Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for January 2010

Workers Playtime

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Capitalism is wrong. This goes without saying yet people still feel the need to say it. This is fine if you are going to be sharp but if you are going to be blunt, why bother?

I’d heard good things about Ockham’s Razor but unfortunately The Mill was not very impressive. It is part of the 2010 London International Mime Festival but I prefer to think of it as physical theatre and the performers’ interaction with the set is the heart of the piece. Discussing this in an interview with the Guardian, one of them says that “we bashed around with various Heath Robinson-style systems, and they were all rubbish”. They have ended up with something quite simple but they fail to really exploit its full potential. The company works outward from their equipment and so here we move from the great millwheel at the centre of the stage to the concept of a mill itself to an examination of labour. They work, they change shift, they rest and enter a child-like state of grace, they return to the crushing conformity of work, they rebel, they stand around wanting to know what comes next. We slip out into the night, unmoved, to get a good night’s sleep before the wheel starts again.

I did like Derek Nisbet’s score though.

Written by Martin

20 January 2010 at 12:51

Memory Hole

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I have just finished reading ‘The Farenheit Twins’ by Michel Faber. It is very good. It is collected in the book of the same name. My copy of the book (published in 2006, bought in 2009) has a big sticky label on the front boasting that you can download a podcast of the story, read by Faber and scored by Brian Eno. This sounds very interesting. Putting aside the incorrect use of the word “podcast”, what is vexing about this, however, is that the big sticky label directs you towards a location – http://www.canongate.net/downloads – which no longer exists. Nor is it available elsewhere. The closest you can get to it is this article by Faber on the collaboration (which contains another dead link). Bloody sticky labels. Bloody internet.

Written by Martin

19 January 2010 at 00:48

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The Year Of The Rapture

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My joint review of The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Rapture by Liz Jensen is up now at Strange Horizons:

Both Atwood and Jensen have form, but there are far more similarities between The Year of the Flood and The Rapture than I was expecting. This review was predicated on the simple coincidence of Bloomsbury publishing two works of literary science fiction at around the same time. Inevitably the novels were concerned with dystopian and apocalyptic themes, the bread and butter of non-genre SF, but their concerns within these broad subgenres are shared and Jensen is obviously influenced by Atwood. Neither author seems quite sure what to do with their concerns, though, and this tarnishes the notable achievements of their books. In the end, The Rapture is the more successful because of the purity of its tone; there are none of the mad digressions of The Year of the Flood. I expected more of Margaret Atwood because she is so obviously capable of it. I will now expect the same of Liz Jensen, and I am especially interested to see whether they will both return once more to the possibilities offered by science fiction.

Today is also the first of John Clute’s Scores columns for Strange Horizons.

Written by Martin

18 January 2010 at 11:54

Polyglot Sensibilities

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Poor Stuart Evers, his article on Jonathan Lethem’s eclecticism has been burdened by the subs with a heading which I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with: “Jonathan Lethem’s output is impressively diverse, but it’s not going to win him a dedicated readership”. I would argue that Lethem’s diverse output is exactly what has won him a dedicated readership. I’m sure Evers would be sympathetic to that view but he doesn’t do himself any favours:

When asked at last week’s reading at the London Review Bookshop about the wildly different nature of his work, and whether this was a help or a hindrance to his work, Lethem was wholly positive about his polyglot sensibilities… Creatively speaking, his argument was both logical and sure-footed: after all, no one would deny writers the absolute right to choose the subject and style of their work. But such diversity is not perhaps the best way to endear yourself to a readership, or to receive a consistent critical reception.

He doesn’t provide much evidence for this, apart from the mixed reception to You Don’t Love Me Yet. Also, although I’m pleased he is drawing attention to authors who plough their own furrow, I’m not sure it is that rare or noteworthy. Lethem’s progression from science fiction novelist to receiving widespread acclaim outside the genre is certainly unusual but moving between genres and styles is not. Consider Peter Carey: in the last ten years we have had a pastiche of Dickens, a retelling of the story of Ned Kelly in dialect, a fictional take on the Ern Malley hoax, a volume of travel writing on Japan, a Transpacific love story set in the modern art world and a look at Sixities counterculture politics. This is not atypical (although I will admit that I am an atypical reader in that I am particularly drawn to this sort of writer).

Evers talks about a publishing industry “obsessed with creating brands” but Lethem is his own brand and the same is true of other major literary writers like Carey. I would suggest it is unlikely that when they turn in their latest offering that there is “some grumbling from the sales department eager to sell in another fantasy-crime novel featuring a returning character”. They are different products for different markets. Evers view only makes sense from within a narrow slice of comercial publishing. It is easy to internalise some of the bad news messages of the industry but I think things are a lot more positive than people sometimes make out. In the oppostie direction, Evers overstates his case for the uniqueness of the books the writers he champions produce:

And while for the vast majority these are thematically, geographically, stylistically or generically linked to each other, for the few – the brilliant, yet perpetually overlooked Chris Paling and the incredible but under-championed Nicholson Baker for example – such similarities are much harder to tease out.

I’ve not read Paling but it isn’t that hard to see similarities in Baker’s work; between The Mezzanine and Room Temperature or between Vox and Checkpoint. Similarly I’ve recently been reading Lethem’s ‘Hardened Criminals’ (1996) and there are clear links to his later novels like Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003). In fact, part of the joy with an eclectic writer is finding the links.

