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Archive for January 2011

London International Mime Festival 2011

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To my surprise, I ended up going to four shows as part of this years mime festival. To my further surprise, it was my wife who ended up moaning about the fact some of these shows – well, the French ones – actually featured mime.

La Maldición de Poe by Teatro Corsario – As the title (The Curse Of Poe) suggests, this is heavily inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Teatro Corsario cut down the already relatively intimate stage of the Purcell Rooms into a moodily lit box for puppetry as they take us through a series of mashed up vignettes so that, for example, ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are superimposed on each other. Broodingly gothic in its tuberculour framing story, it also strongly tends to grand guignol and is shot through with scatological humour. A lot of fun and never out-stayed its welcome (although perhaps the performers didn’t need to take four bows).

Sans Objet by Compagnie 111/Aurelien Bory – If The Curse Of Poe was fun, Sans Objet was simply stunning. Something squats dragon-like beneath a vast tarpaulin which covers the whole stage. It starts to move; rearing up, turning its head, swooping down. Two men walk on stage and (with some choreographed difficulty) remove the sheet to reveal the creature. Incongruously, it is a robot. Not a humanoid or even animal-like robot but a huge articulated arm such as you would see on a factory assembly line. Now, I’ve seen a man dance with a JCB but I’ve never seen a man dance with a robot. And it was wonderful. It was also technically astounding on a number of levels; contemporary dance, classic mime and modern engineering combining with an uncanny grace.

Flesh and Blood, Fish and Fowl by Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Forde – This is an exercise in exponentially increasing entropy. A man emerges from a bin and prepares himself for another day in an anonymous American office. He is a Brentish figure who Sobelle acts out in a series of fastidious and grotesque tics. It soon becomes clear he has nothing to do. Enter Forde, his secretary, in a deeply uncomfortable parody parade of lasciviousness. There is an exquisite, excruciating drawn out ‘courtship’ which is eventually consummated in the same bin Sobelle emerged from. Whilst this is happening we have the insistent, cumulative intrusion of nature (in the form of stuffed animals and plastic vines) which gradually usurp the humans. Apparently inspired by the abandoned city of Chernobyl, there are bursts of brilliant physical comedy here but I’m not so sure it makes a cohesive whole (although, of course, so much performance disdains this very concept).

Du Goudron et des Plumes by Compangie MPTA/ Maturin Bolze – This reminded me of The Mill (the only thing I saw at last year’s festival) in that having built their wonderful prop, the company didn’t seem to know what to do with it. A huge suspended platform sways in the middle of the stage, over the course of the performance it will move horizontally and vertically and the performers on it will come to resemble mariners on a great ship. But the great metaphorical potential of this transformation is wasted. The piece starts hypnotically and builds to a destructive crescendo but then, fatally, goes back in the opposite direction, becoming simply boring rather than quietly compelling. There are some nice bits of business, particularly an emotionally-charged imaginary dinner party, but to often it is repetitive and anti-climatic. They received a standing ovation; my wife turned to me with a sour look.

Moxyland

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moxylandSitting down to write this review of Lauren Beukes’s debut novel, my mind kept circling back to the name William Gibson. Partly this is because Moxyland is that rarest of beasts, a 21th Century cyberpunk novel, but I think the connection runs deeper than that.

Allow me a roughshod rehearsal of his career to date. Gibson has produced three loose trilogies which have moved progressively further away from both the future and the centre of the science fiction genre. At the same, his protagonists have made a similar progression; they have moved further away from youth, further away from the street. It is probably not unfair to suggest that this progression mirrors his own increasing age and social status.

So we start with the Sprawl trilogy (1984-1988) and the pointless punkery of Neuromancer where the protagonists are apathetic and criminal and effortlessly connected to the street. Or, to put it another way, youthful. At the other end of the spectrum we have the unfortunately named Bigend trilogy (2003-2010) where the protagonists have grown up and and achieved improbably Jon King-like transformations. If Cayse is a coolhunter then Case is the red meat she is after. These two poles are spanned by the Bridge trilogy (1993-1999) where the protagonists are caught between carefree adolescence and aimless adulthood. These are characters that have grown into jobs but not yet grown out of them. More often than not these jobs involve the knowledge economy and the creative industries.

It is a unique and incredibly distinctive milieu, one that Gibson has carved out for himself, and it is this that Beukes has so confidently plugged herself into. Not only would her characters be at home in Gobson’s world but, as a South African, her own world makes an appropriately cyberpunk setting for his concerns.

Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.

