It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Leave a comment

This Year In My Words

Well, I wrote a lot more in 2008, and not just on this blog – 89 posts (including this one) compared to 49 last year. My most popular post – and I use the adjective advisedly – was Don’t Look Back in Awe. This was picked up by io9 and a slew of other blogs… and as a result my hits shot through the roof. Overlooked Classics also did quite well as it was posted on The other posts which received higher than average hits were the “list” ones: Overlooked Classics Part 2, 20 British SF Novels You Should Read and Top Ten Obscure SF Films. Perhaps I’ll knock together a few more lists in 2009. Um, maybe I should conflate Don’t Look Back in Awe with a list post, something like 20 SF Classics Which Are Actually Crap, for example… Top of that list would be Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, I think. Then again, perhaps I won’t…

I also wrote more fiction, and even sold some. The actual stats look like this:

Completed: 6
Submitted: 28
Rejected: 19
Waiting for response: 5

‘Thicker Than Water’ to Jupiter
‘Killing the Dead’ to Postscripts
‘The Amber Room’ to Pantechnicon

I’ll post to this blog when the stories are actually published, so you can rush out and buy copies of the magazines. Many copies.

I also wrote two book reviews for InterzoneTemplate by Matthew Hughes in IZ 218, and Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition by Michael Andre-Druissi in IZ 219.

And six DVD reviews for VideoVista.netZombies! Zombies! Zombies!, Vexille, Jacqueline Hyde, Psycho Beach Party, Sordid Lives and Lost in Austen.

All in all, not an unproductive year. I’d have liked it to have been more productive, though. But I’m determined to do even more in 2009 – two novels to complete, more short fiction, more poetry, a bunch of other projects, plus the reviews…

It only remains for me to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and all the best in 2009. And, as they say, keep watching the skies.


Optimism – A Bad Fit For SF?

Why doesn’t science fiction write about shiny happy futures? Why is it all doom and gloom? In these troubled times, shouldn’t the genre be focusing on what’s right, what’s good, what we can make better?

Well, no.

It’s all very well writing about gleaming futures full of food pills and jetcars, as if – like in William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ – doing so would dream it into being. It’s all very well positing a future in a science fiction short story in which today’s problems no longer exist. It’s all very well showing how, in a sf text, today’s problems could be solved.

But isn’t that irresponsible?

The world is as it is; it is in many respects how we have made it. If science fiction is to have relevance, this is something it must acknowledge. It is something it must discuss. Just because in a novel a real world regime is overthrown in 2020 AD… it doesn’t mean that novel can’t discuss the moral choices made by the leaders of that regime.

Science fiction can, perhaps, show what might be the effects in one hundred years of decisions taken now – for example, which do we protect: profits or the environment? What are the consequences of choosing one over the other? Why do some people privilege themselves – i.e., profits – over everyone else – i.e., the environment? And should we let them be the ones making the decisions?

Science fiction is not about prediction. It is no longer primarily didactic. But that does not mean it cannot inform. And more than that, it can inform on the important issues. Racial survival. Human rights. The impact of new sciences and technologies. Economics. Politics. Morality. Philosophy.

Writing about a bunch of geeks killing a bunch of gooks with ever more awesome weaponry is cowardice. It’s a failure to engage with the real world. The problem is not that nations are at war, it’s that nations go to war. The latter is fit for speculation, the former is not.

If it is possible to write optimistic science fiction, then it can only be by focusing on the quotidian, by writing fictions which are intensely personal, which look for small everyday victories, which ignore the big questions. Some might call that a failure of imagination.

Science fiction doesn’t need to be optimistic, it needs to be honest.


How Soon They Forget…

Eos, an imprint of HarperCollins, is running a competition with a first prize of every book published by them during 2009. Sadly, it’s open to US residents only. This post here on the Eos blog gives details, and also names some of the authors whose books the winner can expect to receive… including “…as well as debut novels SANDMAN SLIM by Richard Kadrey…”


Surely Kadrey’s debut was 1988’s Metrophage, probably the best of the cyberpunk novels?

Not to mention his second novel, Kamikaze L’Amour (1995), or his more recent Butcher Bird, published last year by Night Shade Books.

Leave a comment

The Year in Question – 2008

It’s not quite the end of the year but, with Christmas coming up, now is probably a good time to look back at the books I read, the films I watched, and the albums I bought in 2008. And… it was a bit of an odd year. I caught a new “enthusiasm”. Aircraft. Specifically, jet bombers and interceptors of the Cold War. And 1930s flying boats. And no, I’ve no idea why those in particular. But I bought and read books on the B-3, 6, Avro Vulcan, XB-70, BAC Lightning, Tu-16 Badger, de Havilland Sea Vixen, and the Short Empire flying boat, among many others. Oh, and the Bristol Brabazon, because the noise its engines made is really impressive – see this video of its test flight here, around the 3:50 minute mark as it takes off.

