It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Artistic license reviewed

I review books – for Interzone, for Vector, for SFF Chronicles (though not as often as I should), for SF Mistressworks, for Daughters of Prometheus, even here on my blog. I have been reviewing books since the late 1980s.(My first published review was of CJ Cherryh’s The Tree of Swords and Jewels in the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno, in October 1988. I vaguely recall not liking the book.) I am not a critic, nor do I consider my writings about books to be criticism. I leave that kind of in-depth analysis to those who have the necessary tools to do it.

I have also been on the receiving end of reviews – more so this past year than in any other. In two capacities: as the writer of the text being reviewed, and as the editor of the book under review. On the whole, it’s been very informative. I knew when I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains that it was atypical and possibly difficult. I suspected its appeal was limited. Happily, it seems to have transcended that and the vast bulk of reviews have been positive and very complimentary. Many of them have also been quite insightful, pulling out things I’d hadn’t realised I’d consciously put in the story. But that’s what happens with good reviewers.

Which is not to say that good reviewers can sometimes get it wrong. Martin McGrath felt Dan Hartland’s review of his story in Rocket Science on Strange Horizons missed an important point, and so he responded to it in a blog post. Dan’s review is, in the main, a good, insightful review. I think it’s clear he and I differ on what science fiction is and needs to be – for one thing, I don’t feel Rocket Science is “weirdly old-fashioned”. If anything, the current fashion for hand-wavey sentimental sf harkens back to an older form of the genre, although the current form is generally far better written. Dan also comments on diversity in his review, pointing out that only five of the twenty-two contributors to the anthology are female. Rocket Science was open submission, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. But it’s bending the point a little to present the contents as being wholly male-centric, especially when the review fails to mention, for example, Deborah Walker’s ‘Sea of Maternity’, a story about a single mother and her unruly teenage daughter. In point of fact, as this post shows, 23.53% of the stories featured female protagonists.

But that’s a minor quibble, and I think Dan’s review of Rocket Science is a good and useful review.

Which is more than can be said for this review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains

Yes, there is a typo on the first page of the book: “sussurus” should be “susurrus”. There’s nothing I can do about that in the paperback and hardback editions. I’ve not bothered fixing it in the ebook edition, but I will do when I publish the second book of the quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Typos happen, and while I should have caught that one, it did slip by a lot of other people as well.

I can understand someone having trouble with the prose style of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – no quotation marks! – and as a result not liking it. And so bailing before finishing it. I can comprehend a reader finding the subject not to their taste and so choosing not to read to the end. But, come on, giving up after a page because there are three (far from wildly obscure) words you don’t understand? That’s no excuse.

And to further suggest that it’s bad craft is insulting.

I do not believe in dumbing down my prose. I am not writing for people with limited vocabularies. I am writing for intelligent adults, because that’s what I consider my peers to be. I will not insult the intelligence of my readers because, as a reader, I loathe writers (or film-makers) who insult my intelligence. I may not always be successful in communicating precisely what I intended to communicate, but recasting it in words of one syllable is not a solution. I like writing “difficult” fiction, just as much as I enjoy reading “difficult” fiction. That difficulty, to my mind, adds value. It’s not just some slick superficial entertainment, but also something that makes you think, makes you reconsider your views and knowledge. Science fiction is particularly well-suited to that task – though the bulk of it fails to do more that bolster existing prejudices. I write about things that interest me and try to shine a new light on them. I don’t do “idea”. In fact, I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that the focus on idea is what continues to cripple science fiction. As long as you privilege idea, your fiction will not be taken seriously outside genre circles. And success within the genre is a poisoned chalice…

Science fiction is a small field, struggling to survive within the shadow cast by its history. There is also a very large elephant in the room of science fiction. (And I’m mixing metaphors, but never mind.) Past masters continue to provide topics within the genre conversation, despite no longer being relevant, of generally poor quality, and less available than in the past. Media sf is so popular the entire genre is believed to be the same as it – but science fiction is far from homogeneous. The sf works which receive general acclaim these days are ones that are not published as sf. Far from breaking down the walls of the ghetto, the tools of sf have leaked out but most of the readers and writers have refused to leave. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

There have been attempts in the past to re-engineer science fiction. While each ultimately failed, they did shift the genre in its course a little. Myself, I’d like to see science fiction stripped back to its roots and rebuilt for the twenty-first century, but that’s never going to happen. People are too happy with their tropes, no matter how old they are or how little sense they make in the current day.

