April 2012 Archives

April 28, 2012

Space Werewolf T-Shirt


April 26, 2012

Embassytown - China Mieville

China Mieville does overt Science Fiction with aliens and spaceships and everything. Should have been perfect but I found the story terribly difficult to get into. Usually I like being thrown into the deep end with strange words and locations and having to work hard to figure out what is going on. Zero exposition, normally my thing. But Embassytown irritated me with its alien words and strangeness, it feels forced. It reminded me of writers who throw lots of words at the page in an attempt to make something Sci-Fi.

Eventually, after quite a while, I managed to get into the story, which is about aliens being alien on an alien world whilst humans look on, usually baffled. There's a great idea at the core of Embassytown, but as with The City And The City the idea towers above the story. The idea is (look away if you don't want to know) that the aliens need two mouths to speak, two vocal streams at once, from one entity. They can't lie, their Language is the truth. The Language is written down in a mathematical looking fashion looking like fractions hello/there which is cool, and clever. The humans breed twins to talk to the aliens, known as Ambassadors, who talk at the same time and manage to pass as a single entity. And the story deals with big themes about the existence of an entire alien race. There's probably three big ideas in the novel that some authors would have made a trilogy of. But...but...but...

The entire novel felt far too long, it dragged and dragged, and without any beautiful poetic prose to keep me occupied until something happened. I got bored. I wanted the whole thing edited down to at least two thirds of its length. Near the end there is one beautiful moment that was almost worth the trudge, but not quite. It came too late.

It's been a while since I read The Sparrow, but I seem to remember that it covered similar themes and sustained a much greater emotional effect. This type of novel has been done many times before, to stand out it needed great ideas but also cracking storytelling. Instead it was too long and lacking a fresh zing to make it brilliant. I feel disappointed because clearly China is a great writer, he just hasn't written a novel that scorched my brain and made my heart ache and made me rush back to its pages, but instead a novel that just made me nod appreciatively at the cleverness of the ideas and sigh when it was over.

April 18, 2012

Space + Guitars = Perfect T-Shirt

April 16, 2012

Space-Time! T-Shirts!

Four T-Shirts about Space-Time! Space and Time! My favourite is Space Travel is Mostly Boring, Issue 2, Vol. 5

April 8, 2012

BSFA Winners and Hugo Nominations - How many votes?!

It's that time of year again:

The BSFA Awards have just been presented at Eastercon (results via Twitter):

Novel: The Islanders by Christopher Priest 

Short fiction: The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov's, July) 

Artwork: Cover of Ian Whates's The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris) 

Non-Fiction: The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls, David Langford and Graham Sleight (Gollancz website)

And the Hugo nominations have just been announced and I say I haven't read any of them. (Actually just reading Embassytown but that's it.)

However what I found interesting this year is the statement that this year there were a record number of ballots, 1101. That's right, one thousand one hundred and one ballots. To me that sounds incredibly small. In the days when a stupid phone app can sell a million copies, or a picture of a melted clock can get two thousand up votes on reddit, or a successful project on Github can get a thousand forks, a thousand ballots for what is supposed to be the premier Science Fiction awards really doesn't seem like very much to me. It's not just the Hugos either, the BSFA awards have a small number of voters too. (Although the simplicity of the BSFA Awards is a credit to them.) 

The reason is that to vote in either of these awards you have to pay, to become a member of Worldcon or the BSFA or Eastercon. Which in turn limits the voters to a subset of convention going, society joining fans. It becomes an echo chamber. It may not be representative of the majority of SF fans who like reading SF, watch SF on TV, go to SF movies but never go to a convention in their life, and certainly would never pay to vote for an award. Should our awards be more representative of what SF fans in general think? Is it time that our awards leapt into the twenty first century?

There are alternatives of course. Perhaps the Locus Awards? Or the SFX awards? Where the voting is more open, but it still feels a little unsatisfactory. We still need to look back at the end of a year and remember what we liked (the main reason I started this blog). 

