It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


A month of mistressworks

SF Mistressworks has now been up for a month. During that time, 38 reviews of 35 books have been posted. Some authors have received more reviews than others – Ursula K Le Guin has had four separate titles reviewed, and both Joanna Russ and Doris Piserchia two apiece. Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang has received two reviews, as have Sheri S Tepper’s Grass and Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong. Otherwise, there’s been a wide mix of books covered, with 19 of them from the sf mistressworks meme list.

In terms of visits, SF Mistressworks had a good first week, but traffic subsequently dropped by about 60% after that – although those figures may be wrong as I’m not sure the WordPress statistics include RSS or Google Reader feeds. Visits have remained steady ever since. I’d like to see them rise, obviously; but it’ll take time for word to spread further and wider.

The most popular reviews by visits have been: 1) The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood; 2) China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh; 3) Grass, Sheri S Tepper; 4) Ammonite, Nicola Griffith; and 5) The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin. The most popular search term bringing people to the blog has been “the handmaid’s tale”, which explains the review’s popularity. The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly a very popular book, perhaps an order of magnitude more so than the rest – which were published as science fiction. The biggest referrer to SF Mistressworks has been, er, me – i.e., this blog. Second is Twitter – so, many thanks to everyone who has tweeted or retweeted about SF Mistressworks.

I’d like to thank Cheryl Morgan, Martin Wisse, Joachim Boaz, Cara Murphy, Shannon Turlington, Kev McVeigh, Richard Palmer, Larry Nolan, Paul Graham Raven, Sandy M, Sam Kelly, Paul Charles Smith, Michaela Staton, Kathryn Allen and Ian J Simpson for providing the blog with reviews, or allowing me to republish their reviews. I hope they will continue to contribute, and that more people will become involved.

I doubt I’ll be able to maintain my current rate of posting a review a day (except for Sundays) for much longer. I have a week or so of reviews in hand, but I may have to go to a less-frequent schedule. Unless, that is, people start sending me lots more reviews…

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The Best of the Half-Year

We’re halfway through the year, and it’s time to pick out the top five books, films and albums consumed over the previous six months. Not eaten, obviously – but read, watched and listened to, for the first time.

Last year, three out of the five books I picked at the halfway-mark made it through to the end of year top five. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens again this year.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002). I read Herter’s debut, Ceres Storm, shortly after it was published and thought it very good. So as soon as his second book, Evening’s Empire, appeared on Amazon, I bought it. But, unlike his debut, it was fantasy, not sf, and so it sat on my book-shelves for close on a decade until I finally got around to reading it this year. I’ve no idea why it took me so long, but I’m deeply sorry I didn’t read it earlier. Because I loved it. Evening’s Empire starts out as a Crowley-esque fantasy set in a US north-west coastal town, but around halfway through it takes an odd left-hand turn and becomes something quite different. As a side-effect of reading Evening’s Empire, I dug out my copy of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and read it – the main character in Herter’s novel is writing an opera based on Verne’s book – but my edition is from 1966 and I’m told it’s an inferior translation, which probably explains why I didn’t enjoy it very much.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992), was May’s book for my reading challenge and, while I enjoyed January’s book, Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, more, I think this is the better of the two books. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), may boast a somewhat forced title, but don’t let that put you off. Over a period of some ten or so years, Chaubin photographed modernist buildings throughout the USSR and East Europe, buildings he describes as part of a fourth age of Soviet architecture. The results are strange and quite beautiful.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), may have been yet another book celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, but it’s better than most of those published that year. I wrote about it on my Space Books blog here.

And that’s it. But there are a lot of honourable mentions – books which didn’t quite make the cut into the top five four: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985), though it contained some beautiful prose, was a bit too bleak, and its cast too monstrous, to make the list; Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), the first book by internal chronology of Snow’s Strangers and  Brothers series was an excellent well-observed read; The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010), was a good showcase though I’d not have described every story as “best”, and Icehenge (1984), Kim Stanley Robinson, would have made the top five but for the fact it was a reread; Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), brought the Marq’ssan Cycle to an excellent end, and I really must finish that piece on the series I have planned; American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009), maintains Mercurio’s status as a writer I watch, though the subject matter was not as appealing as his Ascent; God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011), is a very strong debut, with a strong female protagonist and some excellent world-building, but its bleakness just stops it from making the list (I’ll be buying the sequel, though); and The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and I plan to read the entire series.

