleverly done.

There are surely other genre novels with narrative structures other than the bog-standard linear beginning-to-end plot, but I’m having trouble thinking of good ones. There are fix-up novels, of course, though there’s nothing especially interesting in that as a structure. And both The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Icehenge comprise three loosely-linked novellas, and are both very good and cleverly done. Literary fiction is much more adventurous in this regard and two examples leap immediately to mind: Cloud Atlas and Girl Reading. Anyone else have any examples worth mentioning?


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Readings of recentness

And there’s me thinking I’d given up commenting on the books I’d read here on my blog…

Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964). A review of this will be going up on SF Mistressworks this week (need MOAR REVIEWS, btw. Volunteer. Please.) Garish cover art, a strapline that reads, “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion”, a thirteen-year-old girl as a protagonist, and a prose style that feels two decades earlier that its publication date… It’s actually not bad.

Shine Shine Shine, Lydia Netzer (2012). About which I wrote some words here.

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett (1930). This is allegedly the best crime noir novel ever written, which doesn’t say much for the genre. I knew the story from the Bogart film, and was surprised at how faithful an adaptation it proved to be. There’s a feeling throughout the story that Hammett was blithely making shit up… and then there’s this section on the history of the eponymous bird which names various mediaeval texts and it all seems very convincing. I liked Gutman, and Hammett did a good job with his dialogue. Spade was a cypher, and I was soon sick to death of reading about his “wooden features”. Couldn’t get a handle on the femme fatale or Joe Cairo. The functional prose was, at best, functional. The film is better.

Lunar Caustic, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Which is perhaps chiefly interesting because of its publishing history. An early version of this novella was accepted for publication in Story magazine in the 1930s, but Lowry called it back. And continued to work on it. I can sort of understand the impulse. When Lowry died in 1957, he left behind several manuscript versions, and his wife and Earle Birney, a neighbour and university professor of English, spliced together this 1968 edition out of them. It’s set in a psychiatric hospital in New York and is, like much of Lowry’s fiction, partly autobiographical. There are moments of genius in it, though it does feel somewhat slight compared to some of his other novella-length fiction, especially ‘Through the Panama’. Also, its publication history has disguised the fact that it’s set in 1936, when Lowry checked himself into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital (though he started work on it in 1934, on his arrival in New York). As a result, it feels weirdly old-fashioned for its time – given its publication year it’s tempting, for example, to read it as a contemporary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which suggests that psychiatric hospitals changed very little in the intervening three decades. Lunar Caustic was intended to be a part of a seven-novel sequence, The Voyage That Never Ends, which would I suspect have been a major work of English literature. As it is, we can only treasure what little we have.

The Watcher, Jane Palmer (1986). And this one I did review for SF Mistressworks and you can see my review here.

Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011). A very impressive debut, and almost certain to end up on my top five books of the year. I wrote about it here.

Sion, Philip Boast (1999). Boast’s weird alternate secret biblical histories are something of a guilty pleasure, but I think this one pushed the weirdness factor a bit too far. It’s set in Biblical Judea, and told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene. Except she’s not really Mary Magdalene. Whoever she is, she has lived before, and remembers historical events dating back to Moses and Abraham, and even much, much earlier. In Sion, Joseph and Mary belong to a sect, but Jesus also has brothers and sisters. And it was Jesus’ brother James who is considered the messiah of prophecy. But Jesus truly is the Son of God, although his message of love is anathema to the sect and to their conception of a messiah. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, and after the crucifixion, Mary and child escape to France. The story is then narrated by their son, Jude, who travels and eventually discovers the Ark of the covenant and its secret. He dies and then becomes a disembodied intelligence who leaps from body to body, occasionally meeting up with his mother, who is apparently doing the same. The final section explains that Mary was a passenger aboard an asteroid starship crossing through this universe, but which crashed and stranded a group of them on prehistoric Earth. Or something. It’s not entirely clear. It’s a shame the book is so unbalanced, with far too much of the narrative spent on too detailed a description of Mary’s time in Judea. It’s only when Jude appears that it picks up pace, but even then it throws away the entire point of the plot in a hurried final section. Disappointing.

