Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for May 2009

Wolfbane

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I liked In Great Waters so much that I immediately ordered Kit Whitfield’s debut, Bareback. My heart sunk a little when it arrived because it is a big bastard book at well over 500 pages. In Great Waters is an elegant novel but Bareback looked more like a potboiler. And that is pretty much what it turned out to be.

Those writers who dabble in non-genre science fiction tend to stick to the polite areas: dystopia, post-apocalypse, alternate history. Whitfield is much more radical in her approach and is happy to fundamentally muck around with reality in a way a lot of mainstream writers – even SF sympathetic ones – would shy away from. Bareback envisages a world were werewolves make up the majority of humanity just as In Great Waters depicts a world where merepeople make up a powerful minority. In fact, it is probably wrong to describe Whitfield as “non-genre” but this is how she is published (in the UK anyway, in America she seems to have been typecast as a fangfucker). The non-genre label is wrong in two different ways: you can’t really apply it to someone who hasn’t written anything but SF and also Bareback is very much in thrall to the American police procedural novel.

Bareback is actually set in a nameless city in a nameless country but it is so strongly redolent of these American thrillers that the frequent Britishisms seem jarringly intrusive. Most of the problems with the novel – its length, its familar characters and situations, its escalating cliffhangers – stem from this. At the same time Whitfield’s central novum is breath of fresh air in an increasingly silly genre. These mass market US thrillers have found themselves caught in a type of arms race which means that for the authors to have any impact on a jaded palatte their baddies must be a serial killers, paedophiles, terrorists or – preferably – a combination of all three. The result of this is a proliferation of ever more preposterous plotting.

This is not to say Whitfield entirely escapes silliness, duff plotting, generic prose. At the start of her review Abigail Nussbaum – who later goes on to accurately summarise the novel as “slow-paced, overlong, rather poorly written, and not doing nearly as much as it should with its excellent premise” – says:

Now I need someone who’s read both books to tell me that Whitfield has improved substantially as a writer in the three years gap between producing them

The answer is unequivocably yes. Coming to the novel after In Great Waters is a disappointment because the difference in quality, particularly in terms of prose, is profound. The worldbuilding in Bareback is fundamentally broken and this is thrown into sharp relief by the writing; in contrast, quibbles about the plausibilty of In Great Waters – and several reviewers have had then – are rendered immaterial by the precision and power of her prose. So I look forward to both Whitfield’s next book and Abigail’s thoughts on In Great Waters.

Written by Martin

22 May 2009 at 18:19

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‘Burros Gone Bad’ by Peter Schneider

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This alleged story is only one page long and for all its sophistication Schneider might as well have just blown his nose on the paper. It encapsulates everything that is wrong with Sarrantonio’s approach: this is another story where he has clearly badgered a friend to write and the friend has shrugged and scrawled something worthless and asked whether it will do. He then ludicrously overpraises it in his introduction (this introduction is about the same length as the story itself).

Schneider has only published three stories and they have all appeared in Sarrantonio’s anthologies. Madness.

Quality: *
Shiftiness: *

Written by Martin

21 May 2009 at 14:13

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You Don’t Love Me The Way That I Love You

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I went to see Lucy Guerin’s Love Me at the Southbank Centre last night. This is a trio of short contemporary dance pieces first performed in Australia in 2005.

The first of these, Reservoir of Giving I and II, was not very good at all. The idea is to tell the story of a relationship from both sides, female dancer and male voiceover and then the reverse, but the two mediums never meshed and nice touches of movement were lost within the blandness. Matters weren’t helped by the score which had the air of Seventies soft porn.

On was much better. Male and female were now united on stage for a dystopian duet of wonderful, layered intricacy. It was slightly sprawling but it was the only time during the evening that sound, light and body were in successful collaboration (if not harmony given the antagonism of the piece).

The final piece, Melt, was sabotaged by the fact that someone’s iPod was playing very quietly but not quietly enough somewhere behind me. This made it impossible to concentrate on the near silent start of the performance. Beyond the aural irritation I was wracked with a pointless paranoia that it was in fact my iPod making the noise, even though I knew this was impossible. Once the volume on stage increased I was able to divert my attention back to the performers but there was nothing much to see. Against a projected background the two dancers stood side by side, face on to the audience and mugged their way through a pretty broad routine. This approach – coupled with the disparity in height between the two and their lack of synchronicity – brought to mind a school talent show.

So very much a mixed bag but I’m glad I went. This was in the Purcell Room because Ken Livingstone was giving a talk in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It is a bit of a shame that he is such a bigger draw but (rogue iPods notwithstanding) the smaller space was the better venue given the intimacy of the pieces.

Written by Martin

20 May 2009 at 11:09

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‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ by Elizabeth Hand

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Redshift opened with a novella but this is the first one since. The extra space gives Hand a chance to go into more detail than most of the other stories here but this proves to be a mixed blessing. For every sharp observation there is one that lapses into purple prose. On the first page she describes butterflies on a child’s mobile as being “no longer eidolons of Eden” and there is quite a bit of this sort of thing.

