It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Book haul

Things must be bad – I’ve not done one of these posts for a couple of months, and yet there only seems to be about a month’s worth of book purchases to document. Of course, this has resulted in a small victory in reducing the TBR, although it’s still somewhat mountainous… I’d actually planned to keep my purchasing at low levels for a couple of months but, of course, as is the way of things, several authors whose books I read all had new works out – August and September seems to be a popular time to release books. Unless you’re Whippleshield Books, that is…

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Some new first editions and an old one. Research is Philip Kerr’s latest, and about a James Patterson-like writer who’s framed for the murder of his wife. Let’s hope it’s not a James Patterson-like book… Dark Lightning is the fourth in Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, following on from Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder. I initially thought these were YA, but I don’t think they actually are. All Those Vanished Engines is a new novel by a favourite writer, and the first from him since the Princess of Roumania quartet back in 2005 – 2008. I am excited about this book. Finally, Rubicon by Agnar Mykle is one by mother found for me. I looked it up and it sounded interesting so she got it for me. Mykle seems to be Norway’s answer to DH Lawrence – his Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby) was confiscated as immoral and obscene. Rubicon is the third book in a loose trilogy begun with The Song of the Red Ruby. If Rubicon is any good, I might track down Mykle’s other works.

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Some recent paperback purchases: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I bought because Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve been following Kinsey Millhone’s career for a couple of decades and W is for Wasted is the most recent installment. Grafton has kept the series’ internal chronology consistent, which means this one is actually set in 1988. Which sort of makes it historical crime fiction. Milton In America was a charity shop find. And Eric sent me a copy of his latest, a steampunk set in India, Jani and the Greater Game.

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Now this is very annoying. I’d been impressed by Léo’s Aldebaran and Betelgeuse series, so I was keen to read Antares. From Wikipedia, I learnt there were five episodes in Antares, so I waited until the final volume was published in English by Cinebook… and then bought all five books. But it ends on a cliff-hanger! Argh. It’s not finished. So now I’m going to have to wait to find out what happens.

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The DH Lawrence collection continues to grow. My father had the first two volumes of the Cambridge biography of DH Lawrence – The Early Years 1885-1912 and Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 – and I hung onto them. But I hadn’t realised it was a trilogy, and when I started looking for a copy of the final volume, Dying Game 1922-1930, I discovered that hardback editions were hard to find. But I found one. I also have a couple more 1970s Penguin paperbacks to add to the collection: St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy (a pair of novellas) and England, My England (a collection). I probably have their contents in other books, but I’m trying to build up a set of these particular paperback editions.

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Some critical works on women science fiction writers. The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar, includes essays on Tiptree, Brackett, Moore, Norton, Cherryh and others. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts is a collection of Joanna Russ’s essays on feminism. And The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a study of, from the back cover blurb, “the role of women and feminism in the development of American science fiction” and I really need to read it for Apollo Quartet 4…

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More books for the aviation collection. USAF Interceptors is a collection of black and white photos of, er, interceptor jet aircraft from the Cold War. Not as useful as I’d hoped. Convair Advanced Designs II is the follow-on volume to, um, Convair Advanced Designs, this time focusing on fighters and attack aircraft. And for the space books collection, Russian Spacesuits, which I used for research for my Gagarin on Mars story – and will likely use again at some point.

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Finally, more books for the underwater collection. The Greatest Depths by Gardner Soule is a quick and not especially, er, deep study of underwater exploration and exploitation. It covers the main points, including the Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep and the Ben Franklin’s journey along the Gulf Stream. A Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles does exactly what it says on the cover. It was cheap on eBay (although I demanded, and received, a partial refund because it turned out to be a bit tatty). And The Deep Sea is a glossy coffee-table book containing some nice photos of things at the bottom of the sea.