Pretty much all the films I watch are on DVD – either rentals, sent for review by Videovista, borrowed, or my own purchases. Most of them have been merely okay, and those that stood out did so by quite a margin. A bit of a cheat this time, as I’m going to include an entire season of a television series.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is, well, is hard to describe. It’s a spoof 1980s action film based on an alternate take on the real life of Norwegian spy and traitor Arne Trehold. I loved it. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an Iraeli thriller, and a bloody excellent one too. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Stuart Burge (1984), was one of the BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays which I’ve been renting and watching. It’s been an interesting exercise, though so far the tragedies have proven superior to the comedies. Except for this one. I don’t know why it worked so well. Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay were good in their roles as Beatrice and Benedick, but that’s hardly unexpected. It just seemed in this play Shakespeare’s wit really sparkled, his characters were appealing, and even Michael Elphick’s strangely sweaty Dogberry with his ponderous malapropisms couldn’t spoil things. The best of the Bard’s so far.

Fringe season 2 (2009). Fringe may just be a 21st century X-Files, but since I was a fan of the X-Files… Except that’s unfair on Fringe which, though it shares some similarities with the X-Files, is also very good television in its own right. I like the series mythology with its war with an alternate universe, and I like the weird science that Walter seems to have spent most of his life researching – and which he has now forgotten. Some episodes were better than others, but overall the quality was high. And the move in this season more toward the mythology made for some good and interesting drama.

Honourable mentions? Tales Of The Four Seasons, Éric Rohmer (1990 – 1998), of which I liked A Summer’s Tale a great deal; The Secret In Their Eyes, Juan José Campanella (2009), was an extremely well-plotted thriller from Argentina; Water Drops On Burning Rocks, François Ozon (2000), is Ozon’s film of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder script and is worth watching for the dancing scene alone; Summertime, David Lean (1955), is beautifully-shot and, for once, I didn’t find Katherine Hepburn annoying in a film.

It has not been an especially good year for music so far. I’ve bought very few CDs, and seen only eleven bands perform live – although, admittedly, two of them were favourites: Anathema and Pallas. Mind you, there’s Bloodstock in a couple of months…

XXV, Pallas (2011), is the band’s sixth studio album, and the first with new vocalist Paul Mackie. I heard it live before I heard the CD, and a very good performance it was too. The band were celebrating twenty-five years together and it showed. XXV feels a little heavier than earlier albums, though it still contains much proggy goodness and even – dare I say it? – a little radio-friendliness in places.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is the second album by an Australian death metal / prog band, and it’s a little more prog than death than their debut. It’s also a much better album. Opening track ‘One Door’ is superb. Each of the songs lulls you into a false sense of security before hammering you with some excellent riffs. A fine piece of work.

Návaz, Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (2011). I’ve been a fan of SSOGE’s mix of doom metal and Moravian folk music since stumbling across some of their songs five or six years ago. Návaz is more folk-oriented than earlier albums, though there’s plenty of chugging guitars and doomy growls to satisfy. The vocal layering at the end of ‘Skryj Hlavu Do Dlaní’ (‘Hide Your Head In His Hands’, according to Google Translate) will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, Lone Star (1994). Welsh 1970s heavy rockers Lone Star have been a favourite band since I was at school. They only released two albums before splitting (a third was recorded, but an inferior copy of it was only released on CD in 2000). Between those two albums, the band swapped vocalists, from Kenny Driscoll to John Sloman, and BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, recorded in 1976 and 1977, showcases some of their songs with each of the two singers. Strangely, the best tracks live are not the best ones on the studio albums – the version of ‘Lonely Soldier’ on BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, for example, is absolutely superb and a classic piece of 1970s rock. Given that this album is only a sample of three radio sessions, I’d happily pay for a CD of all three sets.

Honourable mentions: In Live Concert at The Royal Albert Hall, Opeth (2010), a comprehensive live set recorded at the titular venue with the band’s usual expertise, and accompanied by Åkerfeld’s usual wit; Edge Of The Earth, Sylosis (2011), a good solid death metal concept album with some excellent riffs; Semper Fidelis, Sanctorum (2011), the third album by a young British death metal band – ambitious and mature; Communication Lost, Wolverine (2011), not as immediately likeable as previous albums but definitely a grower.



I suspect Ian Watson himself would probably scoff at being described as a national treasure of British science fiction, but in four decades he has written twenty-nine novels and a dozen collections and every single one of them is worth reading. As Adam Roberts can attest, as he’s been on something of a Watson kick recently. Myself, I’ve been a fan for many years and have managed to accumulate a goodly collection of first editions, many of which are signed. My collection is not complete, but it is close. No Space Marine, for example; though I’ve been looking for a good copy for years. And at least two books, I believe – The Whores of Babylon and Converts – were only published in paperback (I have them, but they’re not pictured below).

But I do have many books by Ian Watson. As you can see…


that was the weekend: alt.fiction

I always come home from conventions feeling mentally refreshed but physically drained. It’s the near-constant input of ideas in conversations and programme items. And so too – in part – for alt.fiction in Derby this weekend just gone. This year’s was the fifth alt.fiction, but the first time it has stretched over two days. It was also my fifth alt.fiction, and I thought it worked well as a weekend event.

