Archive for May 2012
Anorak’s Almanac 241:87 – I would argue that masturbation is the human animal’s most important adaptation. The very cornerstone of our technological civilization. Our hands evolved to grip tools, all right – including our own. You see, thinkers, inventors, and scientists are usually geeks, and geeks have a harder time getting laid than anyone. Without the built-in sexual release value provided by masturbation, it’s doubtful that early humans would ever have mastered the secrets of fire or discovered the wheel. And you can bet that Galileo, Newton, and Einstein never would have made their discoveries if they hadn’t first been able to clear their heads by slapping the salami (or “knocking a few protons off the old hydrogen atom”). The same goes for Marie Curie. Before she discovered radium, you can be certain she first discovered the little man in the canoe.
It wasn’t one of Halliday’s more popular theories, but I liked it.
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (2011)
The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner.
Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, 2011
My review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is up at Strange Horizons.
I thought The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, although it is less flawed, it is also less exciting. I want a bit more from Harkaway.
So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World — since it wasn’t clear from the preceding criticism — with the summation: “By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.” I’m tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway’s work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.
Monday afternoon and once again I find myself in Homerton. Usually this would mean crepes but the missus fancies a proper dinner so we head down to Railroad. It is shut on a Monday. However, as luck would have it, just a couple of hours I had been reading Jay Rayner’s review of Market Cafe, the latest opening on Broadway Market.
If these days the hipster corridor runs straight up Kingsland Road from Shoreditch to Dalston then Broadway Market marks the top of the hipster bypass. Not bypassing the hipsters alas but curving eastwards along Columbia Road to London Fields. Market Cafe sits at the bottom of the market by the canal in the old corner pub that until recently was La Vie En Rose and before that was Little Georgia, now relocated just down the road.
They describe themselves as “a London Italian cafe, bar and dining room serving breakfast, lunch and supper, punches, cups and fizzes, and other quality drinks” which is a bit wanky but is pretty much the only wanky thing about the place. The split is pretty much Italian food with British atmosphere and attitude. The menu is simple but well formed: hot and cold starters, a pair of pasta dishes (veg and non-veg) and then meat and fish mains, including fish of the day. This looks like antipasto, primo and secondo but it isn’t – the pastas are definitely mains.
To start we had a pair of dishes that were reflections of each other. N had the classic of asparagus, poached hen’s egg (slightly overdone) and shaved pecorrino and I had agretti with a fired duck egg. I hadn’t know what agretti was but our lovely, lovely Scottish waiter explained that it was a succulent somewhere between samphire and asparagus. Ooh, yes, please. It came in a sort of tomato and rosemary sauce when I would have preferred to have tried it naked for the first time but the samphire flavour came through nicely and I’d like to see it used more widely.
The reason I know the pastas were mains is because we both had them and they were big, firmly at the hearty and rustic end of the spectrum. N had ravioli filled with subtly salty ricotta, heavily drizzled in olive olive and scattered with peas and broad beans (good use of seasonal veg throughout the meal). I, on the other hand, wallowed in the lamb ragu. Rayner had this dish and I can’t improve on his description: “The menu makes much of the hand cutting of the tagliatelle. To be honest they may want to go back to getting a machine to do it. It was not the most glorious moment in the history of pasta, but the sauce made up for it. £12 brought a portion so big you could camp in it.” Having camped in it, I ended up feeling like I’d swallowed a sleeping bag. To be honest, my mood and the weather meant that this was pretty much the sensation I was looking for but it could stand to be refined a little and the idea of having pudding afterwards was laughable.
We didn’t look at the wine list because rather than the ubiquitous Peroni they offer a good selection of local craft beers. I am so happy this trend has come to pass and older restaurants could stand to learn a thing or two from new starters on this front. N had a bottle of Hackney Hopster from London Fields Brewery (very hoppy, natch) and I traitorously ordered a pint of Camden Town Pale Ale. We also had a bowl of alarming green and glossy olives which were a bit too redolent of a rockpool for my liking.
£28.50 a head including that lovely, lovely, service.
Interstellar travel is the defining trope of space opera. Sometimes (mostly) it is achieved instantaneously with the flick of a switch, sometimes the void must patiently be slept through. Sometimes, however, space is far stranger and more dangerous than simple emptiness:
In the fraction of a second between the telepaths’ awareness of a hostile something out in the black, hollow nothingness of space and the impact of a ferocious, ruinous psychic blow against all living things within the ship, the telepaths had sensed entities something like the Dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than beasts, demons more tangible than demon, hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin, tenuous matter between the stars.
These hungry vortices of hate can be destroyed by light and the game of rat and dragon is therefore the escalating battle between them and the bomber-telepaths for the souls of the passengers of the “planoforming” ships. “Dragon” because that is how humans perceive them, “rat” because that is how humanities much swifter Partners perceive them. Yes, the Partners are cats. Hartwell and Cramer let the, er cat out of the bag in their introduction and the story is famous enough that you probably knew that anyway. Still, as an avowed hater of hater of cats and a double hater of cats in SF, I was impressed by Smith’s skill revealing and then depicting this alliance. This is particularly true of the central pseudo-sexual relationship between the protagonist and his Partner, the Lady May: “O warm, O generous, O gigantic man! O brave, O friendly, O tender and huge Partner. O wonderful with you, with you so good, good, good, warm, warm, now to fight, now to go, good with you…” Towards the end the emotional register becomes a little extreme and the point belaboured but it is sharp little story.
‘The Game Of Rat And Dragon’ is part of Smith’s Instrumentality of Man universe, collected in The Rediscovery Of Man. I failed to finish that collection last time I read it but perhaps I should try again.