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Reading diary, #8

More catch-up content, I’m afraid, covering the books I’ve read over the past month or so. It’s the usual mix – some genre, some literary, some which are neither. I’m not going to write too much about each individual book, or I’d never get this post finished. And I am supposed to be doing things, after all.

MicrocosmosMicrocosmos, Nina Allan (2013). This is number five in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of collectible, er, collections. Other volumes are by Tanith Lee, Stephen Baxter, Tony Ballantyne, Lisa Tuttle, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Steve Rasnic Tem and Eric Brown. I often find myself conflicted about Allan’s short stories – there’s no denying she writes excellent prose, but I often have trouble with the details. ‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a case in point – it’s a lovely story, and it draws its portrait of its protagonist sensitively and well, but… the whole astronaut thing seemed to me too vague and hand-wavey, and that spoiled it for me. ‘The Phoney War’, on the other hand, is less overtly sf and so I felt it worked better, particularly since Allan is excellent at sense of place.

Paintwork, Tim Maughan (2011). I’m coming to this a bit late, but I only have an ebook copy and I’m still not quite comfortable reading ebooks. All the same, I took my Nook with me on a business trip to the South Coast as I’ve been reading an ebook of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on and off for a couple of months, but I read Paintwork instead. ‘Havana Augmented’ I thought the best of the three in the collection, with its VR mecha combat on the streets of Havana, but all are good near-future sf of a type that few people seem to be writing at the moment.

Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

moonenoughThe Moon Is Not Enough, Mary Irwin (1978). This is the only autobiography by an Apollo astronaut’s wife I’ve been able to find. Jim Irwin, Mary’s husband, was the LMP on Apollo 15. (Nancy Conrad and Betty Grissom, on the other hand, wrote biographies of their husbands.) I suspect Irwin’s story is not unusual among the astronaut wives – a marriage that begins to fall apart due to the husband’s commitment to his work, dragged back from the brink by either church, psychoanalysis, or NASA’s insistence on “happy families”, or, in Irwin’s case, all three; or the marriage explodes as soon as hubby has been to the Moon. I read the book for research, and in that respect it proved very useful.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Reza Negarestani (2008) Recommended by Jonathan McCalmont and, to be honest, I didn’t really get the joke. It’s written as a cod academic text, and probably does an excellent job of spoofing its material, but I’m not familiar with the sort of academic arguments it uses. It did remind me a lot of some of the Nazi occult science mythology – especially those books published by Adventures Unlimited Press – which create entire secret scientific programmes out of the flimsiest of evidence. The plot, such as it is, describes the War on Terror as an emergent phenomenon of humanity’s exploitation of oil, which is itself an inimical intelligence determined to rid the planet of humans. Or something.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952, although it was originally serialised in 1946), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell (2011). I usually avoid fantasy, but I picked up this book because a) Martin Lewis recommended it, and b) the cover art features a deep sea diver. There’s some interesting world-building in this, and a nice line in wit, but the thinly-disguised discussions on quantum mechanics wore thin very quickly, and the unnecessary brutality was also a little wearying. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll bother with the sequels.

Second Body, Sue Payer (1979), I read for SF Mistressworks. To be honest, I didn’t think this book read like it was written by a woman, but there’s a comment on GoodReads from the writer’s granddaughter which says otherwise. My review should be appearing in the next week or two.

A Kill in the Morning, Graeme Shimmin (2014), I read for Interzone. Hitler victorious alt history with a nameless narrator who owes a little too much to James Bond.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson, eds. (1976). I was in two minds whether to review for SF Mistressworks, since it contains three stories by male writers. But it was put together as a feminist sf anthology, the first of its kind, so I felt it too important a document in the history of women in science fiction to ignore. Review to appear in the next couple of weeks.

Robinson_Shaman_HCShaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), I originally intended to be part of my Hugo reading, but I never got around to it at the time – not that it seems to have made any difference, anyway. And, to be fair, it would be stretching the definitions of science fiction and fantasy both past breaking point to categorise this book as either. It’s a year in the life of a twelve-year-old boy – a near-adult – in Europe some 32,000 years ago. The story was apparently inspired by the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, as filmed by Werner Herzog in his Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. I was mostly carried along by the story, although on occasion it didn’t quite convince. The Neanderthals were good, though.