I wrote the first two books of the Apollo Quartet as science fiction, and I set up Whippleshield Books as a science fiction small press. I consider myself a writer who writes in a sf mode. I use science fiction in my writing, I don’t actually write science fiction.

Perhaps the difference exists only in my head, but it’s enough for me.

EDIT: the review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains was also posted on with the heading “Artistic licence revoked!”. Hence, er, the title of this post… But I see now that’s he’s changed it… And reduced it to one-star. Yay, my first one-star review!

EDIT 2: “JL Dobias” has removed the “review” of Adrift on the Sea of Rains from his blog, so the link now points at some random blog post on “Gee Wiz” and “Wiz Bang” sf. The review on Amazon has also been removed, and the Goodreads review has been rewritten and now gives the book three stars rather than the original one. Dobias has thoroughly covered his tracks, so now only his comments here on my blog – all of which were from an email address belonging to a “Luci” – are all that remain of the whole farce. Given my dealings with Jerry/Luci, I suggest they’re best avoided.

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Science fiction becoming fact

A post from BuzzFeed has been doing the rounds, 27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts in 2012. Ignoring the assumption that science fiction is predictive – it never has been, and any such successes in that department have been happy accidents – how many of the items on the list had actually been used in sf before 2012?

1 Quadriplegic Uses Her Mind to Control Her Robotic Arm
Cyborgs are a genre staple, though they’ve proven more popular in cinema sf than written. However, the term “waldo” for a tele-operated arm comes from a science fiction story by Robert Heinlein, so this is indeed a “science fiction become science fact”.

2. DARPA Robot Can Traverse an Obstacle Course
Robots may be genre staples, but we’ve had robots in the real world for several decades. I don’t know of any sf stories or novels which were based on a robot’s ability to traverse difficult terrain. They were just robots, they did whatever humans could do – only usually better.

3. Genetically Modified Silk Is Stronger Than Steel
I’ve a feeling this has made an appearance in a science fiction novel. I’m guessing either Paul McAuley’s Fairyland or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Certainly materials “stronger than steel” and weighing considerably less feature in any sf text which includes an orbital elevator.

4. DNA Was Photographed for the First Time
I’m not aware of any science fiction text which uses this. It doesn’t actually seem a particularly useful achievement either.

5. Invisibility Cloak Technology Took a Huge Leap Forward
Surely this is more superhero comics than science fiction? When stealth appeared in the real world, it rapidly found its way into sf, especially military sf. But researchers have been working on these sorts of things for decades, so it’s not like it came from nowhere.

6. Spray-On Skin
I’m pretty sure this has been used in sf books or stories, though mostly as a throwaway detail. Another one that can probably be considered a “science fiction become science fact”.

7. James Cameron Reached the Deepest Known Point in the Ocean
The first people to visit the deepest part of the ocean did so in 1960. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended in the bathyscape Trieste some 36,000 feet to the floor of Challenger Deep. Until Cameron repeated their achievement, they were the only people to have done so. I know of only one sf short story set in Challenger Deep, though I believe there are a few novels set in the hadal zone. So this one is “science fact, er, stays as science fact”.

8. Stem Cells Could Extend Human Life by Over 100 Years
Life extension is a science fiction staple, but this is hardly a “science fact”. It says “could”. That makes it supposition. Or, if you will, “science fiction”.

9. 3-D Printer Creates Full-Size Houses in One Session
Has 3-D printing appeared in any sf text? I’m not aware of one that features it (though I’ve not read anything by Cory Doctorow). However, 3-D printing has been around for a few years, so this is more a case of “science fact stays as science fact”.

