Everything Is Nice

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

Con Report – Eastercon

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My first Eastercon was in 2010, a time when I was feeling particularly anti-social, and was held at Heathrow, a particularly anti-social location. I didn’t have a great time but both those limiting factors had changed by this year’s Eastercon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year and must concede, once and for all, that I am part of fandom.

First order of the day – after registration and buying the 50th issue of Black Static for a quid – was lunch with what once upon a time would have been called Third Row fandom. Is that still a thing? We couldn’t make it over to dim sum and they wouldn’t let us in for tapas so we had Greek. There was meat and beer. It was good.

Back inside, my first panel of the con was Catastrophe And Salvage. It very nearly wasn’t my first panel since it was held in Room 7 which had capacity for about 30 and was fully twenty minutes before the panel started. I just got in, many others didn’t and this was a bit of a pattern for the weekend.

The panel itself was okay but I found that they just stopped short of making progress before switching onto the next thread. I’d not seen Mathew de Abaitua speak before and he was very interesting. Tricia Sullivan still seems to be (understandably) burnt out on SF which is a shame because she is so smart and had lots to contribute but I just didn’t feel she wanted to be there.

Due to a large number of interruptions from the floor, there wasn’t time for any questions. If there had been, I would have asked: “We’ve talked a lot about the lack of agency in the 21st Centure and disaster fiction as fantasies of agency. That is external change, what about internal change? Why are revolutions so under-represented in SF compared to disasters?”

I wanted to get into The Stars Are Your Canvas and The Female Gaze but they were both in Room 7 (all the best programming was) so I didn’t risk it. Elsewhere the BSFA Awards were announced. Things I didn’t want to win won – c’est la vie. However, my choice for Best Non-Fiction – Rave And Let Die by Adam Roberts – did win so that was nice. I think Nick Hubble’s review of the book is worth reading alongside this win:

There is something discordant, too, about the proximity of Roberts’s contention that “whatever else reviews are ‘for,’ they ought to be entertaining” (p. 14) to his discussion of why he doesn’t particularly value entertainment as a criterion of a book’s worth. One of the least entertaining reviews in his collection, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, is one of the most incisive in critical terms. Roberts is, amongst his many other distinctions, a significant Tolkien scholar and his 2013 study, The Riddles of the Hobbit, is a model for how good an accessible academic book can be. In some ways, of course, it is the contradiction between being a top-level academic and an entertainer that can make Roberts such an interesting and unpredictable critic to read.

I made my dinner plans based on a quick Google of Time Out just as my phone was dying. It recommended Tattu, gave it five stars and two out of four for affordability so I took a punt. It turned out to be located in the huge new Spinningfields development with its diamond-like Armani building and Australiasia. Once this would have been described as noveau riche but it is more like credit riche or Premier League Aspiration and Tattu turned out to be a very hollow experience.

I ordered an Orchid Blush to drink which tasted of tequila and mouthwash and arrived after the starter. Said starter of scallop with Iberico xo sausage, brown shrimp and pumpkin was fine and for £14 I wanted more than “fine”. I could just about taste the pumpkin but nothing made the dish come alive. It was an example of expensive ingredients and pretty presentation being used as substitute for flavour. This was even more the case for the black pepper and honey ribs which had no heat, spice or really any flavour at all. I’ve never had a Chinese meal with so little seasoning. I ordered a side of rice with this which boasted of duck egg and Chinese sausage but again, you’d be hard pressed to actually find them.

This came to just over £50 for one which I’m not sure is two out of four for affordability and I’m definitely sure is very poor value for money. I ate a much better meal at Jitrada in Sale the night before for half the price.

Back at the con in the morning and I was working. Or, at least, I was on the Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon panel. This went well with a nicely balanced, interesting panel, a great moderator and an audience of a hundred odd people. Still, I couldn’t help reflecting that it was a bit of a well worn topic and I’d have liked to have seen some of the other panels having that much space.

