Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for November 2010

‘The Pi Man’ by Alfred Bester

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Almost, for a moment, I thought I would have to attack the conductor of the Opera Comique, but fate was kind and let me off with nothing worse than indecent exposure, and I was able to square it by founding a scholarship at the Sorbonne.

A sentence like that is worth the price of admittance alone. Our narrator is a “compensator”, providing cosmic balance against his will. He gets into some scraps. The rest of the story is fun but fun of the hectic variety which gives you a bit of a headache. As always, Bester is so much more vibrant than his contemporaries though.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *

It goes without saying that this isn’t hard SF and, as has so often been the case, H&K come right out and admit this: “He was pyrotechnic, self-consciously literary, artificial, and brilliant, and utterly rejected the style and affect of hard sf.” An obvious candidate for inclusion, I think you will agree.

Written by Martin

30 November 2010 at 19:44

You Can Only Have Nice Things When You Can’t See The Spine

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Solaris are reissuing James Lovegrove’s back catalogue and, despite the fact they are only appearing as e-books, they have commissioned some lovely new covers by Pye Parr:

Worldstorm is my favourite but The Hope works really well on a dual level. Imagined Sleights and Provender Gleed are the weakest of the bunch – muddy and lacking an iconic image to really nail the title – but they are a vast improvement on the original Gollancz covers and Parr is to be applauded. So too are Solaris for commissioning him; it is nice to see a publisher taking both ebooks and design seriously and I’m looking forward to the two remaining covers. A mystery remains though: if Solaris are taking so much care with these re-issues, why have they given his current series such bloody awful covers? Maybe it is actually true what every publisher thinks and everyone who ever visits a bookshop is really blind and mentally ill. I’m not convinced.

Written by Martin

29 November 2010 at 22:28

Posted in books

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People don’t like to hear the word “Christmas” in November but my diary definitely says that Christmas is approaching. I’ve been booked out for four dinners and a lunch this week. Usually this would be a source of great pleasure but unfortunately there was a problem: last Friday I cooked this recipe. Now, that in itself wouldn’t be a problem, although it was typically fiddily and atypically flavourless for an Ottolenghi recipe, except that it contained pine nuts. Again, not a problem, although they cost more than fillet steak these, except me and the missus fell victim to pine mouth. Oh no! I’d never heard of this before but it is very real and absolutely foul. It cleared up after a couple of days (possibly helped by an alpha lipoic acid supplement) but I won’t be eating pine nuts again in a hurry. Anyway, all that preamble is by way of saying my taste buds might be a bit messed up so treat this post with a pinch of salt.

I first went to Manna – Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant (alledgedly) – last year. That was before I started writing up my meals, although I did make a few notes. Unfortunately they read in their entirity: “I drank pineau for the first time. I’m not sure I’d recommend it, a bit sweet, but everything else was very nice.” So yeah, not exactly fulsome. Manna have kept me on their mailing list and last month they sent through a special Thanksgiving menu. Knowing an American who gets a bit homesick at this time of year, I thought this a good excuse for an outing.

So did a lot of other people. The earliest booking we could get was 9.15 and when we arrived the place was absolutely heaving and the staff were looking a little harried. Who knew a four course vegan Thanksgiving menu would be so popular? We started with a lovely pumpkin soup with some slightly over-salted rosemary foccacia. I associate Thanksgiving with turkey and butter and obviously neither put in an appearance but the soup was incredibly creamy and buttery for never having been near a cow. Some sort of special vegan alchemy.

Unfortunately this was followed by an unsuccesful salad of spinach, walnut and pomegrante. It was unsuccessful because this was alledgedly a wilted spinach salad but had clearly never been near a heat source, this was simply a pile of raw leaves. This might not even have been a problem except the quantities used were obviously for wilted spinach so we got a huge plate of spinach leaves with a wholely inadequate squiggle of dressing.

If that was a success and then a failure, the main course was a mix of the two. Roasted garlic mash performed that same buttery alchemy and stuffing was equally magical in its ability to conjure up meaty tones. I thought that the side of caramelized onions and green beans was the perfect accompaniment but N complained that by this time of the evening plating had gone right out the window and my portion was three times the size of her’s. That was minor compared to the fact the centrepiece of herbed tempeh roast was like eating a rusk though. It was served with a splash of delicious wild mushroom gravy but you would have needed a pint pot of the stuff to get through what was essentially the scrag end of a wholemeal loaf. To compound this problem, the whole design of the course drew attention to the fact it should have been meat.

Onto pudding and another problem but this time it was one all of my own making. I um-ed and ah-ed over apple pie and pumpkin cheesecake before eventually going for the former. Yum tum. Except I had forgotten I am allegic to all fruit (except bananas). You’d think I’d remember this but no. As I walked to the tube I found my throat swelling shut and my lips plumping up. A message from God to stop eating out so much?

£27 per head including a vodka and cranberry. We also had a bottle of indifferent prosecco for £22.

Written by Martin

26 November 2010 at 10:34

Posted in food

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‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ by Arthur C Clarke

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‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ is not the the longest science fiction story in the world. In fact, it isn’t a story at all; it is a one page joke about an infinitely recursive rejection letter. Hilarious.

Hardness: *
Quality: *

Written by Martin

23 November 2010 at 20:20

Mopping Up The Butcher’s Floor Of Your Broken Little Hearts

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After watching last year’s cack-handedly compressed Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince I wondered if the cynical marketing decision to split The Deathly Hallows into two films might pay artistic dividends as well as cold hard cash ones. To my pleasant surprise it has. Yes, it is still clogged with too many characters and minor plot cul-de-sacs but it has the time and – free of Hogwarts – the space to evolve.