10. Self-Driving Cars Are Legal in Nevada, Florida, and California
Driverless cars are certainly a well-known genre trope. While their existence is hardly new, their legal status certainly brings them closer to how they are used in sf.

11. Voyager I Leaves the Solar System
Another science fact that remains a science fact. Voyager I launched in 1977. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single sf novel or story in which it takes a spacecraft forty-plus years to leave the Solar System. Usually, it takes a matter of hours or days using a magical FTL drive or something.

12. Custom Jaw Transplant Created With 3-D Printer
See point 9.

13. Rogue Planet Floating Through Space
Another genre trope, long theorised by science but now with evidence to support it. I suppose that does make it “science fiction become science fact”.

14. Chimera Monkeys Created from Multiple Embryos
I suspect this is too specific to really qualify, though Dr Moreau-type animal experimentation has been a genre topic for over a century.

15. Artificial Leaves Generate Electricity
This is another one I suspect may have appeared in a sf text, though I can’t think of it at the moment – again, McAuley or Stephenson?

16. Google Goggles Bring the Internet Everywhere
VR goggles have been around for decades. A refinement on existing technology hardly qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

17. The Higgs-Boson Particle Was Discovered
Or, “science theory becomes science fact”. Are there any sf texts which feature the Higgs Field?

18. Flexible, Inexpensive Solar Panels Challenge Fossil Fuel
Again, a refinement on existing technology hardly qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

19. Diamond Planet Discovered
You’d probably have to go all the way back to the 1920s or 1930s to find a sf story featuring a diamond planet – something by Edmond Hamilton or Jack Williamson, perhaps. Or perhaps Arthur C Clarke wrote one a decade or two later. This likely qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

20. Eye Implants Give Sight to the Blind
Well, there’s DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid, for a start. Artificial vision is certainly a sf trope.

21. Wales Barcodes DNA of Every Flowering Plant Species in the Country
Not sure how this ever qualified as science fiction.

22. First Unmanned Commercial Space Flight Docks with the ISS
There are a raft of libertarian US sf novels in which hardy far-sighted entrepreneurs exploit the final frontier for the benefit of humanity and their own bank account. That’s certainly science fiction. As they say in the space industry, “to make a small fortune in space, start with a large fortune”. So I don’t think this quite qualifies as “science fiction become science fact” yet.

23. Ultra-Flexible “Willow” Glass Will Allow for Curved Electronic Devices
When transparent aluminium is invented, or slow glass, then it would be “science fiction become science fact”. But not this.

24. NASA Begins Using Robotic Exoskeletons
I can think of plenty of science fiction in which exoskeletons, or powered spacesuits, or powered armour, appears. This takes us, so to speak, one step closer, so, yes, it’s “science fiction become science fact”.

25. Human Brain Is Hacked
A cyberpunk trope that has proven so popular it’s almost a cliché. Definitely “science fiction become science fact”.

26. First Planet with FOUR Suns Discovered
Given that so much sf is completely made-up with no regard to real science, then this is probably a happy accident. Having said that, hard sf authors no doubt did their research, considered this possible, and dutifully included in a story or two. Now we know it occurs, so it’s “science fiction become science fact”.

27. Microsoft Patented the “Holodeck”
They’ve not built it yet though, have they? It doesn’t actually exist. So it’s still science fiction, not science fact.

None of the above were actually “predicted” by science fiction in any sort of prognosticatory way. It’s true that a number of genre tropes have now become reality, but that may well be the tail wagging the dog. As it is, this list proves that, well, there were interesting advances during 2012… which makes it not much different from 2011, or what we can expect of 2013.