We are presented with a neat quartet of protagonists – two male, two female; two black, two white – who are safe from the street but for whom it is still very much a day to day reality, either because they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps or because they are slumming. Kendra is an art photographer but has achieved this at the expense of becoming an art dealer’s kept woman. Toby is a spoilt little rich boy playing citizen journalist (I say citizen journalist, his videocast is called Diary of Cunt). Tendeka is a community organiser and social activist who is more in love with direct action than his boyfriend. Lerato was born into a corporate orphanage and has grown into a successful programmer who can’t resist jeopardising her security by dappling in the dark arts.

They are all, to be honest, unpleasant people; each attended with a fatal flaw, be that insecurity, selfishness, righteousness or arrogance. In other words, they are people we might all recognise in ourselves and our peers, particular in our twenties before the world has sanded down some of our rougher edges.

Beukes is 34 now and has an MA in Creative Writing and a decade of journalism under her belt. I think this last fact is present not just in her media-embedded characters but in her writing. It is there in the slice-of-life approach to Moxyland’s plot, it is there in the fascination with communication, it is there in the insertion of ersatz found material in the form of transcripts and the like and it is there in the occasional non-fiction tic to her prose. For example, on the very first page we get this example of the rule of three:

It’s nothing. An injectable. A prick… Art school dropout reinvented as shining brand ambassador. Sponsor baby. Ghost girl. (p.1)

That is Kendra – the soul of the novel – speaking. Both she and Beukes return to the rule in much more knowing style later:

I’m a demo model for their demographic. An angel of aspiration. A guinea pig for an appropriate alliterative beginning with g. (p. 68)

It is self-conscious writing to suit a cast of self-conscious characters. Toby may seem like the ultimate Barleypunk but self-awareness does lurk underneath the front; “like Diary isn’t an exaggerated persona already” (p. 202), he acknowledges at one point. But just because they are aware doesn’t mean they can act on this.

Moxyland follows the characters as, one way or another, they try to escape from their lives, to become involved in something bigger and more exciting. At this juncture I will confess hypocrisy: I’ve often complained that there is not enough science fiction which concentrates on the prosaic stories of the world of tomorrow rather than Earth-shattering, epoch-changing events. Now, when I get just that, I find Moxyland to be lacking a certain narrative drive. Beukes captures her characters lives but the novel sags slightly whilst she fully entwines them. Once she has, the novel gains pace with a fatalistic inevitability. Because, although there may be no ultimate conspiracy here, that is not to say the state and the market are not dark actors.

This is to be expected in a book about real people in the real world. This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Written by Martin

29 January 2011 at 10:10

Posted in books, sf

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A Year Of Reading Women

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Remember these fine words? Well, I never really followed up on them. Niall Harrison’s focus week on women in SF came and went and, though I voted in his future classics poll, I didn’t take part in any wider sense.

Over Christmas I decided to do something about this: I would read and review one SF novel by a women every month in 2011. I appreciate this sounds pathetically modest but in the context of my current reading I’m afraid it isn’t. There were several SF novels by women already languishing on my shelves, bought but unread and in this state for some time. I rescued these and then topped them up from Amazon. This in itself was an eye-opener; almost all the books I searched for – even those which had only recently been published – were out of print.

These are the twelve books (minus Kindred by Octavia Butler which hasn’t arrived yet but plus a couple of fantasy novels I couldn’t resist):

A Year Of Reading Woman

A few other people had the same idea. First of the blocks was Ian Sales and now Shana Worthen, the new editor of Vector, will be running a monthly discussion group for each of the eleven novels on the future classics poll. So I’d like to treat my year of reading women as a parallel exercise. It won’t be a formal discussion group (although it does overlap with Shana’s list in two instances) but if any want wants to read the novels at the same time as me, here is the schedule I will be working to:

January: Moxyland by Lauren Buekes
February: Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand
March: Arslan by MJ Engh
April: Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh
May: The Flood by Maggie Gee
June: Maul by Tricia Sullivan (discussion at Torque Control)
July: Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy
August: Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
September: The Two Of Them by Joanna Russ
October: Kindred by Octavia Butler
November: The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin
December: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (discussion at Torque Control)

Written by Martin

22 January 2011 at 13:12

Posted in criticism, sf

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Links R Us

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Now that Niall Harrison has completed his multi-million pound international transfer from Vector to Strange Horizons, last Friday’s linkdump at Torque Control was probably the last. This leaves a gap in the market for an intelligent round-up of the best links from across the genre blogosphere (as opposed to the scattergun approach that is all too common). One thing is certain: I won’t be stepping into the breach. However, a few things have caught my eye recently.

Lavie Tidhar launches a new – and in no way tongue in cheek – Science Fiction Dictionary of New Criticism:

Dystopalyptic n. Condition afflicting many authors, leaving them unable to imagine or create an actual working future.

Uses: mainstream writers turning to SF are uniformly dystopalyptic.

