Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for November 2010

‘The Pi Man’ by Alfred Bester

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Almost, for a moment, I thought I would have to attack the conductor of the Opera Comique, but fate was kind and let me off with nothing worse than indecent exposure, and I was able to square it by founding a scholarship at the Sorbonne.

A sentence like that is worth the price of admittance alone. Our narrator is a “compensator”, providing cosmic balance against his will. He gets into some scraps. The rest of the story is fun but fun of the hectic variety which gives you a bit of a headache. As always, Bester is so much more vibrant than his contemporaries though.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *

It goes without saying that this isn’t hard SF and, as has so often been the case, H&K come right out and admit this: “He was pyrotechnic, self-consciously literary, artificial, and brilliant, and utterly rejected the style and affect of hard sf.” An obvious candidate for inclusion, I think you will agree.

Written by Martin

30 November 2010 at 19:44

You Can Only Have Nice Things When You Can’t See The Spine

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Solaris are reissuing James Lovegrove’s back catalogue and, despite the fact they are only appearing as e-books, they have commissioned some lovely new covers by Pye Parr:

Worldstorm is my favourite but The Hope works really well on a dual level. Imagined Sleights and Provender Gleed are the weakest of the bunch – muddy and lacking an iconic image to really nail the title – but they are a vast improvement on the original Gollancz covers and Parr is to be applauded. So too are Solaris for commissioning him; it is nice to see a publisher taking both ebooks and design seriously and I’m looking forward to the two remaining covers. A mystery remains though: if Solaris are taking so much care with these re-issues, why have they given his current series such bloody awful covers? Maybe it is actually true what every publisher thinks and everyone who ever visits a bookshop is really blind and mentally ill. I’m not convinced.

Written by Martin

29 November 2010 at 22:28

Posted in books

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Manna

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People don’t like to hear the word “Christmas” in November but my diary definitely says that Christmas is approaching. I’ve been booked out for four dinners and a lunch this week. Usually this would be a source of great pleasure but unfortunately there was a problem: last Friday I cooked this recipe. Now, that in itself wouldn’t be a problem, although it was typically fiddily and atypically flavourless for an Ottolenghi recipe, except that it contained pine nuts. Again, not a problem, although they cost more than fillet steak these, except me and the missus fell victim to pine mouth. Oh no! I’d never heard of this before but it is very real and absolutely foul. It cleared up after a couple of days (possibly helped by an alpha lipoic acid supplement) but I won’t be eating pine nuts again in a hurry. Anyway, all that preamble is by way of saying my taste buds might be a bit messed up so treat this post with a pinch of salt.

I first went to Manna – Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant (alledgedly) – last year. That was before I started writing up my meals, although I did make a few notes. Unfortunately they read in their entirity: “I drank pineau for the first time. I’m not sure I’d recommend it, a bit sweet, but everything else was very nice.” So yeah, not exactly fulsome. Manna have kept me on their mailing list and last month they sent through a special Thanksgiving menu. Knowing an American who gets a bit homesick at this time of year, I thought this a good excuse for an outing.

So did a lot of other people. The earliest booking we could get was 9.15 and when we arrived the place was absolutely heaving and the staff were looking a little harried. Who knew a four course vegan Thanksgiving menu would be so popular? We started with a lovely pumpkin soup with some slightly over-salted rosemary foccacia. I associate Thanksgiving with turkey and butter and obviously neither put in an appearance but the soup was incredibly creamy and buttery for never having been near a cow. Some sort of special vegan alchemy.

Unfortunately this was followed by an unsuccesful salad of spinach, walnut and pomegrante. It was unsuccessful because this was alledgedly a wilted spinach salad but had clearly never been near a heat source, this was simply a pile of raw leaves. This might not even have been a problem except the quantities used were obviously for wilted spinach so we got a huge plate of spinach leaves with a wholely inadequate squiggle of dressing.