The Novel Poll results are in

… and oh dear. Well, that’s a little embarrassing. The results for the novels for the Locus All-Centuries Poll are in – see here. The best science fiction novel of the twentieth century is apparently Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best fantasy novel of the twentieth century is The Lord of the Rings, the best sf novel of the twenty-first century is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and the best fantasy novel of the twenty-first century is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

These results only show that most people confuse popularity with quality. I love Dune and I’ve read it many times, but it’s not a very well-written book. In fact, Herbert’s prose rarely rises above the embarrassingly bad. The Lord of the Rings is the giant elephant in the fantasy room, and it’s about time fantasy got over it. The less said about the twenty-first century novel choices, the better. I’ve read neither, I have no intention of reading them, they are not books I’d ever consider would merit the description “best”.

Unsurprisingly, my own choices did woefully badly. Only one actually made it onto a list – Watership Down at number ten on the 20th Century Fantasy Novel. For the record, here are the actual positions of my choices, where 0 (zero) means the book was not chosen as number one on a list by anyone.

20th Century SF Novel
221 – 1 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
206 – 2 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975)
16 – 3 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
283 – 4 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
0 – 5 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
349 – 6 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
0 – 7 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
35 – 8 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
0 – 9 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
76 – 10 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel
229 – 1 Aegypt, John Crowley (1987)
265 – 2 In Viriconium, M John Harrison (1982)
236 – 3 Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
34 – 4 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
0 – 5 Lens of the World, RA McAvoy (1990)
10 – 6 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
102 – 7 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)
62 – 8 Tehanu, Ursula K Le Guin (1990)
18 – 9 The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1983)
0 – 10 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992)

21st Century SF Novel
14 – 1 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
67 – 2 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
0 – 3 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
0 – 4 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
0 – 5 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)

21st Century Fantasy Novel
0 – 1 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
87 – 2 A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park (2005)
0 – 3 Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005)
155 – 4 Hav, Jan Morris (2006)
0 – 5 Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke (2001)

So there we have it: popularity contest picks most popular novels and calls them “best”. In other words, a total waste of time. I knew going in that some of my choices were reasonably obscure – not totally obscure, as they were published by major publishing houses – but even so I expected some people to recognise their quality. Sadly not. And even my choices for the more popular and better-known authors didn’t even make it into the final top ten or top five. I mean, no halfway-intelligent person can consider Old Man’s War to be a better book than Light. Not, and be taken seriously. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Sf and fantasy aren’t taken seriously. And never will be as long as we pull stupid strokes like the results of this poll.

So, science fiction and fantasy, go and stand in the corner.

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Nazi super science!

For those of you who fancy something a little different to read, I’ve published my story Wunderwaffe on Amazon for the Kindle. It originally appeared in the anthology Vivisepulture, edited by Andy Remic and Wayne Simmons, and published by Anarchy Books in December 2011. Lavie Tidhar wrote a very nice review of Wunderwaffe on his blog here.

Oh, and it’s very cheap – a mere 77p from Amazon UK and only $1.25 from Amazon US.



Best of the year 2012

It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.

Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.

girl_reading1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Reading here.

23122 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.

universe-cvr-lr-1003 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre

intrusion-ken-macleod4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.

sheltering5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.

There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.

red_psalm1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.

red_desert2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.

circle3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.

persiancats4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.

Dredd5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.

Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.

mourningweight1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).

aquilus2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.

dwellings3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)

25640_woods_of_ypres_woods_iv_the_green_album4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)

obliterate5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…

This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69’s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.

And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…

I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.

All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…

But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.

But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.


I love the smell of old paper in the morning

Inspired by Pornokitsch’s book porn post earlier today, I have decided to share some of the older, and perhaps less obviously the sort of books I would buy, books in my collection. And here they are…


I bought The Life and Works of Jahiz on abebooks after reading and enjoying Robert Irwin’s The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, but I’ve, er, never got around to reading it. It was published in 1969, so it’s not especially old – in fact, it’s younger than me. But I suspect very few people I know also possess a copy. (I see there’s a single copy for sale on Amazon… for £129.99.)


I’ve tried my hand at poetry, and a few of my attempts have been published, but I’ve found the poetry that appeals to me most is that of the 1930s and 1940s, such as by the Cairo poets. Here I have three collections by Terence Tiller: Reading a Medal (1957), Poems (1941) and The Inward Animal (1943); Richard Spender’s Collected Poems (1944); and John Jarmain’s Poems (1945). They were bought at antique fairs, on eBay, or from Abebooks.


