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Archive for April 2010

Public House

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Having recently acquired a Taste London card I was itching for an opportunity to use it. This opportunity presented itself when my parents unexpectedly had to pass through London last week, courtesy of Eyjafjallajökull. Browsing through the list of participating restaurants I came across Public House which seemed to fit the bill: casual atmosphere, interesting menu and, although it was nearby, I’d never heard of it.

It sounds pretty wanky, said my wife.

Yeah, the name doesn’t do it any favours and nor does the website. In fact, despite the name and the URL, it isn’t a pub at all, it is a bar with a dining room. And it really is pretty wanky. From the outside, it is very unassuming, tucked away just off Upper Street in a narrow, awkwardly-shaped building which you could easily miss; inside, they have over-compensated with a nauseating riot of Boho shabby chic. This decor is all available for sale – at hilarious prices – in the back of the wine list. Urgh.

Since my wife was (as usual) late, we had plenty of time to admire this and the more you look about the place, the less chic it looks and the more shabby. For example, a very impressive iron chandelier contained cheap, nasty electric lights in the shape of candles. There is a confusion to Public House; it is simultaneously trying too hard and not sure what it is trying to do. Something similar was true of the overly attentive service which was an uneasy mix of the stuffily formal and the excessively matey.

The menu is modern British and immediately won points for offering colcannon as a side. I won’t actually say too much about the food itself though, as I was so badly congested that about half my tastebuds were out of commission. I will note, however, that my main of pork wrapped in speck was overcooked, so the kitchen could stand to take a bit more care. Equally, apple stuffed with sausagemeat was a welcome attempt to add a third type of pig to my plate but was a whole apple required? Like the decor, the ideas where there but the execution was slapdash, the exception being a beautifully presented dish of lemon sole with lemon and thyme risotto.

Whilst the rest of the table stuck to Portuguese red, I rebelled and went for beer. Like I said, it isn’t a pub at all, there are no pumps. They do have a rather exciting list of bottled beer though. Since it was a beautiful, sunny day I started with a bottle of Vedett Extra White. It soon became clear that whilst it was refreshing I would need something rather more full-bodied to penetrate my blocked nose. The answer was the seasonal brew from Sierra Nevada which in this instance was their superb Anniversary Ale. (By the way, if you are partial to a drop yourself, I would recommend the excellent Billy’s Booze Blog.)

So Public house is a slightly weird place but not without its charm – my dad immediately warmed to the place when they played Bob Dylan just as he entered – and if the food wasn’t blinding, it certainly had its moments. Thanks to the Taste London card, it was also half price which meant that it was a remarkable £11 a head for staters, mains and a shared date and frangipane tart (also overdone) with another £55 for booze and service.

Written by Martin

28 April 2010 at 12:12

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I’ve publicised it in various places already but if you’ve read Winter Song by Colin Harvey – and if you are a BSFA member, you have no excuse – please pop over to Torque Control to join in our discussion.

Whilst reading online reviews of Harvey’s novel, I came across this review of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. It is really quite remarkable:

This is a book that goes past normal violence into MEGAVIOLENCE(tm). We know we’re reading violence like we’ve never seen before BECAUSE IT TELLS US SO. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has hacking, crushing, hammering blades LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) hits THROUGH people (sometimes in ITALICS) and then hits the person behind them. IN THE FACE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has a sentence that is TWENTY-SIX LINES LONG (page 389-390, if you care), because MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) DOES NOT FUCKING CARE ABOUT YOUR PUSSY RULES OF GRAMMAR. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) HIT YOUR GRAMMAR WITH AN AXE. AND THEN THE PUNCTUATION BEHIND IT.

This novel, Remic’s first for Angry Robot, saw him doing a Morgan – as Jon Courtenay Grimwood has just done – and crossing the aisle from science fiction to fantasy. The difference is that whereas Richard Morgan brought his political and social concerns to blend with classic sword and sorcery and contemporary epic fantasy, Remic appears to have merely brought his extreme misogyny to a brazen re-write of David Gemmel’s Legend.

Now, I haven’t read Kell’s Legend so maybe I shouldn’t say anything. However, I have read Bio Hell which is one of the worst novels I’ve read and shares the three insurmountable flaws Jared identifies. These are:

  • Stunning incompetence at all aspects of writing
  • A vile attitude to women
  • No evidence of revision or editing or even basic thought

The reason I mention this is not because I enjoy poking the hornets’ nests but because it got me thinking about the fantasy blogosphere. After reading the Pornokitch review I quickly searched for a few other reviews. Those are the first two hits on Google and you will notice they are markedly different to Jared’s review. For example, James Long – one of the most respected British fantasy bloggers – concluded his review by saying:

Kell’s Legend is a rip-roaring beast of a novel, a whirlwind of frantic battles and fraught relationships against a bleak background of invasion and enslavement. In other words, it takes all the vital ingredients for a good heroic fantasy novel and turns out something very pleasing indeed.

