Archive for September 2012
When I moved to Hackney ten years ago my local was a Carlsberg/Strongbow/John Smiths/Guiness emphysema pit called the Cock Tavern. Since I wasn’t an old man waiting desperately to die I never went there. Instead I walked down to the only nice pub in the area: the George. To be honest, you were just as likely to die of lung cancer – after the pub quiz your eyes would be red raw – but it had Flowers and Litovel on tap and a brilliant jukebox. As the years went on, it became a bit of a victim of its own success and was usually uncomfortably rammed. When the Pembury Tavern re-opened on my doorstep, I quickly changed my allegiances.
The Pembury is a pub that has gone from strength to strength. It has no music license and when it opened it looked and felt a bit like a youth hostel but if you beer it, they will come. Nothing could compete with its range of Milton and guest beers and over a couple of years it quickly developed from being virtually empty all the time to being full day in day out. The first attempt at the kitchen (modern English) was a bit hit and miss but the second (pizza and basic Italian) is much better. I increasingly have cause to drink elsewhere though.
The Cock has recently re-opened and now offers even more pumps than the Pembury:
15! 21! Essentially this is five cider, five eight bitter, five eight lager but not quite since obviously all the beers are wonderful craft brews from places like my current favourite, Magic Rock Brewery in Huddersfield, and local breweries like Kernel. Again, the bar is the star and the rest is a bit of an after thought. If the Pembury was too big and too white when it opened, the Cock’s problem is that it is too small and two dark. The toilets are also tiny. This obviously means that there is no kitchen but they can do you a pie or similar bar snacks including a vegetarian scotch egg.
Meanwhile, over at the George, Flowers is off the pumps but fresh flowers are on the tables and (under new management) have bowed to the inevitable and put in a kitchen (their nearest rival is now the Prince Arthur). The blackboard is fairly safe but, whilst it clearly doesn’t aspire to be a gastropub like the Arthur, the food I had was very good. Duck is a tricky one to cook and it is the meat that I’ve had the most bad experiences with when eating out but here it was pink, moist and well seasoned. Perhaps more exciting than the main menu was the bar snacks. £2.50 buys you a huge black pudding sausage roll in its own little roasting tin – all the calories of a pint, only two thirds the cost! Nom.
The George has also added London Pale Ale from Meantime (virtually the granddaddy of the UK movement) to their repertoire, as has the relatively new Waterline Bar on the canal. Me and N battled through the torrential rain to get there last weekend and then stood dripping at the bar and waited to get a drink. And waited. And waited. Despite being virtually empty, the man behind the bar completely ignored us and continued collecting glasses to set up for an event. Eventual a woman said she would be with us in a minute. She wasn’t so we left and went round the corner to Duke’s Brew & Que. This is one of the hottest tickets in town but we were told we could have a table if we could wait 45 minutes. To be honest, I can’t imagine anywhere better to spend 45 minutes. In addition to a dozen interesting taps (including several carrying their own Beavertown beers), they had a wonderful fridge from which I sampled a seasonal Sierra Nevada (Tumbler) and the weissen version of Schlenkerla. I actually prefer the standard beers from each brewer but it is good to experiment. I also had a pint of Darkstar’s American Pale Ale which is the best Darkstar I’ve tasted by a mile. I’m so glad everyone has started making APAs!
As for the food, well, it is barbeque and therefore the most dangerous food in existence. Market fish of the day has disappeared offer their menu so if you are a vegetarian, you only have the option of halloumi and portobello burger but for normal people it is meat ahoy. Last time I went out for barbeque (at Bodean’s) I accidentally on purpose ordered a two person platter for myself. This time I stupidly ordered sides of chips, mac & cheese and a pulled pork slider to go with my beef ribs. I know. I’m sure you will be pleased to know I suffered for it. My favourite of the sides was a little dish of battered okra and pickles – absolutely brilliant (though you need to eat them quick whilst they are hot) and deserves to catch on as a bar snack everywhere.
Coots are racists. They are extremely unpleasant birds and once a coot (Troy Winters) made me so I angry that I punched him until both me and Troy were crying. It’s weird that they’re so different to moorhens who are actually a bloody good laugh.