Vapour Trails, Mike Lithgow, ed. (1958). Funniest book I’ve read all year. It’s a series of essays about test piloting by British pilots of the day. You get the impression that a number of the anecdotes they recount have seen plentiful use in after-dinner speeches. The more astonishing incidents are those set during the really early days of aviation, where anyone with sufficient money could buy a plane and learn to fly it themselves. One test pilot, for example, tells of an incident in the 1920s at an airfield where he worked. A wealthy German had bought himself a Blériot plane and was learning how to fly it. Blériots, apparently, could manage an altitude of 200 feet on warms days, but only 20 feet on cold days. The German set off across the airfield in his plane, and eventually took off. Just as he was about to clear the hangars, he turned off his engine… and the plane promptly crashed. When asked why he’d turned off the engine, he explained he’d picked up a tail wind and thought that was enough to keep him flying… Recommended, even if you’re not an aviation buff.

The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley (2011). Is the third and final book of Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire space opera trilogy, and notable among such types of books in that it actually resolves the plot and leaves pretty much everything neat and tidy. In the previous two books – Seeds Of Earth and The Orphaned Worlds – Cobley went slightly berserk and set so many balls spinning, it was hard to keep track of them all. There was the invasion of Darien by an imperialistic alien race, there were the cyborg Legion of Avatars imprisoned in hyperspace and about to break free, the lost human colony who have been operating as mercenaries for the bad guys but have now schismed, the planned terrorist attack which turns out to be much more than it seems, and I forget what else. And it appears it’s all a feint or something because the Godhead, a vast machine intelligence resident in hyperspace, wants to transcend and needs to blow up fifty suns to do so. Cobley handles his large cast with deftness, there are some nicely-written set pieces, and his universe contains plenty of variety and diversity. However, and perhaps it’s just me, but it all feels a bit tired. The Humanity’s Fire trilogy is an accomplished space opera trilogy, but I’ve lost faith in the subgenre, in its “anything goes” ethos, its “chuck everything in” world-building… I think we’re seeing the end of new space opera, British or otherwise. It’ll either settle into a rut, much as high fantasy has done for the past twenty years, or it will slowly fade away. It already feels a bit like the twentieth century, ie a progressive experiment that people are inexplicably turning their back on – cf Leviathan Wakes. Regression is not the next step. We need something new to come along, and I think, and hope, we may be seeing New Hard Science Fiction poised to take its place…


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Wanting to be normal – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine

I forget where I saw mention of Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on one of the many blogs I read, nor by one of the people I follow on Twitter. It certainly wasn’t recommended to me by Amazon – I forget the last time I bought a book by an author unknown to me because it was recommended by Amazon. Wherever it was, the précis of the plot was enough to pique my interest, as the blurb says: “This is the story of an astronaut lost in space, and the wife he left behind”. Since the fourth book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, will be about the wife of an Apollo astronaut, I was both intrigued by Shine Shine Shine as well as having a “professional interest” in it.

Happily, it was on half-price promotion in Waterstone’s, so I bought a copy. The cover is,um, very pink, and it doesn’t look anything like a novel featuring an astronaut. Nor did I recognise any of the names who have blurbed the book. But never mind, the story still sounded like it might appeal.

UK cover

But, oh dear. The novel opens:

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the spaceship and see the Earth.

This doesn’t bode well. The novel is set in the very near-ish future, though it’s depicted as the present day for all but the fact of mission to the Moon, but that’s language straight from the science fiction of yore. In fact, everything in the novel about the Moon mission is, well, wrong. Plainly Netzer has done no research on it – her prose has zero authority when discussing the astronaut husband. She gets the physics wrong, she gets other details wrong. One of the crew, for example, is a lieutenant commander in the US Air Force. Except lieutenant commander is a naval rank. The USAF equivalent is major. That’s shoddy craft.