For reasons know only to themselves, the editors have included a page-long joke that originally appeared in a fanzine and was written by someone who only published two other stories. It is nicely tongue in check but doesn’t add anything to the anthology (it is firmly in the sword and sorcery tradition). It is also the last story the editors select from the period. Pickings were obviously slim? Did EE “Doc” Smith not write anything short enough?
Oh, if you want to know what the joke is, well, it is done rather better here:
Brackett identifies herself as a space opera writer, giving the lie to the editors’ repeated assertion that no self-respecting person would do such a thing, but it doesn’t actually seem a very good way of describing this story. Indeed the editors acknowledge that it is basically a Martian version of Tarzan despite going on to describe ‘Enchantress Of Venus’ as an archetype for space opera. Much more compelling is Michael Moorcock who the introduction quotes as noting “her first love was science fantasy… a kind of bastard progeny”. In this she stands in opposition to the purer SF tradition represented by her husband, one Edmond Hamilton. It is a connection that the editors make in an extremely unsatisfactory manner:
By the mid-1970s, at least one European literary critic maintain (in “Le Space Opera et L’Heroic Fantasy”) that space opera has two poles, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edmond Hamilton. In the latter, “the combat spreads over at least a galaxy, mankind confronts a hostile, alien race and the destiny of the universe is in the balance”. The Burroughs type is more pictorial, “the anachronistic, baroque world of the first adventures of Flash Gordon.”
At least one? Who? Googling reveals that it was Jacques Van Herp and ‘Le Space Opera et L’Heroic Fantasy’ was a chapter in Panorama de la science fiction (1973). I found that information in Peter Fitting’s Science Fiction Studies review of the book and that is obviously where the editors found the information too since they have lifted the above quote verbatim from his review. This is lazy scholarship, at best.
Regardless of all that, the story itself contains nothing of interest.
As an aside, of Brackett’s script for The Empire Strikes Back the editors say: “The connection between Brackett, the queen of space opera, and Star Wars, the biggest SF film of its day, was very potent in establishing a link between space opera and commercial success.” No matter how many of these nonsensical sentences from Cramer and Hartwell I come across, they still have the power to surprise and perplex.
The sixty submissions were read, the shortlist was agreed, the six shortlisted novels were re-read, the winner was agreed and, finally, The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers was announced as the winner of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award last week. I missed the ceremony last year because I was on holiday so I made sure I did it properly this year. This involved lining my stomach over the road from the Apollo at the Japan Centre’s newish restaurant Toku in order to take advantage of the free bar (this being central London, a bottle of Peroni was £5.05 at the afterparty). Inside the venue I was impressed to find awards director Tom Hunter wearing a tie (for the first time?) and that I was not the only one dressed to impressed (photos forthcoming in SFX, I believe). It isn’t the easiest to mingle but it was nice to chat to old friends. I also finally met Claire Brialey (despite working not just in fandom but the same building our paths had never crossed), got Simon Ings to confirm that Dead Water isn’t SF (although he pointed out that the author is dead) and fanboyed Jeff Noon about Vurt changing my life (unlike Paul Graham Raven I waited until he’d left the urinal) and got talking to a random Canadian who turned out to be Jim Munroe, author of the excellent Everyone In Silico (he was in town promoting Ghosts With Shit Jobs at Sci-FiLondon). All in all, a good evening out and I only managed to spill a small amount of red wine on myself.
It was an immense privilege to be a Clarke judge. After two years, it is also a pleasure to hand the responsibility on to the next set of judges. It also means I am free to indulge in prolifigate book buying:
- My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen – I reviewed The Rapture for Strange Horizons so when I saw this for a quid in Whitstable I snapped it up.
- The Illywhacker by Peter Carey – From the same shop. Carey must be one of the top five living authors and this is the only one of his novels I didn’t own.
- The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett – Mysteriously not submitted for the Clarke Award, Bennett is getting a reputation for doing interesting interstitial things within commercial fiction.
- The Oxford History Of Britain, edited Kenneth O Morgan – Partly inspired by Mark Newton’s posts about Roman history and partly inspired by my huge ignorance of anything that happened before World War II.
- Dark Matter by Juli Zeh – Her latest novel, The Method, was brought to my attention by Niall Harrison but it isn’t out in paperback yet so I thought I’d try this.
- Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – A coincidental title and a random punt in that Whitstable bookshop.
- Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – I’m not sure how this first came to my attention but liminal zones float my boat.
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – Called in for the Clarke but not submitted, this debut SF novel received pretty good reviews.
- Beechcombings by Richard Mabey – Having exhausted Roger Deakin and in need of the nature cure, I turn to Mabey.
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Purchased and already read. Well done me! FT puff says “Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humour” which is good shorthand but overselling an extremely readable but relatively lightweight novel.
- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – Pretty much ubiquitous last year. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize which demonstrated that the Clarke isn’t the only award to attract controversy.
- Wildwood by Colin Meloy – A rare hardback purchase (it costs less than most paperbacks), this is the first novel from the bloke behind The Decemberists. I love his lyrics, will I love his prose?
Trying to muscle in on the photo is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. I have spent pretty much the whole of 2012 listening to Watch The Throne by him and Jay-Z and, if you want to know why, you should check out this brilliant profile-cum-tour diary by David Samuels in the Atlantic. Or just buy it.
I intended to review The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin but I am going to have to resign myself to the fact this isn’t happening. Before I throw my notes away, however, here is the source of a reference to page 78 which just says “horrible breakfast”:
He was not the thin, sharp-boned man he had been in the world of the seven billion; he was quite solid, in fact. But he ate a starving man’s meal, an enormous meal – hard-boiled eggs, buttered toast, anchovies, jerky, celery, cheese, walnuts, a piece of cold halibut spread with mayonnaise, lettuce, pickled beets, chocolate cookies – anything he found on his shelves. After this orgy he felt physically a great deal better.