Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for November 2010

‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ by Cordwainer Smith

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I’m not a fan of Smith – I never managed to finish The Rediscovery Of Man – and this story hasn’t changed my mind.

Unusually for Smith it is set on Earth. A couple of brilliant Russian scientists – Rogov and his wife – are trying to make some sort of psionics dealy for Stalin. I guess such things were all the rage back in 1959 when the story was published. Anyway, because they are so brilliant they accidently invent a time machine instead. Thanks to this we know that in the 136th Century Earth will be the galatic interpretive dance chapmion. Go us.

There is meant to be some emotional stuff as well but the characters are so lightly sketched, so stereotypically Russian that it is hard to care. So when the act of seeing the future causes Rogov to snuff it, we just shrug, despite his wife’s anguished but bizarrely belated cry of “no, no, not Rogov!”. A weak line to make the title but then the story is composed of nothing but weak lines.

Hardness: **
Quality: *

Written by Martin

19 November 2010 at 14:18

Polpetto

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All things come to he who waits. In this instance that means tapas. Or Venetian tapas, at least.

Tucked up in a small room above a pub in Soho, Polpetto looks like it has been there forever but in fact it opened less than a year ago. They don’t take reservations so, though we got there relatively early, there was an a hour’s wait for a table (we’d forgotten about the pre-theatre crowd). We went round the corner to the Coach and Horses and they texted us when our table was ready.

You start with cicheti and, being a man of moderation, I ordered one of everything. This isn’t as gluttonous as it sounds as they are very small dishes, a couple of quid and a couple of bites each. The best of these were a plump duck and porcini meatball and a white bean crostini which positively glowed with garlic. Less successful was smoked tuna wrapped round lemon and dill ricotta which tasted searingly of lemon as it arrived on the palatte, eventually gave way to dull ricotta and only belatedly gave up a hint of tuna. If the the bean crostini glowed, chopped chicken liver crostino postively throbbed with potency. Astonishingly good value at £1.50 since it would have made a substantial starter all on its own but too much like all out war on a stomach that was just warming up.

And, of course, you can’t go to a restaurant called Polpetto without ordering polpetto. There is something slightly troubling about plunging a cocktail stick into the brain of an infant octopus that has already been drowned in olive oil but once you pop it in your mouth you soon forget about that.

Then we moved onto the larger courses, again designed for sharing and split between meat, fish, veg and bread. Our waitress suggested four or five of these so obviously we went for five (a bread, two veg and two fish). This was more than enough, we stuffed ourselves silly so I can’t fault them on their portion size. What I can fault them on is the actual delivery of the food.

Once our cicheti were cleared, our bread – pizzetta bianca – was immediately served. This is exactly sounds like – a small, plain pizza of garlic, red onion and cheese – and it would have been lovely if it hadn’t been very slightly burnt. Although minor, this unfortunately lent a scorched taste to the whole thing. Even more problematic was its isolation though. It arrived so swiftly that we were at first alarmed that the rest of the mains were going to appear equally rapidly and that they were secretly intent on fattening us up and harvesting our livers. But no. After ten minutes or so we realised the poor bread had pitched up on its own. It looked so lonely that we had to eat half of it. We waited a bit more. We ate the other half. Our mains arrived. Now, I don’t know about you but I never really felt the need for a bread course between the starters and the mains.

And when I say our mains arrived, I mean half our mains arrived. Crispy soft shell crab was perfectly prepared and cooked but came accompanied with horribly claggy celeriac slaw that tasted like nothing than Helleman’s. A salad of fennel, radish, mint and ricotta was the exact opposite but who said I wanted that fish main with that vegetable main? Fair enough, the tables are very small and the kitchen presumably isn’t much bigger but if a meal is only going to be presented in rounds I expect the staff to tell me this and I will modify my ordering accordingly. Even in a Vietnamese restaurant where they serve it as the cook it, they will at least have the decency to bang it on the table as soon as it is ready, leaving the course management up to you rather than artificially imposing micro-courses upon you.

Our second round consisted of cuttlefish in its ink with gremolata and zucchinni fries. So maybe our hosts did know best because the squid ink would have enitrely overwhelmed that delicate little radish salad. At the same time, the fries would gone really well with the grab and N said she could have done with something a bit plainer than the cuttlefish to accompany them and soothe their saltiness. And she is a woman who likes salt. This was my first time with the old cuttlefish and I endorse it; I was expecting squid but it was much more like a firm fish. The ink was surprisingly intimidating – you just aren’t used to your food being that black – and both of us thought it was a bit licorice-y but then immediately wondered if this was psychosomatic. I couldn’t find any gremolata in there but N assures me it was (they also serve osso buco and I was sorely tempted).

