October 2012 Archives

October 30, 2012

Disney to buy Lucasfilm and make new Star Wars films


Disney want to buy Lucasfilm for $4bn. Which is what they bought Marvel for. Not only that but they want a new Star Wars film and they want it in 2015. Wasn't the rumour that they bought Pixar because they wanted a new Toy Story film? Something like that. George Lucas will be a consultant on the film.

Wow.

What is George going to do with all that money?

I don't feel very good about a new Star Wars film. If you'd asked me thirty years ago I'd have wanted more of course. When I was about eight or so someone at school said that there were nine films and that George had written them all, how I wished to see those films. But I don't think the post RotJ trilogy was ever more than a glimmer in his eye. I'm not one of those sad fan boy purists who loves the original trilogy but hates the prequels. I like the prequels. Plus I remember that I saw Star Wars when I was four years old. Star Wars was a kids film, as are the new films. As is the animated series, which is probably the purest manifestation of what George Lucas was aiming for with Star Wars, a Saturday morning adventure series. But isn't the story done now? The story of Anakin Skywalker. I was quite looking forward to the live action television series which never materialised because there seems scope to do something interesting with that, something different. But another film? With Disney behind it?!

The only hope I have is that Toy Story 3 was amazing. And the Marvel films have been okay. So Disney, if you're going to make a new Star Wars film: make it good.


October 29, 2012

Liberal Arts

I've been struggling to write something about Liberal Arts for have a few days but have finally decided to forget trying to be coherent and instead just get down some thoughts.

Liberal Arts follows Jesse, a 35 year old living in modern day New York who returns to his rural college to visit a retiring professor. Jesse meets a 19 year old woman Zibby and they start a friendship. One of the strands is about the professor who is wondering what to do with his life after retirement. Another strand involves a depressed student who wants college to end. Zibby introduces Jesse to classical music (via a "mixtape" CD) and they start writing letters (on paper!) to each other, from New York to Ohio.

The young characters want to be old and the old(er) characters want to be young.

If you read a lot you should appreciate Jesse's total love of books and the scene where he lays into a vampire novel (presumably Twilight), exposing his literary snobbery, is really funny, but also thought provoking. Should we read books that aren't "good" and what does that mean anyway?

The film is about living in the now, not wishing for the past or the future. About not romanticising the past. 

Liberal Arts is touching, witty and thoughtful indie film, the sort I rarely get to see, and I absolutely loved it.

October 28, 2012

Alien Anatomy T-Shirt

October 26, 2012

If Science Fiction is exhausted who's to blame?

There's has been much discussion recently about whether Science Fiction is in a state of exhaustion, starting (I think) with Paul Kincaid's article for the LA Review The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies and continuing elsewhere including Jonathan McCalmont's Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future and The Coode Street Podcast (episodes 116 onwards).

I want to discuss is the idea that Science Fiction writers are to blame. In several of the articles and discussion it has been said that Science Fiction writers have given up trying to predict the near future, that they've eloped to the safe havens of far future and the post apocalypse. Forget for a moment that this feels like the same argument we had about near future optimistic SF (lead by Jetse) a few years ago and then Mundane SF a few years before that. Assume we have forgotten the endless cycle of this discussion. I want to take issue with the idea that the writers are to blame. Instead I'd question whether the editors and publishers are to blame. 

The stories we see in magazines are the stories the editors decide to publish. For all we know there could be floods of brilliant Science Fiction of the type we want being rejected every day. We don't really know (not until the editors of the world unite and tell me I'm talking rubbish). The same goes for publishers, probably more so, driven by the need to make a profit and follow the whims of consumer trends. Novels are a bigger risk financially so why take a bigger risk on the content? We know how it goes. It doesn't seem fair to blame the writers. There could be great writers, writing great stories that aren't getting published and we wouldn't know.

Yeah, I know, if the stories were that good they'd be published no matter what. Maybe. I just haven't heard/read the publishers of SF being included in those discussions.

Of course I don't actually agree that Science Fiction is exhausted, I've read some wonderful novels this year. I've also read some bad ones too. As usual. 

