Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for October 2011


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Some time last month – sorry, I wasn’t paying attention – this blog was three years old. Hooray! So what’s happened this year? I’m still reviews editor for Vector and I’m still a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and I’m still going to too many restaurants. I’m still reviewing primarily for Strange Horizons (who are searching for a new look) but, as well as the short story projects (the next of which will be The New Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), I’m doing more reviewing on the blog itself. In particular, I’ve been very pleased with how a year of reading women has turned out (although I know there has been a bit of slippage). Hopefully I’ll be doing another long term project in 2012.

Without further ado, the greatest hits of this blog this year as voted for by you, the public:

1) What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes? – in which I take issue with the Nebulas.
2) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – in which I dislike a short story.
3) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of The Art #1 – in which I analyse who we see and how we see them in British science fiction.
4) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of The Industry – in which I analyse who publishes who in British science fiction.
5) A Long But Necessary Response To Athena Andreadis – in which I make extensive use of my right to reply.
6) The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer – in which I dislike a very large anthology.
7) At Least It’s An Ethos – in which I summarise the bankrupt nihilism “debate”.
8) Let’s Push Things Forward – in which I implore SF bloggers to raise their game.
9) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: Sex And Violence – in which I analyse, er, violence and sex in British science fiction
10) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics – in which I summarise my analysis of British science fiction.

So for the second year in a row, ‘The Star’ takes second place which was perhaps appropriate since my series of posts on the Arthur C Clarke Award otherwise dominated the list. ‘The Star’ is also my most popular post ever, although this year’s winner has been rapidly catching it up.

Written by Martin

27 October 2011 at 16:06

Posted in blog management

Salt Yard

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On Friday afternoon I was idly casting about for a place to have lunch in Chatham. Options were limited. This quick, unsuccessful Google led to me wondering if I could squeeze in lunch at Hawksmoor Seven Dials once I’d caught the train back to London. This in turn led me to contemplate Sunday lunch there with a glass of Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew. No, I thought, N will never go for it. By this point I had completely lost sight of my original objective and was just exploring more and more options for dining. Suddenly I was very, very hungry. Knowing that the fridge contained a red cabbage, some decidedly floppy carrots and little else, I wondered if I could persuade N to go out for tapas. She was once step ahead of me and was already on her way down to my office.

Having had the unsated desire for pretty much bang on a year, we decided we would try Salt Yard on Goodge Street. There was no chance of getting a table but it 5pm so we thought our chances of sitting at the bar were relatively high. In fact, the night was so young that we thought we would stop by The Piccadilly for a drink. Unfortunately, however, they have now been completely taken over by the dodgy looking Ristorante Biagio and the once proud list of draught and bottled beers was evaporated. We left as quickly as we arrived.

After that, and by the time we had wended our way North through town, it was getting on for half six; early for Spain, right in the thick of it for Central London. As expected, the next table wasn’t until the end of the evening but we had also missed the the places at the bar. Determined not to be refused we allowed ourselves to be relegated to the small strip of tables outside on the street. In terms of comfort, this wasn’t a problem since October remains unseasonably mild but dining is rarely improved by being repeatedly heckled by a raddled, gurning Chelsea fan with no teeth. Such are the perils of al fresco London dining. I was also reminded of how wonderful the smoking ban is and, as the couples on either side of us sparked up, I wondered how I’d manage to spend so long in pubs pre-ban. We started with bar snacks of peppers padron and boquerones. This was a mistake. A literal one since I had mistaken boquerones for rojones, the latter apparently being a term made up by the Norfolk Arms. Well, I did get a D in GSCE Spanish. Anyway, my loss was N’s gain since she is not averse to the dirty, dirty anchovy. We followed this with courgette flowers stuffed with goats’ cheese, their signature dish and a much more welcome sight. It is hard to go wrong with this combination melted cheese, semi-tempura vegetable and drizzled honey and it was lovely but I did think the courgette itself could have been cooked a touch longer.

