Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for September 2010

Making Hay

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I was up at Ross-On-Wye last weekend and it seemed rude not to pop across to Hay-On-Wye whilst I was there. It was a much less rushed trip than last time I went but I still only managed to go into two shops. Not that I needed more:

That little lot is all from Bookends, the wonderful remainders shop which used to have a branch on Charing Cross Road but alas, this has recently become a Korean cultural centre. Not pictured is a hardback copy of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock which I had my eye on but foolishly neglected to pick up whilst still making my first sweep of the shop. When I returned downstairs, it had gone so I hope it went to a good home.

Written by Martin

30 September 2010 at 13:16

Posted in books

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Lightborn Vs Version 43

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Today I received two books from Orbit and, whilst I am looking forward to reading both, it was their covers that particularly struck me. Here is Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan:

And here is Version 43 by Philip Palmer:

The cover for Lightborn was designed by Nathan Burton and art directed by Duncan Spilling (more here, including larger image). The cover for Version 43 was photographed by Eric Westpheling and art directed by Lauren Panepinto (more here, including larger image). Both covers take radical yet radically different approaches to complimenting the work behind them

Lightborn has a stark, monochrome cover depicting light being split by a prism where, instead of producing a rainbow, it simply fans out in a grey wave. As well as harmonising with the title, it signals a novel with serious intent and presumably a dark future. It reminds me a bit of Gollancz’s paper space opera series but I’m worried it is too non-descript (the typeface is also very small for a novel). However, when I mentioned this cover on Twitter several people said that they thought it would stand out by virtue of the fact it is so different to other SF covers.

In contrast, I really do think Version 43 stands out. The cover is split between text and image and both are highly distinctive. The top half is a blue bold background with a really strong and unusual typeface (as well as a small element of graphic design). The bottom half is a photo an Action Man figure with several more in silhouette. Again, this harmonises with the title, a disposable figure in a conformist society. The protagonist of the novel is a cyborg cop, “more programme than man”, and the harsh light, stern expression and menacing shadows set a hard-boiled tone. It isn’t quite as instantly brilliant as the similar cover for his previous novel but it is pretty damn good. From comments elsewhere, it is also seems to be divisive though.

Written by Martin

29 September 2010 at 10:59

Posted in books, design, sf

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Cargo (2009)

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Your average woman of tomorrow will look at a spaceship and see something akin to a passenger liner or a freight train. Your average director of today looks at a spaceship and sees something akin to a haunted house. You can see why as it is a tried and tested formula: put ten little Indians in a metal box, chop ‘em up, in space no one can hear you scream. Cargo, a Swiss SF film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, tries to move beyond this but keeps being drawn back to the utility of having someone jump out of a cupboard to provide tension. The result is a curious hybrid of Sunshine and Moon with all the strengths and weaknesses that suggests.

Which is not to say that those are the only two films it resembles. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job on a cargo ship, the Kassandra, to secure a fat paycheck which will allow her to join her sister on the idyllic colony world Rhea. The Kassandra itself is pretty much the Nostromo, right down to a pair of engineers (Michael Finger and Claude-Oliver Rudolph ) in the Yaphet Kotto/Harry Dean Stanton mold. The regular crew is joined a security officer, Lt. Decker (Martin Rapold), who initially appears to be taking the role of Ash as company man. He also acts as a sort of political commissar which is a reminder that dramas set on spaceships most closely resemble dramas set on submarines.

The ship sets off on its four year voyage and the crew enter cryosleep (a nicely realised version of this old standby). Three and a half years later Portmann is woken up, alone, for her shift. Engler and Etter capture the loneliness and introspection of self-enforced solitary confinement in a similar way to Duncan Jones’s Moon. But, of course, Portmann is not really alone. Dun dun duuunn! The rest of the crew are quickly awoken and things unravel from there as hidden motives boil to the surface.

The first image we see in Cargo is of a woman walking through a vast, sunlit cornfield. The camera pulls back and we see that this is, in fact, advert for Rhea being played on a huge screen. In other words, the first image we see in the film is a lie. This sets up the fact that Cargo is a film about secrets and lies. what is strange is how quick it is to give those secrets away.