But back to the books read, films seen, etc. By December 18, I’d read 213 books (a new record for me) but, as usual, had bought more. Science fiction still formed the bulk of my fiction reading – 62% of it, in fact – but no heartland sf novels were good enough to make the grade as best of the year. I also read considerably more non-fiction than I’ve read in previous years – more than half my total reading. And I also read a lot of graphic novels – fifty-four, to be precise.

I watched 245 films and/or assorted seasons/series of television programmes, most of which were on DVD. And most of which weren’t all that good. There were the contents of the two 50-movie boxed sets, of course. That started out as fun, but soon turned into a chore. And some of the crappy sf and fantasy films I bought cheap on eBay proved to be less entertaining than I’d hoped or imagined. Some didn’t – and I included them in my Top Ten Obscure SF Films. I also started watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the first time, and discovered that I found (most of) the cast more appealing than in other Trek franchises. Having said that, the series’ treatment of terrorism and the like compares unfavourably with the new Battlestar Galactica‘s treatment of similar subjects. But then Deep Space Nine is pre-9/11.

On the music front, I attended twelve gigs and two festivals (Bloodstock and the Day of Unrest), and saw 46 bands perform live. That included several favourites – Dark Tranquillity, Blue Öyster Cult, Mostly Autumn (twice), Opeth, Pelican, Anathema, Mithras… In 2007, I tried to go to a gig a month, but failed. This year, I managed it – although that’s averaging it out over the year. I’ll have to see if I can do the same in 2009.

I bought around the same number of CDs as in previous years. Some bands I like released new albums – Opeth, Gojira, Martriden, Mostly Autumn, Scar Symmetry, and Anathema. The Opeth and the Anathema made my top five. I also discovered some new bands (some of which were, er, actually old), and a couple of them quickly became favourites. It was quite a good year for music.

Oh, and in 2008 I also became a book reviewer for Interzone and a DVD reviewer for VideoVista.

But on with the best of the year…


The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles (1969)
I’d seen the film many years before, and had a vague recollection of the plot. I’d also read other books by Fowles and I hold a high opinion of his fiction. But I’d somehow missed reading this one. So I took it with me on a business trip to Stuttgart… and couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t expected it to be so engrossing a read. Beautifully-written, clever, and affecting.

The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
This was my October book for my 2008 Reading Challenge, and I loved it so much I immediately added Scott’s novels to my wants list. And I’m looking forward to reading the remaining three books of the Raj Quartet. I wrote about it here.

The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow (2008)
This is the only book in my top five which was actually published in 2008. I don’t actually read that many original anthologies – well, not unless they’re themed and the theme interests me, such as The New Space Opera or The Space Opera Renaissance. But I’d read a number of very approving reviews of this anthology, so I bought it. And… it’s a very strong anthology indeed. I wasn’t convinced by every story, but the overall standard was impressively high – albeit some stories worked better for me than others.

Sixty Days and Counting, Kim Stanley Robinson (2007)
This is the final book in Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, and is a perfect indication of why Robinson is such an important sf writer. The book is educational – if not didactic – but eminently readable all the same. A fitting end to a trilogy which should be read by more people. Especially people who don’t believe in climate change.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon (2007)
I’m clearly not the only person who thought this was very good – it won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award and Sidewise Award. Deservedly. I wrote about it here.

Honorable mentions:
Collected Poems, Bernard Spencer (1981)
I think I can safely say that 2008 was the Year of Poetry for me. I started reading considerably more of it, and I even had a go at writing it (see one effort here). And of the poems I read during the year, Bernard Spencer’s were among the best. Admittedly, this collection contains everything he published, so it’s no surprise it’s strong.

Matter, Iain M Banks (2008)
A new Culture novel is a matter for celebration, and while this one was certainly better than Banks’ last sf novel, the very disappointing The Algebraist (which wasn’t a Culture novel), it wasn’t as good as earlier ones. I wrote about it here.

Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2006)
Probably the best graphic novel I read in 2008. This is a sequel of sorts to a sequel of sorts to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Its concept is perhaps not the most original idea ever – after the Martians die, the British empire reverse-engineers their technology – but it’s well handled. Great art too. The Great Game just wins out over Scarlet Traces because of a cameo by Dan Dare and Digby.

Rio Bravo, dir. Howard Hawks (1959)
The plan was to work my way through the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Films, which is why I stuck this one on my rental list. I’m no fan of westerns, but there were a few in the Top 100 – The Searchers, The Wild Bunch… and Rio Bravo. And I have to admit Rio Bravo didn’t seem as though it would appeal: John Wayne, Dean Martin (playing a drunk!), Ricky Nelson… Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing a duet! Sheriff has to defend town against evil cattle baron’s henchmen bent on vengeance, with drunken gunslinger and callow youth to help! So many clichés! But. I loved it. I even went out and bought the special edition DVD – once it no longer broke the Rule of DVD*, of course.