I’m sure this is an honest response to the novel but I do wonder about the range of responses on the fantasy blogosphere. It often seems quite narrow. There has been a bit of hand-wringing recently about the David Gemmell Legend Award recently but I see that as the symptom rather than the problem itself. As Mark Charan Newton keeps saying, where is the discussion about the books? And (I would add) where is the discernment? Fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Gemmell was a serviceable writer at best (just as Robert Jordan was a mediocre one). Likewise, fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Remic is an unreadable writer at best. If the world made sense Kell’s Legend would never have been published. Instead, in our world, the sequel is out now and to add insult to injury it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen.

Written by Martin

22 April 2010 at 15:47

Posted in books, genre wars, sf

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Blood And Treasure

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You might remember that the other day I noted that there wasn’t any SF on HBO in a conversation about realism in genre television. Of course, that isn’t true; at the very time I wrote that I was also watching the first season of True Blood on DVD. Based on Charlaine Harris’s bestselling Sookie Stackhouse series of paranormal romance – or what ever it is being called this week – novels, it might not be science fiction (which is where that conversation started) but it certainly fits under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction. And yes, despite its kitchen sink approach to paranormal tropes, it is far more realistic than Battlestar Galactica, not to mention a hell of a lot more fun.

Now, your Adam Robertses or your David Moleses might complain that that opening is excessively strucuralist. I’m going somewhere with this, guys, honest. Those of us in the SF community have a tendency towards loose language (even “SF” itself is ambiguous). Take for example our pretty much indefensible fondness for the term “mainstream”. Or our casual equivalence of “genre” with SF when SF isn’t even a genre, let alone all genres. One of the create things about True Blood is that it is all genres: SF, romance, crime, drama, melodrama, sitcom, soap opera, gothic, it is all there. As a result it is messy, silly and, I think, rather loveable (despite the major flaws Roberts points out in the review linked above, particularly regarding the symbolic representation of prejudice). It is that kernel of realism mentioned at the beginning, a kernel that simply doesn’t exist in mainstream American television (more loose language), that holds it together and allows the reader to overcome the issues; alas, I can already feel it slipping away in the face of other inherent pressures of serial television. The urge to expand the universe and to top each cliffhanger with an even bigger one means that even as the season ends, they are already wheeling out the lost relatives with special powers for the next one.

Which brings us nicely to Heroes. I promised that I would quit while I was ahead but no, I went and watched season three. And it was very bad indeed. What started as a compulsively addictive obsession with the cliffhanger was ballooned into a showcase of everything that is wrong with the word “reboot”. This term is bad enough when it is applied to some innocent culture artefact of the (not so distant) past but Heroes had already taken it to the next level by rebooting at the end of every season. Now they not only have a complete reboot half-way through the season, they also have mini-reboots running through the season like a series of minor strokes. So, for example, Sylar’s personality can change entirely literally every single episode (and this wild oscillation is not confined to him, he is just the most extreme instance). Any attempt at consistency or realism has been abandoned with the result that the show has become untterably boring. It is postmodernism gone mad, I tells ya.

Written by Martin

21 April 2010 at 11:57

Posted in sf, television

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The Ascent Of Links

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So, with ‘Beep’ we reach the end of Part One of The Ascent Of Wonder. Even this is not without controversy though, because what does Part One mean and why does it exist? The book has an appendix by Kathryn Cramer which says:

In one phase of this book’s gestation, it was to be divided into sections according to the manner in which science was used in the story. This appendix gives an alternate order from the table of contents in which to enjoy the stories.

Crucially and bafflingly, the question of the actual order is left unmentioned. The stories aren’t in chronological order or even alphabetical order, they don’t appear to be grouped by theme or, indeed, anything else. What makes Part One different from Part Two? Perhaps all will become clear but at the moment I have no clue which is surely a major failing on the part of the editors. Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Cramer has also helpfully put together An Interactive Introduction to The Ascent Of Wonder which include all the introductions, except Gregory Benford’s. The chief benefit of this is that I can cut and paste the weird remarks from their (his?) story introductions rather than type them out. The anthology also has its own wikipedia page which I started to tidy up a bit but then couldn’t be bothered to continue.

Returning to that earlier post, having read a third of the stories and a third of the story introductions I am no clearer on what Hartwell and Cramer mean by hard SF. Their inclusions are every bit as eclectic as the initial introductions promised. Speaking of which, Paul Kincaid’s review is also available online, although sadly Gary Wolfe’s is not.