My memory of JK Rowling’s novel is that it was 700 pages of wander aimlessly through a forest and 50 pages of a climactic battle at the end. My worry was that would be exactly the split of the two films. Luckily, whilst Harry, Hermione and Ron’s bickering peregrinations do take up a huge portion of Deathly Hallows Part 1, my memory was faulty and there a good few set-pieces. More importantly, it replaces Rowling’s childish prose with a tone of emotional maturity which turns the tedious squabbling that appears on the page into something approaching actual drama.

Of course, it would help if any of the three principal actors could actually act. After this many years together they certainly have some level of rapport and they have learnt to mask their limitations but still. Director David Yates makes the best of this by treating his cast as simply another prop, using his budget to conjure up tableaux in which he places them in some of the most scenic parts of the UK. Often, like a Take That concert, it resembles nothing more than a sustained advert for knitwear.

This sounds like sustained snark but I did enjoy the film. Where the books provide the reader with nothing but increasingly idiotic plotting, the adaptations have developed a rich and impressive visual language. Rowling’s novels moved through the years but they never grew up but this is exactly what the cast and the films themselves have done before our eyes. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is dark and violent and intense, it is a film you can get your teeth into and exactly the sort of blockbuster we should be making for children. It is also, for the first time, sexual.

At the beginning of the film, Ginny asks Harry to zip her up. The old ones are the best. This inevitably leads to kissing until the scene is punctured by the arrival of one of the Weasley twins. The scene is perfectly composed but unfortunately there is zero chemistry between the two actors. Daniel Radcliffe can brood but, for the Chosen One, he isn’t very charismatic. This actually works to the film’s advantage later on when Harry dances with Hermione to the slightly ironic sounds of ‘O Children’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing on the radio. When Harry initiates this, it is a moment ripe with sexual tension. I doubt if anyone in the audience I saw it with came within ten years of the films 12 Certificate and they were practically baying for penetrative sex on the tent floor, right then and there. Instead, Radcliffe’s immense gawkiness transforms it into an extremely touching that brings home the isolation of the protagonists. Still, the audience got what it felt it had been cheated out of: later on Ron is confronted with a CGI image of Harry and Hermoine, naked and touching each other up, that is straight out of a Zack Synder film. Good stuff.

Basically, everything the books do badly, the film does well. Conversely, everything bad about the films is because of the books. If you’ve grown up on the Harry Potter books (and millions of people have) then I can’t imagine a better realisation of their potential. Well, unless that casting session so many years ago had gone a bit differently.

Written by Martin

23 November 2010 at 11:00

Posted in films, sf

‘With The Night Mail’ by Rudyard Kipling

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I was a bit sceptical about the inclusion of this story but it is indeed a proper hard SF story, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect in an anthology of the evolution of the subgenre. So hooray for that. Unfortunately ‘With The Night Mail’ takes the familiar, old-fashioned form of a guided tour of the world of tomorrow and is entirely without plot. After the “story” there are a further 16 pages of extraneous guff that flesh out the world but are beyond even sarcastic quote marks.

Hardness: *****
Quality: **

Written by Martin

22 November 2010 at 22:10

‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner

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H&C describe Turner as a Campbellian and compare the story to Heinlein’s ‘It’s Great To Be Back’ (1947) and Asimov’s ‘Waterclap’ (1970) and and, for once, the comparison is apt. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ was published in 1978 but nothing has changed in the intervening years; this is science fiction as bone-headed political thought experiment executed through laborious conversations (with added sexism).

One hundred and twenty years after the (undescribed) Plagues and the (undescribed) Collapse, everything on Earth is ticketyboo under the Global Ethic of Non-Interference. Meanwhile, up in space, the Orbiters, who split off from the rest of humanity three generations ago and control the world’s energy production, are feeling a bit bolshy.

Perhaps I am being a bit dim but I really can’t work out what on Earth the Global Ethic is actually meant to be. At first I took it to be a global libertarian philosophy, all the better to contrast with the communitarian Orbiters. But that doesn’t really square with the Earth’s global government, Stalinist security state and rigid central planning of the labour market. Interference happens all the time. Does this policy of non-interference only apply to the Orbiters then? Well, I’m not sure how you could make a Global Ethic out of that but no, it doesn’t. In helpful bullet point form we are told that:

First: the Power Stations as originally flown were rotated about the long axis to afford peripheral gravity.” Another finger. “Second: when the final Stations were flown, the seventeen formed themselves into the Orbital League.” Third finger. “The they made unreasonable demands for luxuries, surplus wealth, cultural artefacts and civic privilege under threat of throttling down the power beams… So the Global Council of the time authorised use of a remote-action energy blind, a – call it a weapon – whose existence had not been publicly known. The Orbiters threatened our microbeams, so we blinded the internal power systems of Station One… After a week of staling air, falling temperatures and fouling water they cried quits and-” fifth finger “-“the Orbital League has made no such further error since.”

So you can interfere if you want to. Indeed, early on, the security apparatchik responsible for that quote states that “the bloody Ethic means whatever you need it to mean.” Fair enough but that renders the whole story preposterous, as the obvious realpolitik of this statement comes into conflict with the hilarious naivete of the plot. I mean, why would the Global Council let the Orbiters take control of the power in the first place? And, after the attempt at extortion, why wouldn’t they take it back?

Now we come to the Orbiters’ cunning plan. The Global Council denies them anything more than a subsistence wage for their energy, they want funds for expansion. How can they get more money? They perform plastic surgery on one of their young men so that he resembles a movie star and then send him down to Earth to marry the richest heiress in Australasia. Simples. To which the Global Council can apparently do nothing more than throw up their hands and go: “Curses, out-smarted!”

Hardness: *
Quality: *

Written by Martin

20 November 2010 at 14:36