Given that the Earth is blasted and barren and the remenants of humanity are crowded into orbital habitats we are more than a little suspicious of the paradise of Rhea where everyone has a schloss and two perfect children. The twist relating to this is telegraphed surprisingly early on when Portmann discovers what the cargo they are carrying actually is. Similarly Decker almost immediately abandons any pretense of being the baddie to become a standard leading man; this could have been a case of undercutting our expectations but the reversal is executed so quickly as to not be a reversal at all. That he embarks on an equally rushed romance with Portmann signals a further reliance on generic convention.

Four writers are credited – Engler, Arnold Bucher, Patrik Steinmann and Thilo Röscheisen – and I wonder if this is a case of a horse designed by committee. Cargo does keep some cards close to its chest but even these it discards abruptly. This echoes the pace of the film which tends to alternate between the frantic and the placid with little consistency. Plot holes and idiotic expedency abounds. My favourite example being Portmann as ship’s physician telling Decker to sling a crew member who has fallen several stories over his shoulder and run back to the medical bay. Proper ideas, interesting design and well-composed shots are strung at random along the thread of the film but, as in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in-between them is dross. Where Engler and Etter have succeed most is in establishing a tone of emotional and intellectual seriousness which, even when they are not actually present on screen, allows the viewer to navigate their absence.

Cargo came out last year so it has missed its chance at the Hugos but it is certainly better than 60% of the shortlist. I’m not sure I can agree with Ian Sales that it is the SF DVD of 2010 though. But that did get me thinking. What are the SF films of 2010? My mind is a total blank apart from Inception (and I would be amazed if it didn’t win the Hugo next year).

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 13:28

Posted in films, sf

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‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish

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I’ve read this before, right? Or have I just read Stephen Baxter’s version? He did one, right?

Anyway, this is a stone cold classic, both of science fiction and hard SF. A small group of colonists crash land on a planet with is almost entirely covered in water. They know they are going to die, they take this in their stride and they seed the planet with a microscopic version of humanity. Many years later this new form of humanity reaches for the stars.

The hard SF path of heroic endeavour is all here: the universe is a harsh, unforgiving vacuum; up by his bootstraps; per ardua ad astra; etc, etc. ‘Surface Tension’ also reconfigures the familar (the story takes place in a small puddle) into the utterly alien. A joy to read and larded with enough of Blish’s professional background in microbiology to skim of any holes in the plausibility of the scenario.

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

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 10:21

Two

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When I started this blog I was keen it didn’t just become about science fiction. I have succeeded: it has become a blog about science fiction and restaurants! I would go so far as to say it is the best blog about science fiction and restaurants on the whole damn internet.

Everything Is Nice is two today. Hooray! My average number of page views has doubled over the last year and I think I’ve worked out what I want to say and found a bunch of people who want to hear it. I’d still like to make the contents of this blog more diverse but it is pretty clear I’ve settled down into a pattern. Over the last year I have become the reviews editor for Vector and a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award; science fiction is a big part of my life and it is obvious that it is one of the things I most enjoy writing about.

The greatest hits of this blog this year as voted for by you, the public:

1) CAPS LOCK RAGE – in which I implore SF reviewers to raise their game.
2) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – in which I dislike a short story.
3) ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe – in which I decided Wolfe isn’t all bad.
4) Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery – in which I muse about, well, the title is pretty self-explanatory.
5) Inferiority Complex – in which I implore SF readers to raise their game.
6) Margaret Atwood Steals The Bread From Neal Asher’s Mouth – in which I don’t care whether science fiction is dying.
7) ‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw – in which I dislike a short story.
8) Dark Waters of Hagwood – in which I wonder if Dark Waters of Hagwood is ever coming out.
9) Dark Fantasy – in which I wonder what the fuck Dark Fantasy is meant to be.
10) ‘The God Of Dark Laughter’ by Michael Chabon – in which I dislike a short story.

So, for the second year in a row, Andy Remic is what it is all about. The entry on ‘The God Of Dark Laughter’ is the only re-entry from 2009 (it was the eighth most popular last year) which means I really should get round to writing a proper piece about it.

Written by Martin

14 September 2010 at 15:54

Posted in blog management

Have I Foolishly Dissipated My Tomato Juice?