The rest of our dishes then came in quick sucession and it was possible to find fault with all of them. The best was a salad of baby squid, chorizo, broad beans and friggitelli peppers but even here the squid could have been better quality since it fell foul of its Achilles’s tentacle: rubberiness. Sticking with seafood, crab and chilli croquettes were lacking in any chilli and herb mayonaise was not the ideal accompaniment. This would have worked better as an Asian rather than European dish. Similarly, I couldn’t help but compare the desperately underpowered seared tuna with marinated beetroot and tarragon to the wonderful tuna I had at the Hare & Tortoise the other week. The tarragon was entirely abscent, whatever the beetroot had been marinated in wasn’t very potent and the tuna was completely flavourless, leaving the crispy quail’s egg the sole mouthful of joy on the plate. Finally, there was chargrilled polenta with girolles, baby artichokes, pinenuts and a parmesan mousse. The mousse was lovely but the polenta was just stodge and you would need a magnifying glass to find the tiny shards of girolles. These were all dishes that sounded great on the menu and where obvious care had been taken with the composition and presentation but this wasn’t backed up by the kitchen. (To make a further unflattering comparison, I took N to Bocca De Lupa for our wedding anniversary and both their octopus and polenta highlighted how simplicity in the service of intensity can triumph over empty faff.)

Now a positive note before returning to a bit more negativity. Well, a little bit more negativity first since, as the evening, went on I made progressively better drinks choices. I started with a glass of Breganze Prosecco Rosato described as off-dry and it was indeed neither dry nor fruity but instead stranded and depthless. Careful to avoid repeating this experience, I next went for Don Nuno Oloroso Seco, the beefiest sherry they had, and it was as dark and nutty as advertised. N meanwhile had a glass of Fagus de Coto de Hayas 2008 which was irresistably described as having “almost cult status wine”. This is simulataneously profoundly wanky and extremely tempting and it was a cracker, smoky to the point of gunpowder under the surface. With cheese, I slipped into a gorgeous floral dessert wine which they describe as “Cortesia di Morassi” but which seems to be a typos.

So, the cheese and typography. According to their website, Salt Yard do have a dessert menu but we weren’t offered this and instead were only allowed to order cheese. We duly did this but it would have been easier if they hadn’t catastrophically designed the cheese section of the menu. Looking at it online, I think I can see what happened. There are half a dozen cheeses available at £4.50 as well as a couple of more expensive one: a selection of three manchegos with quince membrillo and a truffle percorino. This is clear from the website but the combination of milk type and provenence with unfortunate font and punctuation choices means that the two pricer ones look a lot like cheese selections. This is approximately true of the three manchegos which we received but the table next to us who thought they were also getting manchego weren’t particularly happy when the pecorino arrived. This is an instance where the restaurant could definitely do a bit more to help their punters make an informed decision.

£55 a head including service from a really lovely French waiter. That is pretty steep, particularly given our booze intake was restricted to two glasses of sherry and two of wine. It is also, coincidently, means that the total bill was exactly the same as the bill for five people when we ate at the Canton Arms the next night. Now, admittedly my mother-in-law only had a cheese toasty and we ordered some of our drinks at the bar but it is still telling. I remember someone telling me that if a couple wanted to eat a mediocre meal and get no change from a hundred quid then London was the best city in the world. Restaurants like Salt Yard are the reason for that cynicism.

Written by Martin

24 October 2011 at 16:58

Posted in food

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The Two Of Them

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Although I’ve read quite a bit of Joanna Russ’s non-fiction, I’ve never read her fiction. Aware of this gaping hole in my reading, I picked up a copy of the Women’s Press edition of The Two Of Them in Oxfam a couple of years ago. It has shamefully sat on my shelf until the year of reading women motivated me to pick it up.

The Two Of Them was first published in 1978, although it didn’t make it to the UK until 1986. As such it comes relatively late in her science fiction career; in fact, it is the last SF novel she published. So I wondered if this was a sensible place to start. Although several people re-assured me on Twitter that it was, the more I read, the more I started to have my doubts. By the time I’d reached the end I was both completely captivated and totally confused.

The two of them are introduced in a long descriptive passage this is simultaneously straight forward (their appearance is described in detail) and sideways (their sex is concealed until page 3, their names until page 4). We – the reader – are directly addressed by the author; Russ does not want us to forget that these are her words, that they represent deliberate choices. This becomes increasingly important as the book progresses but for now what matters is the introduction. Irene and Ernst are colleagues, they are lovers, they are student and teacher; they are equals, they are unequal. Russ’s achievement here is to immerse us in a complicated relationship and make us immediately alive to its depth, density and maddening contradictions. However, whilst there connection is clear, the context that brings them to the planet of Ala-ed-Deen is not.