In The Shadow Of The Moon, dir. David Sington & Christopher Riley (2006)
My enthusiasm for all things space-related remains undimmed, although I didn’t buy as many books on the subject as last year – well, I still have a huge pile of them to read. This film pretty much explains the appeal. It consists chiefly of talking-head interviews with those involved in the Apollo project, interspersed with film of the various missions. As you hear the astronauts talking matter-of-factly about their trips to the Moon, you soon realise what an astonishing achievement it was. It should be repeated. Soon.

The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan (2008)
My only trip to the cinema in 2008 was to see this film. It’s a less baroque treatment of Batman than its predecessor – Gotham City resembles Chicago more than the weird Gothic metropolis of Batman Begins. Heath Ledger steals the film as the Joker, but he has excellent support from Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, and Gary Oldman. Maggie Gyllenhall makes a better Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes did, but the character still seems mostly peripheral. Perhaps the film did at time feel like two films welded together – the Joker story, and the Two-Face story. But the various set-pieces more than made up for it. I’ll be getting the DVD.

Autumn Sonata, dir. Ingmar Bergman (1978)
Okay, so Bergman was sure to appear somewhere on this list, although it was a toss-up between this one and Shame (see below). But Autumn Sonata just wins out because it’s the less contrived of the two. Famous pianist Ingrid Bergman visits her neglected daughter, now the wife of a country pastor. Ingrid Bergman gives a polished performance, but Ullmann steals the show as the daughter. Anyone who thinks Ingmar Bergman’s films are dull and obscure should watch Autumn Sonata.

Mirror, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1975)
This film is near impossible to describe – and better people than me have tried. It’s the cinematic equivalent of stream of consciousness, which by rights shouldn’t really work. But it does. Extremely well. There are enactments of scenes from Tarkovsky’s childhood, newsreel footage, dream sequences… Despite lacking a plot, or any kind of coherent path through the story, Mirror is engrossing.

Honourable mentions:
Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), Eastern Promises (2007), dir. David Cronenberg
2008 was a bit of a Cronenberg year for me. I’ve always enjoyed his films, but last year’s A History of Violence was something of a revelation – a polished and subversive thriller from the director of Scanners and The Fly? Eastern Promises is the same but more so – although perhaps in parts it could pass as an episode of a superior British television thriller. Naked Lunch and Crash, however, came as real surprises. Both are “unfilmable” novels, but Cronenberg managed to somehow make excellent, watchable drama out of them.

Shame, dir. Ingmar Bergman (1968)
Bergman favourites Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are enjoying the simple life on a rural island (Fåro), away from a civil war. The war catches up with them, however, and they are forced to give a television broadcast supporting one side… only to be subsequently captured by the other side. Emotional stuff, albeit perhaps a little overwrought in places. Nevertheless, it’s a strong story handled by two strong leads.

The Sacrifice, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)
Despite its glacial pace and its long takes, this is an intense film, and hard to watch in places. I wrote a little about it here.

Skycontact, Phlebotomized (1997)
Phlebotomized were a short-lived death metal band from the Netherlands. They recorded a handful of demos, an EP and two albums. Skycontact was their last album. It’s progressive stuff – the band featured a violinist – and quickly became a favourite.

Anatomy of Life, Noumena (2006)
This is melodic death metal from Finland, but it also features some clean vocals and some female vocals. And the singer’s growl has to be heard to be believed. I suspect he uses a pitch shifter… Excellent stuff – and I’ve been playing the track ‘Monument of Pain’ almost constantly.

Hindsight, Anathema (2008)
Anathema are currently recording a new album – they said so when I saw them live. But until that’s released, we have this, a compilation of acoustic takes on some of their better-known songs. It’s yet more evidence that Anathema should be filling stadiums by now, not tiny rooms with beer-sodden carpets…

Corē, Persefone (2006)
One of things I love about extreme metal is that it’s an international genre. Admittedly, pretty much everyone sings in English – although with growl vocals it’s often hard to tell. Persefone are Andorran. That’s the tiny little country between France and Spain. Population about 70,000. Corē is a concept album about Persephone, the goddess for whom the band are named. An excellent mix of death metal, progressive metal and acoustic pieces, with both clean and growl male vocals, and female vocals.

Watershed, Opeth (2008)
And a new album which proves to be even more progressive than the preceding Ghost Reveries. I’m still not convinced I like the direction they’re going as much as I liked older albums such as Blackwater Park. But it’s proving to be an interesting journey, and they never disappoint.

Honourable mentions:
Still, Wolverine (2006)
I saw Wolverine supporting Anathema in Glasgow back in 2006. I enjoyed their set, but not enough to dash out and buy their albums. Then, for some reason, this year I ended up buying their latest CD anyway. And it quickly grew on me. So much so that at Bloodstock, I bought the preceding two albums, The Window Purpose and Cold Light of Monday, at the Earache stall.