After all that, we stomachly sated and orally confused. So we ordered three puddings. The two puddings we ordered individually for ourselves cleaved very much to the old school fruit plus dairy model. They were nice enough (as you may have gathered, dessert is the least important stage of the meal for me). The third pudding – bay leaf ice cream, ordered purely out of curiosity – was absolutely stunning though, a gentle but full and entirely unexpected flavour that worked perfectly in this context.

£46 a head for too much food, service and a bottle of pink wine. No, seriously, that is what they call it on the (very brief) drinks list. We then walked down Charing Cross Road very slowly to my private members’ club (srsly) for a couple of over-priced and inadequate cocktails in the most garish environment imaginable. That’s living, alright.

Written by Martin

9 November 2010 at 20:03

Posted in food

Tagged with

Let’s Push Things Forward

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Blogging is great. It is a tool with huge potential and, by handing over the means of production, it has opened up the world and given everyone a voice. It has been particularly revolutionary in certain fields which entry has traditionally relied on unpaid apprenticeships and the right connections. This includes politics, national journalism and the media and arts, culture and the creative industries. Now, anyone can succeed in these fields but it certainly helps if you are rich and privileged. For example, if you look at the writers of the Guardian – the UK’s premier progressive paper – you will see that a surprisingly large number of them went to public schools and then up to Oxbridge. These fields are all also extremely Londoncentric. Blogging has opened all this up. If you are single mother up in Cumbria writing on a subject you are passionate about in scant free time you have then you now have a platform and it has an audience that is potentially as big as the Guardian’s.

Science fiction isn’t like that though. Say what you want about fandom (and I’ve said plenty) but it is remarkably democratic. Since the birth of the modern genre early in the last century, the line between professionals and amateurs – not to mention writers, reviewers, critics and fans – has been very blurred. Take, for example, the Futurians, a bunch of fans that just happened to include Isaac Asimov, James Blish and Damon Knight. You’d be hard pressed to think of a field with lower barriers to participation than science fiction or one where it is easier to make the transition to “pro”. A large part of this is to do with the huge number of venues for both fiction and non-fiction that the genre has enjoyed. Where there haven’t been the venues people have simply created them and what are fanzines if not yesterday’s blogs? To talk of there being gatekeepers is just nonsense.

So the SF bloggers of today aren’t blazing any sort of trail, they are simply following in the footsteps of previous generations but in a different medium. Which is not to say that everything is business as usual. Blogs have far greater reach and permanence than fanzines ever had. Older fans sometimes complain about younger fans re-inventing the wheel but this is because all the old wheels are mouldering in a shed somewhere. It is regrettable that a great deal of the literature of previous fandom has fallen down the memory hole. The British Science Fiction Association has been publishing magazines for over fifty years but how many of them are accessible and to how many people? I will pause to acknowledge that well-archived physical documents printed on good quality paper remain the prefered long term storage solution. I don’t think this applies to most of the material I am refering to. There is a huge digitisation job to be done but there seems to be little appetite for this.

Therefore it should be a privilege to be writing in the age of the blog and it would be nice to see more people making the most of the gift they have been given. Obviously no one is obligated to do anything but a little self-reflection never hurt anyone. The most common reason given for eshewing such reflection is “I’m just writing for me.” That is a lie. If you really were just writing for yourself, you could keep a diary. People blog not just because they want to write but because they want to be read. This means they have to publish and, once you are publishing publically, what you write is fair game. Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should; similarly, just because you have a platform, doesn’t mean you should use it.

People really don’t want to hear that. Just as some people seem to believe that there are no good and bad books, only different readers, so they seem to think the same applies to blogs. But this is not true: some things are better than others. Perhaps a more honest way of stating the rejection of reflection would be “I’m just writing for me and other people exactly like me.” And that seems a bit sad to me; it surpresses the potential of the platform but it also surpresses the potential of the writer too.

At the moment there are a lot of enthusiastic SF book review blogs but very few good ones. I would hope (and expect, to be honest) that people would seek to transform their enthusiasm into into skill. This doesn’t seem to be the case and, in fact, people react angrily and defensively to the very suggestion. For me, the fact that the majority of SF blog book reviews are very weak is less of an issue than the refusal of people to address it. Sure, you can do it “for the love” but that is another way of saying you are happy to stay in your comfort zone, lazy and complacent and unwilling to hold yourself to the standards you believe the genre is worthy of. And if that is the case, why bother publishing?

To criticise someone’s writing is not to criticise that person and what I’m saying is “let’s raise our game”. Unfortunately the response is often “why are you putting us down?

Written by Martin

5 November 2010 at 15:45

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf