Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for June 2010

‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin

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A beautiful trio of epistles on the secret language of ants, penguins and plants. It utilises the scientific method in a way that is utterly incongruous in this collection but charming and entirely welcome.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

30 June 2010 at 13:39

Glastonbury 2010 – Part Two

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Saturday

Jackson Browne – I was raised on Browne but he is too Seventies, too California, too rich hippy to have endured. So Glastonbury should have been the perfect place for him. He didn’t draw much of a crowd though. Still, a nice enough way to spend Saturday morning, although I was glad I had a copy of the Guardian. And ‘I am A Patriot’ no longer sounds like much of an antitode to patriotism, particularly in this surroundings.

Imogen Heap - I’m a casual fan of Frou Frou and Heap herself so I thought I knew what to expect. When we arrived, however, she was leading the crowd through quite the most tortuous sing-a-long I’ve ever heard. Nah, mate.

The National – A massive buzz about them leading up to Glastonbury and they sort of delivered. That is to say, they put their all into the performance, even if it didn’t necessarily collect at all times. (I should note at this juncture that where you are stood and who you are stood with has a massive influence on this so all judgements should be taken with a pinch of salt.)

Shakira - Pop is always welcome as far as I’m concerned. Shakira doesn’t really have the tunes though; Michael Eavies, if you are listening, get Beyonce to headline. She was still great though, even if it was only with the singles like ‘She Wolf’ that you could proper get into it. And to be honest, the eye candy was not unwelcome either. Hips don’t lie, indeed.

Kelis - We arrived fifteen minutes late and fifteen minutes after that there was still no sign of her. Instead Mr Jamm continued his DJ set by playing a series of not very classic classics. We sacked it off…

The xx - …in order to see The xx, just across the way. By this point we had the wrong mindset and just listened from outside the tent. Which wasn’t ideal.

Pet Shop Boys - I don’t remember anything about this set. I am told I fucking loved it and sang along to every song.

Sunday

The Hold Steady - Another of my dad’s tips. I struggled down to the Other Stage to get some breakfast and caught most of their set. I think it is time to accept that I just don’t like The Hold Steady.

Teddy Thompson – He’s a rum one, Teddy Thompson. A great voice, a decent guitarist, acceptable but forgettable songs – all this would be fine if he wasn’t such a sour bastard. I know some of it is stage persona but still. Keane were playing immediately after and for one horrible moment it looked like we would be trapped there by the influx of bed-wetters at the end of Thomson’s set. Luckily we escaped.

Grizzly Bear – Must do more research.

MGMT – I had been going to see the Blues Band, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright on the Acoustic Stage but in the end decided to stay with my crew and stay electronic for the evening. The sound was a bit weedy but that is no excuse for for the weediness of MGMT themselves. The crowd loved the old singles but were otherwise pretty indifferent. They have also got ridiculous speaking voices. To top things off, someone tore off half my big toenail during this set which was unpleasant and messy.

LCD Soundsystem - This, on the other hand, was not at all weedy. You know what I said yesterday about older artist not needing to me cool? Well, that doesn’t apply to James Murphy. This was a sort of evil twin version of Hot Chip’s set and, in its own way, just as good.

Orbital - I’ve seen Orbital, you’ve seen Orbital, everyone’s seen Orbital. And yet the pull is always there to see them again. This was a classic set right from the opening track of ‘Impact’. They are a funny pair – the one motionless in a suit, the other gurning in a vest – but together they are fried gold. But then up pops Dr bloody Who. There is no escape.

Written by Martin

30 June 2010 at 12:00

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Glastonbury 2010 – Part One

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My fifth Glastonbury and an absolute blinder. I’d had my money’s worth by Friday night and the next three days were a free bonus. It was also bigger and fuller than I remember from even a couple of years ago, there are just so many stages. Here is what I saw:

Thursday

Bang Face – We got there for early evening on Thursday and the place was already rammed; Wednesday is apparently the new Thursday. Having humped all our gear across the site and then set up, it seemed like a good idea to get on Glastonbury time quickly since I was still calibrated to London. And what better way than to plunge into a rave? It was everything you would expect from a Bang Face night – sweaty, wrong and full of inflatables – although people were clearly holding a bit in reserve.

Friday

Rolf Harris – After a night of raving, this is the perfect way to ease into Glastonbury. Obviously it was pretty cheesy but he is such a showman that it is impossible not to smile. Despite looking slightly frail and not being in full voice, he had the huge crowd eating out of his hand. It was also the first time I’d ever heard ‘Two Little Boys’ which seems to be some sort of crime according to my peers.