Watch Us Deteriorate, Crystalic (2007)
If there’s a band which epitomises Scandinavian death metal, I suspect it’s Crystalic. This is fast-paced aggressive metal, but with a slight twist. And in Crystalic’s case that twist is the use of a fretless bass – or at least that’s what it sounds like.

Headspace EP, Headspace (2008)
Twenty-first century prog rock, featuring Rick Wakeman’s son Adam on keyboards and Threshold’s original singer Damian Wilson. This EP is a taster of their material. I’m looking forward to the debut album.

And finally, a few worsts…

Worst film isn’t going to be easy – I watched everything on those crap 50-movie boxed sets, after all. But other “gems” watched during the year include Barbarian Queen, The Warrior And The Sorceress, Star Odyssey, and Zombies Zombies Zombies (reviewed for VideoVista)

Worst books include Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein (see here); Projekt Saucer 2: Phoenix, WA Harbinson (one day I’ll work out why I’m bothering to read this series); Orlando, Virgina Woolf (self-indulgent tosh; see here); The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand (silly OTT nonsense; see here); and the new charm-free Dan Dare comic from the now-defunct Virgin Comics. Two of these titles were from my reading challenge for the year, so in that respect it was less than successful… except the challenge also introduce me to Paul Scott’s writing. He made my top five, so I think that balances them out.

* the Rule of DVD: never pay more than £10 for a DVD.


The End of the 2008 Reading Challenge

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I consider myself well-read in the science fiction genre, but I’m certainly not in classic literature. So I decided to read a classic author I’d not read before each month of the year. It proved less successful than I’d expected. Which is not to say I think it was waste of time. Not at all. I’m glad I read the books, and it did introduce me to an author I fully intend to read further. This is how it went…

January: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith – I’d seen the film and enjoyed it, and I’d read in numerous places that Ripley was one of literature’s great anti-heroes. But I can’t say this book impressed me all that much. It struck me as mostly unremarkable.

February: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway is one of literature’s greats. He was awarded the Nobel in 1954. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that I couldn’t finish For Whom the Bell Tolls. I gave up about a quarter of the way in. Perhaps one day I’ll give Hemingway another try. But not this book.

March: Kim, Rudyard Kipling – I’ll admit I enjoyed this. Old-fashioned prose, yes; but a good adventure set in an exotic location. It was fun but hard to see as great literature. All the same, it was the first book of the challenge I was glad I’d read.

April: A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell – this was more like it. It was exactly the sort of fiction I enjoy and was hoping to find during my challenge. I’d like to read the remaining eleven volumes of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

May: Orlando, Virginia Woolf – I’d seen and enjoyed Sally Potter’s film adaptation, so I had relatively high hopes for this book. But, oh dear. Self-indulgent tosh. Not at all to my liking. I’ll not be trying Woolf again.

June: Nostromo, Joseph Conrad – another one I couldn’t finish. Having said that, I’m more predisposed to give Conrad a second chance than I am Hemingway. Perhaps one day I will.

July: The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield – another one that, like the Highsmith, didn’t do anything for me. Moving on…

August: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell – I started to run a bit late on the challenge in August, and didn’t read this book until September. But it’s another one I’m glad I read. It was entertaining, very funny, and I was much amused by the characterisation of my favourite author, Lawrence Durrell. Not a book I’ll ever read again, but a good one.

September: The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott – I was still running late and didn’t read this until October. But it was definitely worth the wait. The best book I’d read so far in the challenge by a long, long way. Scott’s writing is precisely the sort of literary fiction I enjoy and admire most. It was also about British expats, a subject which resonates with me. As soon as I’d finished it, I moved the rest of the Raj Quartet further up the TBR pile. And I stuck all of Scott’s other novels on my wants list.

October: The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford – I was slowly beginning to catch up, although once again I read this a month late in November. It was… okay. Although it’s easy to see how it was a seminal work, it’s been overtaken by so many subsequent novels that its appeal seems chiefly historical. While not as much fun as Kim or My Family and Other Animals, nor as good as A Question of Upbringing or The Jewel in the Crown, I’m glad I read it.

November: On the Road, Jack Kerouac – at last, back on track: I managed to finish this before the end of November. Sadly, it was one that did nothing for me. The “spontaneous” prose more often than not read like prose that hadn’t been edited, the characters were unlikeable and spoke mostly pretentious bollocks, and I couldn’t understand the appeal of the book’s premise.

December: The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand – what a silly book. Clash of the Titans, except the titans were… architects. All the characters were such brilliant paragons, and Rand’s only means of getting this across was by telling us so repeatedly. As for the philosophy… I can see how it might appeal to callow youths, but it’s nonsense. Not that Rand makes any real attempt to justify it. The hero represents Rand’s Objectivism, while the villain – who’s a real nasty piece of work – is a collectivist. So The Fountainhead is not exactly a considered presentation of Rand’s ideas. It wasn’t the worst book I read for my challenge, but it was definitely the unintentionally funniest (My Family and Other Animals was the intentionally funniest, of course).