Despite quibbling with Evers about the number of Lethem-like authors who already exist I would still like to see more of them, particularly coming – like him – from within science fiction. Regardless of current gloom about the publishing industry I retain a naive optimism that the good will out and, given the increased permeability between science fiction and mainstream literature in the last decade, I do think we will be seeing more of these sort of writers in the future.

Written by Martin

15 January 2010 at 13:06

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But Then I Got High

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As well as becoming one of my favourite novelists, Patrick Ness is rapidly becoming one of my favourite reviewers. It helps that the Guardian usually send him exactly the sort of book I’m interested in. This month it is Chronic City by Jonathen Lethem:

Let me say here that I have no idea whether Lethem lights up himself, but without even considering the possibility, I’d already thought the sparkiness of earlier work such as Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn had gone strangely awol in Lethem’s last two novels, the wide-ranging but frequently dull The Fortress of Solitude and the misfiring romantic comedy You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is better than both of those, but it’s still sometimes a struggle to see through the sheer haze of pot smoke.

I was surprised that I liked You Don’t Love Me Yet as much as I did but, like Ness, I have found his recent work less satisfying then his earlier work and I was not looking forward to Chronic City with any sense of anticipation. Frankly, it sounds like a mess and the bits that sound good have already been published:

Take Janice’s letters to Chase. Popping up every hundred pages or so, they’re just brilliant… The letters, in fact, are so compelling, they were a standalone short story in the New Yorker last year called “Lostronaut”. And “Lostronaut”, I think, is the Chronic City that might have been; everything Jonathan Lethem is capable of: compellingly odd beauty, a fresh turn of phrase (those “dry little feet”) and a concise, downbeat narrative arc, all delivering insight and emotional impact.

Elsewhere in the paper, Nicholas Lezard makes The Rapture by Liz Jensen his paperback choice:

Thrillers, alas, do not need to be well-written to succeed. (You could tell The Da Vinci Code was garbage from its very first word. But it was still a success.) So when an entertainment is, at the level of the sentence, up to the mark of respectable literary fiction then the entertainment is all the better – and all the more convincing: good prose is, or can feel like, a guarantor of truth, which makes The Rapture a peculiarly unnerving book, and all the more timely for coming in the wake of the failed negotiations of Copenhagen.

My review will be published by Strange Horizons the week after next and yes, it is pretty good. (I did raise an eyebrow at this line from Lezard’s review: “after all, we have been reading about screwed-up weather at least since Martin Amis wrote London Fields“.)

Written by Martin

9 January 2010 at 12:40

Like A Ride In An Old Banger

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Mark Newton does not like the word “clunky”. More accurately, he questions its usefulness as a critical term: “What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?”

I was intrigued because it seems like a fairly straightforward piece of reviewing shorthand. There is another name for commonplaces though – cliches – and we all know what you need to do with cliches. Out of interest I had a quick Google to see if I had used the term and sure enough I had, in my review of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds:

What starts off as a dazzlingly compulsive thriller is slowly ground down by lazy, thoughtless writing. At one point, for example, Ng gives a little pep talk: “Okay, people, let’s stick together. Like the man said, there could be some angry citizens out there, and we may be the ones they decide to take it out on.” This might be acceptable on Hill Street Blues but not in a book set in the 25th century. This sort of clunky dialogue — the ghost memory of a thousand police procedurals — litters the novel. Something similar is true of the characterisation.

I think I escape Newton’s censure because I don’t leave “clunky” sitting there on its own, I buttress it with further remarks. What do I mean by clunky though? Joe Abercrombie has a good response in the comments:

Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.

What I mean when I use clunky is to say that the dialogue is mechanical rather than natural. Natural here doesn’t mean graceful or smooth or even realistic – as Newton points out, dialogue rarely bears any resemblence to real speech, try looking at an unedited transcript some time – it means it sounds like something that would come out of the character’s mouth. In contrast, the Reynolds quote is mechanical because it merely seeks to move things along without consideration of how appropriate the words are for the time, place or person. Like clunky it is cliche. I will try not to use clunky but I hope authors will try and give me no cause to slip.

It is interesting in its generalities but Newton is obviously directing his post at some specific (but secret) targets. In particularly, someone seems to have been dissing DeLillo of whom he says: “I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic.”

I am also a great admirer of DeLillo; in fact, this was reinforced just yesterday when I read his short story, ‘Human Moments In World War Three’. Here is a not atypical chunk of dialogue from the story:

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city — but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellowfeeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would enoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

Obviously his dialogue isn’t clunky, however, I’m not sure I could call it realistic either. DeLillo is a postmodern master of American literature and as such his dialogue often tends to the artificial. It is still natural for the characters in his stories though; perhaps no one in the real world would ever say this but so what? Of course, not only is it not clunky, it is also rhythmic, graceful, poetic and all those other things. I am very jealous.

Written by Martin

6 January 2010 at 11:49

Bestest

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The reviewers of Strange Horizons (including me) have posted their picks of the year. As Jonathan points out there is a lot of consensus around Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters and China Mieville’s The City and The City (both picks of mine). Farah Mendlesohn’s On Joanna Russ, Greer Gilman’s Cloud And Ashes and Stephen Baxter’s Ark also do well. Although I promised myself a bit of a break from speculative fiction, there are several recommended books on there I would really like to read, particularly Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island. But I will try to resist. I’m certainly not going to go overboard like Niall and block out all my reading for the year.

Written by Martin

5 January 2010 at 14:10

Posted in books, sf

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