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

Archive for April 2010

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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‘Drode’s Equations’ by Richard Grant

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And we are back (although I did skip the James Blish story because I couldn’t quite face it yet).

‘Drode’s Equations’ are presumably included in The Ascent Of Wonder on the grounds of the titular equations and that fact that in the editors’ crude calculus mention of maths equals proof of hardness. In fact, this is a lovely story about achieving satori that is utterly at odds with most of the rest of the anthology.

It is set in a fantasy world or an alternative history (it really doesn’t matter, a big clue to its anti-hardness), and sees a young man transporting the unearthed equations (presumed lost) by train to a university. That is it. Its power is almost wholely descriptive – light, smell, texture – and this is used to conjure up a sense of communion with the sublime. As I said, lovely.

Quality: ****
Hardness: *

The editors describe Grant as a promising young talent and the story certainly supports this. Unfortunately, he seems to have lost the battle with History, although he did have a novel out in 2006.

Written by Martin

8 April 2010 at 09:58

In Your Face, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

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As a general rule, I don’t take much interest in the primates of the Church of England. However, it is quite cool that the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken time out from overseeing the demise of Anglicism to write a book on Dostoevsky and review Philip Pullman’s latest novel. It doesn’t make me any more likely to actually read The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, mind.

Written by Martin

6 April 2010 at 14:12

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Clear Plate

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My review of A Guide To Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin is up now at SF Site. I’d completely forgotten about this review but it means that for the first time in almost a decade I have nothing pending. What freedom! Unfortunately, the book itself isn’t very good:

I still can’t tell you who the intended audience of The Guide To Fantasy Literature is, it falls between so many stools. Looking over my review, similar words and phrases crop up again and again: “scrappy,” “ragtag and vague,” “compressed and idiosyncratic,” “lackadaisical,” “remarkably casual.” These are not individually damning criticisms but they certainly don’t present any incentive to read this book. Martin’s book has passion but it lacks utility.

Written by Martin

1 April 2010 at 14:59

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Burn This Manifesto

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It has been a short week but it has also been a hard, slow week. So not much content round here but I’m reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin, I’m off to see Kick-Ass tonight and I will be returning to The Ascent Of Wonder soon.

In the meantime, to celebrate his creation of Twenty Years, Two Surveys Niall Harrison has been posting
individual survey responses, including one from Richard Morgan in which he says:

What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

As I mentioned over there, this picking up on an interview I conducted with him in 2007 and it has in turn sparked a long and interesting comments thread on Torque Control. I agree with Morgan pretty much wholeheartedly, right down to the frack/fuck issue, and it has always been a sore point for me that most SF TV is so poor.

Niall also points me towards Ritch Calvin’s ‘Mundane SF 101’ essay in Volume 289 of SFRA Review. There are a couple of notable things about this essay. Firstly, it has recently won the Mary Kay Bray Award. Secondly, it describes Niall as “her”. Thirdly, Calvin writes that:

After the Manifesto was published, critics and criticism were swift and ranged from the well considered to the vitriolic. One of the first individuals to produce an extended commentary was Ian McDonald on his LiveJournal blog.

I feel like I deserve some credit since I’ve been hating on mundane SF since 2004. Thankfully it seems to have now died a death but there are always people happy to drink the Kool-Aid.

Written by Martin

1 April 2010 at 11:51

Posted in genre wars, sf, television

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