So, an interesting result: one I loved, one I thought very good, two I enjoyed, three were merely okay, two were rubbish, one was extremely silly, and two I couldn’t finish.

It was, on reflection, a somewhat idiosyncratic choice of classics. That was partly because of what was available – i.e., what I found cheap in charity shops, or could mooch from The only book I’d actually had on my book shelves already was the Woolf, and I’d had that for years and failed to read it. In fact, I think it was Orlando that partly inspired me to choose classics as my reading challenge matter. Which is somewhat ironic, given that I disliked it so much. Ah well.

I plan to read more by Paul Scott. I’d also like to finish Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. And I feel I should give Conrad another go one day. And perhaps Hemingway too. But Conrad more than Hemingway by quite a margin. As for the rest… they’ll be going on, in the hope that someone else will enjoy them more than I did.


The Last Book of the 2008 Reading Challenge

I read science fiction. I’ve read a lot of good, bad and indifferent science fiction. Much of it has been silly. But The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which is not science fiction, is one of the silliest books I’ve ever read.

There’s an ad you see on television. Over footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, a portentous man’s voice says, “Conquered the sky.” Then it’s a mountain climber, and he says, “Conquered Mount Everest”. Finally, he says, “Conquered the… neck.” It’s an ad for a Philishave. The Fountainhead is like that ad. The protagonists and antagonists are architects. They allegedly represent all that is noble – and their antitheses – in society and civilisation. There is, apparently, a nobility of purpose to the art of architecture which is unmatched in all other fields of artistic and/or social endeavour…

The whole book is like that. It’s so overwrought and melodramatic you keep on expecting the cast to break into song at any moment. And everyone is such a paragon. No evidence is given for this status – Rand simply tells it us. Repeatedly. And on the few occasions where she tries to provide evidence, she spectacularly fails to convince: the excerpt from an article by the preternaturally insightful critic, for example, proves to be… pretentious empty twaddle.

Howard Roark was studying architecture at Stanton university but is expelled for not toeing the party line. All architecture, apparently, should reflect the past – paying tribute to Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, etc. But Roark is a Modernist, and he won’t change. So they boot him out. Peter Keating, on the other hand, is brilliant, good-looking, graduates at the top of his class, wins a scholarship to France, and is offered a job with top architectural firm, Francon & Heyer.

Roark, meanwhile, goes to work for disgraced and penniless Modernist architect Henry Cameron. He learns a lot, and even gets to design and build the occasional building. While Keating becomes the darling of the architectural elite, lauded for the buildings he designs, poor old noble Roark sticks to his Modernist guns and is despised and hated as a result.

Then there’s Ellsworth Toohey, a man so erudite and learned, he’s a scintillating and penetrating critic of, well, everything. So, of course, he writes a daily column for the most yellow of New York’s papers. Also writing a gossip column for the same paper is Dominique Francon, daughter of Keating’s employer, fabled society beauty and cold fish, who appears to be suffering from a debilitating case of ennui and self-loathing. Finally, there’s Gail Wynand, owner of the aforementioned newspaper and bits of just about everything else, a man whose hobby it is to break and corrupt anyone who displays the slightest amount of integrity. But he’s honest to himself, so that’s okay.

These are not stereotypes. They’re not even archetypes. They’re bloody great cartoon characters painted in primary colours. Rand appears not to know the meaning of “subtlety”. For example, only noble paragon Roark is smart enough to design buildings with straight corridors, with windows that don’t look onto brick walls, with sensibly-shaped and -sized rooms… And Toohey is such a nasty piece of work that his altruism and “collectivism” is treated with all the contempt and disgust of National Socialism.

I also have to ask: what happened to US literature immediately post-WWII? That’s two books from that period I’ve read recently, and both were populated by the most unlikeable and preposterous characters I’ve come across in Twentieth Century fiction.

The Fountainhead is a book for simple readers. I can’t believe anyone was taken in by its underlying philosophy, Objectivism, for an instant. If they were, I suspect they were blinded by their own selfishness and greed. Or perhaps they allowed Rand’s blatant manipulation of her characters and plot in The Fountainhead to sway them. I laughed all the way through the book.

I’ll not be reading any other books by Rand. And my copy of The Fountainhead will be going back on This is a very silly book, and I’m frankly amazed that it’s considered a classic, or that anyone was taken in by Rand and her juvenile philosophy.


Unrestful Music

Some bands are worth the hassle and expense of travelling halfway across the country to see perform. And that’s especially true for ones that haven’t played live for several years. One of my favourite bands is Mithras, an extreme metal duo from Rugby. They’ve released three albums, but they’ve not toured for several years. So when an opportunity to see them play came up, I was determined to go. Even though it was in London.