I'm not saying that winners of these awards aren't worthy, I more often than not completely agree with the BSFA Awards. I'm not saying that the results aren't representative of the voting populace. I'm not saying I don't want one(!). It's just that it feels like we are stamping punchcards and sending them off to be compiled and run as batch jobs on a mainframe with the results printed on paper, rather than watching multi-platform real time analytics unfold on our phones and laptops. It feels a bit stone-age when you have music sites like Hype Machine or We Are Hunted compiling a real time barometer of music tastes. We should be able to track which stories were the most read, we should be able to analyse every thought on those stories, we should be able to craft that into a coarse grained voting system, we should be able to extrude the real wisdom of the crowds.

We should do something.

April 5, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

I was going to try and read The Hunger Games novel before I saw the film, but with my to-read pile approaching a height equal to myself I failed. So film first, and then if I like it the book.

I also tried to learn as little about the film as possible, but had more or less discovered the premise of the film before. And yet it surprised me from the beginning. The introductory scenes are bleak, the camera is shaky, the coal mining community in district twelve is poor and hungry. The palette in those scenes is pale and grey and the whole atmosphere was much bleaker than I expected. So when the representative from the capitol arrives in garish, punkish, colours and makeup, the contrast is stark. Some people have complained about the over the top nature of the fashion in the capitol but I thought it made the point well: they're rich, they have follies, we sympathise with the outlying districts.

The story is a combination of a couple of well worn Science Fiction ideas: a state suppressing citizens by use of a violent game (Rollerball), and reality television taken to its extremes (The Running Man (the novel)). The extra twist of nastiness is provided by the fact that the people fighting for their life are children. So with such well known and previously well executed ideas what can The Hunger Games add? Plenty. It had a prominent sense of dread and desperation, heightened by the imminent death of children. It had some excellent acting from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, who is a hero in the true sense of the word. It had a core set of ideas that had a point to make, the violence had a purpose. It was supposed to be disturbing. The comic explosions of the Avengers trailer before the film concern me more than the horrible, senseless death of the children in The Hunger Games, because it is there for a point. The state is punishing the districts for an uprising seventy four years ago. And it keeps punishing them, every year, as a reminder. As a boot heel above them.

A key scene for me is after the death of one of the children, when the people from the child's district protest violently. They've had enough. They want a fight. What will it take for the population to rise up against the oppression?

Down to the very last scene the film retains a sense of purpose and dread. It doesn't slide into cliche or Hollywood-isms. There is action and effect.

The acting is pretty decent too. Jennifer Lawrence as I've mentioned was good, but there are also great performances from Woody Harrelson, as an ex-winner drowning his sorrows, and Donald Sutherland as a wonderfully understated menacing president.

When I first saw the trailer I hadn't heard of The Hunger Games (not sure why), but thought that it looked pretty cool. It was better than that. I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked it. I'd like the rest of the trilogy now please, although I think I'll read the books first.

April 3, 2012

By Light Alone - Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

The central speculative idea at the centre of By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is that humans can survive only on sunlight and water, once they have taken a nanobug which converts their hair into New Hair. At first this sounds like the perfect utopia, no need for food, no need for farming or food manufacturing. Freedom?

The story starts with a family of rich people. The wealthy have short hair, they eat real food, they take long holidays, they live a different life to the long haired poor. At the very start By Light Alone reveals itself as a story about the haves and the have-nots and the increasing gap between them. The poor now have even less, as they have no need to work for food.

The tone begins with a sly satirical edge, almost farce in its feel. There's no exposition, casually mentioning the state of the world and its technology. At times it reminded me of Philip K Dick in its strange oddness. I love that feeling of being thrown into a world and have to figure it out.

Fairly quickly the tone changes as the family's daughter is kidnapped, the edge of farce leaves, and the novel concentrates on how the parents cope, how their lives are changed and how the rich begin to question the way they live. The language changes too with some passages of description that evoke the desperation experienced, both by rich and poor.

The second half of the book goes even further, focussing on the poor and their exclusion from society. Some of it was quite harrowing and horrible, but that's the point. And surprisingly the plot picks up pace at the end and I wanted to return to previous sections of the novel and read them again, revisit what I'd missed.

By Light Alone takes a core speculative idea and flips it around from expectations, producing a story that is thought provoking, often uncomfortable and full of questions. Highly recommended. 

And that's a hat trick for Adam Roberts with his two previous books, Yellow Blue Tibia and New Model Army, equally great.