Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for November 2009

Is This It

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On Saturday I bought the NME for the first time in what must be at least half a decade. This is exactly how they planned it. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, everybody is a sucker for a list and how can resist a list of the fifty albums of the Twentieth Twenty First Century so far. It is not a list that is going to blow anyone’s mind: a lot of very good music drawn from a fairly narrow range of the musical spectrum. Predicatibly and somewhat self-servingly, The Strokes top the list. The tsunami of hype that greeted the release of Is This It was probably the last gasp of the NME’s influence and reputation so there is more than a little retrospective self-justification here (see also the fact that three Pete Doherty albums make the list.) It is also notable that they spend at least as much time talking about the impact the band had on fashion as on the music itself. To hear the NME tell it they singlehandedly saved a generation of twentysomethings from turning into their dads. In actuality, all that happened is that the pendulum of taste swung back again and people remembered that they liked listening to guitar music with a decent rythmn section.

And the album itself? I bought it at the time and played the hell out of it but until this evening I hadn’t listened to it in years. In fact, the closest I’ve come to returning to the record is repeated listens of ‘A Stroke Of Genie-us’. This might suggest that what I liked about The Strokes were the driving riffs and what I didn’t like was Julian Casablancas’s voice. There is an element of this, too often his vocals are irritatingly indolent, a mix of charmless drawls and yelps, but when he howls a line like “Yes, I’m leaving/Cause it just won’t work/They act like Romans/But they dress like Turks” on ‘New York City Cops’ there is a power that really makes the song.

Coming to Is This It cold, it is easier for me to see it as an album of two halves. From the opening track it is is shockingly slow; ‘Is This It’ is like listening to someone play scales, ‘Soma’ could be called ‘Mogadon’ apart from the fact Casablancas just about manages to rouse himself towards the end, even a more lively song like ‘Barely Legal’ sounds a rehearsal for ‘Hard To Explain’. They are not bad songs but they are unexceptional and of a piece. The second half – from the opening scream of ‘Last Nite’ to album high point ‘New York City Cops’ to the abrupt goodnight of ‘Take It Or Leave It’ – is less poppy, more aggressive and all the better for it.

A bit of attitude is not enough to make a lasting work (despite the fact the NME put Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR in the bronze position). So yeah, it was nice to get it out again but it obviously isn’t the album of the decade. If anything on the NME list meets this criterion I would go for Turn On The Bright Lights by Interpol or Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, albums that had a real emotional hold over me, albums that got into my brain and under my skin rather than just being earworms, albums that – unlike Is This It – are not sat on the shelf gathering dust.

Written by Martin

24 November 2009 at 20:40

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One Nation

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It is slightly embarrasing to have failed to go to the theatre for six months only to return for the National’s christmas kids show. That said they usually put on a bloody good show: their version of His Dark Materials was excellent and I have fond memories of Alan Bennett’s The Wind In The Willows. You certainly get a good bang for your buck in terms of seeing your ticket price on stage. Unfortunately, last night that was about all you got.

This year’s production was Nation, adapted from Terry Pratchett’s novel by Mark Ravenhill. I had been looking forward to buying Nation when it came out in paperback, the first time this has happened with a Pratchett for a while. Now, either Nation is the worst and least Pratchett-y novel Pratchett has ever written or Ravenhill has written a bad adaptation. Since it falls prey to many pitfalls that can happen regardless of source material – too much has been crammed in; events are too compressed; awful, pointless songs have been inserted at random – I suspect the latter.

Two young adults, Mau (Gary Carr) and Daphne (Emily Taaffe), both find themselves isolated following a devastating tsunami. In Mau’s case, the other inhabitants of his South Pacific island (the Nation) are drowned; in Daphne’s case, she is shipwrecked on Mau’s island on the way from Britain to see her Governer father. They very quickly meet, overcome the language barrier and become firm friends and proto-lovers, all the while engaging in Post-colonisalism 101. There are a couple of good culture clash jokes but there was also an awful lot of standing around Declaiming and Enunciating and Acting. Ravenhill totally misjudges the balance of humour and serious comment present in all Pratchett novels, instead coming up with a wet liberal lesson with occassional pantomime flourishes. (It terms of both direction and design it often resembled a sort of Beginner’s Guide to The Royal Hunt Of The Sun.)