They were actually appearing with eight other bands at “The Day of Unrest”, the “Zero Tolerance All-Day Xmas Fest”, at the Purple Turtle in Camden on Sunday 14 December. Zero Tolerance is a metal magazine published by Mithras’ guitarist and his wife.

So I’ve been. And I survived. And Mithras were excellent live.

Myself and Calin caught the train down to London on the day and met up with Liam – who provided crash space (ta). Since Calin and I got into the venue early, we received Zero Tolerance goodie bags – a couple of CDs by obscure bands, stickers, posters, stuff like that. Ironically, I already owned one of the CDs in my goody bag. The Purple Turtle was a bit of a dump, but the staff were excellent – helpful and quick to serve.

Of the nine bands playing, Haxan were first up. They weren’t bad, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy the album. Let ’em Burn followed. Their singer was very entertaining, acting about and cracking jokes between songs. Nebukadnezza were quite good, and made a lot of noise considering there were only two of them. De Profundis I liked. Winterfylleth had their moments. Liam had appeared by this time, so we went out for a meal, and enjoyed some Thai food at a place near Camden Lock. Apparently various celebrities, including Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, had eaten there. Back at the Purple Turtle, we caught the end of Infected Disarray‘s set, which meant we had missed Sarpanitum.

And then Mithras took the stage… And I knew it had been worth making the trip to see them. An almost constant barrage of blinding fast guitar work and 300 bpm drumming. I’ve no idea how they kept it up for their hour-long set. We were knackered afterwards, and that was from just watching them.

We stayed for ten minutes of Satori‘s set. But none of us likes drone all that much, so we left. And once we got to Liam’s we spent a couple of hours playing Guitar Hero. Fortunately, the game doesn’t feature any songs by Mithras

Then it was up early the next morning to catch a train home. St Pancras railway station is pretty impressive now, but it’s also freezing cold. It was the last time I was there, back in March.

On the train back, the bloke sitting next to me received a call on his mobile. Given his proximity, it was hard not to overhear his half of the conversation. And I was much amused to hear him rave about the gig he’d been to the day before… Coldplay at the O2 Arena.

Leave a comment

What I’ve Been Doing Recently…

… or A Desperate Attempt To Generate Content For This Blog Before People Give Up On It. Well, perhaps not “desperate” – it’s not been that long since I last posted. But my last few posts might have given the erroneous impression that I’ve mostly given up on reading science fiction. I haven’t. And here’s the proof. Sort of.

I have been reading…

The Quincunx of Time, James Blish (1973) – I knew this was an expansion of a short story, but I didn’t know if I’d read the story. So the déjà vu which hit me two pages into the book didn’t come as much of a surprise. I had read the story, ‘Beep’. Unfortunately, as Blish explains in a foreword, he had never intended to expand ‘Beep’, and when he was eventually persuaded to do so he chose to focus on some of the issues raised by the story. He didn’t expand the plot, or the story’s remit. He just deepened the scientific bollocks the various characters explain to each other. It made for a dull and unconvincing – and short – novel. Not one of Blish’s best.

The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce (2002) – I have unjustly neglected Graham in my reading. I thought his first few novels were very good indeed, but sort of stopped buying and reading them for no real reason. I actually interviewed him for a small press magazine when his debut novel, Dreamside, was published. Unfortunately, it was on the last day of a convention, and we’d both been drinking until 4 a.m. the night before and were very hungover. I sent Graham a verbatim transcript of the interview. He replied, “I remember it as quite an insightful interview… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?” A carefully edited version, which made both of us appear sane and intelligent, later appeared in the magazine. But, The Facts of Life. I decided to buy this because it’s set in Coventry. I went to university there, so I know the city. The Facts of Life is excellent stuff and I have no excuse now for not reading more of Graham’s books. Incidentally, I was little spooked by one chapter in the novel – because it’s set in Coventry it of course features Lady Godiva. Which couldn’t help but remind me of my own encounter with her (see here). Graham’s done that to me before: I had a lucid dream the morning before starting Dreamside, which opens… with someone having a lucid dream.

The Universe Maker, AE van Vogt (1953) – for some reason, an image from this novel has stayed with me throughout the decades since I last read it: a shadow in the shape of a person, and in which you can see stars, appearing in a park and speaking to someone. But I couldn’t remember the context. So I decided to reread the book to remind me. And it is apparently a Shadow, one of an elite which rules a future Earth and the members of which appear to have special powers. So there you go. This novel is, like most of van Vogt’s, completely bonkers. It’s a headlong charge through a number of sf tropes – chief among them time travel – most of which make little sense if you pause to think. And that’s part of its charm. Before you can even scoff, you’re thrown into something new and even more implausible. Now I want to reread van Vogt’s Mission to the Stars, which has the giant battleship that splits up into hundreds of little ships when it hits a galactic storm…

House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds (2007) – Reynolds is one of those authors whose books I buy in hardback as soon as they’re published. He’s also one of those authors whose work can sometimes disappoint, but only when compared to his other novels. And so it was with House of Suns. I never quite swallowed the novel’s timeline of millions of years, and the characters seemed a little too contemporary for me to willingly suspend disbelief. But, there were – as usual – some real gosh-wow special effects, some jaw-dropping ideas, and even an occasional nod here and there to other sf books and films. Good stuff.