And here are two poetry anthologies from that period. New Verse (1939) features photographs of the contributors at the end and appears to have been annotated in pencil by a previous owner. Poetry of the Present (1949) has a review slip in it, giving the exact publication date as April 28th 1949 and price as 10/6.


My favourite poet is probably Bernard Spencer, and here are a couple of hard-to-find chapbooks: The Twist in the Plotting (1960) and With Luck Lasting (1963).


I first came across the Cairo poets via the Lawrence Durrell connection. During WWII, there were two groups of poets and writers in Egypt – both serving in the armed forces and civilians. Durrell and Spencer were in the Personal Landscape group, centred around a journal with that title. The other group was called Salamander after its magazine, and later published three collections of poetry by armed forces personnel: Oasis (1943), Return to Oasis (1980) and From Oasis into Italy (1983). (I can’t find any copies of Oasis online to link to, unfortunately.)


Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse (1946) is, er, exactly that. It includes Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others. The book lacking a dustjacket is Personal Landscape (1945), like Oasis above, an anthology drawn from the pages of the magazine of the same name, which includes, er, Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others.


From verse to prose – three novels from the 1930s and 1940s. Priddy Barrows (1944) is Jarmain’s only novel – he was killed in WWII. I wrote about it here. Copies of both Priddy Barrows and his poetry collection are, it seems, now impossible to find. At First Sight (1935) is Nicholas Monsarrat’s second novel, and This Is The Schoolroom (1939) is his fourth (but my copy is a 1947 reprint).


Finally, a couple of books about bathyscaphes. Seven Miles Down (1961) is the only book written specifically about the voyage of the Trieste to the floor of Challenger Deep in 1960. I wrote about it here. 2000 Fathoms Down covers descents in a bathyscaphe by the two authors during the 1940s and 1950s.


Prometheus stole fire, not stupidity

A few nights ago, I watched the DVD of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. I’d seen the film at the cinema earlier in the year, and been most unimpressed. It looked gorgeous, but there wasn’t a single functioning brain cell in it. Anyway, here are some notes I took as I watched the DVD…