October 25, 2012

Anatomy Of Monster T-Shirt

October 24, 2012

Revolution S01 E01-E05

Revolution is a new TV series set in the (former) USA a decade or so after everything electrical in the world stopped working. Not in a "we've run out of oil way" but in a "the laws of Physics have changed way". It's a contrived plot device used in order to present a post apocalyptic world with no easy escapes, or basically a Science Fiction excuse to do fantasy in the future. There's lots of sword fighting, guns are scarce, a steam train is a super weapon.

It is made of cliché.

The main plot currently follows a young woman trying to recover her brother from the evil militia (who also killed her father), who are taking him to the evil General Munroe, who is head of the militia and the Munroe Republic. It's the old cornerstone of alternative/future SF set in the USA, the USA is no longer United. Shock! Horror! As someone who (a) is not from the USA (b) does not believe that Nation States are the future, I find this incredibly amusing. Also amusing is that a big point is made about guns being illegal! Shock! Horror! As is owning any image of the Stars And Stripes! Shock! Horror! It's really quite funny.

The plot is trying to be Lost with flashbacks to character origins and odd mysterious plot contrivances, and even unexpected deaths. But it's not Lost, not even a thin shadow of it.

Despite that, I'm quite enjoying it. Maybe it's because I can laugh at it? Because it's so predictable? Because I'm enjoying watching Billy Burke do lots of sword fighting? I'm not really sure. I'm pretty sure it will go downhill and that there's not much behind the façade but as my substitute for watching a ridiculous soap-opera I like it.

October 23, 2012

Community versus Field

I was recently listening to two podcast, both from different sections of my life. Firstly the Coode Street podcast, which is about Science Fiction, mainly literature. Secondly nodeup, a podcast about creating software using the technology called node (it's javascript on the server). Something that may appear relatively inconsequential to other people struck me and got me thinking about the difference between these two communities, or are they fields?

During the Coode Street podcast Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe often refer to other authors by their last name. Not always, but enough to make me notice it. It is also despite them knowing, or having, met the people in question. For example one week they interviewed Paul Kincaid then in episodes after that they switched between using "Paul" and "Kincaid" when referring to him.

During the nodeup podcast other people are referred to by either their first name or their Twitter name. That may sound a bit strange, using Twitter names, but it's amazing how it feels like a much more personal reference even with names like @substack and @dshaw. This may be because they literally do know everyone in the node community, it's relatively small and young and the open source nature of much of the software encourages collaboration. Not sure. But I can't imagine anyone on the podcast ever calling someone by their last name.

Why does it matter? Well, it reminds me of horrible teachers at school. Being called "Bloomer!" is just not very friendly is it? Maybe in "professional" fields that's just what you do? Maybe when a community gets too large you can't get away with using first names? I don't know.

Is a field bigger than a community? On the Coode Street podcast Jonathan and Gary often talk about the Science Fiction field. I'm not sure how you define the difference between a field and a community? On nodeup, which has quite a varying selection of contributors, the people who use node are always referred to as the node community.

It might just be that the interaction when using software is greater. Github enables software developers to immediately interact, fix bugs, use software, converse. The relationship between an author and a reader is perhaps more passive, you get a book you read it, you might tweet them.

I don't know the answers, perhaps it's nothing, but it struck me as interesting: how do you engender a feeling of community in a far flung ad hoc collection of people? Node seems to be succeeding at that.

October 22, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

For anyone over the age of about nineteen The Amazing Spider-Man was more than likely met with the reaction "They're rebooting it again?! They just did that!" Whereas the Sam Raimi happened more than half a lifetime ago for anyone a teenager right now. Ten years, a very subjective amount of time.

So that's the first difficulty, forgetting the last set of Spider-Man films, particularly the rather good second instalment with Doctor Octopus. The second difficulty is accepting Andrew Garfield as a geeky Peter Parker. Actually he does a pretty decent job acting awkward however Peter Parker: is an awesome skateboarder, is great at Science, a brilliant photographer and wears a pair of big glasses like all the cool kids are doing these days. The only thing he can't do is play basketball. Which in my eyes makes him extremely cool and not geeky at all. Entire films have been constructed around characters like that as the heroes. I hate those films that reinforce the stereotype that only people good at sports are "cool" (and anyway, anyone could get at least proficient if they wanted with a bit of practice, they probably just have better things to do).