Ernst and Irene work for The Gang. The back cover (which details the whole of the plot from beginning to end) suggests this is the same at the Trans Temp. However, even after reading the book I have no idea what this organisation does or why it exists. To begin with this doesn’t matter since the story is confined to their relationship. As they become more and more involved with the culture of Ala-ed-Deen, however, it is impossible to not to start asking questions and once Irene legal kidnapped a young girl – seemingly part of the day-to-day business of Trans Temp – I was completely lost. Even more confusing is the sudden revelation that Irene was a teenage in Fifties America (making her the same age as Russ). What has initially seemed like a far future space opera setting is revealed to be something more confused and confusing. How have they recruited Irene from across time? More importantly, why? We are never told.

When I finished the novel I therefore did what everyone does these days: I Googled it. One of the first things I came across was Brit Mandelo’s review for Tor.com, part of a series of posts she wrote about Russ’s work. It does shed some light but one sentence stood out in particular:

It’s a messy book, not in its prose, which is flawless as ever for Russ, but in its relationships and its arguments, its breaking of the fourth wall and the rules of narrative to make a point.

Messy is a good word. Wild is another. This has its appeal but, as a male reader though, I found something particularly problematic about the arguments it makes. This is a novel in which – as Mandelo reminds us – the key quote is: “The gentlemen always think the ladies have gone mad.” This is quite clearly a critique; the character voicing it is a young woman trapped by the constraints of a patriarchal society. It serves men, we are intended to read Russ as saying, to characterise women thus because it removes their agency and allows them to be dismissed. So it is surprising that the final part of the novel appears to depict Irene’s descent into insanity. This gentleman does think the lady has gone mad so half of me wonders what trap I’ve fallen into and the other half is wonders what mess Russ hasn’t gotten herself into.

It is at this point I turned to Gwyneth Jones. I don’t own Imagination/Space but fortunately her essay on The Two Of Them from that book is available online. Jones describes the novel as a “kind of postscript to the whole Cinderella story of twentieth century womanhood” and usefully contextualises it within 20th Century feminism and, specifically, the science fiction feminism of the Sixties and Seventies. She also contextualises it within Russ’s other fiction and those of other writers:

It illuminates the background and explains some of the wrinkles in The Two Of Them, when we know that the novel began as a response to a story called ‘For The Sake Of Grace’ (1969) by another feminist, Suzette Haden Elgin. In Elgin’s ‘Islamic-style’ world, prowess in poetry is the only path left open to women who want to achieve greatness, and it is made as difficult and threatening as possible. ‘For The Sake Of Grace’, in its turn, pays homage to the classic proto-feminist story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), a chilling description of exactly how a talented woman goes mad, when she’s locked up to ‘cure’ her of her talent as a writer.

Although I obviously picked up the theme, the specifics of this was all completely lost on me (Jones is using the Wesleyan University Press with a foreword by Sarah Lefanu, mine was naked). Having remarked on how controversial the ending was at the time it was published (and taking John Clute to task fro this), Jones does provide the counter reading I was hoping for. It is not, however, a reading I recognise. Or rather, I recognise the metaphorical reading that she makes but can’t reconcile it with a literal reading of the book. We are back to the problem I with Woman On The Verge Of Time, that the multiplicity of readings offered up by the text all come into conflict. If something is science fiction, surely it is science fiction for a reason, rather than just an excuse to throw chaff at the reader? To cloak a story of our own world with a colourful, gauzy veil?

These days, I’m better able to understand how a liberal male critic, convinced that women in sf were a well-served special interest group, with nothing to complain about, could have felt so betrayed, and indeed bewildered, by The Two Of Them.

I don’t think liberal male critics who think women in SF are well-served actually exist these days but it is true enough that I am a liberal male critic and I am bewildered by The Two Of Them. This bewilderment has not been dispelled by Jones’s essay; I think I need to read the book again.