The Ship That Died of Shame & Other Stories, Nicholas Monsarrat (1959) – I have a soft spot for Monsarrat’s fiction – The Cruel Sea is a classic, and his unfinished The Master Mariner is one of my favourite non-sf novels. So I continue to seek out and read his books, even though many of his plots have passed their sell-by date. It’s a bit like watching the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from the mid-1950s – those twists in the tale have been done so many times you can see them coming a mile off. But they must have been a surprise when they were first used back then. And so it is for some of Monsarrat’s novels and short stories. But I’ll still read him.

I’ve been watching stuff, too. Such as…

The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986) – Tarkovsky isn’t a science fiction film director, although three of his films were sf. Both Solaris and Stalker were adaptations of sf novels – by Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively. The Sacrifice, on the other hand, is from an original screenplay by Tarkovsky himself. A man living on Gotland, a Baltic island off the coast of Sweden, witnesses the end of the world by nuclear war, and in despair vows to God that he will sacrifice everything he loves if the world is returned to normal. He then – at the urging of a friend and neighbour – sleeps with a female servant, who is a witch. The next morning, it’s as if the nuclear holocaust had never happened. And so the man sets about fulfilling his vow, alienating his loved ones, destroying his possessions, and burning down his house. Like all Tarkovsky films, it’s very slow, with very long takes. But parts are disturbingly intense. The reaction of the man’s wife, for example, to the end of the world is difficult to watch. There are also dream sequences which might not be dream sequences, and a use of colour and black & white film which might help unravel the ambiguous story. I think I prefer Mirror more than The Sacrifice, but it’s a more affecting film than some of Tarkovsky’s, and he remains a favourite director.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 2 (1993) – I’d read often enough that DS9 was the best of the Trek franchises, but I’d only ever seen a handful of episodes from the first season. From them it was hard to see it as any better than any of the other franchises. But I decided to give the series a go – prompted by a much-reduced price on Amazon. And discovered that not only was the setting interesting – the planet of Bajor after Cardassian occupationary forces have withdrawn – but I liked the characters. Much more so than the Star Trek: The Next Generation ones. Well, except for Quark the Ferengi. He’s just irritating. Anyway, I finished season 1, and then bought season 2. And I have every intention of working my way through to the end of season 7. Especially since I’m told it gets much better when the Federation go to war against the Dominion….

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, dir. Steven Spielberg (2008) – it seems a bit pointless to moan about Hollywood remakes of perfectly good films from earlier decades when they’re just as liable to dig up old franchises and add a new vehicle to it. And what a creaking lumbering vehicle it is. Harrison Ford manages to hold his own, despite his advanced years, but the plot in this thing is a horrible mess. It’s as if they chose to throw as many clichés at it as possible in the hope one or two would stick. Unfortunately, it’s not plot coupons which stuck. This film is just an embarrassingly bad sequence of CGI spectacles and stunts held together by a plot which makes no attempt at plausibility. Best avoided.

Aliens Vs Predator 2: Requiem, dir. the Strause brothers (2007) – sadly, my film-viewing could sink even further than a geriatric Indy chasing after a “magnetic” skull which can bizarrely attract non-ferrous materials. It plummetted to this. The directors clearly felt that making the film as dark as possible would hide a multitude of sins. And I don’t mean “dark” as in mood. I mean, “dark” as in filmed at night, “dark” as in having to sit in a pitch-black room in order to actually see what’s on the bloody screen. Which isn’t much more than the title suggests. There’s this Alien, see; and it crash-lands on Earth. And a Predator gets this signal telling it what’s happened. So off it goes to hunt it down. In Ridley Scott’s excellent Alien, the eponymous creature was an unstoppable killing machine. In AvP2, teenagers with shotguns slaughter hundreds of them. Which is a bit like revealing Sasquatch as a marmoset. But then, what teenager wants to watch a platoon of elite forces get blatted by a single alien? They’d much rather see themselves in the title role, wreaking mayhem and spraying bullets and killing all those nasty cunningly-externalised fears and neuroses… Avoid this film like you would a, well, an alien.