The first half of the film is entertaining enough though. Martin Sheen is great as Uncle Ben, the origin story is interesting, and Spider-Man's cheeky reckless insolence is captured well. Things appear promising. It all goes downhill in the second half when Rhys Ifans turns into Lizard Man. It's like the writers gave up (or got fired) and some stupid focus group wrote the last half. It's full of cliches. And there's probably the worst scene I've seen all year when the crane workers of New York unite to provide Spider-Man a way to swing down the streets. Let's have someone unexpected(!) turn up! Let's have someone die! Let's have some angst! Clunky and unoriginal.

Thankfully I saw the film at the end of its run and so was able to see it in 2D and not annoying 3D.

Initially promising, fading rapidly to bad.

October 21, 2012

The Walking Dead - S03E01

The Walking DeadI'm not a big fan of horror, it feels to negative to me, to focussed on short term survival, often lacking in hope. Plus I scare easily (the curse of an active imagination?). So I wouldn't have guessed that The Walking Dead would be something I'd watch: it's painfully tense, the outlook is continually bleak, the story has no emotional attachment to its characters so you can never be sure who will die next, the music is haunting, it's gory and there are endless zombies. The relentless zombie horde.

But I do like it. I like it a lot. Despite the gore (which for a TV show feels quite radical) the story is focussed on the characters, currently on their survival. Anything close to a long term plan has so far fallen to pieces, the survivors are still trying to live day to day and yet there is a glimmer, a promise of the chance to rebuild the world. That's what I'm interested in, that's what I'm always interests me about apocalyptic fiction: out of the ashes how do we make a better world, then how can we take those lessons and apply them before modern civilisation ends?

Episode one of season three opens with an exquisite example of exposition. No stodgy voice over telling us it is six months later, no text on the screen, just our heroes running away, again, looking tired and weary. Mentions of surviving winter. Glancing at a map and seeing red ink around the zombie herds, knowing from that that they're running out of places to hide. Lovely stuff. And then the promise, a prison. Up there in the top few places to try and occupy in a zombie apocalypse. So we get zombies in body armour and ruthless, efficient killing of zombies, and a scary chase through dark corridors. And still nothing feels safe, the tension never dropping despite being locked in a cell.

Brilliant writing. Great acting. High production values. I want these characters to survive, I want them to have a chance to settle and recover and heal their relationships. I don't reckon that's going to happen soon, but I'll keep watching in hope.

October 20, 2012

Dredd

Dredd I grew up reading 2000AD. It was a distant beast to the other comics I was aware of at the time: not foreign and difficult to get hold of and expensive like the Marvel and DC comics, not full of cliched daring-do boys own stuff like Eagle, not aimed at young kids only striving for simple comedy like Beano. 2000AD was, and still is, an intelligent, sometimes complicated and often challenging comic. Something thta perhaps we've come to expect of modern comics, but in the early 80s it was like a revelation to me.

At the core of every 2000AD episode was Judge Dredd, a biting satire on the state of Britain, of Americanisation, of increased police powers and crowded cities. The Judges were the law, judge, jury and executioner. The city was crowded and desperate. The film Dredd throws us into this.

A quick note: forget the Stallone version of Judge Dredd, it didn't happen, just like there was only one Highlander film and one Matrix film. Okay? Let's move on. This is Dredd.

The representation of Mega City One is shown from the start of the film and it's frighteningly realistic. Not a Bladerunner clone but instead New York magnified, with towering mega blocks and endless urbanisation. Just like Mega City One was always meant to be. At street level it could be New York. In the blocks it's like 50s built tower blocks in Britain scaled up a thousand-fold. The atmosphere of the film was instantly gripping and tense, the soundtrack electronic and grungy, futuristic and pessimistic. We're thrown right into the action, great scene setting with Dredd chasing down some drug takers in a van. Immediately the violence is highlighted. This is not a smoothed out and frindely family version of Dredd, it's the real thing, an 18 certificate in the UK (which takes some doing these days), it's incredibly violent. But that's the point.