One final link: in the course of searching for additional supporting information I was reminded of the fact Cramer wrote the chapter on hard SF for The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction so – once I’ve slogged through the remaining two thirds of this anthology – I might give my thoughts on that as well.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 11:02

‘Beep’ by James Blish

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Turns out I was right to skip ‘Beep’ the first time round because it is a bizarrely dreadful story.

Unusually, H&C include some criticism in their introduction when they say that “it is worth noting Blish expanded this story later in his career into the novel, The Quincunx of Time (1973), and that the longer version is disappointingly discursive.” It is not the first time this happened either; ‘A Case Of Conscience’ was similarly unfortunately over-extended. Apparently this is all Larry Shaw’s fault. We can’t give Shaw all the blame though, Blish just doesn’t know when to stop. Cities In Flight was tedious for one volume, let alone four. Even here he manages to give us two stupid stories for the price of one.

I really don’t know where to start on this. ‘Beep’ is driven by two idea: firstly, the universe is remorselessly deterministic; secondly, FTL communication is possible and, in fact, all such communication occurs simultaneously. These are intriguing ideas but need to be treated with care. Instead, they are expressed through a frankly mad story which I will try to summarise here.

A journalist goes to the government and tells them they’ve got a leak. As proof she tells them she knows about their top secret ansible device. The government track the leak to an old man who runs a consultancy. They spy on him but can’t discover any evidence. Time passes. It turns out the old man is the journalist in disguise (?). She has a copy of the ansible too because a distant relative left it to her in their will (??). Her price for revealing all her secrets is to join the security agency and marry the boss (?!?). Every one lives happily ever after in a thousand year reich. It is just fucking ridiculous but of course Blish gets to whip out his trump card: “don’t blame me if it is nonsensical, blame the deterministic universe!”

Is it meant to be humourous? Blish has a reputation for wit but it isn’t present in this finickety, unfunny prose and a screwball comedy is more than just a mismatched man and woman not having sex. He is not particularly good with social mores either; as with the second half of A Case Of Conscience, the story gives the impression that Blish has got his nose pressed up against the glass, looking in on something he doesn’t really understand.

This is all framed by an entirely unnecessary secondary story which introduces us to an agent in the all encompassing security apparatus the revelations of the main story has engendered. It adds nothing but it does manage to undermine the main story whilst simultaneously hammering home the fact Blish doesn’t care for niceties like plausibility.

As for ‘Beep’s supposed hardness: ansible, FTL, galactic empire, time travel? Not very hard really, is it?

Quality: *
Hardness: *

By the way, although I’ve refered to H&C throughout, this introduction refers to “me” and others have mentioned that, in fact, they are all written by Hartwell so it seems like a polite fiction that The Ascent Of Wonder is co-edited.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 08:23


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My review of Kick-Ass has just been published at Strange Horizons. Niall described this as “dirty and wrong and yet so right. And yet so, so wrong.” He was half right.

Written by Martin

14 April 2010 at 09:54

Posted in films, sf

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It’s What He Would Have Wanted

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I was round a friend’s house on sunday and I was surprised to see half a copy of Wolf Hall on her shelf. She had taken a knife to Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel because she is currently on crutches and she found it just too bulky to manage easily. Now, some might see this as a gross act of cultural vandalism but it struck me as boldly practical. It also reminded me of a problem of my own:

2666 by Roberto Bolaño is what can only be described as a big bastard book. This is because it is actually five novels (or novellas, at least). Bolaño left instructions prior to his death that the five parts of the “novel” be published individually at the rate of one a year. Instead, this edition has a short ‘Note From The Author’s Heirs’ which basically says nah, we decided not to do that. They didn’t count on me and my craft knife though:


Written by Martin

14 April 2010 at 07:34

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The Godgame

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The rebel with no specific gift for rebellion is destined to become the drone; and even this metaphor is inexact, since the drone at least has a small chance of fecundating the queen, whereas the human rebel-drone is deprived even of that small chance and may finally see himself as totally sterile, lacking not only the brilliant life-success of the queens but even the humble satisfaction of the workers in the human hive. Such a personality is reduced to mere wax, a mere receiver of impressions; and this condition is the very negation of the basic drive in him – to rebel. It is no wonder that in middle age many such failed rebels, rebels turned self-conscious drones, aware of their susceptibility to intellectual vogues, adopt a mask of cynicism that cannot hide their more or less paranoic sense of having been betrayed by life.

When I was sixteen my English teacher suggested I read The Magus. I lied and said I had already read and disliked it. He was disappointed. In fact, all I had done was taken it down of the shelf, flick through it and then place it back. When John Fowles died in 2005, I promised myself I really would read The Magus this time. However, it was a different tiem and place and I no longer had access to a copy. Instead I took The Collector down off the shelf, left it on my bedside table for a couple of weeks and then placed it back on the shelf. I’ve finally read it now and it is bloody good.