If that was a success and then a failure, the main course was a mix of the two. Roasted garlic mash performed that same buttery alchemy and stuffing was equally magical in its ability to conjure up meaty tones. I thought that the side of caramelized onions and green beans was the perfect accompaniment but N complained that by this time of the evening plating had gone right out the window and my portion was three times the size of her’s. That was minor compared to the fact the centrepiece of herbed tempeh roast was like eating a rusk though. It was served with a splash of delicious wild mushroom gravy but you would have needed a pint pot of the stuff to get through what was essentially the scrag end of a wholemeal loaf. To compound this problem, the whole design of the course drew attention to the fact it should have been meat.

Onto pudding and another problem but this time it was one all of my own making. I um-ed and ah-ed over apple pie and pumpkin cheesecake before eventually going for the former. Yum tum. Except I had forgotten I am allegic to all fruit (except bananas). You’d think I’d remember this but no. As I walked to the tube I found my throat swelling shut and my lips plumping up. A message from God to stop eating out so much?

£27 per head including a vodka and cranberry. We also had a bottle of indifferent prosecco for £22.

Written by Martin

26 November 2010 at 10:34

Posted in food

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‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ by Arthur C Clarke

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‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ is not the the longest science fiction story in the world. In fact, it isn’t a story at all; it is a one page joke about an infinitely recursive rejection letter. Hilarious.

Hardness: *
Quality: *

Written by Martin

23 November 2010 at 20:20

Mopping Up The Butcher’s Floor Of Your Broken Little Hearts

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After watching last year’s cack-handedly compressed Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince I wondered if the cynical marketing decision to split The Deathly Hallows into two films might pay artistic dividends as well as cold hard cash ones. To my pleasant surprise it has. Yes, it is still clogged with too many characters and minor plot cul-de-sacs but it has the time and – free of Hogwarts – the space to evolve.

My memory of JK Rowling’s novel is that it was 700 pages of wander aimlessly through a forest and 50 pages of a climactic battle at the end. My worry was that would be exactly the split of the two films. Luckily, whilst Harry, Hermione and Ron’s bickering peregrinations do take up a huge portion of Deathly Hallows Part 1, my memory was faulty and there a good few set-pieces. More importantly, it replaces Rowling’s childish prose with a tone of emotional maturity which turns the tedious squabbling that appears on the page into something approaching actual drama.

Of course, it would help if any of the three principal actors could actually act. After this many years together they certainly have some level of rapport and they have learnt to mask their limitations but still. Director David Yates makes the best of this by treating his cast as simply another prop, using his budget to conjure up tableaux in which he places them in some of the most scenic parts of the UK. Often, like a Take That concert, it resembles nothing more than a sustained advert for knitwear.

This sounds like sustained snark but I did enjoy the film. Where the books provide the reader with nothing but increasingly idiotic plotting, the adaptations have developed a rich and impressive visual language. Rowling’s novels moved through the years but they never grew up but this is exactly what the cast and the films themselves have done before our eyes. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is dark and violent and intense, it is a film you can get your teeth into and exactly the sort of blockbuster we should be making for children. It is also, for the first time, sexual.

At the beginning of the film, Ginny asks Harry to zip her up. The old ones are the best. This inevitably leads to kissing until the scene is punctured by the arrival of one of the Weasley twins. The scene is perfectly composed but unfortunately there is zero chemistry between the two actors. Daniel Radcliffe can brood but, for the Chosen One, he isn’t very charismatic. This actually works to the film’s advantage later on when Harry dances with Hermione to the slightly ironic sounds of ‘O Children’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing on the radio. When Harry initiates this, it is a moment ripe with sexual tension. I doubt if anyone in the audience I saw it with came within ten years of the films 12 Certificate and they were practically baying for penetrative sex on the tent floor, right then and there. Instead, Radcliffe’s immense gawkiness transforms it into an extremely touching that brings home the isolation of the protagonists. Still, the audience got what it felt it had been cheated out of: later on Ron is confronted with a CGI image of Harry and Hermoine, naked and touching each other up, that is straight out of a Zack Synder film. Good stuff.

Basically, everything the books do badly, the film does well. Conversely, everything bad about the films is because of the books. If you’ve grown up on the Harry Potter books (and millions of people have) then I can’t imagine a better realisation of their potential. Well, unless that casting session so many years ago had gone a bit differently.

