Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for March 2010

Roll Them Bones

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So the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist is out and my quick and dirty guess was pretty good, predicting four of the six. As with last year, here are my odds for the actual winner:

The City & The City by China Mieville – 2/1
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones – 4/1
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts – 6/1
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson – 9/1
Far North by Marcel Theroux – 9/1
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – 12/1

A good, varied shortlist but I still reckon The City & The City is out in front.

Written by Martin

31 March 2010 at 09:47

Posted in awards, sf

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‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm

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This Nebula Award-winning short story stands in complete contrast to the rest of The Ascent Of Wonder, it would be more at home in a Kelly & Kessel volume than this Hartwell & Cramer one (and not just because chimps feature heavily). H&C rather confusingly describe Wilhelm thus:

She is one of the relatively few sf writers who have consistently attempted (and often succeeded) in incorporating science fiction into the non-genre forms of the contemporary short story and novel, of which she has a sure commend.

I’m not really clear what they mean by this but it sounds like they are struggling towards describing the type of stories collected in The Secret History Of Science Fiction. Equally, the bold, surreal use of hallucination and fantasy throughout the story make it far closer to slipstream than hard SF and more suitable for an anthology like Feeling Very Strange. Regardless of this, it is perhaps the first of the stories contained within The Ascent Of Wonder that I will re-read (and even if I don’t, it certainly deserves to be).

Quality: ****
Hardness: *

Written by Martin

26 March 2010 at 12:12

Meat, Beer And Science Fiction

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Since hearing about Hawksmoor a couple of weeks ago I have been obsessing about steak. I had a meeting in town yesterday and since it went well and I was then going on to the BSFA yesterday, I thought I would treat myself. Unfortunately, Hawksmoor is in Whitechapel but helpfully Gaucho has branches across London. You may well have walked passed one, they look a bit like a serial killer’s batchelor pad: black glass and cow hide. More like Gauche-o, amirite? The meat is the thing though.

It was an interesing experience as it is not at all the sort of place I would usually go; it has the air of a private members’ club, complete with paramiltary staff, and the clientele stank of business lunches with a fair smattering of tourists since this was the Picadilly branch. I managed to navigate this unnatural environment pretty well, although I was slightly phased when my waitress queried whether I wanted to see the meat tray. Er no, I don’t need to eye up the meat or have it pimped to me, just bring me 300g of ribeye, bloody as hell. And this I duly received. Marvellous.

To accompany my plate of meat, my waitress steered me towards potato puree but, despite liking this, I am always put off by the name this always sounds so much less appetising than mash. Instead I went for a potato cake (okay, the fact it had chorizo in it may have also helped tip the balance). I should have taken her hint though as it was completely indifferent, apart from the couple of mouthfuls when it was much too peppery, and accompanied by some similarly pointless salsa verde. Equally disappointing was the bearnaise sauce. Now this is the king of sauces and was nicely done but for a £2.50 supplement I expect a jug or a boat rather than one of those tiny ramekins pubs serve ketchup in these days. (I won’t give Adam Roberts the vapours by saying how much the steak was.)

Over at the Antelope – which I can’t help but think is a ridiculously incongruous venue for the BSFA meetings – I was pleased to see that they had Bengal Lancer on tap. Fuller’s have only just introduced this IPA but it is by far their best beer. Alas, it is only seasonal. Anyway, the actual event was a discussion of the BSFA shortlist between Damien G Walter and Graham Sleight, two very engaging panelists (Martin McGrath unfortunately had to pull out). The City & The City emerged as the clear winner of the novel category and it was noticeable that it was the only novel that the audience picked up for discussion. Despite some scepticism in the room, I really think this has to be not only the favourite for this award but a highly likely candidate for the Clarke and the Hugos. But please, let’s not get bogged down in whether it is SF or not.

Walter also raised an interesting point when he said that several of his favourite books of the year – for example, The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – weren’t eligible for the award because they haven’t been published in this country. I get the general impression that over the last decade we have seen an increasing divergence between what is being published in the US and what is being published in the UK. At the same time, as Walter pointed out, the internet has increased both the availability and discussion of US published books in this country. I can’t really articulate this but I do think there is an increasing tension here.

