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Archive for August 2009

Fucking Wizards!

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If the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of fucking detective fiction, or else some kind of child writer, or something that was not even new when Enid Blyton was writing The Faraway Tree, because she was writing about some upper middle-class young magician or some fucking crap.

I’m glad there is always enough genre wars madness to go round. Following on nicely from Lev Grossman complaining that books aren’t dumb enough, here we have James Kelman complaining that books are too dumb. Oh noes, Scotland has been infected with genre! The Guardian rounds up the lulz but I will give the final word to Michael Schmidt, professor of poetry at Glasgow University:

When you get a really major figure like Alistair Gray, you don’t see him fulminating like this. Instead, you find him a very generous spirit excited by new writing. He does not surround himself with rancour. There is a parochialism that says Scotland first, and there is an internal parochialism that says Glasgow first, and then Glasgow working-class first. Each time you get into a smaller parochialism, the more authoritarian the feel of the language is.

Written by Martin

31 August 2009 at 20:04

Sabetha Belacoros

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Scott Lynch has just published the prologue of Republic Of Thieves, his third novel, on his website:

She was dirty, as they all were, and though it was hard to tell by the pale silver light of the vault’s alchemical lanterns, she looked a little tired. She wore scuffed brown breeches, a long baggy tunic that at some distant remove had been white, and a leather flat cap over a tight kerchief, so that not a strand of her hair was visible. Yet she was undeniably a she. For the very first time in Locke’s life some unpracticed animal sense crept dimly to life to alert him to this fact. The Hill was full of girls, but never before had Locke dwelt on the thought of a girl. He sucked in a breath and realized that he could feel his pulse tingling at the tip of each of his fingers.

Yes, Lynch finally gets round to the story he should have told after The Lies Of Locke Lamora. It is more of the same but the same is pretty good (as long as you enjoy the ride and don’t care about the destination). He has also – and more surprisingly – decided to publish a new online pulp serial, Queen of the Iron Sands:

At the height of the Second World War, Violet DeVere was a WASP – a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot, trusted with ferrying the most advanced warplanes in the United States arsenal. Five years after the war, she’s barely making ends meet as a crop duster and part-time science fiction writer. Kidnapped across a hundred million miles of space, Violet suddenly finds herself a prisoner in an impossible empire, an inhabited Mars shielded from earthling eyes by a scientific illusion called the Veil. Mars and its people are ground beneath the heel of the ruthless All-Sovereign, whose legions rule the skies. All resistance to his absolute despotism has been driven to the deadly red sands beyond civilization. Outgunned and outnumbered, Violet DeVere and her few brave Martian allies make a desperate stand against the All-Sovereign… against an ageless tyrant with the power to destroy every living thing in the solar system.

As you might be able to tell, this is pretty old school. In Lynch’s own words “Queen of the Iron Sands is a science fantasy, in the tradition of a planet-hopping and laser-blasting style of adventure fiction that was once much more prominent in the genre”. I am not a fan of this tradition but I am a fan of Lynch so I will be following this (for the moment, at least).

Written by Martin

31 August 2009 at 13:57

Posted in books

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Get Your War On

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I went to see The Hurt Locker the other day. It is an extremely tense and effective drama and I recommend going to see it. However, I am slightly concerned by the increasing suggestion that by stripping her film of context Kathryn Bigelow has done something new, radical and worthy. This is exemplified by this very odd piece by David Cox.

Before I get into the meat of why the piece is odd, I really must take issue with his ludicrously ahistorical opening line: “Before cinema, war was something most people only heard about.” Really? I’m pretty sure that for most of human history war was something that the majority of people experienced intimately. Even if what he actually means is combat it still de-emphasises the prevalence of warfare. He then goes on to say that “Losers kept silent. Returning heroes boasted of their glorious exploits.” which betrays a startling preference for glib fantasy over the complexities of the real world for a documentary film maker.

Anyway, back to The Hurt Locker. Not only is his reading of history unpersuasive, his reading of the text is equally unlikely:

Director Kathryn Bigelow has resurrected the ideal of the chivalrous warrior and burnished it further. Her choice of bomb-disposal experts as protagonists keeps them well away from cowardice, cruelty or prisoner abuse, and their demeanour suggests that they’d find such things unthinkable. Their interpersonal dynamics (responsible level-head versus dare-devil maverick) hark back to the conventions of mid-century screen heroics. These are unequivocally good, brave and inspiring men.

I would agree that the interpersonal dynamics are deliberately conventional but that is about all I would agree with in this paragraph. It is true that the protagonists roles as specialists insulates them (and us) from the day to day work of the infantry but does not completely insulate them from these realities. In particular, fear and cowardice are one of the key themes of the film, contrasting the fearless recklessness of Staff Sergeant James (the bomb-disposal expert) with the more normal limits of endurance of the other two men in his team. I am at a loss as to how someone could emerge from the cinema believing not just that these are “good, brave and inspiring men” but unequivocably so.