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When I’ve moaned about Eric Brown’s capsule review column in the past, people have complained I am being unfair. After all, I can only moan about it because it exists in the first place. Shouldn’t I just be grateful the Guardian is covering science fiction at all? There is something to this and the Guardian has generally been the newspaper most sympathetic to SF and provided it with the most space. The issue of space is important though. There is only a finite amount of it and I find it highly questionable that capsule reviews make the best use of it.

It should be stressed that this is an issue that goes far beyond Brown’s column. Capsule reviews are everywhere and the problems are inherent. The Guardian has capsule columns for thrillers, non-fiction, audiobooks and debut novels, not to mention the weekly paperback round up. In publications not focussed specifically on books – music or film magazines, for example – capsule reviews of books are the norm rather than the exception. The idea is to give an overview of a vast field in the limited space available. I often wonder if this couldn’t be achieved equally well by just printing the covers of new releases. After all, it is not as if the tiny wordcount available gives the reviewer room to make any meaningful judgement.

The majority of a capsule review must be spent providing context in the form of synopsis; any actual evaluation is usually left till the final sentence and just dangles there, unsupported. Yet these weightless reviews are accorded the same weight as any other, publishers hoover up words of praise to plaster over the covers of their books. From this perspective capsule reviews make sense when considered as part of the symbiotic relationship between publisher and publication but not sure how the reader benefits. The reader can’t even be sure they are reading an accurate synopsis of the work. Since reviewers have no space to say anything it is unsurprising that they have no motivation for actually reading what they are reviewing. This leads to staggering factual inaccurancies such as this and this (neither from Brown but both from the Guardian).

So I’ve already got a chip on my shoulder but a couple of things in particular struck me about Brown’s latest column. This month he has 555 words to cover The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour by Gary Kilworth, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and Guardians of Paradise by JN Fenn. Reviewing The Evolutionary Void, Brown has 118 words for a book that is over 800 pages long. This seems like an exercise in futility.

But then, if you turn over the page, you find a 600 word review of a science fiction novel. This is I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, reviewed by Patrick Ness, and it appears seperately because it is Teenage Fiction (I’m pleased to see the Guardian does not endorse the fiction that books for old children are actually for young adults). Ness has the space to give the novel a proper assessment and is not hamstrung by trying to cover three more novels in the spurious interests of diversity. It is a shame the same is not true for adult science fiction; I would happily trade Brown’s four pointless reviews for one meaningful one.

Which brings us to the question of which one of the four novels covered by Brown deserves a full review. Returning to the review of The Evolutionary Void, I find it hard to see who this is for. Hamilton is one of the biggest selling SF writers in the UK – the biggest according to Pan MacMillan – so it does make a sort of sense to cover the novel. At the same time though, it is the third volume of a massive trilogy that is essentially a single giant novel. Its only audience is those who are already fans and those fans certainly don’t need a review. At the other end of the publishing spectrum, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour is another short story collection from Kilworth, a jobbing writer scratching out a living in the margins. I’m glad PS Publishing exists to print this sort of work but it is very much small beer for a limited audience. Critic-proof blockbuster or small press irrelevancy, neither has much life outside fandom. The same is true of Guardians of Paradise, another third volume in an ongoing series (hopefully it still has a life within fandom, even though Gollancz seem to have changed Fenn’s name halfway through the series). These books will all be covered by the genre press (as they should be) but it isn’t clear to me that there is much benefit in covering them here. The Quantum Thief, on the other hand, is a major debut from a major publisher written by a young author with a PhD in string theory. The protagonists name is a reference to Fifties French film noir. It seems to me that this is the sort of novel that would both justify the extravagant luxury of a 500 word review and has the potential to interest the average Guardian reader.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Damien G Walter – one of the Guardian’s SF bloggers – has always claimed the readership couldn’t possibly have any interest in the genre and hence the SF reviews need to be safely coralled into a capsule column where they can be safely ignored. He may well be right but in that case the paper should probably axe the column as it is currently only of interest to publishers and Brown himself. I’m not so sure he is right though. I mean, the Guardian did publish three reviews of SF novels with the serial numbers filed off last week. And this week, on the page before Brown’s column, is a double review from Stephen Poole of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Splodey spaceships may not float the boat of the Guardian’s readership but they almost certainly do have an interest in science and technology (Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins were on the cover of the Weekend section on the same day as Brown’s column). I also believe that they also have an interest in literature in all its forms, it is just a question of finding books which will re-pay that interest.