For example, the 30 Years Of The Arthur C Clarke Award panel immediately afterwards in yes, Room 7. It was an interesting discussion of the history of the award but two particular things stood out for me. Firstly, the interest in the Award putting out a longlist. This is something I’d like to see too but isn’t a direction the award will be going in. Secondly, both Nina Allan and Nick Hubble mentioned Torque Control as the place that facillitated the best discussion of the award as well as being a hub for British science fiction in general.

Torque Control was established by Niall Harrison when he was editor of Vector, the magazine of the BSFA. Although the subsequent editor Shana Worthen continued the blog, it no longer functioned in the same way and for the last five years there hasn’t been a UK hub of the type Nina and Nick (and me) found so productive. Several times I’ve begged Niall to blog again (although he does a bit with a different hat on) and, indeed, I buttonholed him straight after the panel too. The age of blogging has passed and the age of Twitter has many benefits but still, you can dream.

Written by Martin

29 March 2016 at 16:09

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A Really Useful Engine

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John Self recently wrote a post on reading and specifically his relationship with reading at different points in his life. This includes a stage of life I’ve just reached myself:

A parent is a willing player in the project of being pushed into a corner of their own life… As it happens, I managed pretty well to keep my reading up after our first son was born. The thing about two parents and one child is that you outnumber them: you can give your partner a break, and vice versa… With two children, the first thing you realise is how easy it was with one. Now there are no hiding places, no spare hands. Once they’re both sleeping through the night (and with our second, currently 16 months old, we’re still waiting for that), you have the evening free; but you’re too tired to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Most of all, with two young children, you’re never really alone…

Deeds of possession for property speak of the tenant or owner having “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. Those two words placed together will have most parents scratching their heads with quizzical eyebrows. Quiet enjoyment is not part of the deal. But it is essential if you want to read, or write, or write about reading. It is essential if you want to engage with a book that can’t be fully absorbed with Octonauts playing in the background.

Whilst my short fiction reading has increased, I haven’t opened a novel for three months. And if reading is hard, writing is harder. Two years ago I published my 50th review for Strange Horizons, a figure achieved over nine years. My 52nd review,  Railhead by Philip Reeve,  has just gone live. I describe the novel as “the first New Weird children’s space opera” which probably oversells it. Reeve couldn’t write a bad book but this is not a particularly memorable one:

Does this mean that Reeve’s proud demi-gods will persist in the imagination as long as Awdry’s squabbling schoolboys? I doubt it. Though thrilling and humane, Railhead ultimately feels transitory—more style than substance.

Yes, that is a Thomas The Tank Engine reference. Not only have my reviews slowed done substantially, their frame of reference has shrunk dramatically. This is not something that can be said of other recent Strange Horizons reviews. So I’d like to write to more reviews in 2016 but I’d also like to write different reviews. I’m just not sure where I’ll find the time.

Written by Martin

22 March 2016 at 13:07

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A Few Short Notes On Some Short Fiction

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I’ve done surprisingly well at reading short fiction this year but unsurprisingly badly at writing about it. I am also currently on paternity leave which means I have very little free time and I’m also in withdrawal from my day job which mostly consists of writing bulletpoint lists. So here is a very quick summary of my reading:

  • Last year I reviewed the Puppy-stuffed Hugo shortlist for Strange Horizons. It is very bad. Last month I read the Nebula short story shortlist. It is also pretty bad (with the honorable exception of ‘Hungry Daughters Of Starving Mothers’ by Alyssa Wong). Reading both it is clear that despite the chaff, the difference between the two is purely political. In particular, ‘Damage’ by David D. Levine (acquired and edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and published by Tor.com) is basically the same story as ‘Turncoat’ by Steve Rzasa (acquired and edited by Vox Day who views PNH and Tor.com as the Antichrist).
  • If I was writing about that shortlist, I’d probably want to link it to this Ethan Robinson review of The Weave by Nancy Jane Moore. Robinson also has some more direct thoughts here.
  • I have also started reading Interzone for the first time in a decade. Somethings don’t change; Nick Lowe is great on The Force Awakens in the latest issue. As always, the fiction is a mixed bag but the stand out story is ‘Empty Planets’ by Rahul Kanakia who I wasn’t previously aware of.
  • Also new to me are JY Yang (‘Song Of The Krakenmaid’ and ‘Secondhand Bodies’) and Kelly Robson (‘Two-Year Man’) who I have discovered through a secrit short fiction pusher who has got me hooked. The latter reminds me a bit of A Day In The Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter which I’d love to write a bit more about.