Written by Martin

25 March 2010 at 14:00

‘Exposures’ by Gregory Benford

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A very hard, very dry story that was originally published in Asimov’s but has a tone more reminiscent of the New yorker. This does not necessarily make it a good story (one to admire with detatchment, perhaps) but it is certainly a welcome change.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *****

H&C end their introduction by stating: “Benford is the first among the hard science fiction writers to have mastered and integrated Modernist techniques of characterization and use of metaphor.” Which is just wow.

Written by Martin

24 March 2010 at 10:29

‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe

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It was published three years before ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ but ‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ is infinitely more modern and is a true precursor to the hard SF subgenre in a way that Hawthorne’s gothic tale was not. Our narrator describes the maelström thus:

The ordinary account of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene – or of the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder. (p. 224)

That is your sense of wonder right there.

Quality: ***
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

23 March 2010 at 09:13

The Modern Pantry

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My dinner plans for last night were almost stymied by the fact that neither of my first choices, 32 Queen Street or Moro, were actually open. Salvation soon appeared in the shape of The Modern Pantry. There was a bit of a Sunday vibe here too: items were getting crossed off the menu at a rate of knots, service progressively slowed over the evening and the poor women in the kitchen looked knackered. Despite this the food was exemplary, with only one duff note in the whole evening.

That note was struck by a third starter of cassava chips, ordered to ensure the satiation of a ravenous wife. There is strong fusion theme to the whole of the menu and the subsitution of cassava – yammy, fiberous and dry – for the humble potato was the only time this did not succeed. However, the dish was at least partially saved by its pairing with crème fraiche and tomato chilli jam which rather wonderfully transformed it into something not unlike a Central American version of a cream tea. Of our real starters, softshell crab was messily presented but delicious and I could have easily ordered another sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette straight after finishing the first.

I bagged the last of the pork belly and thank God because it was exactly what my mouth, ribs and stomach demanded. The accompanying quinoha – not at all a favourite usually – released different flavours with each mouthful: here orange, there mint, all expanding and rounding the dish. Options for pescatarians were severely curtailed by the complete abscence of fish from the menu (“come back on a Monday” was a repeated refrain) so N had the tortuously named field mushroom and dill, crème fraiche and cucumber, ‘empanada’, monk’s beard, white corn and radish salad with ancho dressing. Mere salad is not usually enough for my lass – hence the cassava chips – so her contentment at the end of her last mouthful spoke volumes. One thing: despite the apparently comprehensive nature of the description, it didn’t seem to cover slices of an amazing vegetable like a yellow, mild ginger, about an inch wide with holes where the seeds were. I forgot to ask what this was, any ideas?

The fusion theme goes into overdrive on the dessert menu. Having both shunned an extremely unappetising sounding “Eton mess” made with gooseberries and other unlikely ingredients, N then braved an aversion to eggs to order chocolate mousse cake with caramelized banana and liquorice cream and Broadside reduction. (That last addition to the plate was slightly mysterious since the Adnams bitter doesn’t appear on their (excellent) list of beers.) I wasn’t allowed near it for a taste so I think that speaks for itself. I had a beetroot, apricot and something else cake which had the glorious fruity density of Christmas pudding and was perfectly offset by tart slices of blood orange and a crème fraiche sorbet. As you’ll have noticed, crème fraiche was a bit of a recurring theme and I wholeheartedly endorse this and, indeed, The Modern Pantry.

Fifty four pounds a head, including wine, digestifs and service.

Written by Martin

22 March 2010 at 12:11

Posted in food

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Pig Tales

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I’d beed interested in reading Truismes by Marie Darrieussecq (translated as Pig Tales by Linda Coverdale) since it appeared on that Guardian 1000 novels list last year. Unfortunately it is out of print in this country but popping into my local second-hand bookshop on the way back from the dentist earlier in the week I was amazed to see they had not one but two copies. Here is the brief description from the Guardian:

It wasn’t a problem at first: to be more voluptuous, to have a firmer, more rounded bottom and breasts, to be pinker and more healthy-looking is far from a disadvantage to a girl working in a massage parlour in a sex-crazed dystopian society. But the changes don’t stop there: her hunger dominates (her preferred foods are now flowers and raw potatoes), her pleasant plumpness becomes rolls of fat, her glow turns ruddy. A curly tail, trotters and a snout are not far off. Darrieussecq’s modern philosophical tale is witty, telling and hearteningly feminist.