A Man and Two Women, Doris Lessing (1963). I have previously found Lessing a bit hit and miss for me, often in the same novel – but I did like most of these stories. Especially the Lawrentian title story. ‘England vs England’, however, is more of a Lawrence pastiche, but I wasn’t convinced by Lessing’s attempt at portraying South Yorkshire characters. The stories set in South Africa, by comparison, were much more successful, particularly ‘The New Man’. Also good were ‘Between Men’, about a pair of mistresses, and ‘Notes for a Case History’, a potted biography of a young woman with aspirations to rise above her working-class origins.


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Sales report

Loncon 3 is now in full swing. I am not there. After spending last weekend in a field in Derbyshire, drinking and watching a number of metal bands perform, I can’t say I’m especially bothered about missing the Worldcon (though I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to meet IRL a few visitors to the UK I know only from online). Bloodstock was good – I think I enjoyed the music more this year than last, even though initially I hadn’t been that keen on the line-up. Highlights were the sets by Obsidian Kingdom and Shining, and the crowd’s performance during Evil Scarecrow’s set. Other good stuff included Orphaned Land (twice), Rotting Christ, Winterfylleth, Old Corpse Road and Voices. The weather behaved – mostly. It hammered down on the Sunday, and everywhere got wet and muddy, but it cleared up by the evening. Security this year was much improved; the toilets were much worse. A good festival, nonetheless.

Meanwhile… these summer months so far have felt spectacularly unproductive, and there have been days when I’ve had trouble working up the enthusiasm to write, edit, or even get started on a book review… Which is not to say I’ve done nothing. It just feels like it. I’m assuming reviews count. I wrote a fair few of those during June and July. Four for SF Mistressworks, in fact: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (here); Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (here); Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (here); and Judgment Night, CL Moore (here). A fifth went up this week – The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (here) – and I have another two suitable books I’ve read but I’ve yet to start on the reviews – Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson; and Second Body, Sue Payer. I also reviewed Extreme Planets, edited by David Conyers, David Kernott & Jeff Harris, for Interzone (the anthology’s publishers really need to sort out its Amazon page); and I have another book sitting on this desk beside my laptop to review for them, which is, er, already late. (I’ll have it done by the end of the week, Jim. Honest.)

Whippleshield Books continues to quietly stumble along. Sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains have just passed 1100, those of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are over 500, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above has to date managed a tardy 200-or-so units sold. I’m determined to get the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, out before the end of the year, although at present I can’t predict exactly when. (Which reminds me: I need to buy some more ISBNs.) Aphrodite Terra, however, should appear some time next month. (The contributors were paid on acceptance, so any delay is more annoying than anything else.)

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Also, next month, I’ll have a story in Litro magazine. The issue has a “future fashion” theme, and my story, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, is about astronauts and space age fashion designers. Sort of. Postscripts #32/33: Far Voyager should also be out some time this year, with my story providing its title. And later this year – no date as yet – Tickety Boo Press are publishing an anthology Space: Houston, We Have A Problem, which contains my story ‘Red Desert’.

ETA: I forgot to mention I contributed a couple of Friday Fives to Pornokitsch – one on sf novels about first missions to the Moon titled, with a great deal of imagination, ‘5 Trips to the Moon’; the other about sf movies set at the bottom of the ocean, ‘5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema‘.

 


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Moving pictures, #7

If it weren’t for rental DVDs, I’d have been in a cultural vacuum this past couple of months. All that sportsing on television. Just when one ended, another began. And it’s still going on. It’s interminable. And, truth be told, so were some of the films I’ve watched over the past few weeks. But not all of them.