Written by Martin

23 November 2010 at 11:00

Posted in films, sf

‘With The Night Mail’ by Rudyard Kipling

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I was a bit sceptical about the inclusion of this story but it is indeed a proper hard SF story, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect in an anthology of the evolution of the subgenre. So hooray for that. Unfortunately ‘With The Night Mail’ takes the familiar, old-fashioned form of a guided tour of the world of tomorrow and is entirely without plot. After the “story” there are a further 16 pages of extraneous guff that flesh out the world but are beyond even sarcastic quote marks.

Hardness: *****
Quality: **

Written by Martin

22 November 2010 at 22:10

‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner

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H&C describe Turner as a Campbellian and compare the story to Heinlein’s ‘It’s Great To Be Back’ (1947) and Asimov’s ‘Waterclap’ (1970) and and, for once, the comparison is apt. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ was published in 1978 but nothing has changed in the intervening years; this is science fiction as bone-headed political thought experiment executed through laborious conversations (with added sexism).

One hundred and twenty years after the (undescribed) Plagues and the (undescribed) Collapse, everything on Earth is ticketyboo under the Global Ethic of Non-Interference. Meanwhile, up in space, the Orbiters, who split off from the rest of humanity three generations ago and control the world’s energy production, are feeling a bit bolshy.

Perhaps I am being a bit dim but I really can’t work out what on Earth the Global Ethic is actually meant to be. At first I took it to be a global libertarian philosophy, all the better to contrast with the communitarian Orbiters. But that doesn’t really square with the Earth’s global government, Stalinist security state and rigid central planning of the labour market. Interference happens all the time. Does this policy of non-interference only apply to the Orbiters then? Well, I’m not sure how you could make a Global Ethic out of that but no, it doesn’t. In helpful bullet point form we are told that:

First: the Power Stations as originally flown were rotated about the long axis to afford peripheral gravity.” Another finger. “Second: when the final Stations were flown, the seventeen formed themselves into the Orbital League.” Third finger. “The they made unreasonable demands for luxuries, surplus wealth, cultural artefacts and civic privilege under threat of throttling down the power beams… So the Global Council of the time authorised use of a remote-action energy blind, a – call it a weapon – whose existence had not been publicly known. The Orbiters threatened our microbeams, so we blinded the internal power systems of Station One… After a week of staling air, falling temperatures and fouling water they cried quits and-” fifth finger “-”the Orbital League has made no such further error since.”

So you can interfere if you want to. Indeed, early on, the security apparatchik responsible for that quote states that “the bloody Ethic means whatever you need it to mean.” Fair enough but that renders the whole story preposterous, as the obvious realpolitik of this statement comes into conflict with the hilarious naivete of the plot. I mean, why would the Global Council let the Orbiters take control of the power in the first place? And, after the attempt at extortion, why wouldn’t they take it back?

Now we come to the Orbiters’ cunning plan. The Global Council denies them anything more than a subsistence wage for their energy, they want funds for expansion. How can they get more money? They perform plastic surgery on one of their young men so that he resembles a movie star and then send him down to Earth to marry the richest heiress in Australasia. Simples. To which the Global Council can apparently do nothing more than throw up their hands and go: “Curses, out-smarted!”

Hardness: *
Quality: *

Written by Martin

20 November 2010 at 14:36

‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ by Cordwainer Smith

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I’m not a fan of Smith – I never managed to finish The Rediscovery Of Man – and this story hasn’t changed my mind.

Unusually for Smith it is set on Earth. A couple of brilliant Russian scientists – Rogov and his wife – are trying to make some sort of psionics dealy for Stalin. I guess such things were all the rage back in 1959 when the story was published. Anyway, because they are so brilliant they accidently invent a time machine instead. Thanks to this we know that in the 136th Century Earth will be the galatic interpretive dance chapmion. Go us.

There is meant to be some emotional stuff as well but the characters are so lightly sketched, so stereotypically Russian that it is hard to care. So when the act of seeing the future causes Rogov to snuff it, we just shrug, despite his wife’s anguished but bizarrely belated cry of “no, no, not Rogov!”. A weak line to make the title but then the story is composed of nothing but weak lines.

Hardness: **
Quality: *

Written by Martin

19 November 2010 at 14:18

Polpetto

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All things come to he who waits. In this instance that means tapas. Or Venetian tapas, at least.