The Stranglers – I didn’t actually see them because the time on my printout differed from the actual timetable. However, everyone says they were shit. So there is that.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – A pretty self-explanatory name. They actually went off after their first song due to some sort of equipment snafu. At which point Shlomo came on to keep the crowd warmed up. It worked. He’s a beat boxer but he also uses a sampler to catch the sounds he is producing live with his mouth and throat and then layer them to create a whole song. I probably prefer his pure beatboxing but this is definitely growing on me too (it was slicker and more lively than when I saw him last year). It was certainly far better than the funky noodling that was herald by the return of the band to the stage.

Snoop Dogg – Like a chump, I’d been thinking of skipping this on the grounds that he would only disappoint. I know, I’m an idiot. If Rolf is a showman, Snoop is a superstar. He is a man so charismatic that he turned Julie Bindel into a gangsta rap fan which tells you all you need to know. Towards the end he was joined by Tiny Tempah who you would have thought would be cacking himself at meeting a hero in front of 80,000 people but actually acted like he owned the place. Which he did for the duration of ‘Pass Out’ thanks to the largesse of the Doggfather.

Vampire Weekend – They are a band who attract a lot of antipathy for tediously familiar reasons relating to the Art School vs Working Class Hero divide. I love ‘em, in short order they have produced two albums will no filler at all (well, except maybe ‘Blake’s Got A New Face’). We get a fair chunk of these songs here and it is great stuff. If Vampire Weekend don’t have a particularly developed live presence, it is still sexy and euphoric and, by the time they have finished their set, they have given their all.

Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood – I was just having dinner opposite at the Thali Cafe when they came on. We’d been tipped off that they were the mystery special guests but that didn’t alter our plans to go and see Hot Chip instead. Still it was nice to hear a couple of songs off The Eraser before we left, it is just a brilliant album. Oh, and the thali was great too, even if they had just run out of poppadoms.

Hot Chip – They are a band you tend to think of as producers rather than performers but this was a storming set that showcased a group who are clearly very used to play together and also fucking love it. It was, in a word, tight. However, in another word, it was also loose, a rolling, seamless mixtape played live. They then took it to the next level by bringing on a steel band. This performance finally gave me the key to unlock their last album, One Life Stand, transforming something which can seem bizarrely happy-clappy into something which is genuinely emotionally effecting.

Broken Bells – This was my dad pick of the day and certainly looked good on paper. Unfortunately, the couple of songs we heard on the way to see The Flaming Lips sounded like Richard Ashcroft at his worst.

The Flaming Lips – I had heard their live gigs were good but I still wasn’t prepared for this. It is not the theatrics (although they are welcome) but the connection with the crowd. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that Wayne Coyne is a messianic figure on the stage and their set was simultaneously immensely playful and gravely serious. Like Hot Chip, this was passion allied to a weight of age and experience which is often lacking in younger bands. There are more things than being cool. I cried as they when they closed the set with an extended version of ‘Do you Realise?’ (my wife did too but then she cried during ‘Two Little Boys’ so she doesn’t count).

The xx – Walking up the hill, dazed from what I’d just experienced, I did catch the tail end of this set. It sounded quite good. Did I manage to see The xx properly when they played a different stage later on in the festival? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Written by Martin

29 June 2010 at 22:15

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‘Bloodsport’ by Gene Wolfe

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So, Gene Wolfe has a story in a new sword and sorcery anthology called Swords & Dark Magic. Here is Pat St-Denis’s review:

“Blood Sport” by Gene Wolfe just might be the most disappointing short story in this anthology. Given the author’s talent, this lame tale of a knight is half-assed at best. . .

That is the review in its entirety. A few of us thought this was, well, half-assed at best. As it happens, I received my review copy of the collection the same day as I read this review and it inspired me to read the Wolfe story straight away. Well, not just that, you will remember that I’ve had bad experiences with recent Wolfe and so wanted to know if this was any different. It was, in so far that it wasn’t outright bad and offensive. At the same time, I can honestly say I don’t know what he was attempted to do in ‘Bloodsport’.

As it happened, Larry Nolen received his review copy at the same time as me and has just published his review:

The first is Gene Wolfe’s “Bloodsport.” Although a couple of comments I had read elsewhere declared this story to be underwhelming, for me it was one of Wolfe’s better short fictions. The story is told from a first-person PoV, with the narrator concealing as much as he reveals. Take for instance these paragraphs that open his story:

Sit down and I’ll tell you.