There’s books too, of course; though obviously I don’t get through as many of those per month. And I’m reluctant to write about every book I’ve read because a) I’m not a book blogger, b) not all of them are worth writing about, and c) quite a few of them are for review anyway – either for SF Mistressworks or for Interzone. Having said that, I really ought to write about books that have blown me away… except they seem to have been in somewhat short supply this year.

But, films. Movies. Moving pictures. Cinema. I continue to get my money’s worth from Amazon rental (Lovefilm as was), and if I chuck the occasional twenty-first century Hollywood blockbuster on my rental list because everyone’s talking about them, I usually end up wondering what all the fuss was about. But then, I do have an odd taste in movies. I recently had another look at my ten favourite films and made a few changes to it – and now it looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA), 2 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA), 3 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA) 4 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia), 5 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland), 6 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany), 7 Dune, David Lynch (1985, USA), 8 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine), 9 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Robert Wise (1979, USA), 10 Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks (1959, USA)… but it’ll likely change. It seems to do so every year or two anyway. Which is, I guess, a sign of a healthy list of favourites…

Anyway, on with the last few weeks’ worth of viewing:

Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor (2013, USA) Perhaps they should have just called it Thor: The Dark Film, because this is not a film to watch on a television on a summer evening. There were these dark shapes doing something in darkness, and it was all to do with Christopher Ecclestone in trollish make-up being evil. Or something. I don’t know, I couldn’t honestly give a shit. Marvel have mangled Norse mythology so much it’s frankly embarrassing they continue to use names like Thor and Loki. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a huge step backwards in terms of both comic rigour (not hugely adhered to, in the first place) and blockbuster cinema. Comic fans, they have taken something you admire and made something dumb of it. Do not celebrate that.

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The Barefoot Contessa, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1954, USA) An archetypal rags-to-riches story, told after the fact by laconic screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, who was there at the start and also there at the end. Ava Gardner plays a flamenco dancer who catches the eye of a Wall Street millionaire (that’s all they were back in those days, millionaires) who dabbles in movies. Turns out she’s photogenic and she becomes an international film star… and then marries an Italian count. But it all ends very badly. A Hollywood melodrama, with a nice voice-over by the Humph but very little substance.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence (2013, USA) This series baffles me. The games themselves are clearly the core of the story, and the dystopian world exists to justify their existence… but the obvious plot – that Katniss becomes some sort of rebel figurehead due to her success in the games (and no, I’ve not read the books) – seems to be taking so long to get moving you spend most of the time waiting for a whole marching band’s worth of shoes to drop. Instead you get a bunch of caricatures carefully plodding through a plot which refuses to engage with its central theme. But then, when the most memorable thing in a film is, ooh! Her dress is on fire!, it seems churlish to complain about thematic depth…

Nights Of Cabiria, Frederico Fellini (1957, Italy) Truth be told, the best parts of this film are the beginning and the end. It opens with Cabiria, a Roman prostitute, being pushed into a river and then being saved from drowning; and finishes with her stumbling onto a group of happy young people playing music after her fiancé has admitted to trying to kill her for her money. And yet, despite that, this is not a dour movie. Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, is irrepressibly optimistic, and it rubs off. It feels like a happy film, like a corner is forever about to be turned… even though it never does, even though Nights Of Cabiria is never as grim as Cabiria’s profession would suggest. This could be Fellini having his cake and eating it, but I prefer to think it’s the character of Cabiria rising above the material. Not my favourite Fellini film, but a good one.

Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes (2011, USA) This is actually a five-part mini-series, adapted from the James M Cain novel of the same name, as was the 1945 Joan Crawford film also of the same name. I’ve always wanted to like Haynes’ films more than I end up doing, but this one proved excellent from start to finish. Kate Winslet plays the title character, and she’s very good in the role. Haynes also manages to portray a convincing 1940s Los Angeles, and it’s certainly a less glamorous one than in the Crawford film. Recommended.