In a familar manner the story quickly sketches the first two decades of the protagonist’s life before a trauma transformations her life and brings us to the main body of the story. Janie has been obsessed by butterflies all her life and goes on to study them at university. In her final year she is raped and in an attempt to regain control of her life moves from the US to London to housesit for rich family friends. Just as the prose splits between the acute and the purple so Hand’s depiction of London alternates between that which resonates and that which reminds you of Dick Van Dyke. There is a general credibility problem here. Okay, it is about a woman who discovers she is able to turn men into butterflies by tossing them off but even the non-fabulicious parts are unconvincing: I don’t believe Janie’s transformation from introvert to club chick, I don’t believe much of the world she inhabits and I certainly don’t believe in the oversized secondary characters she interacts with.

Obviously this is a fantasy story so no points for pushing the boundaries of science fiction.

Quality: ***
Shiftiness: *

Written by Martin

20 May 2009 at 10:22

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Essential

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Time Out have a none more eclectic list of fifty essential science fiction films. For no reason at all they decided on this:

In order to restrict ourselves to 50 films, we opted to dismiss speculative films which deal with dystopian futures: as a result, great films like Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451 and Hardware will not be found in this list.

Despite this baffling sentiment they have still managed to list 75 films. These are:

The Abyss (1989)
Alien (1979)
*Batteries Not Included (1987)
Cocoon (1985)

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Battlefield Earth (2000)
The Black Hole (1979)
Cherry 2000 (1987)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Contact (1997)
Sphere (1998)
Critters (1986)
Dark Star (1974)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Dune (1984)
Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956)
Enemy Mine (1985)
Event Horizon (1997)
Explorers (1985)
The Fifth Element (1997)
Sunshine (2007)
Flash Gordon (1980)

Flesh Gordon (1974)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Fountain (2006)
Howard the Duck (1986)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Hidden (1987)
The Last Starfighter (1984)
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Mars Attacks! (1996)

Metropolis (1927)
Morons from Outer Space (1985)
Pitch Black (2000)
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Planet of the Apes (1968)

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Red Planet (2000)
Mission to Mars (2000)
Repo Man (1984)

Brother From Another Planet (1984)
Serenity (2005)
Silent Running (1972)
Solaris (1972)
Solaris (2002)

Soylent Green (1973)
Spaceballs (1987)
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)
Ice Pirates (1984)
Solarbabies (1986)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek (2009)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Supernova (2000)
The Thing (1982)

Things To Come (1936)
This Island Earth (1955)
Total Recall
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

War of the Worlds (1953)
War of the Worlds (2005)
Independence Day (1996)
Zardoz (1974)

I’m not a fan of the concept of “so bad it’s good” because usually it is a lie. This means I am unlikely to be checking out a lot of these in the near future. However, there are some pretty big gaps there that I will be seeking to rectify. Any particular favourites?

Written by Martin

15 May 2009 at 11:48

Posted in films, sf

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‘Resurrection’ by David Morrell

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You will remember that Sarrantonio wanted to produce the “finest original sf anthology of the last twenty-five years”. To achieve this end he for some reason decided to commission a story by Morrell, who had never written an SF story before (but had written the Rambo books). ‘Resurrection’ is exactly the sort of story someone who had never written a science fiction story before would write.

What if a terminally ill man was cryogentically frozen? What then? Why, when he was defrosted his son might be – *gasp* – older than he is! It is the sort of story that could almost put you into a coma. In terms of quality it is merely dull, obvious and badly written. It terms of pushing boundaries, well, it is about as backwards looking as you could imagine.

Quality: *
Shiftiness: *

I feel slightly bad for mocking the story since it ends with the line “It’s a terrible thing for a father to outlive his son” and is clearly an attempt to work through the death of his own son in 1987. Still, Morrell’s personal tragedy does not excuse Sarrantonio from publishing this weak story.

Written by Martin

14 May 2009 at 17:00

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Threads

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My review of A Thread Of Grace by Nina Allan is up now at Strange Horizons. I don’t really have much to add beyond what I said in the review.

Written by Martin

13 May 2009 at 10:35

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‘Between Disappearances’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

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Usually I am not overly concerned about whether a SF story is hard or soft or even fantasy. I’m not even that concerned about how the science fictional elements are used. Sometimes though they are either just tacked on (as in ‘Black Tulip’) or really thin (as here). This is a fable about travel and returning home in which the supposedly science fictional element is that the main character is teleported at random by some magic beans.

Quality: **
Shiftiness: *

Written by Martin

13 May 2009 at 10:35

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Hugo Best Novelette

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I don’t attend conventions and I don’t read SF magazines so usually my interest in this award category is quite low. However, in the last couple of years those responsible for publishing the nominated stories have increasingly made them available to the public at large. This year all the stories are available and Torque Control have been running a discussion so although I’m still not voting I do feel informed and involved for the first time. Here is my ranking with links to the commentary:

1) ‘The Gambler’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
2) ‘Pride and Prometheus’ by John Kessel
3) ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ by Elizabeth Bear
4) ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’ by James Alan Gardner
5) ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ by Mike Resnick

It is nice to feel like part of the community and I’m hoping to take part in the follow up discussions as well. Of course, if Resnick wins I will feel a lot less like I am part of the community…

Written by Martin

12 May 2009 at 16:20

‘Feedback’ by Robert E. Vardeman

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There is just something about telepaths that is so desperately outmoded, so 1950s. Even when – as in this story – they get caught up in a sex/death feedback loop they still seem quaint. It doesn’t help that the background to the story is underdeveloped and hence unconvincing

Quality: **
Shiftiness: **

I am now halfway through Redshift and although I wouldn’t say it was a chore it is certainly a long way from being a pleasure.

Written by Martin

12 May 2009 at 10:49

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