Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Archive for September 2008

‘Light And The Sufferer’ by Jonathan Lethem

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This is the other story in the collection that I had already read and again I was surprised by its inclusion in Feeling Very Strange. It was originally published in 1995, considerably pre-dating Motherless Brooklyn (1999), his first work of straight realism, and Fortress Of Solitude (2003), his fictionalised auto-biography. It is with these works – with their focus on the real world and, particularly, Lethem’s New York – that the story has most affinity but it lacks any of the ambiguity that tipped Fortress Of Solitude into slipstream.

At its most basic it is the story of two brothers and a drug deal. However, it also contains a race of aliens called Sufferers:

“Of course its weird,” said Don. “That’s why we love it, right, Paul? It’s from another dimension, it’s fucking weird, it’s science fiction.”

It isn’t that weird though. In the story the Sufferers are treated like something like crack or guns, not exactly quotidian but hardly alien either. Like Chiang’s God the Sufferers are inexplicable but whereas in his story that was the whole point in Lethem’s story it is just a distraction. The real story is the story of the two brothers and, as with Fortress Of Solitude, this is weakened by the fantastical elements. This isn’t feeling very strange, it is feeling like you have a pebble in your shoe.

Quality: ***
Slipperiness: *

Christopher Peditto filmed ‘Light And The Sufferer’ in 2004 but it has sat on the shelf since then. It was finally released at the beginning of this month (presumably Paul Dano’s rising star helped with this.)

Part of Feeling Very Strange

Written by Martin

28 September 2008 at 11:53

‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ by Ted Chiang

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This is one of the two stories in this collection that I’d read previously. It is also pretty much what I would consider to be the anti-thesis of slipstream.

Chiang’s premise is that God exists and Heaven and Hell are empirical facts. From here everything unfolds rationally and rigourously; it is an essentially science fictional mode of storytelling which is in opposition to slipstream with its emphasis on the inexplicable. At the same time though this is very much a story about the inexplicable because what else could God be? Chiang’s story is rational but the acts of the creator are not:

Perhaps, he thought, it’d be better to live in a story where the righteous were rewarded and the sinners were punished, even if the criteria for righteousness and sinfulness eluded him, than to live in a reality where there was no justice at all.

The power and the beauty of the story is in the confrontation of the inexplicable. I can’t see any reason for it to be included in this collection though (and as far as I can tell Kessel and Kelly offer no justification either.)

Quality: ****
Slipperiness: *

Part of Feeling Very Strange

Written by Martin

27 September 2008 at 19:03

Seizure

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I went to see Down The Rabbit Hole this morning. It was very bitty in the way these things often are and contained some nice imagery without adding up to much. I did like the house band, The Molotovs, though.

Afterwards I saw something truly amazing:

This is Seizure by Roger Hiorns:

The initial structural alterations effected the transformation of Flat 159 into a completely watertight tank, reinforced by steelwork on the outside, with its upper surface open and accessible – through holes punched through the ceiling – to the flat above. The super-saturated copper sulphate solution itself was prepared onsite. Hundreds of bags of the chemical powder were mixed with very hot water in large steel tanks. More than 70,000 litres of the solution made in this way were eventually pumped into Flat 159, to fill it to the brim. 

Awesome.

Written by Martin

27 September 2008 at 18:03

RUMIR

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Karen Burnham alerts me to a useful acronym derived from Joanna Russ: “The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable.” It covers the majority of short fiction published by the SF magazines.

Written by Martin

25 September 2008 at 14:17

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Hey, Why Aren’t More Things Being Written That I Like?

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Damien G Walter says science fiction used to be too optimistic and now it is too pessimistic. Why can’t it be somewhere in between? To which I would say, why can’t it be anything it wants? I always react bady to this sort of attempt at constraint. If you want to write in a particular way get on and do it, don’t feel you have to stick your nose into what everyone else is doing.

Walter says he isn’t calling for science fiction that would “replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age” but naive is a good word to sum up his article. His sense of the importance of science fiction in particular is massively overblown:

The best science fiction, as with all great art, doesn’t just reflect the world but seeks to influence it. The dark warnings of science fiction have had innumerable, immeasurable effects on the world. The darkest and greatest of all, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, ranks among the most influential works of literature ever written. How many more totalitarian states would persist today if Nineteen Eighty-Four had not warned generations against the threat they represented, both abroad and at home?

This is a rhetorical question but I will answer it anyway: zero.

He also makes some interesting factual claims about the genre in support of his thesis that it is all doom and gloom:

Biotechnology and genetic research offer fantastic advances in medicine, yet their portrayal in science fiction is typified by the gloom of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Really? This is a vast area of speculation that has produced a riot of different ideas and stories. Genetic tinkering leading to the human race being wiped out is certainly one strand of this but it by no means typifies it. Then there is this:

The internet is already democratising many new areas of society, but our political future is still most commonly depicted as one flavour of Big Brother dystopia or another.

This is less outright wrong than just debateable. It certainly seems to me that there are more of a plurality of futures out there than Walter thinks. It is noteworthy that the only two modern writers he mentions are Atwood and Cormac McCarthy who both write science fiction from outside the genre and such writers concentrate almost exclusively on dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenerios (with a bit of alternative history thrown in.)