I was meant to read more in 2012 but I didn’t really manage it. What have I been doing? Mostly playing on my phone. The first nail in my coffin was Cut The Rope; I can’t remember who suggested it but I devoured it and it was my gateway drug. Then obviously I had to look at Angry Birds since I’m not a fan but I still plodded through every level (just outside the top million of a ridiculous 26 million) and returned to the franchise for the promise of new physics with Angry Birds Space. After that I found true love with Where’s My Water?, a pretty much flawless game. I have an insatiable appetite for it, even going so far as to buy obvious rip-off tie-in Where’s My Perry?
Various other games also captured my attention for substantial periods. A friend recommended Robot Unicorn Attack but, whilst there is something hypnotic about it, I soon moved onto Tiny Wings, surely the greatest of the endless scrollers. I am now on Whale Trail having just run Jetpack Joyride into the ground as well as the lesser known Captain Antarctica (more levels soon please). I have even dabbled with tower defence in the epic fantasy form of Kingdom Rush. Oh, and let’s not mention the temporary Draw Something addiction. Oh God, or the teddy bear nightmare of Triple Town.
Anyway, I think I’m getting clean. There is more space in my life for books now and the towers of new acquisitions are starting to sink. If you want a reading recommendation then check out Dark Matter by Julie Zeh, it is simply the best thing I’ve read this year.
1) What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes? – in which I take issue with the Nebulas.
2) Everything That Is Wrong With Commercial Fantasy In A Single Quote – in which I identify everything wrong with commercial fantasy using a single quote.
3) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – in which I dislike a story.
4) On Being Libelled By Liviu Suciu – in which I make extensive use of my right to reply.
5) ‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin – in which I discuss a story which is clearly on a reading list somewhere in 185 words.
6) How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility? – in which I confront self-interest masquerading as public service.
7) Back To The Mud: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – in which I review a bloody good fantasy novel.
8) ‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – in which I discuss a story that lost the 2011 BSFA Award.
9) ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell – in which I discuss a story that won the 2011 BSFA Award.
10) ‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak – in which I discuss a story which is clearly on a reading list somewhere in 24 words.
Which means, for the second year in a row, mormon whale rape tops the charts (depsite a stupid title – in your face, SEO). ‘The Star’ continues to receive loads of hits as do other stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. So if you want long-tail hit-bait, short fiction is where it is at.
Goal for next year: something in the top ten that is unrelated to bloody science fiction.
Banks is the UK version of Lois McMaster Bujold: massively critically and commercially successful in their own country and the definitive space opera writer of the period but nowhere near as well known on the other side of the Atlantic. Like Bujold, he also hasn’t write very much short fiction. Despite the Culture universe being the single most influential setting in British science fiction for over twenty years, this is one of only two Culture stories he has written (the other being the titular novella from his single collection, The State Of The Art). And ‘A Gift From The Culture’ isn’t even set in the Culture; like his debut SF novel, Consider Phlebas, it depicts it from outside.
In this section of the anthology, H&C go to considerable lengths to set up and then knock down a US/UK divide. To this end they even drag out an irrelevent quote from “New Space Opera writer” M John Harrison (whose fiction doesn’t actually appear, obvious). I’m not sure why they got the bit between there teeth – misplaced national pride in response to perceived misplaced national pride? – but it isn’t a very profitable avenue of thought. That said, Wrobik, the narrator of this story makes a stark contrast to Miles Vorkosigan: she is a pathetic, self-deluding addict who commits mass-murder as the easy way out of the decision she’s found herself in. It certainly sets the tone for the Culture novels but doesn’t really add anything to them.
I have never read anything by Bojold before. This is worth mentioning because she is perhaps the single most popular American science fiction author of the last twenty years. H&C tell us that “She is the only writer in SF to have won the Hugo Award for best novel four times, as many as Robert A Heinlein, the previous record holder.” Unpack that sentence if you can. However, she has only been published erratically on this side of the Atlantic and her body of work, including the Miles Vorkosigan series, is commensurately less well known.
This is the enjoyable adventure of an exceptional individual. If I had one of those new-fangled Kindles I might well have downloaded another installment as it makes a good accompaniment to lying on one’s back in the south of France. I imagine Bujold could write this stuff for ever.