Most of the panto (and most of the fun) comes from Milton (Jason Thorpe), the ship’s parrot, who is given to blurting out mild swears and inapproriately repeating other characters’ lines. You can’t go wrong with a swearing parrot, particularly in a theatre full of kids, but it isn’t going to sustain you for two and a half hours. Instead we have an extremely leisurely meander through various subplots which never really cohere. Some of these – such as those involving Locaha, god of the underworld – are nicely done but too often they are reliant on underpowered set pieces. Others are utterly superfluous: presumably in the book The Gentlemen of Last Resort play a reasonable role but here they are just wheeled on, unexplained, and wheeled off. All they manage to do is set up a very silly panto finish in which Daphne’s dad is coronated. This unexpected comic scene was a welcome burst of fun but was immediately undercut by a scene made of pure sap that framed the play as a myth.

Written by Martin

20 November 2009 at 12:01

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Secular Cathedrals

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Refering to this Guardian article about the evil of Waterstone’s, Damian G Walter identifies a yearning in the book buying public:

But almost all conveyed the sense that there was something missing from bookselling. Commentors gave hints at what that something might be. We want quiet places to read and contemplate. We want steaming hot pots of water and infusions of fragrant teas. We want educated, erudite staff with whom we can discuss not just books but the broad range of knowledge we learn from them. Most of all, we want a sense of community, of connection with other like minded souls in search of meaning. We want a church.

I don’t and I don’t know anyone else who does. Turning churches into bookshops: good. Turning bookshops into churches: bad. There are over 180 comments on the Guardian article but skimming through them I didn’t pick up on this overwhelming desire for quasi-spiritual communion with like-minded souls. I did find a lot of “crazy, sentimental, Luddite talk” (to quote another commenter) from people whose tender sensibilities are offended by the very idea of commerce. A couple of people did rebel from reality so much that they call for the return of Edwardian reading lounges but that is as close as we get to church. Walter goes on to make an even more dubious assertion:

People turn to art for the kind of comfort and insight they once sought from organised religion, particularly people from the urban professional classes for whom books are of such cultural importance.

There may well be some small grain of truth in this but it is a remarkably contentious statement just to throw out there as if it is a common truth. Walter doesn’t go into detail so I won’t either but there are any number of issues you could raise against this simplistic statement. Anyway, he uses this as the basis for a disengenous comparison of books and other cultural institutions:

But while galleries, concert halls, theatres and other cultural institutions have geared themselves towards satisfying the (for lack of a better word) spiritual expectations of their audiences, the bookshop has gone in entirely the opposite direction. Galleries have positioned themselves as quiet, white spaces in the chaos of modern life. Bookshops are packed full of advertising and cross merchandising… Bookshops have become a feature of shopping malls, but are conspicuously missing from the major arts and cultural centres developed in the last decade.

The first thing to note is that a bookshop is a very different beast to a gallery and it is not immediately obvious why you would compare them. It is notable that for all the comparisons to other art forms, Walter ignores the music industry which is probably the best match: individual content producers, the means of production controlled by publishers, low production costs, easily distributable, retailers that provide little added value.

Even putting this aside, the most successful gallery in recent times in the UK is Tate Modern. It is hardly what you would call a quiet, white space. Yes, the walls of the individual galleries are white but that is no more meaningful than observing that bookshops have shelves. Tate Modern repurposes an obsolete building (much as retailers often do) to create a modern, heavily-designed space which usually bustles with activity. It certainly doesn’t shun the market in favour of the purely spiritual. The exhibitions in the Turbine Hall are free because they are sponsored by Unilever and for the charging exhibitions there are adverts. Nor is it free from the market in other ways. You would expect to find shops in a shopping centre but it is less clear why you would expect them in a cultural centre. Nonetheless, Tate Modern has an excellent bookshop. It also contains a cafe, a restaurant, a bar and a shop. Just up the river, the recently refurbished Southbank Centre now boasts a branch of Foyles.