Mrs Miniver, William Wyler (1942, USA) Despite being an American film, this is set in the UK. Although Mr Mininver is American (Walter Pidgeon). It’s about a housewife during WWII, played by Greer Garson, and to be honest I remember almost nothing about it. Garson was, I seem to remember, very good, if somewhat terribly terribly… but I have zero memory of the plot. I think their house got bombed? If you’re looking for cinema verité about the Second World War, this is not the film to get.

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The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, Denmark) The “elevator pitch” for this did not deserve to work – or rather, in the real world it should not have worked. But it did. The director took a team to Indonesia and interviewed those responsible for the huge numbers of killings of “communists” (over half a million) between 1965 and 1966, and asked them to re-enact those killings. The film starts by interviewing one of the gang leaders during that time, Anwar Congo, before exploring the Indonesian paramilitary organisations known as “preman”, especially the largest one, Pancasila Youth. The scenes acted out by Congo and his associates turn increasingly strange as they explore through cinema conventions what they did and how it affected them. That Congo at the end has an epiphany as a direct result of his re-enactments – what he did, he now realises, was bad – feels like too neat an ending, almost a cliché, and yet the murders committed by the preman back in the 1960s, and the stuff they get up to even now, are anything but trite and should not be forgotten.

Stranded, Roger Christian (2013, Canada) You see a crap straight-to-DVD sf film these days, and chances are it was made in Canada. Most are best avoided. Like this one. Christian Slater – whose career is clearly no longer what it once was – stars as the commander of a base on the Moon. A meteor strike damages the base shortly before the crew of four are about to rotate out. One of the meteorites contained some alien gunk, which impregnates the sole female character and overnight she becomes nine months pregnant. Then whatever it was she was carrying vanishes, I think it was an alien which was impersonating another member of the crew but by that point my brain was dribbling out of my ears.

The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia) This was a rewatch, and it’s probably my favourite Sokurov film (and, of course, one of my ten favourite films). The subject matter and cinematography perfectly complement each other, which is not always true of his movies (another in which it does is Confession, but that’s also incredibly slow and long). A young man travels to Siberia to bury his father, and he has to deal with his loss as he deals with the local bureaucracy. I’ve tried to work out why this film appeals to me so strongly – I have an aversion to films with father-son narratives as I find Hollywood’s use of the trope typically stretches from the banal to the inane. But The Second Circle seems to me to give due emotional weight to its topic – it’s a father-son narrative that’s about grief and loss, not disappointment or approval. It is, in other words, real. Too many Hollywood films by male directors feel like they can be reduced to the director (or perhaps the writer) acting out in disguised form the issues they had with their own fathers; but this is one of the few movies that tackles the subject head-on and does it with intelligence. Oh, and why aren’t all of Sokurov’s films available in UK editions, eh? For example, he’s made a quartet of films about “the corrupting effects of power”, and one of them, the third, has never been released in this country.

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The Golden Coach, Jean Renoir (1952, France) This was unexpected; I mean, I’ve seen several of Renoir’s films and they’re excellent – La Règle du jeu, La Grande Illusion, Partie de campagne… So I had high expectations for The Golden Coach. But it turned out to be a dodgy Hollywood-style historical film, with none of Renoir’s wit, a mostly wooden cast, and the only real touch of Renoir was the start, which was framed as the beginning of a play on a stage, but as the camera moved onto the stage, so it all opened out into a cinematic world. Avoidable.

Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès (1902, France) I was surprised to discover this was only around fifteen minutes long, and that its story is quite mad. Though, to be honest, the documentary about Méliès also on the DVD was more interesting than the film. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it (and you can too, in fact, as there’s loads of versions of it on YouTube).