  • When DNA breaks up, it does not form magical chemicals that can reform as DNA.
  • Noomi Rapace’s character is fond of saying, “it’s what I choose to believe”, which does not mean “it is true”, and any scientist with half an IQ would know as much.
  • The Prometheus starship appears to be somewhat bigger on the inside than the outside – I mean, if the crew are going to spend the journey in cryostasis, why would you put a huge gym in the ship?
  • The Prometheus takes two years to travel approximately 34.5 light years to LV-223, so the moon could be orbiting either Pollux, Gliese 649, Gliese 86… or some completely made-up star.
  • Why does David the android (Michael Fassbender) eat?
  • The lifeboat in which Charlize Theron’s character lives has everything she might need… including a grand piano?
  • On arrival at LV-223, they discover the Engineer facility because “God does not build in straight lines”. Er, what? Nature certainly does, physics certainly does.
  • Why does everyone aboard have a seat on the bridge of the Prometheus? Shouldn’t only the crew?
  • The ancient paintings depicted a “galactic system”. This means absolutely nothing.
  • The civilisations which made the ancient paintings apparently never had contact with each other. Unlikely. Even if centuries apart, there would still be historical artefacts – like, er, the ancient paintings which prompt the mission to LV-223…
  • The cave painting on Skye was dated as 35,000 years old. Northern Europe was still experiencing the last ice age at that point (the Flandrian interglacial didn’t start until 10,000 years ago).
  • Why does David the android dye his hair? Can’t he just swap it?
  • The Engineer facility is a sugar-loaf type rock hill inside a circular rock wall, and it has an undercut entrance supported by carved pillars – so yes, it would be easy to say it is not natural.
  • Speaking of entrances, the scientists have to duck to get inside – yet the Engineers are enormous. What a silly way to enter a building.
  • Speaking of the Engineers, their spaceships are famously boomerang-shaped… Except for the one which opens the film, which is saucer-shaped. Why?
  • The scientists are inside an alien facility, their sensors have told them the chemical composition of the air, but there’s no mention of biological contaminants… so let’s all take our helmets off. Right…
  • Several of the scientists make jokes about Martians – eh?
  • The man responsible for mapping the Engineer facility… gets lost. Fail.
  • Why is there a xenomorph in the mural?
  • Two scientists are in charge of the expedition– no wait, one scientist and his “zealot girlfriend”. So no gender equality in the 22nd century, then.
  • How do you trick a severed head that’s been dead for 2000 years into thinking it’s alive?
  • And, what do you know, a perfect match between human and Engineer DNA. So much for evolution.
  • David the android does not need to drink, or indeed breathe, but he still eats food – eh?
  • The two lost scientists don’t know where they are… but they can give their coordinates to the ship.
  • It’s the twenty-first century, haven’t we moved on from infertility as the sole motivation for a female character?
  • Or indeed, when a woman is asked if she is a robot, offering sex is not the first or most efficient means of proving your humanity.
  • Some of the scientists and crew smoke cigarettes. Aboard a spaceship. Fail.
  • What generates the holograms of the Engineers running through the facility? Where is the machinery? You can see it in the engineer spaceship.
  • And how come it still works after 2,000 years? The Antikythera Mechanism didn’t.
  • When Noomi Rapace takes off her clothes, she is apparently wearing a bandage around her chest rather than a bra.
  • When Weyland makes an appearance, where did his nurse come from?
  • Why do all the Engineers look identical?

… And at this point I gave up making notes because it was all getting too silly. Why bother mentioning that Rapace has to abseil out of the Engineer spaceship… so how did she get into it? Or that running away from a rolling spaceship along the line it is rolling is pretty bloody stupid.

I was also informed that the DVD version featured a different start and end, and a number of additional scenes in the middle – as if it were, you know, a different and less stupid film. I didn’t notice any difference. Perhaps the version I bought is the theatrical release – it doesn’t say it is, but it also doesn’t say it’s not. That’s annoying.

I’m all for science fiction cinema, and I would like to see more of it. But this is shoddy writing, this is a failure of writing craft. It’s indicative of the contempt in which Hollywood holds the audiences of its films. It’s no wonder I’ve found myself increasingly watching world cinema, art house cinema and classic movies…


Whoops, my finger slipped…

There you are, browsing your favourite online purveyor of books and, oh dear, you seem to have bought a bunch of them. That’s what happens to me. Well, that, and being unable to pass a charity shop without popping in to see if they have any decent books on sale. The end result is a book collection which continues to grow and mutate and evolve like some bookish monster out of Quatermass. Or something.

Anyway, here’s the latest additions…


Some small press goodies: both Downside Girls, a collection by Jaine Fenn, and Entanglement, Douglas Thompson, I bought at Novacon. Unfit for Eden and Eater-of-Bone are both from PS Publishing.


A few recent first editions – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine I’ve already written about (see here); likewise Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (see here). I suspect John Varley is long past his best, but I’ll give Slow Apocalypse a go anyway. Mary Gentle’s Black Opera has been getting some positive notices. I only have the first of Jaine’s Hidden Empire novels, and Queen of Nowhere is the fifth – so it’ll be a while before I read it.


Some books for the space collection. Riding Rockets and Dragonfly are both signed. I’m told Mullane’s autobiography is a really good one. The Burrough is about the Mir space station. Living in Space was dirt cheap on eBay.


I love how Haynes have started producing these Owners’ Workshop Manuals for all sorts of things – not just the Lunar Rover and International Space Station here, but also the Millennium Falcon, Avro Vulcan, Thunderbirds, RMS Titanic, USS Enterprise, and even Dan Dare’s Spacefleet Operations. Not, of course, that anyone will ever get to own one of those. Apollo 15 NASA Mission Reports is exactly what it says on the cover. I have quite a few of the books.