This is all preamble though; once Walter has made his diagnosis, he then provides his prescription. It is not until the very end of his post that we finally get to the heart of the matter: “Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?”

In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.

Again, it is easy to get distracted by some of his passing assertions but the meat of his complaint is that publishing receives no public funding. The irony here – as Paul Raven notes – is that what Walter is describing in that first quote sounds much more like a library than a church. The government spends tens of millions of pounds on exactly the sort of community book places that he wants. As Raven says: “a strong campaign for increased library funding would be a better plan than suggesting recently-successful businesses go to the state with cap in hand.”

Bookshops, as the name suggests, are shops, they are not creative venues. There is absolutely no reason the government should be funding them, other than the strange sense of entitlement which over takes some book people. As it happens though, booksellers do receive a fairly substantial indirect subsidy from the state: books are after all exempt from VAT. Nor is it true that publishers receive no subsidy, literature is one of the six artforms supported by the Arts Council (to the tune of almost £6 million a year). Not surprisingly their policy focusses on the most important people – the actual writers – but some money is directed towards publishers. To take an example of this sort of state funding that should be close to Walter’s heart, for many years Interzone carried the logo of Arts Council South East.

There is perhaps a conversation to be had about relative levels of funding for different art forms but, in terms of realpolitic, it is hard to imagine a worse possible time to call for further public subsidy for the arts. There have been ten years of continuous investment in public spending but those days are over. In recent years the government has tried to trim some of its fat but we are starting to get into the meat and in a couple of years time – except for some areas like health and education – those cuts might well go down to the bone. Now, just because you don’t have the money for something doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. At the same time, the publishing industry is hardly at death’s door and you will forgive me for thinking the government might have other priorities at the moment.

Written by Martin

16 November 2009 at 18:16

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Edit: The last paragraph of this post accused Kelly and Kelly of including their own stories within Feeling Very Strange, an anthology they edited. This is incorrect and I should have checked this prior to publishing this post. I apologise to both James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel.

I’ve just received a copy of The Secret History Of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, to review. It is the third in a series of themed anthologies they have edited for Tachyon, following Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. It looks interesting but as yet I’ve only had a chance to flick through it. There is one immediately apparent flaw though: Kelly and Kessel have included stories by themselves. Paul Witcover raised the same issue in his review of the book for Locus and helpfully John Kessel popped up in the comments to explain his actions:

We probably should not have included our own stories in the book–that was my doing. I explained how that happened in an interview we did with Matt Cheney, which has not come out yet. And we had a list of at least 20 other writers we would have liked to include in the book, including most of those you mention as we should have taken. We did not have money or space to include everything we wanted (one reason Kelly and I are in the book is that we did not get paid for our stories), and we did not want the book to be overweighted with writes from “within” the genre.

Fair enough that that they didn’t get paid but then again I never thought their primary aim was to line their pockets, I just wasn’t sure what there aim was at all. Now it appears it was simple expediency. At the same time this explanation doesn’t really stack up. They ran out of space? Why was there exactly space for two stories by them then? They ran out of money? Why does this matter if they didn’t have the space to publish anything? They didn’t want too many writers from within the genre? What are they if not genre writers?

It is a pretty weak excuse and admits that the stories are nothing but filler. Including your own stories is always a bad idea but, as Witcover says, in is particularly unseemly when it is in an anthology with a polemical purpose. The fact they are repeat offenders only makes it worse; apparently the exact same set of circumstances arose whilst they were putting together Feeling Very Strange.

Written by Martin

13 November 2009 at 11:32

Posted in books, sf

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‘A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon’ by Ken Scholes

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‘A Weeping Czar’ is another one from the Torque Control short story club. It was published online by Tor who also published his first novel, Lamentations, which appears to be set it the same universe. I had been interested in that novel. I am less so now. As I was reading the story I passed through several different understandings of its genre, each of which affected my enjoyment of it.

It opens with Frederico (the czar of the title) mourning the death of his thirteenth wife. This particular wife represents the province of Espira and there are many young woman eager to take her place. This is one of the tasks Frederico must attend to after her eulogy. Another is to organise a purging because although this suicide it is politically expediant to call it an assassination and blame it on the mystics. Ah ha! So this is an epic fantasy. Nobles and palace intrigue and colourful empires and so on. Well, such things are rare at short story length and the details are interesting so good stuff.