And yet, there are things to like about Shine Shine Shine. It’s very “creative writing class” in places, but Netzer has created an interesting protagonist in Sunny, a young pregnant Virginia housewife with alopecia and a son with Asperger’s, whose decision to not hide her alopecia kicks off the story. Her early childhood is not especially convincing, but the sections set in the foothills of the Appalachians in western Pennsylvania, where Sunny and Maxon, her husband, meet as children are good. Maxon, the roboticist turned astronaut, also has Asperger’s, and is depicted throughout as very close to a robot himself. He’s also a genius, a Nobel prize laureate, and a millionaire. While Maxon is handled quite well, all this is just over-egging his character.

US cover

In fact, the entire story is a little over-egged. It opens with Sunny involved in a minor car accident. Her wig flies from her head. So she decides to no longer wear it. Her Virginia housewives circle, of course, did not know she was bald. Sunny has tried so long to be “normal” – hiding the fact of her baldness, using her husband’s genius to excuse his inability to interact with people, organising her neighbours and becoming a pillar of the local community.

Meanwhile, she is heavily pregnant, her husband is on his way to the Moon to oversee the creation of the first robotic colony there, their son, Bubber, has severe Asperger’s but is likely a savant of some kind, and her mother is on life support in hospital, her body riddled with cancer. A meteor strikes the spacecraft Maxon is aboard, stranding the crew in cislunar space (I think – the astrographics is nonsense throughout). Back on Earth, Sunny tries to hold her family together in the face of these threats, and attempts to find the person she was before she subsumed herself in the role of Virginia housewife. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks, describing her birth and early childhood in Burma (her father was a missionary), and her life as a child in Pennsylvania, living next door to Maxon and his hillbilly family of – I think – meth-makers.

Shine Shine Shine could have been an excellent novel, but it’s let down by a lack of research and a consequent lack of verisimilitude. True, not every reader is going to be as critical of the spacecraft-set parts of the novel as myself, but writers should always strive for verisimilitude. Research, research and then research some more. They say “write what you know”, but that’s complete rubbish. If everyone did that, literature would be very dull indeed. But that doesn’t mean you can make shit up when it’s easily checkable. Doing that only makes you look a fool – cf Dan Brown. If Maxon’s career had been in any way convincing, Shine Shine Shine would have been greatly improved. As it is, the novel reads like a thesis for a Creative Writing MA. Disappointing.


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Britain’s best kept musical secret

Last night I was in Leeds seeing Opeth perform live. Opeth, of course, are Swedish. But they were supported by Anathema, a British band whose lack of major success continues to astonish me. They should be filling stadiums. It’s the fifth time I’ve seen both bands, but the first time they’ve toured together.

But, Anathema. They started out in 1990 as the doomiest of doomy metal bands, but by their third album in 1996 had morphed into a sort of alternative metal / goth rock / prog rock sort of band. They’re not easy to pigeonhole, nor are they relentlessly non-commercial. The reverse, in fact. In recent years, they seem to have drifted a little towards Radiohead territory, though I think they’re a great deal better than that band. In evidence, here’s ‘Untouchable Part 1′ from their last album, Weather Systems. They played it last night. It was bloody good.

As for the venue, the less said about that the better… The gig took place in the Leeds Metropolitan Universe Student Union. Capacity is allegedly 1100, but I’d guess safe capacity is about three-quarters of that. The place was packed solid – so much so that if you left the room, you couldn’t get back in. And the ventilation appeared to be off, as well. Ten minutes into Opeth’s set, the room was like a sauna. People were leaving because it was too hot. The organisers apparently knew this because they lined up free cups of water along the bar.