Tucked up in a small room above a pub in Soho, Polpetto looks like it has been there forever but in fact it opened less than a year ago. They don’t take reservations so, though we got there relatively early, there was an a hour’s wait for a table (we’d forgotten about the pre-theatre crowd). We went round the corner to the Coach and Horses and they texted us when our table was ready.

You start with cicheti and, being a man of moderation, I ordered one of everything. This isn’t as gluttonous as it sounds as they are very small dishes, a couple of quid and a couple of bites each. The best of these were a plump duck and porcini meatball and a white bean crostini which positively glowed with garlic. Less successful was smoked tuna wrapped round lemon and dill ricotta which tasted searingly of lemon as it arrived on the palatte, eventually gave way to dull ricotta and only belatedly gave up a hint of tuna. If the the bean crostini glowed, chopped chicken liver crostino postively throbbed with potency. Astonishingly good value at £1.50 since it would have made a substantial starter all on its own but too much like all out war on a stomach that was just warming up.

And, of course, you can’t go to a restaurant called Polpetto without ordering polpetto. There is something slightly troubling about plunging a cocktail stick into the brain of an infant octopus that has already been drowned in olive oil but once you pop it in your mouth you soon forget about that.

Then we moved onto the larger courses, again designed for sharing and split between meat, fish, veg and bread. Our waitress suggested four or five of these so obviously we went for five (a bread, two veg and two fish). This was more than enough, we stuffed ourselves silly so I can’t fault them on their portion size. What I can fault them on is the actual delivery of the food.

Once our cicheti were cleared, our bread – pizzetta bianca – was immediately served. This is exactly sounds like – a small, plain pizza of garlic, red onion and cheese – and it would have been lovely if it hadn’t been very slightly burnt. Although minor, this unfortunately lent a scorched taste to the whole thing. Even more problematic was its isolation though. It arrived so swiftly that we were at first alarmed that the rest of the mains were going to appear equally rapidly and that they were secretly intent on fattening us up and harvesting our livers. But no. After ten minutes or so we realised the poor bread had pitched up on its own. It looked so lonely that we had to eat half of it. We waited a bit more. We ate the other half. Our mains arrived. Now, I don’t know about you but I never really felt the need for a bread course between the starters and the mains.

And when I say our mains arrived, I mean half our mains arrived. Crispy soft shell crab was perfectly prepared and cooked but came accompanied with horribly claggy celeriac slaw that tasted like nothing than Helleman’s. A salad of fennel, radish, mint and ricotta was the exact opposite but who said I wanted that fish main with that vegetable main? Fair enough, the tables are very small and the kitchen presumably isn’t much bigger but if a meal is only going to be presented in rounds I expect the staff to tell me this and I will modify my ordering accordingly. Even in a Vietnamese restaurant where they serve it as the cook it, they will at least have the decency to bang it on the table as soon as it is ready, leaving the course management up to you rather than artificially imposing micro-courses upon you.

Our second round consisted of cuttlefish in its ink with gremolata and zucchinni fries. So maybe our hosts did know best because the squid ink would have enitrely overwhelmed that delicate little radish salad. At the same time, the fries would gone really well with the grab and N said she could have done with something a bit plainer than the cuttlefish to accompany them and soothe their saltiness. And she is a woman who likes salt. This was my first time with the old cuttlefish and I endorse it; I was expecting squid but it was much more like a firm fish. The ink was surprisingly intimidating – you just aren’t used to your food being that black – and both of us thought it was a bit licorice-y but then immediately wondered if this was psychosomatic. I couldn’t find any gremolata in there but N assures me it was (they also serve osso buco and I was sorely tempted).

After all that, we stomachly sated and orally confused. So we ordered three puddings. The two puddings we ordered individually for ourselves cleaved very much to the old school fruit plus dairy model. They were nice enough (as you may have gathered, dessert is the least important stage of the meal for me). The third pudding – bay leaf ice cream, ordered purely out of curiosity – was absolutely stunning though, a gentle but full and entirely unexpected flavour that worked perfectly in this context.