In their introduction, H&C come straight out with the unavoidable problem which dogs this section of the anthology: “’Weatherman’ is one of her few short stories. It is the planetary romance variety of space opera, a long episode within a larger space opera framework of interstellar war, with a hard SF attitude.” I guess the analogy is trying to put together an epic fantasy anthology and finding only a small sample of sword and sorcery tales available from the key figures.
Can you set a space opera entirely within a sword and sandal Roman legion battle? No, obviously not. In an inversion of the previous story, here we have a story that is the genesis of a space opera novel but not itself space opera. For some reason, science fiction writers love Rome (although they have little interest in Italy) and here Drake provides a conclusion for Horace’s ‘Roman Odes’ in which Crassus’s lost legion turn out to have been press-ganged by aliens to serve as inter-galactic mercenaries.
H&C make much of the fact that this all occurs in a vacuum. “This is military SF with the contemporary politics stripped off, and removed from the level of policy decisions… There is no access to those who make policy in Drake’s military fiction. All in all it is a fairly dark vision of human life.” This is completely wrong. ‘Ranks Of Bronze’ isn’t dark at all, a band of noble, decent Romans put the anonymously massed Johnny Otherworlder to the blade for their contemptible alien commander. Jettisoning “policy” means jettisoning any context or nuance; war is turned to sport.
Can you set a space opera entirely underwater? No, obviously not. ‘Temptation’ is an annex of a space opera megatext but not such a story in its own right. Brin started his Uplift series with Sundiver, his 1980 debut novel, but it was really with his subsequent novels in the universe (1983-1998) that it emerged as a key work of new space opera. This episode is from the Robert Silverberg’s 1999 anthology Far Horizons – “all new tales from the greatest worlds of science fiction” – which puts it substantially outside of the “late 1970s to late 1980s” period Hartwell & Cramer ascribe to it.
So this is a story within a story but it also contains several stories itself. We open with physician Makanee describing the alien world where she now lives. She is a dolphin, one of the races that humanity has uplifted to sapience, and is taking pastoral care of a pod of her fellows who are regressing back to their original nature due to trauma in space in the safe confines of a backwater planet. Then we have the twin narratives that seem to reveal the story’s plot: Peepoe has been kidnapped by a pair of semi-regressed males to be used as a sex-slave and Tkett is searching for her whilst, at the same time, investigating mysterious acoustic traces far below. Brin, it must be said, is not particularly sensitive to the issues of using rape as a plot point and simply attempts to shirk his responsibility:
Despite sharing the same culture, and a common ancestry as Earth mammals, dolphins and humans looked at many things differently. Peepoe felt more annoyed at being kidnapped than violated. More pissed off than traumatized.
This is symptomatic of an author that H&C describe, not unsympathetically, as being know for “optimism, showmanship, and unornamented prose.” Indeed, Peepoe’s first section begins with leaden cliche: “Captivity wasn’t as bad as she had feared. It was worse.”
But this enslavement turns out not to be the heart of the matter either – now comes the showmanship. Both Peepoe and Tkett discover mysterious acoustic traces far below the waves and follow them to a vast alien submarine containing myriad other species, including humans, locked into virtual reality dream worlds. This leviathan will then seed the local galaxy with these pioneers of brave new VR worlds: “It will be a galaxy run by special-effects wizards! A perpetual theme park, whose inhabitants use magical spells instead of engineering to get what they want.”
It is a bizarre turn for the story to make until you realize that the whole point is to provide Brin with a platform for culture wars and really he just wants to have a pop at fantasy fiction. This is clearly voiced by the dolphin poetry that closes the story:
*What need for ersatz magic?
*Or for contrived Disney marvels?
*God and Ifni made a cosmos.
*Filled with wonders… let’s go live it!
I’m not sure where H&C took their source text from but either it was a right state or multiple errors were introduced when it was typeset because it contains at least four embarrassingly glaring typos.
Most so-called contemporary novels are freighted with nostalgia. Perhaps one reason for either loving or shunning science fiction is that it is relatively free of the poisons of forever looking back. It looks to the future, even when it looks with foreboding.
Brian Aldiss, 1996, preface to Helliconia.
…it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion. In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them… The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.
Paul Kincaid, 2012, review of 2012 best of the year anthologies.