Also, during the thirty-minute break between bands, only one half of the bar was open, so it was immediately 10 deep and so impossible to get served. Student Unions generally make piss-poor venues for gigs – most seem to have been designed by idiots, complete warrens with toilets miles from the bars, unnecessary staircases, too small rooms, and always run on the cheap. Leeds Met was no exception. It’s a shame: it could have been an excellent gig, but the venue ruined it.


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Another visit to the Red Planet

Jupiter XXXVIII: Pasithee is now out and features six excellent short stories, and a small poem by Yours Truly. The poem is titled ‘Rainbow Mars’ and is chock full o’references to the Red Planet of fact, fiction and myth.

It’s worth getting hold of Jupiter. It’s published some very good fiction over the years, and has maintained an enviably regular publishing schedule.


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Sf comics

It’s not just the Europeans and their bandes dessinées who produce science fiction in comic form. In my previous post (see here), I mentioned the UK’s anthology comics, such as 2000 AD or Starlord. There have been also many other sf comics and/or graphic novels published over the years. Here are the ones I own. Some are British, some are American, some are by British writers working for American publishers…

Ron Turner was a stalwart of the British comics scene, especially science fiction, with a career stretching from 1936 until his death in 1998. Rick Random, Space Detective, was created in 1953 for Super Detective Library, a collection of small comic books much like Commando and War Picture Library. Random appeared in 27 books between 1954 and 1957, but his adventures were later reprinted in a variety of venues, including 2000 AD summer specials. There was even an all-new story in 2000 AD in 1979. The book pictured collects ten of Random’s adventures, all but one drawn by Turner. No writing credits are given, but Harry Harrison is known to have written for the series.

Another important venue for sf comics in the UK was newspapers. The tabloids would often feature a number of strips,  some of which were ongoing serials. Jeff Hawke, who appeared in the Daily Express between February 1955 and April 1974, was created and drawn by Sydney Jordan. Titan Books published two of the stories back in the mid-1980s, but the above two are much more recent. They’re worth getting hold of.

Another excellent sf strip from a newspaper is the Daily Mirror’s Garth. This ran from 1943 until 1997, but it’s the Frank Bellamy version I remember best. He drew it from 1971 to 1976 (my grandfather subscribed to the Daily Mirror, and I’d read the strip whenever I visited him). In the mid 1980s, Titan reprinted two stories in individual volumes – The Cloud of Balthus and The Women of Galba (ignore the awful cover art). The Daily Mirror only published two Garth annuals, in 1975 and 1976 – both are shown. Given there are 165 Garth stories, it’s about time someone did a proper job of collecting and republishing them.

And then there’s 2000 AD, which has been publishing issues constantly since 1977. I used to subscribe to it back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I have fond memories of many of the strips it featured. Which is what prompted me to buy the above. Robohunter is an old Titan Books reprint I bought back in the 1980s. The other two are more recent and were published by Rebellion, 2000 AD’s publisher. Sadly, it’s never wise to revisit things you loved when you were younger. The Stainless Steel Rat may be an improvement on the books, but that’s not saying much, and the adaptation misses out a couple of important plot points. ABC Warriors has its moments, but it’s really just a derivative mash-up of half a dozen war movies, with crap dialogue to suit.

Luther Arkwright is the work of Bryan Talbot, and appeared in a limited series comic in the late 1980s. It was collected as a trade paperback in the late 1990s, and a sequel Heart Of Empire was published soon after. It’s a New worlds-ish steampunky alternate worlds sf sort of thing, and it’s quite brilliant. Every self-respecting sf fan should own a copy. In fact, they should own copies of everything Talbot has done.

Also brilliant is Scarlet Traces and its sequel, The Great Game, a story set in Victorian Britain after Wells’ Martians have succumbed to the common cold. The British Empire has reverse-engineered the Martian technology and as a result maintained its technological and global preeminence. Later, Edginton and d’Israeli adapted Wells novel as a sort of prequel to their series.