Written by Martin

25 September 2008 at 12:50

“Suicide is always a speculative matter.”

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I may have thought Thomas M. Disch was a raddled old bigot but if I die – and I’m not planning to – I hope no-one writes an article like this about me.

Written by Martin

22 September 2008 at 23:52

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I Am Legend

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I don’t buy hardback books because I find paperbacks vastly more useful; when I am God Emperor all novels will be paperback originals. This has given me a patience with publication dates that I have now extended to DVDs where the problem is not the format but the ridiculous mark up slapped on them upon release. So I’m a bit behind the curve but I get there in the end and this weekend was when I Am Legend finally dropped below the ten quid barrier.

If you watch a lot of SF films you are used to disappointment but it is actually a lot better than I was expecting. It is still poor though. There are warning signs early on with Emma Thompson’s evil scientist being called Dr Krippin and the appearance of an incredibly poorly done CGI lion. This dodgy CGI is a constant throughout the film – all the vampires look like grey, shrunken versions of the Incredible Hulk – and undercuts the focus on Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last man in New York. Smith is clearly right at the edge of his limits as an actor playing a man under extreme psychological conditions but he manages well enough. There are two particularly good scenes – where he follows his dog into a dark building and later when he is ensnared in a own trap – where the stress, fear and isolation of his life are perfectly conveyed. Both scenes are artistically disembowelled by the appearance of the cartoon monsters though.

I Am Legend went through quite a long Production Hell and it shows in the Frankenstein’s monster nature of the finished article. You have got three competing films here: a CGI popcorn action flick which is all the more intrusive for being mostly kept at bay; a gruelling post-apocalyptic drama; and, finally, a godawful spiritual melodrama. This is expressed in emotionally manipulative flash backs and, most of all, in the ending that quickly unspools from the appearance of another survivor.

The ending that appeared in the theatrical release is not actually the original ending though. My version of the DVD doesn’t contain the original ending (because I am a skinflint) but it is widely available on the internet:

There was a lot of praise for it when it first surfaced but although it is better than the theatrical ending that is not to say it is any good. Too much has gone before.

Written by Martin

22 September 2008 at 19:19

Posted in films, sf

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Cover Versions

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There are a few assumptions about the Transatlantic publishing gap that quite a few people make: UK paperbacks are better quality than US ones, US hardbacks are better quality than UK ones and UK covers are better than US ones. The latter is certainly something that I’ve always believed but ajr has an interesting post about whether it is true any more. He was inspired by this Bookseller article but the original article loses points for not having a poll. It does contain an interesting quote from designer Jon Gray that suggests this is a recent change though:

In the US, the designer, art director, editor and author will create a cover that they feel is right for a book, and then that will be shown to a sales department. It would then be shown to the trade. This often means that your cover is first and foremost a nice piece of design, relevant to the book. In the UK over the past year or so, we’ve started to work backwards.

As always this is the fault of the supermarkets.

Anyway, I can’t say this new design-led approach in the US is one I have witnessed, particularly within the science fiction industry. Indeed when ever someone in the science fiction world pleas for slightly nicer covers there is always someone from the industry quick to pop up and say: “ugly covers are the way we’ve always done it, besides that is what the punters want and authors should be grateful just to be published”. That is not to say there aren’t plenty of good US SF covers but the overall standards are not very high and the lows are just so much lower than in the UK.

(I am obviously a corporate stooge because I have spent this entire post playing the man, not the ball…)

Written by Martin

22 September 2008 at 13:42

Posted in books, sf

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Martin Amis??!

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3:AM Magazine recently had a short interview with Will Ashon in which he mentions my review of The Heritage:

In a recent review I was accused of unhelpfully muddling up realism, para-realism and contra-realism. Actually I’m an infra-realist!

Ashon makes clear that what confounded me (and Colin Greenland) about the novel was designed to confound so fair play to him. More interestingly he talks about his future projects:

One is a very short but quite intense thing about Mike Tyson’s dead mother watching his last fight on a screen attached to her head in an invisible Brownsville, which I have to admit was always going to be a hard sell.

Come on publishers, sign this up!

Written by Martin

19 September 2008 at 13:43

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‘Biographical Notes to “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum

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As the title makes clear, if you want playfully postmodern, Rosenbaum is your guy. In fact it goes beyond playful, it is a massive in-joke. Our narrator is “Benjamin Rosenbaum”, a plausible fabulist, who has just returned from wisconsin, “the World’s Only Gynarchist Plausible-Fable Assembly”. Yeah. It is a clever story but clever in a way that constantly jabs you in the ribs. As a simple adventure story it is fun enough but Rosenbaum’s constant embellishment is rather tiring.

Quality: ***
Slipperiness: **

The whole of Rosenbaum’s debut collection, The Ant King And Other Stories, which includes this story, is available to download under a Creative Commons license. I might say more about it and its clobberingly meta-fictional nature later.

Part of Feeling Very Strange

Written by Martin

19 September 2008 at 11:07

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