The story is that Dredd visits a block on a routine homicide call out, accompanied by rookie judge Anderson, who has psychic powers. Judge is sceptical of a mutie. (If you're familiar with the Dredd canon it appears that the film is set before the establishment of Psi Division.) Of course the routine call out escalates as the block is controlled by a gang who produce the slo-mo drug. It quickly becomes Dred and Anderson versus the entire block.

The effects of the slo-mo drug, which mae the user experience time in slow motion, are actually shown in slow motion and a colour-saturated tinge, a really interesting slide into the narcotic haze, then snapping back to the dark, real, violent world.

Karl Urban is absoloutely perfect as Dredd. Grim and stoney faced with the perfect small doses of black humour. And of course he doesn't take his helmet off. Lena Headey is intense and scary as the head gangster Ma-Ma. And not least Olivia Thirlby does a great job as Cassandra Anderson, an outsider as a Judge yet extremely capable of earning Dredd's grudging respect.

I have two gripes. Firstly the Lawmasters didn't look like the comic version. Yeah, one for the geeks. Secondly I'd have preferred to see it in 2D as I find 3D irritating, wearing 3D glasses over normal glasses is uncomfortable and the light loss is drastic. Hopefully 3D is on the way out.

Overall though I was really, really happy with Dredd, it's the perfect encapsulation of a single prog Dredd story. These are the stories that created Dredd, short, sharp, brutal but making multiple (often political) points. The stories that created the foundation of Dredd and allowing it to then branch out into long and epic story arcs. I'll also reiterate that it was extremely violent, so don't take the kids.

If you're a fan of Judge Dredd I don't think you'll be disappointed. It left me with an urge to read and re-read loads of Dredd.

What I'd like now is a mega epic Dredd TV series tackling one of the huge story arcs. Please?

October 19, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is clearly aimed at my generation, the generation who grew up playing arcade games and watching Back To The Future and The Holy Grail and programming early home computers. It's set in the future where a virtual reality called OASIS has become all consuming. It's like the internet only you use avatars and it's 3D. Stop me if you've heard this before... The dead creator of OASIS (amazing how lone coders can do so much in fiction) has left a fortune to anyone who unravels his riddles and finds his easter eggs, in a classic treasure hunt throughout OASIS.

The hero is a young man called Wade who has no friends, except in OASIS where his avatar is handsome and fit. The bad guys are a corporation constructed with the entire purpose of winning the quest.

Written in black and white like that it now feels even more unoriginal than when I was reading it.

In many ways it feels aimed at a YA audience who have never read anything about virtual reality, because although the Metaverse is name-checked, as are other classic virtual realities, nothing at all is done to make OASIS original. In fact it's far, far less original, and exciting than the Metaverse in Snow Crash.

And yet it can't be written for a young audience because the nostalgia for the 80s in ladled on so heavily that surely no one except people like me, who lived through it, would ever care about a mention of Zaxxon. But then every time something nostalgic is mentioned the novel explains it in detail, explaining why it is so great, so that anyone who knows the references gets bored. You see that I'm going in circles here? The novel is confused. Which audience is it aiming for?

It's tempting to say the style is YA, but that may be insulting to YA as Ready Player One is just not focused and lean enough, simplistic prose style maybe, young heroes maybe, but just too long and flabby.

The plot is predictable, it's a quest, guess what will happen? The characters are stereotype outsiders lacking depth, at no time did I root for them, in fact I found them annoying. And infodumps galore.

Yes I have fond memories of the 80s and playing those video games and watching those films (on a minor tangent, music was thoroughly under represented in the nostalgia, where was all the Hair Metal?!) however the books that capture the excitement of those times for me are Neuromancer and Snow Crash. The books that did something new, not recycled a slightly more sophisticated version of Second Life. Ready Player One feels dated. If I have to wear a haptic suit in the future to interact with VR I'll consider it a failure of science and technology. All in all disappointing. A good thing about the novel was that it provoked an intense desire in me to reread Snow Crash imminently.

October 18, 2012

So you want me to review your novel?