I probably should have read it when I was sixteen. As Fowles says in the introduction to the second edition, The Magus “must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Nicholas Urfe, our narrator, is the very definition of a callow, bright young man. He has considerable self-awareness and yet not quite enough. (Late in the novel he is pointedly told that “silliness and intelligence are not incompatible. Especially in your sex and at your age.”) After graduation he finds himself becalmed in early 1950s London: he wants to be a rebel but finds himself becoming a drone. In the end, to escape his girlfriend (and himself), he takes a job as an English teacher on a small Greek island.

We are introduced to Urfe over a hundred pages of this slow, careful novel but once he meets Conchis it soon becomes clear that this is very much the opening act. Urfe finds himself irresistably drawn to Conchis, a reclusive millionaire who lives on the island. Conchis, for his part, is also keen to form a relationship. That hundred pages of acute but familar portrayal of a self-absorbed young man gives way to something else entirely, a godgame where Cochis takes the role of “a god like a novelist”. This forms the bulk of the novel, perhaps 400 pages, and is an extraordinary literary achievement.

I’ll be honest, I found the novel very slow to start. I could admire the writing but Urfe was a character I knew too well; a man many writers have recognised, a man like me, a man I had made peace with. Perhaps if I had read it when I was sixteen. The appearance of Cochis offered me something more than the same story with different period details. If anything, the pace became even slower due to Fowles’s increasingly exact and exacting prose but now I was hooked. We, the reader, are right there with Urfe as we are alternatively teased and put through the wringer through a series of precisely controlled – by Conchis and Fowles – “games”.

Thinking of this part of the novel, it is hard to avoid sexual metaphors. The Magus does become overtly (and wonderfully) erotic when Conchis introduces other characters into his games but it is more than this. I used the word “teased” earlier and, despite the fact this is a psychological experiment, there is also a sense in which it is foreplay. At one point, Urfe notes to himself: “But all games, even the most literal, between a man and a woman are implicitly sexual.” True enough but you could probably take that further; there is a notable scene where Cochis temporarily excludes Urfe (all part of the game) and the latter responds exactly as a jilted lover.

Orgasm, when it arrives, is muted. The climax, Conchis’s final revelation, requires another hundred pages for Urfe (and the reader) to come to terms with it. As with the first act, it is entirely necessary and (again) forces us to mirror Urfe’s emotions on his return to London but, in terms of sheer reading pleasure, it cannot compete with what happened in Greece.

Written by Martin

13 April 2010 at 15:37

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‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas

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I’m not sure what you would call this; a meteorachic dystopia, maybe?

The Weather Congress was the supreme body of Earth, able to bend states, nations, continents, and hemispheres to its will. What dictator, what country, could survive when no drop of rain fell for a year? Or what dictator, what country could survive when blanketed under fifty feet of snow and ice? (293)

There is no suggestion of how this unlikely world government might have come to pass. H&C wave this away as being part of a “venerable tradition” and even invoke Fredric Jameson but really it just signals that this is not a story overly interested in realism.

Despite the title, ‘The Weather Man’ has three protagonists, one for each branch of the organisation: political, scientific and operational. The first is a Congressman who decides to pin his political future on whimsically endorsing a constituent’s request to make it snow in the desert. The third is a bloke who drives a boat across the surface of the Sun in order to enact the solar changes required to change the weather. Which, I think you will agree, is pretty far from Hard SF.

Instead, the story’s inclusion probably rests on the second protagonist, a female scientist who comes up with the maths needed to alter the Sun. This may be a depiction of scientists at work but, to these eyes at least, the speed and simplicity of the process is more Hollywood than hard. H&C describe her as a “stronger and more rounded character than is usually found in the sf of the period” which is odd because Thomas depicts her as frankly unhinged. She is totally lacking in basic social skills, she slouches and slurs, she bursts into tears when things don’t go her way, she has a bizarre oral fixation which means she is constantly putting her finger in her mouth, she only achieves acceptance by her colleagues when she enters a robotic state of monomania. She does actually have a personality though; the female characters in the first and third parts are described solely in terms of a) their appearance and b) their relationship with the protagonists. So I am not exactly bowled over by Thomas’s credentials as a trailblazer.

Quality: *
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

12 April 2010 at 09:54


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I went round to see some friends last night to test booze for their wedding. The result was clear: don’t buy your sparkling wine from Majestic.

Prosecco La Marca Cuvée NV: **

Tolerable on the first sip, dimishing returns thereafter.

Prosecco Corte Alta NV: *

Thin and bitter with a vile chemical aftertaste.

Codorniu Reina Maria Cristina 2007: ***

I could actually have drunk a second glass of this but that doesn’t mean it was any cop.

Thankfully St Peter’s and Badger will also be available.

Written by Martin

8 April 2010 at 14:23

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