£46 a head for too much food, service and a bottle of pink wine. No, seriously, that is what they call it on the (very brief) drinks list. We then walked down Charing Cross Road very slowly to my private members’ club (srsly) for a couple of over-priced and inadequate cocktails in the most garish environment imaginable. That’s living, alright.

Written by Martin

9 November 2010 at 20:03

Posted in food

Tagged with

Let’s Push Things Forward

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Blogging is great. It is a tool with huge potential and, by handing over the means of production, it has opened up the world and given everyone a voice. It has been particularly revolutionary in certain fields which entry has traditionally relied on unpaid apprenticeships and the right connections. This includes politics, national journalism and the media and arts, culture and the creative industries. Now, anyone can succeed in these fields but it certainly helps if you are rich and privileged. For example, if you look at the writers of the Guardian – the UK’s premier progressive paper – you will see that a surprisingly large number of them went to public schools and then up to Oxbridge. These fields are all also extremely Londoncentric. Blogging has opened all this up. If you are single mother up in Cumbria writing on a subject you are passionate about in scant free time you have then you now have a platform and it has an audience that is potentially as big as the Guardian’s.

Science fiction isn’t like that though. Say what you want about fandom (and I’ve said plenty) but it is remarkably democratic. Since the birth of the modern genre early in the last century, the line between professionals and amateurs – not to mention writers, reviewers, critics and fans – has been very blurred. Take, for example, the Futurians, a bunch of fans that just happened to include Isaac Asimov, James Blish and Damon Knight. You’d be hard pressed to think of a field with lower barriers to participation than science fiction or one where it is easier to make the transition to “pro”. A large part of this is to do with the huge number of venues for both fiction and non-fiction that the genre has enjoyed. Where there haven’t been the venues people have simply created them and what are fanzines if not yesterday’s blogs? To talk of there being gatekeepers is just nonsense.

So the SF bloggers of today aren’t blazing any sort of trail, they are simply following in the footsteps of previous generations but in a different medium. Which is not to say that everything is business as usual. Blogs have far greater reach and permanence than fanzines ever had. Older fans sometimes complain about younger fans re-inventing the wheel but this is because all the old wheels are mouldering in a shed somewhere. It is regrettable that a great deal of the literature of previous fandom has fallen down the memory hole. The British Science Fiction Association has been publishing magazines for over fifty years but how many of them are accessible and to how many people? I will pause to acknowledge that well-archived physical documents printed on good quality paper remain the prefered long term storage solution. I don’t think this applies to most of the material I am refering to. There is a huge digitisation job to be done but there seems to be little appetite for this.

Therefore it should be a privilege to be writing in the age of the blog and it would be nice to see more people making the most of the gift they have been given. Obviously no one is obligated to do anything but a little self-reflection never hurt anyone. The most common reason given for eshewing such reflection is “I’m just writing for me.” That is a lie. If you really were just writing for yourself, you could keep a diary. People blog not just because they want to write but because they want to be read. This means they have to publish and, once you are publishing publically, what you write is fair game. Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should; similarly, just because you have a platform, doesn’t mean you should use it.

People really don’t want to hear that. Just as some people seem to believe that there are no good and bad books, only different readers, so they seem to think the same applies to blogs. But this is not true: some things are better than others. Perhaps a more honest way of stating the rejection of reflection would be “I’m just writing for me and other people exactly like me.” And that seems a bit sad to me; it surpresses the potential of the platform but it also surpresses the potential of the writer too.

At the moment there are a lot of enthusiastic SF book review blogs but very few good ones. I would hope (and expect, to be honest) that people would seek to transform their enthusiasm into into skill. This doesn’t seem to be the case and, in fact, people react angrily and defensively to the very suggestion. For me, the fact that the majority of SF blog book reviews are very weak is less of an issue than the refusal of people to address it. Sure, you can do it “for the love” but that is another way of saying you are happy to stay in your comfort zone, lazy and complacent and unwilling to hold yourself to the standards you believe the genre is worthy of. And if that is the case, why bother publishing?

To criticise someone’s writing is not to criticise that person and what I’m saying is “let’s raise our game”. Unfortunately the response is often “why are you putting us down?

Written by Martin

5 November 2010 at 15:45

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

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