Just about all of the novels I review on this blog I have bought myself or I have had bought for me as presents ("What do you want for your birthday?" "Books!"). Occasionally I review a book that someone has sent me or requested that I review. For a one man blog I get a surprising number of requests from authors to review their novel. Loads on fact. A lot of them self-published ebooks. This post was triggered by Paul's reply to a request he received. So how can someone actually persuade me to review something amidst the flood of emails that come in?

  1. The author is published by a well known publisher. If Gollancz is your publisher I'm probably interested. Of course the reality is that Gollancz don't need to me to review their novels anyway, they have them reviewed in plenty of high prestige venues. It's not a guarantee I'll like it of course, but if a publisher has decided that your novel will make them money, someone somewhere must think it's okay.

  2. The author has published short stories that I have read or liked. It's much easier to commit to reading a short story than a novel and yet it still provides a perfect example of an author's writing. Of course the short to novel progression is not followed as rigorously as it used to be in Science Fiction but I still see it as a useful indicator. Plus I like reading great short stories.

  3. The author has been published in well known fiction magazines. If I haven't read any of your stuff but you can point me at some of your stories published in any of the big SF fiction magazines then that will help. Whether I have time to read your short stories is a whole other thing, but if an editor somewhere, who frankly will see a whole load of slush, likes your work then that's interesting.

  4. I have heard of the author in some other field. This of course depends on what I've heard about them, but if someone has an intriguing CV it might persuade me. Experience has told me however that, fairly obviously, being a famous software developer or engineer or scientist does not automatically translate to being a great writer of fiction.

  5. They're a friend. If a friend asks me to read their novel I probably will. If it's really great I'd post about it. I'm not going to post a bad review of a friends work though, instead I'd give them private criticism (if they cared!) So far this has never happened.

And that's it. You can beg, send me videos, tell me how great you are, tell me how original you are, hide behind a publicist, craft a great email, have a trillion likes on Facebook or ten five star Amazon reviews, it's not going to help. Sorry.

This all may seem very unfair, you may already be shouting that your work deserves to be read, that you're a great writer, screw me anyway. Well, it's not fair. I am one person with limited time to read, I need some filters so that I don't spend my time reading rubbish. I want to spend my time reading good stuff. And that's the common thread of those items above, someone, that I have some respect for, has already done a filtering first pass. I'm not a professional reviewer, I really only blog here about the books that I've read so that I don't forget.

You might feel daunted. I know that I do, when I finish writing a story it is tempting to think "What's the point?" when you are just one amidst the endless, relentless slush. How on earth am I, and you, ever going to get noticed? Well I'm not really sure, but I know I enjoy writing stories so I keep doing it and I keep trying to get better. Then I send them off to magazines who either like it or don't (or worse like it but don't want to publish it).

The core thing within your control that you can do? Strive to write some awesome stories. If you write some awesome stories (be they short or novel length) then eventually I'm going to end up reading your work.

October 17, 2012

The House Of Rumour - Jake Arnott

The House Of Rumour by Jake Arnott has a chapter for each card in a deck of Tarot cards, the chapters are mainly short stories, set in the same universe, on the same timeline and arranged roughly chronologically. There are threads that tie the stories together, mainly the returning character of a Science Fiction writer, Larry Zagorski, who starts writing in the the USA just before the second world war. Creating an interlocking novel of short stories is challenging, how do you pull a reader through without a single driving plot? How do you make readers care about characters in a short space of time? How do you keep readers interest when stories explain what appear to be fringe events to the plot? Unfortunately all of these points are where I feel The House Of Rumour falls flat. It can be done of course, Christopher Priest showed with The Islanders that its possible to even make a description of a barren island feel loaded with meaning and mystery and central to the core story, The House Of Rumour suffers in comparison.

The Tarot deck chapter titles were nothing more than irritating. I assume that each title was loaded with meaning and that each chapter was meant to represent the tarot card, but I care so little (negative amounts) about the myths of tarot and their meanings that it turned me off immediately. 

At times the stories became self referential but instead of that being clever and intelligent it came across as annoyingly smug. At times the stories resorted to cheap shock reveals at the end, unfortunately most of them were signposted a mile away.