I was but a youth when I was offered for the Game. I would have refused had that been possible; it was not – those offered were made to play. As I was already large and strong, I became a knight. Our training was arduous; two of my fellows died as a result, and one was crippled for life. I had known and liked him, drank with him, and fought him once. Seeing him leave the school in a little cart drawn by his brothers, I did not envy him.

After two yeard, I was knighted. I had feared that I would rank no higher than bowman; so it was a glad day for me. Later that same day I was given three stallions, the finest horses ever seen – swift golden chargers with manes and tails dark as the darkest shadows. Many an hour I spent tending and training them; and I stalled them apart, never letting them graze in the same meadow or even an adjoining meadow, lest they war. If I were refused that many meadows on a given day, one remained in his stall while the other two grazed; but I was never refused after my first Game. (p. 80)

At first glance, minus mysterious allusions to this “Game,” Wolfe’s tale seems to be that of an old warrior reminiscing about his youth, his experiences, and hinting at the hard life of war and privation that made up part of his life. However, as the story unfolds and the narrator reveals just what the “Game” truly is, the reader perhaps can piece together elements of a much larger narrative that is unfolding. Although Wolfe has a reputation in some quarters for being a bit too playful with his words and being too opaque for certain readers who want a more plain-spoken narrative, the puzzle elements in this story are not hard to figure out. There is an awful manipulation that occurs to this Knight, when he has to deal with other participants in the Game, leading up to the Queen. Although the conceit is rather transparent, Wolfe manages to overlay a sense of mystery behind an aspirant to the Game and how the Knight interacts with her. On the whole, it was the most enjoyable story in this anthology.

Can you spot the difference between Larry’s review and Pat’s? The thing is though, whilst this analysis actually engages with the text, it is not one I immediately recognise. He states that “the puzzle elements in this story are not hard to figure out” but he doesn’t explicitly state what they are and I still was convinced I’d grasped them. Yes, there is something to do with a game of chess here but is that the whole story. It was time for a re-read.

‘Bloodsport’ has a typical Wolfean unreliable narrator but it seems to me there are two metaphors at work here and one full-blown allegory. I remain unsure how they interact and how successful they are though. The first of these is the one Larry alludes to (and the one implied by the title). The Game is a chess-like game played with humans as the pieces. Chess-like but not quite chess:

After two years, I was knighted. I had feared that I would rank no higher than a bowman; so it was a glad day for me. (80)

The statues we saw were of pieces, of kings and queens, of slingers and spearmen, of knights such as I and pawns such as Lurn. (93)

The fact it isn’t quite chess makes it a more confusing way of hanging a metaphor over a story. However, it initially seems that this idea is going to be discarded. ‘Bloodsport’ moves quickly and abruptly both geographically and temporally and after just three pages the society responsible for the Game are destroyed by a people called the Hunas. Our narrator, Valorius, is one of the few survivors and after a bit of wandering round he forms a peasant army to fight the Hunas. During their first engagement he notes: “It is not the Game, yet it is a game of the same sort.” (86) This denial obviously raises the possibility that it is still the Game which I take to be Larry’s reading. What is the point though? That war is a game? Or that games are a form of war? I’m not sure. Nor am I sure how well the metaphor holds up, given the early specificity.

The second metaphor comes into play after the destruction of Valorious’s home when he meets Lurn, a former opponent in the Game. Their attraction has been foreshadowed previously and so when they meet they form a truce. Their meeting, however, ends with this exchange:

“I have seen sun and moon in the same sky,” I told her. “They did not engage.”
“They do but rarely.” She smiled as she spoke, and there was something in her smile of the maid no man bussed. “When they do she best him, as is only to be expected. Bests him and brings darkness over Earth.” (84-5)

Lurn is obviously Lune and this sets up the fact that at some point their allegiance will falter. I’m not at all clear how you map a metaphor of knight and pawn onto one of sun and moon but there you go. As well as providing another layer in itself this also sets up some further implications. Firstly, the sun and moon are symbols of great power, perhaps even god-like power, implying Valorius and Lurn are characters of similar power. Secondly, that final line suggests that women are betrayers and imperilling to the Earth. Which brings us nicely to the question of Christianity.