Warren Ellis is British, but much of his work has been done for various US comics publishers. Several of the mini-series he has written are science fiction – such as the above. Ministry of Space, an alternate history story in which the British have a post-war space programme is especially good. Not shown are Ignition City and Anna Mercury, which a friend is currently borrowing.

Sf novels occasionally get the graphic novel treatment, although not always successfully – or rather, the project is not always completed. The silver book above is the graphic novel of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, drawn by Howard Chaykin, from 1979. It’s signed by Bester, Chaykin and Byron Preiss. It’s also only half of the novel’s story. A concluding volume was never produced. Empire shares a title with a Samuel R Delany novella, but the story Delany wrote for this Chaykin-illustrated story is not that ‘Empire’. Dead Girls is the first volume in an adaptation of Richard Calder’s novel of the same name, published House of Murky Depths. It originally appeared as a strip in the magazine Murky Depths, which has since ceased publication. The graphic novel will, however, continue. The edition shown is signed and numbered.

Jed Mercurio’s Ascent is one of my favourite novels, but sadly this graphic adaptation fails to capture what I like about the book. T-Minus is a comic-book potted history of the Space Race and is quite good.

Night And The Enemy is an illustrated short story, written by Harlan Ellison and illustrated by Ken Steacy. The Sacred and the Profane is a graphic novel, written by Dean Motter and also illustrated by Steacy, which first appeared in Star*Reach from 1977 to 1978. In the 1980s, Motter and Steacy rewrote, redrew and coloured it, and it was published in Epic Illustrated – which is where I saw it for the first time. (I used to buy issues of Epic Illustrated and Heavy Metal during the 1980s when I was passing through Schiphol, travelling to and from the Middle East.) The collected edition above is signed and numbered. It’s also very good.

I’m not entirely sure why someone decided a mash-up featuring Tarzan and another of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters was a good idea, but they went and did it. First Tarzan met Carson of Venus, and then he met John Carter of Mars. Not an entirely successful pair of literary experiments.

Recent years, perhaps triggered by the Disney film, have seen a surge of new John Carter adaptations, as well as omnibus editions of older versions. The two Dejah Thoris graphic novels aren’t too bad, though it would be nice if they could put some  clothes on her. The other two are quite poor.


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Drawn strips

UK comics have traditionally followed an anthology format, with each issue containing a number of different stories or installments of a serial. This is very different to the US tradition, in which a single story occupies a whole issue, or series of issues. And while US comics have pretty much entirely been stories of super-powered men and women in brightly-coloured tights, most UK comics were typically humorous (Beanie, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, etc), war-related (Warlord, Victory, etc), or science fiction (2000 AD, Starlord, etc).

But there is another comics tradition, which only rarely appears in the US or UK – the bande dessinée. In continental Europe, science fiction has often been driven by these “drawn strips”, much more so than it has been in Anglophone countries. Every now and again, some of the more popular bandes dessinées are picked up by English-language publishers, translated and introduced to an English-speaking audience. Cinebook have been doing a sterling job in this regard over the last few years, but they’re by no means the first.

I’ll admit to being a fan of sf bandes dessinées, though I don’t buy them as often as I’d like to. Most, of course, have not been translated into English – although they may well have been translated into most other European languages. Anyway, here are the ones I have. Most are in English, but some are in French.

Orbital, written by Sylvain Runberg and drawn by Serge Pellé, is solid space opera of a type which rarely appears in graphic form in English. A human and a Sandjarr, members of two races that were at war several years before, are put together as diplomat-troubleshooters, and have various adventures.

The Chimpanzee Complex, written by Richard Marazano and drawn by Jean-Michel Ponzio, opens brilliantly – in 2035, a copy of the Apollo 11 Command Module splashes down in the Pacific, but only Armstrong and Aldrin are aboard. A mission to the Moon is hastily cobbled together to discover the CM’s origin. This then moves onto Mars, where the crew find a colony of cosmonauts led by Yuri Gagarin. Sadly, the final volume doesn’t quite sustain the level of inventiveness, but it does do something quite weird and interesting with the story.