Written by Martin

19 October 2011 at 16:55

Putting The Space Squids To Rest Once And For All

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My review of In Other Worlds: SF And The Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood is up now at Strange Horizons.

This is probably one for fans only – and when I say fans, I mean fans of Atwood, not science fiction fans. Much is explained, much is further muddied; “Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy”, she blithely states at one point. This is a very personal, idiosychratic exploration of science fiction, one that is likely to send purists screaming for the hills (some of the comments here, for example). In Atwood’s own words:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather, it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship to a literary form, or forms, or sub-forms, both as reader and as writer.

I’d also like to congratulate Strange Horizons for reaching their fundraising target and thank everyone who contributed to making this happen. It really is the best of the web and long may it continue.

Written by Martin

14 October 2011 at 09:35

Micro-Chain Asian Restaurants

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On Friday, I went to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Barbican which meant two things. Firstly, I enjoyed a leisurely glass of Springfield Estate 2009 Life From A Stone at the Barbican Lunge whilst waiting for my wife to finish work. Secondly, we spurned the Barbican’s mediocre and over-priced food offerings for Pho. This is the original of what is now a small chain of restaurants selling classic Vietnamese dishes in a Westernised environment. This manifests itself in the decor, service and modest length of the menu which – as the name suggests – focuses on pho and bun as well as a few salads and curries.

We usually start with summer rolls because you do, don’t you? However, my wife had managed to squeeze in a round of cake and champagne before leaving work so wanted to move straight to mains. I felt a bit hard done by so ordered some pork spring rolls to accompany my lemongrass beef bun. I always order bun – soupy noodles rather than noodle soup – because a basterdised version of pho forms one of a our core meals at home. You get a bowl of beef, beansprouts and noodles, you pour over the nuoc cham (always ask for the spicy version) and you’ve got a quick, delicious and healthy meal that is perfect for pre-theatre dining. Okay, slightly less healthy when you’ve burnt your mouth wolfing down three spring rolls dipped in peanut sauce and then washed them down with a bottle of Hue beer. Ignoring the unneccessary starter, this is £12-13 a head (depending on whether you want meat, prawn or tofu) including service.

Then on Saturday I tried to combine two seperate social engagements by having dinner near Lamb’s Conduit Street before going down the pub. If the Barbican means Pho then this patch of London means going to the Hare & Tortoise in the Brunswick Centre. I used to live in Bloomsbury in the late Nineties and back then the centre was frankly a shit hole. However, a couple of years ago it underwent a major renovation and it is now a much more pleasant place which lives up to its modernist ambitions.

The Hare & Tortoise is on the east side next to the excellent Renoir cinema (part of another micro-chain – Curzon Cinemas) and is easily identifiable by the queue outside. This is because they don’t take reservations so make sure you get there a bit earlier than you want to eat (every time I’ve been the queue has been pretty fast moving though). You might expect this to be a recipe for a high pressure Wagamama-style table turning but whilst the service and kitchen are definitely brisk, the atmosphere is more convivial and the food is decidedly better.

The menu is much longer than Pho’s and is primarily Japanese but with excursions across the whole of South East Asia. We imposed our Western habits and split the menu into starters (tempura, nigiri, sashimi, maki and sides) and mains (ramen, noodle and rish dishes) but the price structure is relatively flat and you are only going to break the £7 barrier if you order sashimi or a sushi box. The highlight of the starters was maguro tataki, seared tuna encrusted with nori and sesame in a shoyu dressing, and we ended up ordering three portions of these. Also impressive was a dragon roll, a tempura prawn stuffed into an inside-out seaweed roll and dusted with fish roe, but all the starters were very well done. I followed this with chicken katsu curry which I would criticise slightly for the thickness of its sauce but which was a steal at £6.50. All in all, the bill came to a wonderfully low £22 a head, including service and a pint of Kirin each since, in another point in their favour, they have this on draft.

I’ve eaten at Wagamama many times, I’m pleased it has been so successful at popularising Japanese food to the UK and it is still your best bet for a quick, cheap meal in a lot of places. But it has obviously become a bit of a victim of its own success; no one at Wagamama cares what your food is actually like, they are already onto the next customer. These two restaurants both show why smaller is often better.

Written by Martin

10 October 2011 at 15:26