Some books bought at Novacon: Tyranopolis, AE van Vogt; The Quy Effect, Arthur Sellings; and Metaplanetary and Superluminal, Tony Daniel.


As I’ve got older I’ve found myself appreciating Ballard’s fiction more and more. So I’ve been buying the nicely-packaged 4th Estate paperbacks. Only three more after Hello America and I’ll have the lot. Throne of the Crescent Moon is an ARC, which I’m reviewing for Interzone. I’ve also interviewed the author.


Charity shop finds: Dancing Girls, a Margaret Atwood collection; Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three was, apparently, mystifyingly shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold may not look like my usual reading fare, but it’s based on Lawrence Durrell and his relationship with his wife when they lived on Corfu; Richard Powers is an author I’ve fancied trying for a while now and The Echo Maker was a fortunate find.


I recently won a competition on the Gollancz blog, and this was the prize: a package of SF Masterworks – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Synners, Unquenchable Fire, Riddley Walker and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Many thanks.


These are for SF Mistressworks and were bought at Novacon. I’ve already reviewed Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (see here). I had a copy of Mary Staton’s From the Legend of Biel and read it many years ago, but gave it away. I fancied rereading it. The Wall Around Eden is from The Women’s Press. I’ve already reviewed a Pamela Sargent anthology and collection, so The Shore of Women will be her first novel to be reviewed on SF Mistressworks.


Jacques Tardi’s bandes dessinée are really very good. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec volume 2 is completely bonkers. I suspect there won’t be a volume 3. New York Mon Amour is a collection of noir stories set in the titular city and despite the setting there’s something distinctly non-American about them. The Fantagraphic editions are nicely put-together, but annoyingly the books are all different sizes. Argh. ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven I bought on the strength of fond memories of the strip in 2000AD. I shouldn’t have bothered: it’s cobbled together from war movie clichés, often with dialogue which doesn’t even reach those heights. Ah well.


These bandes dessinée are much better. Atlantis Mystery is an original Edgar P Jacob’s story, and very text-heavy. The story is complete tosh too. The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 1 and part 2, is of much more recent vintage, and is a mish-mash of Tintin-esque mystery-adventure and Dan Brown Biblical conspiracy, with a secret Nazi cabal thrown in as the villains. (Incidentally, Amazon’s database looks completely buggered on the Blake and Mortimer books – it has Atlantis Mystery and The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 2 down only by volume number, not title; so title searches won’t work.) Welcome to Alflolol is the fourth of the Valérian and Laureline series to be published in English by Cinebook.

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Locus poll adden-doh

So, a day or two after I filled in my selections for the Locus Poll of Polls (see here), I stumbled across this Mind Meld I did back in October 2010 on my perfect short fiction anthology. While most of the TOC made it into my categories for the polls, some didn’t and I wish I’d managed to remember them. The missing ones were:

‘That Only a Mother’, Judith Merrill (short story, 1948)
I went for ‘No Woman Born’ by CL Moore instead. I’d have to reread both to decide which of the two I should have chosen. It might have been both.

‘The Sword of Rhiannon’, Leigh Brackett (novel, 1949)
This is apparently a novel, so it doesn’t even belong in a short fiction anthology. Whoops. I picked Brackett’s ‘The Last Days of Shandrakor’ for my 20th Century SF/F Novelette category.

‘A Woman Naked’, Christopher Priest (short story, 1974)
I did think about including this one, but I had more than ten choices for my 20th Century SF/F Short Story category. Even though some turned out to be novelettes, I still had to say no to a couple of titles. Incidentally, I wrote a guest post on this story on Gav Reads – see here.

‘The View from Venus: A Case Study’, Karen Joy Fowler (novelette, 1986)
I considered this one too, but I thought it was a short story and I was over-subscribed in that category. But I’ve just looked on and it’s down as a novelette. So I should have included it in that category, probably in place of the Sterling or the Dowling.