I think this is what is missing from Larry’s reading but at the same time I’m not sure how valid my own reading is. Suffice to say, Wolfe is highly Catholic and this is a fundamental and acknowledge influence on his work. In ‘Bloodsport’ there are passages that jump out at you. For example, after Valorius and Lurn triumph in their first battle with the Hunas, Valorious reflects that: “Animals have no evil in them. Men have much, women (I think) have half as much or less. Children have less still. Yet all humanity is touched by evil.” (89) It is hard not to read that as an allusion to Original Sin and as the story progress it is Christianity, not chess, that seems to me to be the key to the puzzle of the story.

After the battle, the story has another of its jumps and the pair set off in search of the origins of the Game. Initially Lurn leads the way (a temptress) but once they arrive at their destination it is Valorious who takes over, directed by a supernatural presence:

“No. We must go to the vaults.” My own words surprised me.
She looked incredulous, but the ghost in the dark passage ahead nodded and smiled; it seemed almost a living man, though its eyes were the eyes of death. (92)

But is the ghost real? Valorius is, of course, a deeply unreliable narrator.

It was our guide who answered her: “Where you wished to go, O pawn.”
“Why are you talking to me like that, Valorious?” (93)

So the ghost does not exist, is but an aspect of Valorius’s personality, something made even clearer when the ghost turns into his father. It is also notable that he refers to Lurn as “pawn” since we are back to the Game and here, presided over by the moon, she takes the crown that transforms her into a queen. If they have been playing the Game all along then this is her endgame: “I shall reform the kingdom and the Game will be played again.” (95) It is not clear why she should want this beyond providing symmetry to the story. Unfortunately after a brief fight, it is Valorious who triumphs and hence prevents darkness spreading over the Earth. And with a transition as abrupt as every other in the story, it is over. All that leaves is a chance for Valorius to reflect on the rest of his life:

Now I wander the land. Asked to prophesy, I say we shall overthrow the tyrants and make a new nation for ourselves and our children. Should our folk require a sword, I am the sword that springs to their hands. Asked to heal, I cure their sick – when I can. (96)

Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like Jesus? Particularly taking into account his spiritual merger with his father, whose final message to him was: I blessed and cursed you, Valorius, and my blessing and curse are the same. You will inherit. (83) So, those are the allusive elements that make up the story but I’m still not clear what they mean or how they are supposed to cohere. Does Wolfe have a message encode with ‘Bloodsport’ that I simply cannot access? Or is he simply blending these aspects in to thicken what would otherwise be a thin story? Either way, I don’t think “it is all about a game of chess” is an adequate answer.

Written by Martin

24 June 2010 at 08:41

Posted in criticism, sf, short stories

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‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling

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The future! It is strange to read a science fiction anthology and find plenty of spaceships and monsters and all the other toys from the dressing-up box but very little of the actual future. Actually, it isn’t strange at all but it is still disappointing. Luckily Sterling is congenitally unable to avoid the future. ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ is an interesting choice for a hard SF anthology since it is about the death of the hard SF dream – here art is ascendant over engineering – but I guess you can comment on something through its absence.

Quality: ****
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

22 June 2010 at 11:32

Glass Half Full

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A couple of Philip Glass-related events I would like to go to over the summer but unfortunately will miss.

Icarus At The Edge Of Time:

Icarus at the Edge of Time is a futuristic reimagining of the classic Greek myth set in outer space, based on a stunning book by the world-renowned physicist Brian Greene. Featuring a brand new score by Philip Glass, this European premiere is performed live by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Marin Alsop with a cutting-edge film by Al and Al. Discover the boy who challenges the awesome power of a black hole and the unyielding forces of Einstein’s general relativity.

Dracula – the Music and Film:

London premiere of Philip Glass’s sweeping score, performed live by Kronos Quartet to the chilling American cinematic classic Dracula (1931), starring Hungary’s Bela Lugosi as the world’s most popular vampire.

One thing I won’t be missing is Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Troxy in December. GSYE at the Scala in 2000 was the best gig I’ve ever been to and I am proper excited about this.

Written by Martin

18 June 2010 at 11:14

‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson

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It is hard to make a time travel story which isn’t redundant but Watson has succeed here. The case the editors make for considering Watson as a hard SF writer is pretty iffy though:

He is a generational contemporary of Gregory Benford and holds a similar position in the U.K. to Benford’s in the American field, as a writer who brought new levels of literary technique and characterization to hard sf. But Watson has never committed himself as exclusively to hard sf as has Benford.