The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection – I mentioned one of these in a previous posts – Der Schweigende Stern / The Silent Star, dir. Kurt Maetzig (1960). See here. The other two in this boxed set are In the Dust of the Stars / Im Staub der Sterne, dir. Gottfried Kolditz (1976), and Eolomea, dir. Herrmann Zschoche (1972). The first is… plenty weird. A mission from one planet arrives on another. There’s something suspicious going on, but they’re welcomed with a big party. Of course, they soon find out what the actual situation is…. But. The strange 1970s GDR aesthetic is one thing. But the gratuitous – tastefully back-lit, so in silhouette only – nude scene just seems completely, well, gratuitous. And then there’s the party scenes. Disco-dancing East Germans in Spaaaacccceee. Sort of. Eolomea is a much more restrained affair. Some ships have gone missing, and a group of scientists are sent to figure out what happened. It seemed to me a bit of the story went missing somewhere as well. The film’s title makes no sense for the first thirty or so minutes, and is only explained in passing. But never mind. It’s all good post-2001: A Space Odyssey 1970s sf – none of that silly Western Imperialist space opera thank you very much. There is a fourth DEFA sf film which isn’t included in this collection, Signal: A Space Adventure (1970). I want a copy.

And I have been listening to…

The “double whammy” – I wanted to see Isis, who were performing locally last Sunday night, but no one else wanted to go. Then Stuart said he’d go, if I went to see Johnny Truant at the same venue the following night. The “double whammy”.

Isis were excellent, as usual. They’re another one of those bands you forget how good they are… and then you see them live. I ended up buying one of their CDs from the merchandise stand, and was tempted to buy more. They were ably supported by Torche, who were good in parts.

And then it was Johnny Truant… Who are a bit too hardcore for my taste. This was a much younger crowd than Isis – I could have passed as just about any audience member’s dad. The sound was also very loud. I don’t mind loud – and I’ve been to plenty of loud gigs. But it seems a bit pointless when everything’s turned up so high you can’t actually hear the guitars. Just the bass and blastbeats. The rest is a wall of noise. Mind you, there was a little more banter between songs than the previous night. The only words spoken by Isis were, “This is our last song.” The lead singer of Johnny Truant, however, was cracking jokes – “Our next two songs are ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Tiny Dancer'” – and moaning about eating too many pies. Not to mention the lead singer from support act Blackhole, who climbed down from the stage and performed most of the set from the middle of the dance-floor…

I’ve been working as well, of course. The big fat space opera sequel, assorted short stories (three sold this year so far; go me), and even another poem or two.


A Different Road

November’s book – which I actually managed to read in November – for my 2008 reading challenge was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I can’t remember why I picked this book – I think it was one on a list of possible titles, and I managed to find a (free) copy on It’s certainly not a book I’d ever really planned to read. And, having finished it, I doubt I’ll be reading it again.

I’d always thought On the Road was a 1960s novel*, about someone living rough during that decade, living the hippy dream of LSD, Grateful Dead and giving two fingers to the Man. It’s nothing of the sort. For a start, it’s set in the late 1940s. And it’s about marijuana and jazz and subsistence-level jobs (and poverty). The protagonist, Sal Paradise, spends much of the book driving from one place to the other – so that’s “on the road” as in actual driving on the road in a car, not as in living rough like a vagrant (although he does hitch-hike several times). Most of these travels are with an assorted cast of friends, or in order to meet up with said friends. And chief among these is Dean Moriarty, who is “Beat”.

The book is a novel but it’s actually a thinly-disguised autobiography. The events it describes actually happened to Kerouac, and the various characters Paradise meets are the real people Kerouac met. Moriarty is Neal Cassady, for example; Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg; and Old Bull Lee is William Burroughs.

Kerouac wrote On the Road in what he called “spontaneous prose”. It shows. It’s not prose you can savour. Much of it possesses a breathless clumsiness which only works if you read it as fast as he apparently wrote it. Kerouac also has a tin ear for dialogue. Perhaps his intent was to document the spontaneity of his characters’ thought processes, but the result is that they talk mostly unfettered bollocks.

It’s not all bad. Some of the descriptive passages are good, and Kerouac’s documenting of the underbelly of late 1940s USA is never less than interesting. A visit to a jazz club in Chicago, for example, is especially impressive, and works so well because its prose is spontaneous. But On the Road is a “cult” novel – which usually means you either get it or you don’t. And I didn’t. I don’t understand the appeal of Paradise’s adventures, I don’t understand the appeal of a book you have to read at such a headlong pace. I don’t belong to a generation – or nationality – which finds anything all that enticing about its subject. To be fair, Paradise’s attitudes seem more twenty-first century than are typical for 1940s America. Which is admirable. At one point, he stays in “Mill City” in California (actually Marin City), and describes it as the only non-segregated community in the US. He mixes freely with blacks and Mexicans… which seems unusual for a country which practiced overt institutional racism until the 1960s.

On balance, On the Road falls squarely in the middle of those books I’ve read during my reading challenge. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I stick Kerouac’s other titles on my wants list. I enjoyed bits of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed all of it. Perhaps if I’d been alive in the 1950s and read the book at that time, perhaps if I were American, perhaps if I actually liked jazz…

(* if the edition I read had the cover art I’ve used to illustrate this review, then perhaps I wouldn’t have thought it was about the 1960s)