‘In Saturn Time’, William Barton (short story, 1995)
Like the Priest, I considered this, but had no free space in the category.

‘Beside the Sea’, Keith Brooke (short story, 1995)
I’d forgotten about this one, but I suspect it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway. Though it is an excellent short story.

‘The Avatar of Background Noise’, Toiya Kristen Finley (short story, 2006)
I wish I’d remembered this one. I left my 21st Century SF/F Short Story category blank, but I’d have included this one if I’d remembered it. Argh.

I only managed nine in the 20th Century SF/F Novella category, two in the 21st Century SF/F Novelette, and none in 21st Century SF/F Short Story. I think I need to read more short fiction from the first decade of this century. It’s not like I’m prevented from doing so – I have a huge pile of Interzones, a shelf full of Postscripts, and a whole bunch of other magazines and anthologies…

So, I think, as a resolution for 2013, I shall work towards putting together a short fiction best of the year, as I do every year for books, films and albums. That should encourage me to read more short stories. I’ll not differentiate between short story, novelette or novella – they’ll all be munged together into one list. Nor will I work overly hard at reading as much as possible. If a story doesn’t grab me within the first 500 to 1,000 words, I’ll not bother finishing it. I’ll stick to the venues I usually frequent, though if someone recommends a story published elsewhere I’ll give it a go. Hopefully, by the end of the year I’ll have enough to choose from to list the five best. I’ll even be able to pick stories to nominate for the BSFA Award. (hint, hint.)


Fly me to the Moon

This week saw the announcement by the Golden Spike Company of a plan to sell commercial passenger flights to the Moon. For a mere $1.5 billion each. This is your libertarian future, as so fondly imagined by various right-wing US science fiction authors: poverty endemic in all nations, while the One Percent get to fulfill their dreams in outer space. Of course, few of the ultra-rich can actually afford $1.5 billion, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of cash floating around in the public sector they can sequester. All they have to do is buy a couple of governments, and then persuade said governments to sell off their national assets: utilities, infrastructure, national healthcare…

This is the twenty-first century we can look forward to. All our dreams, the future of our race, we will have to experience vicariously. But that’s okay, because those dreams are about the only thing that can’t be taken away from us. Manipulation of the financial market means you will lose your house, selling off healthcare means injury or illness will beggar you, cost-cutting (AKA profit-maximising) and outsourcing means you will lose your job, tax avoidance by corporations and the ultra-rich means there’ll be no money for benefits to feed you or house you or keep you warm in the winter once you’re unemployed…

But at least someone will be having fun. Visiting the Moon.


It cost US taxpayers around $10 per person per year for a decade to put twelve men on the Moon with the Apollo programme. They did it for science, to beat the Soviets in the Space Race, and for humankind. There are a huge number of scientific and technological advances which spun out of Apollo. Computers and mobile phones as we know them likely would not exist but for the huge orders for integrated circuits – in their infancy at the time – placed by NASA for the spacecrafts’ guidance systems.

If we leave space travel in the hands of the ultra-rich – and that seems to be the way we’re going with all these dumb outer space tourist-jaunt proposals – then we are doomed to die when this planet can no longer support us. We will have no future as a race. And the way things are heading right now, we’ll be lucky to survive into the twenty-second century.

Remember all those space exploration sf novels of the 1940s and 1950s? NASA and the USSR demonstrated the reality was considerably more hazardous than had been imagined. So sf completely mythologised the whole endeavour – magical antigrav spaceships travelling light-years in days or hours using magical FTL drives. Those tropes are now so embedded in the genre, they’ve become part of the setting. I put together Rocket Science partly to question those tropes, to inject some realism back into space travel and outer space, to kickstart a new science fiction tradition based on the reality of space travel.

But what had never occurred to me – or to the genre as a whole, I suspect – is that space would become just another playground for the ultra-rich, just like one of those private Caribbean islands with beaches of golden sand and clear blue seas.

They have taken away our future. It’s time we stopped ignoring that fact in our fictions.