I am not, I admit, the target market for alt.fiction. It’s the workshops which draw most of those who attend, and they don’t interest me. The general programme is usually of more interest, though being a fan primarily of sf I don’t bother with the fantasy and horror items. Unfortunately, this year the item which appealed most was on at 10:00 am on the Saturday, and I didn’t time my arrival appropriately. One item I did attend was Al Reynolds’ GoH speech. He said at one point during it that, in common with a lot of writers he’s spoken to, he had a period of childhood illness, and it was the enforced inactivity of that which prompted his love of books and reading. I wonder how true that is. It’s certainly not what happened to me. I was ill several times as a kid, with the usual diseases: chicken pox, measles, German measles… But I’d been a voracious reader from a really early age (and before discovering science fiction, it was mostly books about marine mysteries, such as the Marie Celeste).

I dragged Al Reynolds and Keith Brooke along to the raffle, promising them it was worth attending to hear Guy Adams in full flow. I’d seen him MC the raffle at Fantasycon last year, and very entertaining he was. I also won some books. At alt.fiction, the raffle was presented by a double act comprising Guy Adams and Sarah Pinborough; and they were indeed highly entertaining. And I won some books too. A cardboard box full of Angry Robot’s releases to date in 2011, in fact. I gave away several to friends – while the new editions of KW Jeter’s steampunk novels, Infernal Devices and Morlock Night, are very attractive books, I already have earlier editions of both. And some of the fantasy or horror novels simply don’t appeal to me. But Dan Abnett’s Embedded definitely looks like it’s worth reading (I asked him to sign it for me). The other books were: a Kaaron Warren; Guy Adams; the third book of Andy Remic’s Clock Vampires series; a couple of urban fantasies; the second book of Ian Whates’ City of 100 Rows; Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld (which I bought at the Eastercon); and some others. I also received a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman in my registration pack, but gave that away as I’d bought a copy at the Eastercon.

In the year since the last alt.fiction, the coffee shop / bar in the forum of the QUAD had been refurbished. Before it’d had soft sofas and low tables; now it has 4-seater tables more suited for a coffee shop / restaurant. Unfortunately, this meant that the room now contained only flat surfaces, and so the acoustics were terrible. When the place was full, you could barely hear the person next to you for the background noise. Which, of course, did not stop us talking.

I’m not going to be able to name everyone I spoke to over the weekend, but it was good to catch up with some people I’d not seen for a while, to meet in person for the first time some people I know only online, and to meet people I’ve never met before. I spoke a lot, and some people actually listened to me. I also listened to lots of people speaking. I don’t think the ideas bank was quite as well stoked afterwards as it was at the Eastercon, but then the nature of the conversations at alt.fiction, a writing-oriented convention, are sure to be different anyway. To be honest, it’s only a day later and I can’t remember many of the conversations I had. But they were all good, interesting and enjoyable, and if I was in the habit of name-dropping I’d thank all those I chatted to by name.

I caught the train home on the Sunday evening feeling tired and brain-dead. The following morning, the day felt weirdly silent as I travelled to work – since the previous two days had been so filled with noise and conversation. I don’t think I heard more than a dozen words spoken from the time I awoke until the moment I arrived at the office and sat down at my desk. I think the world will continue to feel strangely quiet for another day or so. Perhaps we should adopt that as a standard of a convention’s success? Certainly, using it alt.fiction can be said to have succeeded very well.


Meme! Women sff writers of the 1970s

Got this from Nicholas Whyte, who got it from James Nicoll. Italicize the authors you’ve heard of before reading this list of authors, bold the ones you’ve read at least one work by, underline the ones of whose work you own at least one example of.

Lynn Abbey
Eleanor Arnason
Octavia Butler
Moyra Caldecott
Jaygee Carr
Joy Chant
Suzy McKee Charnas
C. J. Cherryh
Jo Clayton
Candas Jane Dorsey
Diane Duane
Phyllis Eisenstein
Cynthia Felice
Sheila Finch
Sally Gearhart
Mary Gentle
Dian Girard
Eileen Gunn
Monica Hughes
Diana Wynne Jones
Gwyneth Jones
Leigh Kennedy
Lee Killough
Nancy Kress
Katherine Kurtz
Tanith Lee
Megan Lindholm (AKA Robin Hobb)
Elizabeth A. Lynn
Phillipa Maddern
Ardath Mayhar
Vonda McIntyre
Patricia A. McKillip
Janet Morris
Pat Murphy
Sam Nicholson (AKA Shirley Nikolaisen)
Rachel Pollack
Marta Randall
Anne Rice
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Pamela Sargent
Sydney J. Van Scyoc
Susan Shwartz
Nancy Springer
Lisa Tuttle
Joan Vinge
Élisabeth Vonarburg
Cherry Wilder
Connie Willis

I’ll also note that I own every book written by Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle and Sydney J Van Scyoc.