One of the big bandes dessinées series is Edgar P Jacob’s The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. It first appeared in  Tintin Magazine in 1946, and continued through to Jacobs’ death in 1987. Since then, new stories have appeared from Jacobs Studios. To date, Cinebook have translated and published 13 books. Like Tintin, they’re all drawn in a ligne claire style, and while they’re often text-heavy (often with text describing what’s visible in the panel), the stories are generally a quite cleverly-done mix of history and science fiction.

There was an earlier attempt to introduce Blake and Mortimer to an English-speaking audience. Back in the early 1990s, US publisher Catalan Communications published two Blake and Mortimer books. I found this one in Abu Dhabi. It has since been republished as volume 12 in the Cinebook editions of the series.

Another big bande dessinée series is agent spatio-temporel Valérian et Laureline. This started in 1970, and there are now twenty volumes available. So far Cinbeook have translated and published the first four.

Again, there was an attempt to introduce Valerian and Laureline to English-speakers back in the 1980s. A US subsidiary of the French publishers, Dargaud, translated and published four random volumes – numbers 3, 4, 6 and 8. I’ve no idea why they stopped.

In 2004, ibooks published an English-language omnibus of three Valerian and Laureline stories – numbers 13, 14 and 15.

And here are some of the original French editions, including a prequel published in 1983 and the second of two encyclopedias about the universe of the two spatio-temporal agents.

I’m not sure why I have this. This copy of Milady 3000 is a French translation of an Italian comic. It’s far future space opera, and quite well done. It apparently lasted from 1980 to 1984, and appeared in both Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal.

The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul is another popular series being republished by Cinebook. These two books are earlier editions by Catalan Communications. The series began in 1970 and currently comprises twenty-five volumes. Catalan Communications published only the two I have, but Cinebook has so far reached volume seven.

I’ve had these for years, and I can no longer remember where or when I bought them. They’re English translations of a Polish series based on the works of Erich von Däniken. I think only these three volumes were published in English, though there were eight originally in the Polish series.

Lorna is originally Spanish, by Alfonso Azpiri, and has appeared in Heavy Metal. Leviathan is the fourth of six books featuring Lorna, and I’ve no idea if any others have been published in English. It’s definitely not for, er, children. Sanctum is a three-part French series by Xavier Dorison and Christophe Bec. As far as I can determine, only the first volume has been published in English. So it looks like I’ll be getting the French “Intégrale” edition to find out how the story ends…

The Fourth Power is a full-on space opera bandes dessinées by Juan Giménez, an Argentine artist who illustrated Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Metabarons series. The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal was the basis for Bilal’s live-action/CGI film Immortal.

No post on bandes dessinées is complete without mention of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and his most famous work, The Incal. It may well be, however, better known for Moebius’ artwork than Jodorowsky’s script. It’s been published several times in English. Back in the early 1990s, Titan Books published several volumes; then Humanoid Associates, the English-language arm of the French publishers, published four volumes; and last year, Self Made Hero published a very nice omnibus edition. I’ve only managed to find three of the four Humanoid Associates editions, but now I have Self Made Hero edition I don’t need to complete the set…

Another popular Jodorowsky series, this time illustrated by Juan Giménez. There is, I believe, a Metabarons RPG. The French originals stretches over nine volumes, but only the first six, in three omnibus volumes, are available in English.

Technopriests, written by Jodorowsky and illustrated by Zoran Janjetov, is even more bonkers than the Incal or Metabarons. Humanoid Associates have to date only translated the first two of the eight-volume series. Megalex is a three-volume series, illustrated by Fred Beltran, but only the first book is available in English.

However, I have the first four volumes of Les Technopères in French, plus a presentation box for them. I just need to get hold of the remaining four volumes…

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