Then again, Walter also doesn’t think that the genre produces one book a month which is worthy of a 500 word review. Now, whilst I am happy to accuse the genre of publishing more than its fair share of crap, there is still wheat amongst the chaff. Catch me in my darkest moments of despair about SF, I will still always think there is at least one book a month worth talking about to a general audience. But if there wasn’t, so what? James Lovegrove’s science fiction reviews column for the Financial Times are much less frequent than Brown’s column for the Guardian but his latest column had 1,700 words to spend on four novels (including The Quantum Thief). The constrast is quite stark and I would rather wait for something of substance than be placated with regular filler.

Written by Martin

14 September 2010 at 14:44

Posted in criticism, sf

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‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson

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‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) is very much a dry run for Gibson’s famous debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). The protagonist is a young man, disaffected and detached. He has a valuable technical skill which powerful criminal interests are using to hold him over a barrel. He is aided by Molly, a razorgirl (and irksomely trad combo of mother and whore). He triumphs over organised crime with the assistance of some colourful street tribes. He makes friends with a smack-addicted ex-Naval Intelligence dolphin. Wait, that last one only happens in the story…

‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is more of a scene than a story. I’ve already written about the way the story immerses the reader and immersion is the intent here; we enter after the story has begun and leave before the story has finished but in that period we have learnt the world. Although the plot rehearses Neuromancer, it is relatively perfunctory and Gibson is more interested in Johnny as an inhabitant of the Sprawl than in Johnny himself. I think we can safely say that is something that has remained true throughout his career.

Quality: ****
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

10 September 2010 at 16:59

Overthinking A Plate Of Brains

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I have written about zombies and velocity before but I haven’t written as much as Christopher Thorne. He’s just published ‘The Running Of The Dead’, a 9,000 word essay on the political philosophy of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Zack Synder’s Dawn Of The Dead and fast zombies. Admittedly, the first 2,000 words of this essay is a rather sloppy introduction to Hobbes but then we get to his moment of epiphany after watching Synder’s remake of George A Romero’s 1978 classic:

I was completely wrong. It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.

To condense his argument absurdly: slow zombies are about the fear of the state and society whereas fast zombies are about fear of the absence of the state and society (hence Hobbes). Over the final half of the essay, Thorne then contends that 28 Days Later deliberately subverts this:

the movie that for all intents and purposes created fast zombies, was already the movie that demystified them. The subgenre stands permanently indicted by its own author and source. Boyle’s movie is not the progenitor to [REC] and Quarantine and the Dawn remake and Justin Cronin’s vampire-zombie novel The Passage; it is their accuser, the one that calls them out on their despotism and aufgehobener race-hate.

It is an enjoyable if strained and rather hasty essay. (Via MetaFilter which has additional discussion.)

Written by Martin

7 September 2010 at 16:12

Posted in criticism, films

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‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) Vs Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

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This is the opening paragraph of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myelf; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers – all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.

And this is the opening text from Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by Gibson himself and directed by Robert Longo:

Second decade of the 21st Century.
Corporations rule.
The world is threatened by a new plague: NAS
Nerve Attentuation Syndrome, fatal, epidemic, its cause and cure are unknown.
The corporations are opposed by the Lo Teks, a resistance movement risen from the streets: hackers, data-pirates, guerilla fighters in the Info Wars.
The corporations defend themselves.
They hire the Yakuza, the most powerful of all crime syndicates.
They sheath their data in black ice, lethal viruses waiting to burn the brains of intruders.
But the Lo Teks wait in their strongholds, in the old city cores, like rats in the walls of the world.
The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired brain implants.

That is quite a contrast. With Gibson’s original story, the game is afoot. Initially we know very little; we don’t know who the narrator is or where or when the story is set. But we can tease things out. We know the story is concerned with technology, we know it is important not just how things are constructed but how they are marketed (“Adidas bag”), we know the story is set in a world where a shotgun is arcane. We know violence is planned, we know our protagonist is smart, we know the world is hard. The whole techno-noir tone of the story is set by a single brilliant line: “If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”

The film, on the the other hand, takes the PowerPoint approach to narrative. Here is fact one, here is fact two. There is a nice, accidental poetry to “like rats in the walls of the world” but otherwise is composed of perfunctory sentence fragments. Before the the film has begun, it has already given the audience the information needed to dismiss it. Scrolling introductory text is never needed in a film: it assumes the audience are stupid; it usually indicates fundamental flaws later on in the film that should have been addressed at source; if a wodge of exposition really is required, a voiceover is always better. This example is particularly egregious because none of the information is actually necessary and the viewer is likely to end up more confused, not less.