The one thread that could have been interesting was the story about Rudolph Hess flying to Scotland during the war.but once again Christopher Priest has showed us how to make that story interesting in The Separation. Perhaps it's unfair to compare The House Of Rumour to these other novels, but I couldn't help feeling that I'd seen it all before, except done better. Perhaps my dislike stems from the fact that I'm not at all interested in stories of Aleister Crowley and sex and drugs in fifties California? I'm not interested in the nostalgia of "crazy" days and what it did to people, the myths or the mythos. It's just not my thing.

The House Of Rumour disappointed me, didn't manage to hold my interest and left me feeling flat.

October 16, 2012

In The Mouth Of The Whale - Paul McAuley

In The Mouth Of The Whale by Paul McAuley is another of my summer reads that I've only just got around to writing about, here's the notebook quick review:

State of the art SF. Intelligent, exciting, full of references to SF. Building on past SF. Complex. Clever and fun.

The first two novels in this sequence, The Quiet War and Gardens Of The Sun, followed on from each other directly, however this one is set many years in the future, thousands of years and not in our solar system but a distant one. The core idea is to take the first to novels as a set-up and extrapolate way out in the future to see where it would end up.

I found the style of this novel more comfortable than the other two, especially The Quiet War, which seemed to jump and flit all over the place. Instead we have three plots intertwined. Is this a more conservative choice? For SF readers perhaps (I know non-SF readers who would refuse to read multi-stranded novels due to complexity), but I like that structure, having three stories evolve at the same time 

The three plots involve: a child being raised on Earth, in Brazil, before the time of The Quiet War; a Quick slave who lives aboard a station orbiting a distant gas giant; a Librarian whose job is to destroy demons in the library and negate hells.

The child's story is atmospheric, painting a picture of an Earth struggling to rebalance itself after the ravages of climate change. It's told by an unnamed third person, who very quickly lets us know that the child is destined for greatness, that somehow forces are guiding her towards something. It's a story, initially of a girl trying to be herself, one of those child rebelling stories, but not so simple, as her father is dead and her mother struggles to find them protection. The story slowly transforms into more than a picture of the child's upbringing, a Jaguar headed boy appears, conflict engulfs her home and everything becomes uncertain.

The Quick slave, Ori, has an initially depressing story. The post-human Quicks left the solar system, adapted themselves to a new environment and set about creating something new, but then the True humans caught up with them and subjugated them, showing complete distaste for anything post-human. All of this was far in the past, the Quicks know nothing but slavery and spend their time working on an orbital station known as the Whale above a distant gas giant. The True are searching for an intelligence buried deep inside the planet, with religious zeal, driven by fear of their enemies the Ghosts which attack the Whale intermittently. The Ghosts (whose founding story is told in part in the first two novels in the sequence) are posthumans and are seen initially as pure aggressors  aiming for manipulation of time to fulfil their destiny. Ori pilots a remote drone in the planets atmosphere and experiences some spark of intelligence interacting with her, which the Trues then pursue.

The Librarian Isak is a True, carrying out a penance for a past misdemeanour by making safe portions of the Library know as hells. The Library is a huge virtual reality world, constructed in the past now not really understood, it's an ancient artefact that the Trues struggle to manage, erecting religious style social clans around it, with disciples and rules and leaders. The hells appear to be traps or viruses left inside the Library, manifesting as demons or horrors which can drive people mad. Isak has a Quick slave assistant known as the Horse, although their relationship contains more friendship than is socially acceptable between Quick and True. They get drawn into an investigation, like a far future detective novel but with space and alternative reality constructs and worldlets in a distant planetary system.

Each story has enough depth and substance for an entire lesser novel. The ideas are numerous and ambitious. How could far future humans end up living? Will we descend to war and slavery, with nothing learned from the past? Will we evolve past caring and exploring, turning inwards into pure mental explorations and letting our physical entities devolve? Is there any hope that we can be something better? It's an exemplar of modern Science Fiction, big intelligent ideas wrapped around an exciting trio of stories with pace and action.

I thoroughly enjoyed In The Mouth Of The Whale. Highly recommended.