The purging turns up a strange artefact which the mystics believe puts them in communication with the moon. This “harmless curiosity of Elder Times” is a silver cresent made of an unknown metal that transmits the sound of running water. Frederico keeps it for himself and discovers it transmits words as well. These words are those of a young woman called Amal Y’Zir, daughter of the Great Blood Wizard. Surprisingly, the living god Frederice has never heard of this powerful individual. Ah ha! So this is a science fantasy. This is Earth and Amal is on the moon and they are communicating through some sort of ancient technology. I’m less keen on this type of story as it is a bit like having your cake and eating it and usually presages a revelation I will find unconvincing.

Any suggestion that this might be science fantasy in the vein of Wolfe is quickly dismissed though:

The weeping took him more often, it was true, but he’d found scarce comfort in times past. The two wives he’d most delighted in had not been able to live with the knowledge of his sorrow—the sorrow that was his family’s to bear for reasons no record remained to speak of.

That’s right, he is genetically predisposed to be made of pure emo and his sorrow is so deep and unfathomable that it has driven his favourite wives to kill themselves. Woe is me! So this is a melodrama. I shouldn’t have been surprised, the problem is, after all, suggested by the title. I just wasn’t expecting it do be so literally because who would want to read about a wet bloke moping at the moon?

It gets worse though. Amal cures him of his weeping so it must be Tru Wuv. Turns out that a thousand years ago Frederico’s forebears stole Amal’s sister away from her father, this cursed the family and caused the Blood Wizard to hide his other daughter away for eternity. Oh no! So this is a fairy tale. A melodramatic fairy tale is one thing – the two flavours go together even if they don’t taste nice – but the science fictional gloss on it makes no sense. “A thousand years ago we went to the moon and we’ve wept ever since.” What utter tosh.

Written by Martin

11 November 2009 at 16:49

A Call To Arms

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So, who is writing decent science fiction action novels? It isn’t Neal Asher and it isn’t Andy Remic. I once thought it might have been David Gunn but now I’m not so sure. In the comments to that SH review, Matt Bright suggests Charles Stross and Scott Westerfield. Any other suggestions?

Written by Martin

2 November 2009 at 16:50

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Sex In The System: Stories Of Erotic Futures, Technological Stimulation, And The Sensual Life Of Machines

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Introduction by Cecilia Tan
‘The Future Of Sex: A Garden Of Unearthly Delights’ by Joe Haldeman
‘The Proof’ by Shariann Lewitt
‘The Book Collector’ by Sarah Micklem
‘Remembrance’ by Beth Bernobich
‘Poppet’ by Elspeth Potter
‘Caught By Skin’ by Steve Berman
‘Hot, Like Water’ by Lynne Jamneck
‘Value For O’ by Jennifer Stevenson
‘The Program’ by G Bonhomme
‘Pinocchia’ by Paul Di Filippo
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart Again’ by John Bowker
‘Softly, With A Big Stick’ Gavin J Grant
That Which does Not Kill Us by Scott Westerfeld
‘The Show’ by M Christian
‘More Than The Sum Of His Parts’ by Joe Haldeman

Rather than writing up my thoughts here I decided to turn in that long overdue review for SF Site. And it is up already:

Cecilia Tan is the founder of Circlet Press which bills itself as “the intersection of erotica and science fiction, fantasy, & futurism” so the subtitle of this anthology — “stories of erotic futures, technological stimulation, and the sensual life of machines” — isn’t surprising. Tan is obviously seeking a wider audience than usual with this anthology from Thunder’s Mouth Press and although she stumbles around rather aimlessly in her introduction the rationale behind the book is clear; she was after SF stories that “went straight to her groin,” that were “just plain hot.” There is a difference between dealing with sex and being sexy though.

That sounds negative and there are plenty of reasons to criticise the anthology but in the end, I found myself rather taken with Sex In The System. I will now be exploring some of Tan’s anthologies for her own press.

Written by Martin

2 November 2009 at 13:11

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