 

Written by Martin

5 March 2016 at 14:03

Posted in sf, short stories

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BSFA Review – Vector #282

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BSFA members will have noticed that there was no editorial in this issue’s BSFA Review. This was because once again I ran out of time which, in turn, is one of the reasons I am standing down as reviews editor. It has been a great couple of years and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved but it is time for a change. So I’m very pleased to announce that Susan Oke will be taking over from me from Vector #283.

Reviews

  • Modernism And Science Fiction by Paul March-Russell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • Europe At Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins, 2014) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • Mother Of Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus, 2015) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
  • The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
  • The Fifth Dimension by Martin Vopěnka, translated by Hana Sklenkova (Barbican Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • Barricade by Jon Wallace (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
  • The House Of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, translated by Lola M Rogers (Pushkin Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
  • Deep Time by Anthony Nanson (Hawthorn Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
  • Ashamet, Desert Born by Terry Jackman (Dragonwell Publishing, 2015) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • Fencing Academy by AW Freyr (Uruk Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke

Written by Martin

13 February 2016 at 08:45

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BSFA Awards Voting – Short Fiction Longlist

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Every year I have good intentions of reading lots of short stories, identifying some real gems and then nominating them for the BSFA Awards. Most years I fail. So I am very pleased that the BSFA have now introduced a two-stage voting process where members can vote on a longlist of nominations. Given the size of the field and the difficulty of achieving blind consensus on the best short fiction published through nominations (witness the 2013 Hugo short story shortlist only having 3 nominees that had the minimum of 5% of nominations) this is a sensible change but on a personal level, it is hugely welcome because it allows me to re-engage with the field.

There are 41 stories on the longlist and I’ve read 34 of them. On that basis, my votes are:

  1. ‘A Day In The Deep Freeze’ by Lisa Shapter – Set in an anonymous mid-Twentieth Century America that hides something truly horrific, this is a remorseless novella that is completely unique and penetrates bone deep. This is the only one of my selections that isn’t available for free but you should buy it now.
  2. ‘The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link – It is a Link story and it is a very good Link story and it is science fiction. What more do you want?
  3. ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space’ by Sam Kriss – Combatative, creative non-fiction that is like nothing else on the longlist.
  4. ‘Elephants and Corpses’ by Kameron Hurley – One of only two secondary world fantasy stories, this is typical exuberant, inventive Hurley which is something this rather mannered longlist needed.

If I had four more votes, they would be for:

My votes sort of accord with those of Nicholas Whyte but I’m looking forward to seeing what stories other people are going for. And I’m hoping to write more about the stories on the shortlist itself once it is announced.

Written by Martin

15 January 2016 at 08:32

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Notes Towards A Post-2008 Slipstream Reading List

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In the comments to this 2008 review of Feeling Very Strange, I’ve been asked for some updated slipstream recommendations. Alas, my reading rate and memory have both declined in the intervening period so I can’t really make any recommendations. I did think it would be interesting to try and build up a reading list though. In collaboration with a secret slipstream accomplish, here are some initial thoughts:

  • Rana Dasgupta, Solo (2009)
  • Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2010)
  • Helen Oyeymi, Mr Fox (2011)
  • Craig Thompson, Habibi (2011)
  • Johanna Sinisalo, Birdbrain (2008, translated 2010)
  • Ruth Ozeki, A Tale For The Time Being (2013)
  • Nina Allan, The Race (2014)
  • Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians In Space (2014)
  • Hanya Yanagihara, The People In The Trees (2014)
  • Tom McCarthy, Satin Island (2015)

I should stress I have not read all of these works and would probably argue against some of them. But I now open the floor for comments.