Even with their hedging this is pretty bonkers. Watson is nothing like Benford, he is much more like someone like James Morrow; the editors are right when they say he is as interested in metaphysics as physics and there is a warm pessimism and wit to this work.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ***

It is worth noting that the introduction opens with some extremely fulsome praise: “Ian Watson is the finest young hard science fiction writer and one of the most acute and perceptive sf critics to emerge in England during the last two decades.” That was written in 1994 but quite a lot has changed in the last 15 years. I don’t think any of Watson’s work is in print apart from his Games Workshop tie-in novels and Orgasmachine, his 1976 novel that has just been published in English for the first time by Newcon Press. Equally, Watson continues to review for Vector – I’m just waiting for the right book to send you, Ian – but his criticism doesn’t have much of a profile. What happened?

Written by Martin

18 June 2010 at 10:34

‘The Hungry Guinea Pig’ by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.

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We are really scrapping the bottom of the barrel now. A mad scientist creates a giant guinea pig; it goes on the rampage; he redeems himself by acting as bait and ordering an artillery strike down on himself. Bag o’ shite.

Quality: *
Hardness: *

“The works of Miles J Breuer, MD have passed out of currency” say the editors in their introduction. Gee, how strange.

Written by Martin

17 June 2010 at 08:55

‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart

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Don A Stuart is John W Campbell Jr, the father of hard science fiction and the bloke who is ultimately responsible for this anthology. So what has he got for us? Well, a strange story in four disparate parts that starts off diamond hard and ends up hippy soft.

1) An introduction of sorts involving a tour of an atomic power planet. Along with the title, this subtly sets up the fact the story will have something to do with atomic power.

2) A scientist discovers the world has gone completely wrong. Rather than taking action, he labouriously explains his reasoning to a colleague. Sample quote:

“I measured it against a potentiometer hook-up. Now a potentiometer is a regular arm-and-pan balance for electrical voltages, as you ought to know, even if you a civil engineer. You take a standard cell, an outside current, and standardize the thing, then substitute your unknown voltage. The system will measure a ten thousandth of a volt if you do it correctly. The point is that a potentiometer uses nothing but electrical balances. It balances a fixed current through a resistance against an electrical potential.”

After a couple of pages of that they do actually decide to try and do something about it.

3) The wrongness has now manifested itself and we get a long descriptive passage of the over-crowding panic that sinks the last ship out of New York . It seems ripped out of a disaster novel and is excessively long and jarring in tone in the context of this otherwise dry story.

4) Back to the scientist. He has solved the problem: what if our universe is just, like, one atom in an super-universe and someone else is using it in a power plant? To which you can only reply: cut your hair, Campbell. Armed with this knowledge, the scientist makes our universe taste unpleasant to the super-universe power planet and then plots to rebuild the ravaged Earth through the glory of – you guessed it – atomic power.

Quality: *
Hardness: ***** or *

Written by Martin

16 June 2010 at 09:16

Check It: Gears

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This review of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is notable for a) rightly pointing out that Strange Horizons is awesome and b) kicking off a blogosphere discussion on hype. But let’s ignore both of those things and concentrate on the real issue here: when will steampunk die? We’ve had our fun but it has turned into a bit of a monster now. Even those involved in the movement like Steampunk Scholar sometimes worry about the ignorance of their fellow travellers:

Like so much of what I read on forums and twitter regarding steampunk, these statements are indicative of a movement that hasn’t so much forgotten its roots as never known them. While there are steampunks who have read the original three (Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock), who watched Wild, Wild, West when it had nothing to do with Will Smith or giant steam-spiders, there are those who seem to think that steampunk is the product of the last three years of what I would call the steampunk boom years. Few steampunks read, and even fewer have read early steampunk, or proto-steampunk like Pavane or Nomad of the Time Streams, to say nothing of the handful that have actually read Verne and Wells. So I’m not too surprised when steampunks display an ignorance for the literary origins of the sub-culture.

Others who have found themselves co-opted into the movement aren’t happy. Author Philip Reeve says steampunk stinks and he wants nothing to do with it:

It seems that I’m becoming part of a movement, in much the same way that a half-digested peanut does when it passes through your lower intestine… Steampunk is a genre cul-de-sac: it’s Science Fiction for people who know nothing about science; historical romance for readers whose knowledge of history comes from costume dramas. May it soon go the way of that half-digested peanut, and be flushed into oblivion.

The title of this post is courtesy of Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant. “I put a shitload of cogs and watches on my boot.” Indeed.

Written by Martin

14 June 2010 at 14:07

Posted in genre wars, sf

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