Adam Roberts crunches the Booker:

1. The Booker has tracked a shift in taste away from domestic UK fiction and towards a more globalised, multicultural and postcolonial writing. (In the first two decades of the prize about 80% of winners were by UK writers; in the second two decades only 40%)
2. Women do slightly better in the Booker than in publishing as a whole.
3. The Booker is not hospitable to genre—or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize—the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.

Patrick Hudson reviews Red Plenty by Francis Spufford:

Marx wasn’t the only one hard at work on this type of utopian politics. The same kinds of rationalist and scientific theories led to all kinds of inventive ideas, from theospophy and Kibbo Kift to the fascism of 1930s Europe. At the same time as this type of millenarian thinking developed, a fiction of this type of imagining began to emerge. SF and Communism were born more or less at the same time – Marx in London, Jules Verne in France – and both had their apogee in the middle of the 20th century. The Golden Age of SF is close to the age of revolution – about 1920 to the end of World War Two.

Jared Pornokitsch reviews The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson:

High fantasy has recently made great strides in storytelling, but there is still much that can be improved qualitatively. Mr. Sanderson has inadvertently exposed many of fantasy’s persistent flaws. The Way of Kings allows us to look past the debate between world-building and character development and take a broader, more critical view of where fantasy stands. Mr. Sanderson has clearly mastered the genre as it is today, and, if he chooses to, would be well-placed to carry its banner forward into the future.

Written by Martin

12 January 2011 at 21:26

Garlic And Pork

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Of the many wonderful presents I received for Christmas, perhaps my favourite was allium ampeloprasum:

Monster Cloves

Yes, that is colossal elephant garlic and each clove is the size of a whole head of ordinary garlic. A great present because it was so brilliantly unexpected. Tasty too; I roasted the cloves and mashed them with creme fraiche to make lovely pasta sauce.

That wasn’t the only food-related item in my stocking, I also received a voucher for a butchery class at The Ginger Pig. There are four options – beef, lamb, pork and sausage-making – and I think you will agree I made the right choice by selecting pork.

Borut and Perry will explain how each part of the pig is used from the bath chap (cheek) to the rolled leg, prepared ready to roast, nothing is missed including the trotters and even the brain!

The full carcass is broken down and they will show which part of the carcass is used for sausage making, where the pork pie meat comes from and by the application of salt, how the loin is converted from pork to bacon.

The evening will finish with a roasted loin of pork (porketta) feast which hopefully Borut will have got to crackle perfectly, served with wine and you will take home the loin of pork you have prepared.

Nom and indeed nom. Expect a full report in March when I actually get to attend this extremely popular class.

To prepare myself for the coming pig frenzy, I popped down to the Prince Arthur on Friday to indulge myself in slow braised pig’s cheeks and pan fried pig’s liver with honey glazed parsnips, smoked bacon and Brussels sprouts. Rib-sticking wonderfulness. I’m a fan of the Arthur, a civilised neighbourhood pub tucked away in the back streets of Hackney, but its kitchen has never been quite the match of its (older) sister pubs such as The Gun and The Empress Of India. I think that has now changed; the consensus around the table was that menu was more exciting and the execution had gone up a gear (the previous stinginess of the portions was also gone).

Written by Martin

11 January 2011 at 16:57

Posted in food

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Synopses I Didn’t See Coming

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Eric Brown alerts me to the existence on The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees:

The Demi-Monde is a virtual reality simulation created by the American military to test their soldiers in urban warfare: it’s hell, in other words, peopled by such evil historical characters as the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, Aleister Crowley and Stalin’s henchman Lavrentiy Beria.

Okay.

As if that set-up weren’t dark enough, the boffins up the ante by adding religious bigotry, racism and sexism.

Right.

When the president’s daughter gets lost in the simulation, jazz singer Ella Thomas is sent in to retrieve her.

WTF?

Written by Martin

8 January 2011 at 11:58

Posted in books

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Rosettes

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There won’t be any Everything Is Nice Awards this year for the simple reason that most of what I watched was shit and I can’t talk about most of the good things I read. I still won’t be able to say much about science fiction literature in 2011 but I’m hoping to fit a few other reading projects in around the Clarke Award. And I’m certainly going to try and watch less bilge.

If you are desperate to know what I think about the state of SF in 2010, the Strange Horizons review of the year features a contribution from me. It is pretty clear that The Dervish House by Ian McDonald takes the lion’s share of the laurels over there. I am currently working on the end of the year issue of Vector, including the reviewers’ poll, and it seems likely that McDonald will place highly there too. But will it claim the top spot? And what else will make the podium?

Finally, all BSFA members, reviewers or otherwise, should nominate for this year’s BSFA Awards by 14 January 2011. Here is a list of nominations received so far to prompt your memory of what is eligible.

Written by Martin

4 January 2011 at 19:19

Posted in awards, books, films

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