The Lego Movie, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (2014, USA) I’d heard lots of good things about this, even from normally sensibly people – so, despite it not being my thing at all, I borrowed it from a friend. There were a couple of laugh out loud moments, and more references to sf films than you could shake a reasonably-sized stick at… but in places it felt a bit by-the-numbers and, sigh, it all boiled down to a son and his relationship with his father. Even bloody toys can’t escape the father-son Hollywood narrative. Mildly entertaining.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I watch some of the films I’ve written about, it’s because I’m working my way through this list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It’s not an especially good list – lots of spelling mistakes, for a start – and I’m finding many of films that I don’t think belong on it, and some not on it that I believe should be. To date, I’ve seen 494 of them – most of them as rental DVDs, but some of them are proving hard to source…


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The future we used to have, part 25

I’ve not done one of these for a few weeks, so I thought it about time I did. I’ve themed it on the four elements, and some of the planes, cars, ships you may have seen before. The B-58 has certainly appeared in an earlier post, as have the USS Long Beach, HMS Kent and NS Savannah. But never mind, they’re worth looking at again.

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Convair B-58 Hustler

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Bell X-1

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Lockheed U-2

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Lockheed P-2 Neptune

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Bell D-188A concept VTOL supersonic fighter prototype

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Mercury launch (Aurora 7)

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Gemini launch (Gemini III)

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Apollo launch (Apollo 15)

Expedition 18 Soyuz TMA-13 Launch

Soyuz launch (Expedition 18)

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Sea launch

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Concept car for US Steel, 1960s

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GM Runabout concept car, 1966

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GM Runabout concept car built-in shopping trolley

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Maserati Boomerang concept car, 1972

Maserati Boomerang interior

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USS Long Beach

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HMS Kent, (County class destroyer)

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Керчь (Kara class cruiser)

N300

Naviplane N300

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NS Savannah


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Something for the weekend, sir?

A meme, of course. Provided by SF Signal. And since I’ve been a bit rubbish – well, a lot rubbish – at posting here over the past couple of months, and the tumbleweed and cobwebs are starting to look unsightly, I have seized the opportunity given by the meme to generate some uncontroversial blog content… Well, uncontroversial for me, anyway.

I’m not entirely sure what a “book snob” is – that would be someone who likes good books, yes? Well-written books, yes? I certainly wouldn’t recommend a crap book to someone. Well, not without mentioning that it was crap, and only if they’d asked for something that was so narrowly defined the only book I could think of happened to be a crap one… Many of the books I’ve recommended below I really can’t recommend highly enough. They should be required reading.

Science Fiction
Sf is my genre of choice, so I’m well-practiced in answering some of these questions. Most are books I’ve mentioned before, some I’ve even written about or reviewed – and I’ve linked to my review, where one exists.

If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book with lots of action, it would be: Against A Dark Background, Iain M Banks (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a “book snob”, it would be: Coelestis, Paul Park (my review), or Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book series I loved, it would be: The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (my review)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: What Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (mentioned here)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: Darkmans, Nicola Barker

Fantasy
I have a low opinion of epic fantasy, so I read very little of it – and then typically only when it’s either been recommended by someone whose opinion I value, or it was written by an author I already like. I will point out that “dislike” is probably too strong a word for my reaction to the Alan Campbell. I did quite enjoy it, but not enough to bother reading the rest of the series.

If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a new genre reader, it would be: A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park
If I were to recommend a fantasy book with lots of action, it would be: Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a “book snob”, it would be: Evening’s Empire, David Herter (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book series I loved, it would be: Isles of the Forsaken / Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (review here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: God Stalk, PC Hodgell (mentioned here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: King’s Dragon, Kate Elliott

Horror
I read very little horror, so most of these will be blank…

If I were to recommend a horror book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce
If I were to recommend a horror book with lots of action, it would be:
If I were to recommend a horror book to a “book snob”, it would be: Viator, Lucius Shepard, or X,Y, Michael Blumlein
If I were to recommend a horror book series I loved, it would be:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was:


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Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

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The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

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Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

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And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

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In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

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There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

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And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

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Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.

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