At under 150 pages of large print, it is clearly a novella rather than a novel and understandably several of the reviews reference The Metamorphosis but it is more Voltaire than Kafka, a gloriously deadpan farce in the tradition of Candide.

Written by Martin

21 March 2010 at 16:31

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Time Will Tell If/We’re Talking Balls

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I am what a cynic might suggest is a rare breed: someone who has complained vociforously about the planned closure of 6Music and is also a regular listener. I bought myself a DAB as a Christmas present back in 2002 and once I found the station I never left, it is literally the only radio station I can listen to for more than five minutes. (From time to time, my wife is allowed a couple of minutes of the Today programme but, in its own way, that is as rage-inducing as the worst of Radio 1.) Without 6Music the airwaves will be very bleak indeed, I know because I own a device which simulates the experience. I call this “my car”.

So I’ve already written a complaint about the spurious rational for its closure and I’ve completed the consulation on what the BBC should actually be doing. Today though I’ve been reminded of this travesty all over again by Adam Buxton’s lovely protest version of Changes by David Bowie and this brilliant act of sabotage.

Written by Martin

19 March 2010 at 12:18

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‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham

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Another story by a scientist, another story about scientists, another story in search of a story. Instead, everyone just stands around waiting for the end of the world. It doesn’t take long.

Quality: **
Hardness: *****

Written by Martin

19 March 2010 at 09:28

Streets Of London

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If London had the grid system of Manhattan, or had been rebuilt entirely like the Paris of Haussmann, then maybe it would have a readily identifiable sound. After all, you can spot the sound of Manchester – whether it’s the Hollies, Joy Division, the Stone Roses or MC Tunes – at 20 paces. London has always been more fluid, in its architecture and its population. Different eras, and different postcodes, define the sound of the city at any given time… Some districts have a sound that seems to seep, unalterable, from the pavements. A few miles north west of Mile End is a leafy corner of London which drew in pastoral folkies from St Albans, Kingston, Tanworth-in-Arden and Glasgow – Muswell Hill is where you’ll find a gorgeous arts and crafts pile called Fairport, and this is where a budding psychedelic band called Fairport Convention shacked up in 1967. Having settled in the Edwardian suburb, surrounded by woods and parks with jaw-dropping views over the city, their sound quickly mutated into folk rock. Living within cycling distance were the similarly wistful Sandy Denny (soon to become their singer), Nick Drake, and John and Beverly Martyn. Clearly the vistas of Highgate Wood and Alexandra Park affected the music of the locale as deeply as Ridley Road market and the semi-dereliction of Clapton and Dalston have dictated jungle/UK garage/grime narrative of the last 20 years.

This article by St Etienne’s Bob Stanley in last week’s Guardian reminds me that I meant to post something about Bryter Layter by Nick Drake. Having assured me that “London is a miserable shit hole”, Mark Newton promised me I should check out the album “for an accurate, Songs-of-Experience-esque view of the city.”

To be honest, it is not much of a London album. Only one song, At The Chime Of A City Clock, references the city and even that is less about the specific experience of living here than the specific experience of being monumentally depressed. As you might expect, this is a recurring theme. What you probably wouldn’t expect is the deeply incongruous music that accompanies these plaintive lyrics, I have a lot of sympathy for the original Melody Maker assessment that it is “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”. It is only on the John Cale arrangements – Fly and Northern Sky – that Bryter Layter rises above this.

In the end, I’d rather be listening to Richard Thompson (who plays guitar on Hazy Jane II). A founding member of Fairport, he one of the musicians who always reminds me of London – despite living in LA. He has also recently been announced as the director of this year’s Meltdown Festival. Excellent.

Written by Martin

18 March 2010 at 09:40