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The future we used to have, part 3

Being the next in an ongoing and irregular series of posts featuring cool pictures from around and about the tinterweb of cool modernist and futurist vehicles, buildings, and suchlike. Some are real, some never got off the drawingboard.


Convair Sea Dart

Avro 730 model kit

Vickers Type 559 interceptor


Soviet LK lunar lander

Proposed Mars mission

cars and trucks

General Motors Futureliner

Chrysler 1961 concept car

Buick 1956 concept car


credit: Julius Shulman

Credit: Julius Shulman

Le Corbusier Museum, Chandrighar, India


From World Fair 1939

From GM Futurama 1964

Underwater habitat from GM Futurama 1964


Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Books by Women Writers

After all the arguments over the results of the Guardian poll of best/favourite sf novels, it seems the US’s NPR has decided to have a bash here: “Best Science Fiction, Fantasy Books? You Tell Us”. Sigh. I’m not going to bother trawling through the 1700+ comments (as of the time of writing of this post) to see what the gender ratio is. I fully expect it to work out to about 5 – 10% female.

Instead, what I am going to do is suggest an alternative poll: your favourite five novels by women sf/fantasy writers. Leave a comment listing them. Let’s see how we do.

To start with, here are mine:

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones
Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
Angel with the Sword, CJ Cherryh
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz

This proved harder than I expected. There are a lot of genre novels by women writers I like a great deal, and many I have have read several times. And quite a few I’ve read recently which I expect I will return to one day. But actually picking the best of that long list? To make it a little easier, I’ve limited myself to one book per author, though there’s no reason anyone else need do so.

EDIT: and if you’re stuck for suggestions, check out the SF Mistressworks blog.


The Five Rules of Good Writing

So I’ve been working on a new novel, and that got me thinking about the way I approach writing. Which is basically write, edit, write, edit… and so on until I’m happy with it. But there are some rules I try to stick to. And, since everyone likes list, I thought I’d share them.

  1. Make every sentence, and everything in it, unambiguous
  2. Map every ramification of the ideas in the story
  3. Leave no holes in the plot for the story to escape through
  4. Get the details right (and that means research)
  5. The resolution should always be a consequence of the actions of one or more characters

So, there you go. A sure-fire recipe for success at writing. You heard it here first.


Apology, explanation and – oh well, it didn’t work…

Yesterday’s post, Home truths, was something of an experiment. As one commenter pointed out, my opinion of Asimov and Foundation are well-documented, and there’s little need to repeat it. But that fact, and the responses to Fabio Fernandes’ Mind Meld on the Russ Pledge on SF Signal yesterday and Cheryl Morgan’s post on the SFWA website on gender balance on 13 June, suggested a small test…

On two previous occasions on this blog I’ve made my thoughts on Asimov’s fiction plain, and both times I received around a month’s worth of hits in a single day. I was also on the receiving end of a number of threats and insults. One person even called me a “retarded nazi pedophile”. And all this for suggesting that Asimov is a rubbish writer and Foundation not a very good sf novel…

Then there’s the “mansplaining” on the Mind Meld and on Cheryl’s piece on the SFWA site. I covered some of the choicer ones here. A lot of male sf readers, it seems, turn combative when accused of sexism in their reading choices – despite an unwillingness to question those same choices.

So, it occurred to me, which of the above two would upset sf readers the most? After all, it takes a hell of an emotional investment in a book to call someone a “retarded nazi pedophile” for daring to slag it off. Would sf readers respond with such passion to being called sexist?

Sadly not. Most of the comments on my Home truths post are about Asimov.

But then, as someone pointed out, most readers of my blog already accept that most male sf readers are sexist. And my thoughts on the contribution of women in sf is also well-documented. For my experiment to have worked, it really needed a bigger pool of test subjects, ones that were ignorant of the women in sf debate – but unfortunately no one linked to it from reddit or fark.

So, sorry for the trollbait. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it didn’t exactly prove what I wanted it to prove. It sort of did, but not really; and the results are probably tainted anyway. Ah well.


Home truths

Truth #1
Isaac Asimov was a rubbish writer, and his Foundation is a rubbish book. It has cardboard characters who act as though they belong in 1940s middle America and not a galactic empire. The invention is minimal, the prose is bland and uninspired, the plot doesan’t make sense, and how the book has come to be consider a classic is beyond me. I am embarrassed when people think to suggest it as a good introduction to science fiction, or one of the genre’s best books.

Truth #2
The majority of male science fiction readers are sexist. They not only refuse to read books by women sf writers, they refuse to acknowledge that not doing so is wrong. They attempt to justify the evident unfairness in the genre through such mealy-mouthed justifications as “The gender of the writer is irrelevant” or “why should I impose quotas on my reading?” or “what about the men’s studies?” This is sexism. It is wrong.