I should say that I highly doubt Gibson had any hand in writing that introduction, it smells like the product of an anonymous studio hack. This is Gibson commenting on the film in a 1998 interview:

Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its prerelease life, and it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream.

There is a huge sense of squandered potential to Johnny Mnemonic; Longo is an acclaimed visual artist – this was his first and last feature film – and Gibson is William freakin’ Gibson. It could have really been something. Wired organised a fascinating conversation between the two prior to the release of the film which features this depressing exchange:

Gibson: That meeting we had yesterday, though, with some of the studio hotshots – I came away from it with the feeling that there were people there who clearly didn’t get it. Who still didn’t have any sort of a clue about what we had been doing all this time.

Longo: Ha! We did a good job! They gave us $30 million and we gave them a movie they can’t understand. All riiighht! [Laughs.] It’s interesting that this started out as an arty 1 1/2-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn’t get a million and a half.

The joke was on them.

Written by Martin

7 September 2010 at 11:36

The Most Important Meal Of The Day

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I think Hackney must be approaching cafe critical mass. Kingsland High Street is lined with Turkish cafes, Church Street has got the yummy mummy market covered, Broadway Market has got a bit of everything crammed in there and at the weekend I read that Chatsworth Road has now reached saturation too. Cafes are also springing up all over the borough in less obvious places. Towpath have managed to carve out a cafe in a tiny bit of frontage on the Regent’s Canal, two have sprung up on Wilton Way and now Mouse & De Lotz have opened up at a slightly stranded location on Shacklewell Lane. It has the ubiquitous grey sign and nice, minimal decor and, to be honest, it stands out like a sore thumb. Fingers crossed it lasts because it is a nice place but it wasn’t exactly busy when I went last Sunday (and, although the service was very friendly, I do question the wisdom of insisting that your customers order at the counter when your cafe is empty).

It has an extremely limited menu, presumably through necessity but very much the opposite end of the spectrum to the Turkish cafes just round corner, so I skipped straight to the lunch section and ordered cheese on toast. This was a massive success: two wodges of sourdough, slathered in mustard, loads of cheese, tomato slices humming with worcester sauce and even a bit of chutney as well. When I’m served something like this it makes me wish all restaurants would hack their menus down and pour their love into a few dishes.

Then again, I am a fickle thing; I do like to rove around a menu and there is precious little chance of that here. Mouse & De Lotz strikes me as much more of a coffee house for composing your novel than a cafe for eating off your hangover. Perhaps it is a bit too sophisticated for me which could also be said of Homa on Church Street where I had breakfast yesterday. In a typical Sunday morning outfit of hoodie and stained trousers, I felt decidedly under-dressed. They welcomed me with open arms nonetheless.

The split-level building used to be a basement bar and pizzeria but they have completely overhauled it and now there is a cafe upstairs and restaurant downstairs. I think, I didn’t go downstairs and there there is a slightly confusing sense that Homa is trying to be all things to all eaters (the website is equally vague). Usually this would be a warning sign but I think they’ve pulled it off. It helps that the refurbisment is absolutely wonderful, mixing contemporary with antique in a way that is easy to get wrong but looks so good when it works. So there are high gloss yellow plastic units and dark wood cabinets as well as reclaimed wooden counter with lots of stools and lots of sockets for the manuscript wrestling coffee drinkers.

This aesthetic and the underlying care taken with it applies to the smaller things too. My tea was served in ex-hotel silver (the teapot came from the Ritz, the milk jug from Claridges) which could have seemed pretentious but actually charmed me completely. It was a also a bargain as the pot was big enough to have served two. I then kept with the hotel vibe by ordering egg Florentine with smoked salmon which was another generous portion and perfectly presented and cooked.

If Homa was just high-end hotel breakfast without the hotel that would be good enough but I suspect it is lots of other things as well. I will have to return for a proper investigation.

Written by Martin

6 September 2010 at 16:39

Posted in food

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