Putting aside whether these characters embody chivalry – and it seems to me there is a much clear line from a film like this to Jarhead than Cox admits – there is still the issue of whether Bigelow has resurrected this ideal. I am not at all convinced that cinema has been lacking in warrior heroes. Nor is it a belief that is lacking in society. It is extremely common for opponents of the war in Iraq (particularly in America) to nonetheless emphasise that they support the troops. Partly this is a self-defence mechanism to protect them from the slurs of the pro-war lobby but partly this is a genuine wish to separate individual actions from wider political and moral context. Bigelow is following this opinion, not creating it.

Here is a portrait of warfare that finds no room for bloodlust, atrocity, token female combatants, survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder or glum philosophising.

Again, what film did he watch? Towards the end of the film James leads his team on a bloodlust-fuelled revenge mission which results in the most junior member of his team being shot. Following his evacuation and the detonation of a suicide bomber, the third member of the team has a complete breakdown. Although it is de-emphasised The Hurt Locker also features its share of atrocity and philosophising. Oh, and “token female combatants“? 220,000 women have served with the US in Iraq.

Bigelow has mythologised the nobility of soldiering even in a dubious cause. Her film will colour efforts to muster support for an adventure in Afghanistan that some consider hardly more justifiable than the war against Saddam. It could help ensure that a future Congo or Rwanda catastrophe attracts the intervention from outside that bitter memories of the Iraq imbroglio might otherwise have denied it.

Cox doubles down with his conclusion whilst still allowing himself some lazy equivocation. The Hurt Locker might bolster support for unpopular existing wars. That would be bad. The Hurt Locker might bolster support for new and not yet unpopular wars. That would be good. Wow! Bigelow is certainly mythologising soldiering but this process has continued throughout the history of cinema and The Hurt Locker is no different from any of the other films Cox mentions in this respect. Even if this mythologising was new, the level of power and influence he ascribes to Bigelow’s film is simply laughable.

Written by Martin

31 August 2009 at 11:50

Posted in films

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“A charlatan, a mesmerist, or a dolt.”

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1) Lev Grossman chats shit about plot, Modernists and “the novel”. Andrew Seal and Matthew Cheney school him.

2) Also chatting shit is David Denby who says down with snark but unfortunately doesn’t even understand what snark is. Despite this major impediment he somehow even managed to spin a book out of this.

3) And now for something completely different:

What good is an imaginary city if you can’t go inside the buildings? What good is a virtual downtown if you can’t go crazy with a bazooka? Corbetta’s work preempts these questions.

A fascinating guest post on procedurally generated virtual cities from Jim Rossignol (Offworld, Rock, Paper, Shotgun) over at BLDGBLOG.

Written by Martin

30 August 2009 at 18:47

A Palette Cleanser

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The A to Z of dubstep: bwarmp, bwaarrmp, bwaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrmp.

Da Chip: 8-bit Daft Punk.

Remix After All: The best Daft Punk remix album in the world ever.

Written by Martin

25 August 2009 at 18:58

Posted in music

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Glasvegas

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Awhile ago I rashly stated that Glasvegas are great. Well, I thought I better actually listen to the album to check. A few thoughts:

  • Songs about social workers are awesome.
  • Sincerity is good but only in small doses or you sound like  a drunk.
  • Once upon a time people spoke approvingly of The Stereophonics and the way they chronicled provincial small town life. Then they came to their sense.
  • James Dean Bradfield is not a good role model when it comes to transfering lyrics from the page to the mic. (I’m amazed he never pulled a Harrison Ford on Richie.)
  • If I want to listen to a dour Scot stick a burst of someone else’s song at the end of his, I will listen to The Night Before The Funeral by Arab Strap.
  • No, Glasvegas aren’t great.

Written by Martin

25 August 2009 at 18:56

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Steam Opera

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I think the introduction to Michael Moorcock’s review of The Manual Of Detection by Jedediah Berry is worth quoting from extensively:

If rural nostalgia fuels the continuing appeal of Trollope or Tolkien, then its urban equivalent is most commonly found in Dickens pastiches such as Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, in Holly Black’s gritty fairy stories and in the steampunk genre. These days, you can barely pick up a speculative fantasy without finding a zeppelin or a steam-robot on the cover. Containing few punks and a good many posh ladies and gents, most of these stories are better described as steam operas. The Manual of Detection formalises many of the genre’s themes and includes a dash of cyberpunk noir.

Cyberpunks were what the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson called themselves when first signalling their break with conventional SF. What identified cyberpunk was a sophisticated interest in current events, a guess that the Pacific Rim might soon become the centre of world politics, a keen curiosity about the possibilities of post-PC international culture and a love of noir detective fiction. Characteristically, cyberpunk revived the noir thriller and might as easily be considered a development of the mystery as of science fiction. Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine was an early example of cyberpunk merging into steampunk, proposing a Victorian world with Babbage computers and airships. Airships also appear in The Golden Compass and Watchmen, among other recent movies: they signify you are in an alternate reality.

Steampunk reached its final burst of brilliant deliquescence with Pynchon’s Against the Day and his Airship Boys. Once the wide world gets hold of an idea, however, it can only survive through knowing irony. Its tools, its icons, its angle of attack are absorbed into the cultural mainstream. The genre has started to write about itself, the way Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles addressed the western. Steampunk no longer examines context and history but now looks ironically at its own roots, tropes and cliches.

Written by Martin

22 August 2009 at 20:54

Posted in criticism, sf

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