Written by Martin

19 October 2015 at 20:18

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BSFA Review – Vector #281

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I had been planning to review about Y Dydd Olaf by Gwenno for my editorial this time round but I’ve rapidly came to the conclusion I’m not qualified to write about it. If I wanted to put you off, I would describe it as a folktronica concept album sung in Welsh (and, occasionally, Cornish). But I don’t because it is great. Perhaps more alluring is the fact Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day) is also the title of a 1976 science fiction novel by Owain Owain, nuclear scientist, poet and Welsh language activist. Alas, as far as I can tell it has never been translated into English. If any members have read a copy, please let me know!

The language barrier for the album initially seemed less insurmountable; a track like ‘Patriarchaeth’ sounds like it should be pretty self-explanatory and Saunders has given some fascinating interviews about where her music is coming from and the seed Owain’s novel has sown. So this gave me hope. And, after all, my favourite science fiction albums are all instrumental. This includes both actual SF soundtracks such as Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk, albums that merely sound like soundtracks such as Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons.

The sequel to Tron gets a bad rep as just another example of Hollywood cannibalising itself and I can’t in good conscience describe it as a good film but the audio and visual design is stunning and the partnership with Daft Punk is inspired. The opener, ‘Overture’, is pure blockbuster bombast. Hubris clobbered by nemesis, indeed. This then slides into ‘The Grid’ before the sublime ‘Son Of Flynn’, each sketching out SF worlds in less than two minutes each.

Meanwhile ‘Surf Solar’, the opening track of Tarot Sport, is ten and half minutes minutes of escalating, unrestrained sense of wonder. For some reason, it always puts me in mind of space elevators; the optimism and drama of Arthur C Clarke’s The Fountains Of Paradise and gothic destruction of Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. ‘Surf Solar’ is truly epic and listening to it whilst driving on the motorway is likely to lead to your license being endorsed.

Y Dydd Olaf is a rather different kettle of fish, both for its tone and its use of words. In fact, its surface is remarkably sunny for a dystopia, perhaps not surprising from an artist whose previous outfit was The Pipettes. But I say ‘surface’ since the aforementioned ‘Patriachaeth’ marries a bouncy electro beat and soaring vocals to the following refrain: “Patriarchy, and your soul is under siege”. But I only know that because I looked it up.

As the album progress, the production becomes increasingly harried by robotic noises of the sort that make The Middle Of Nowhere my default ‘bloody hell, the future’s out to get me’ album. There are even pwew-pwew laser noises as ‘Sisial Y Môr’ fades out. But what does it all mean? You can clearly pick up the rejection of purist folk revival and the embrace of a counter-narrative built around industrial heritage; simplistically, a sonic melding of north and south Wales. Still, a lot of context and hence nuance is striped out by my inability to understand the lyrics which means that, unlike the other examples above, I feel like I am missing half the picture.

So I can tell you ‘Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki’ is the standout track on the album and I that a big part of why I love it is Saunders’s phrasing but I can’t tell you what she is saying. Interestingly, however, the album comes with an accompanying suite of remixes including a radical re-interpretation of this song by TOY. This howling, violent version is perhaps more accessible for being entirely abstract (though certainly not better).

Despite all this equivocation, I can wholeheartedly recommend the album to you. If you only want to own one Welsh language… well, make it Mwng by Super Furry Animals. If you want to own two, buy Y Dydd Olaf. And I’m sure random music recommendations is exactly why you are a member of the BSFA. Still, this column was certainly less outright ill-conceived that one of my scraped editorial ideas to review the 2013 Tom Cruise film Oblivion based solely on its soundtrack. My notes include such baffling scribbles as “same setting as The Lion King?” and “Morgan Freeman = giant spider” so I think you can probably count yourself lucky.

Reviews

  • Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Bruce Sterling (MIT Technology Review, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Glorious Angels by Justina Robson (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Rook Song by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Superposition by David Walton (Pyr, 2015) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe (Tor, 2015) – Review by Gary Dalkin
  • The Madagaskar Plan by Guy Saville (Hodder and Stoughton, 2015) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
  • The Empire Of Time by David Wingrove (Del Rey UK, 2014) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Dark Star by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories, 2015) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Edge Of Dark by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2015) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • In Dark Service by Stephen Hunt (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Kerry Dodd
  • The Night Mayor by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman

Written by Martin

18 October 2015 at 18:50

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