Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Friday, 28 September 2007
Rock Hard Times
Now Playing: The Eels

At the risk of boring everyone senseless (but hey - you don't have to read this, do you?) here's the rest of my thrilling odyssey into the world of music, picking up where I left off last time.

In 1991 I moved to Holland and shortly afterwards I got my first CD player. I think the last vinyl album I bought - apart from the odd second hand thing - was a My Bloody Valentine LP. The first CD I bought was something by The Fall, one of their Brix-era albums. Later that year, they released Code:Selfish, one of their best records of the period. I saw them live for the first time at the Paradiso, in Amsterdam.

If there was a significant shift in my music appreciation during this time, it was my growing appreciation of classical music. I blame it all on Gavin Ramsay, a very good astronomer who's still a good mate of mine. Somewhere near the end of my time in Scotland, I went around to Gav's flat to drag him out for a beer. Gav had some music on his record player - he'd sit there listening to stuff while reading through the score. I'd been exposed to Gav's taste in classical music before, but nothing had ever connected with me - until that evening, when I heard something astonishing, like nothing I'd ever heard before. Awesome, desolate music. What was it? Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, Gav said. Right, I said - I want a tape of that by monday.

It was significant for me because I'd made many futile attempts to get "into" classical music by following the canonical route - Beethoven, Mozart, all that stuff. But it was only when I had an honest, emotional reaction to it that I found a way in. I became a firm admirer of Shostakovich, and then started working my through his contemporaries - Sibelius, Vaugan Williams, and spiralling out from these initial points of discovery. I've never stopped listening to classical music and much of what I've written has been under the influence. Want to know what Chasm City sounds like? Listen to the second movement of RVW's London Symphony.

Drifting back into the arena of rock, if there was a personal discovery that stayed with me for much of the nineties, it was the music of an unfairly neglected band called Kitchens of Distinction. There was something very special about this band. They were a three piece, but they sounded like a nine-piece, or a twelve piece. Glittery, swirling guitars ... wonderful vocals and lyrics. Kitchens of Distinction sounded like a more intimate U2, a dreamier Chameleons, but they weren't "just" another gloomy, echo-drenched rock band. Their music was shot through with a bracing bleakness, doomed romance, a rainy days at the end of summer quality. And Patrick Fitzgerald's singing - his voice not a million miles from that of Michael Stipe's - was always brilliantly expressive and tender.  His lyrics made no secret of his sexuality, and perhaps that was what held them back. But maybe Kitchens of Distinction were just too intelligent, too subtle, too fragile and withholding, to find success at a time when the shouty simplicities of Britpop were dominating the UK music scene. Their albums revealed their secrets slowly - they had to be unwrapped carefully. I've never stopped playing them. Listen to the likes of Editors, Interpol, etc, and you can hear echoes of Kitchens of Distinction (and the Chameleons, and the Comsats) along with the bands that are usually trotted out as influences - Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. Favorite track: Aspray. It's only about two minutes long, but there are infinities in those two minutes...

Where are we up to? Mid nineties, I guess.  I could go on, but it all gets a bit fractured from hereon in - Neil Young, Bruce, Guided by Voices... and all that other stuff I never stopped listening to.

Posted by voxish at 11:36 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 29 September 2007 12:21 AM MEST
Thursday, 27 September 2007
Bird Land
Now Playing: Weather Report
I wonder if we're in for a cold snap? It's still nominally September, and yet I've seen Fieldfares this morning. I don't usually associate these birds with anything other than cold, crisp, wintery days in the weeks after Christmas, when they're often accompanied by flocks of Redwings, often sharing the same trees. There's definitely something Autumnal in the air, anyway...

Posted by voxish at 2:03 PM MEST
Saturday, 8 September 2007
Check the guy's rock records
Now Playing: The Fall

A reader called Charles asked me to fess up about my musical influences - you know, the story titles that are actually records, the little in-jokes in the narrative that seem like a terribly good idea at the time, rather less so five years later. The fact is, though, I do listen to a great deal of music - mountains of it, quite honestly. Very few jobs allow you to sit in a room all day and listen to music, as loud as you wish - writing's one of them, if you have the inclination. I suppose being a master brain surgeon might be another. I know writers need absolute silence, but I'm emphatically not one of them. I can work in silence - and I often do, when it's going well - but as often as not I work to music. What I can't tolerate is listening to someone else's music...

I listen to a lot of stuff - I'm still an avid record buyer; a fully-paid up member of the "fifty quid bloke" demographic. We're the ones who buy five or six records at a time, forking out for CDs that we've read about in Mojo, or that we used to have on vinyl. I fill up Ikea CD racks at a frightening rate. I've never downloaded anything - I've got to own the artefact. I'm still secretly in love with vinyl album sleeves. I read Q religiously until abandoning it a few years ago, when I felt it was trying too hard to be a lad mag.  I switched to Mojo and Uncut and read them intermittently; these days I'm more likely to pick up a copy of The Word, a very good magazine indeed. What do I actually listen to, though?

Well, that depends to a large degree on what kind of mood I'm in. I've never really stopped listening to certain kinds of music; I just add more to my collection and dip in and out of it as and when I feel like it. Like many a spotty youth, the first records I bought were all prog-rock albums. I started buying records when I was 16, and I think my very first purchase was Genesis's Three Sides Live. Or it may have been Yes's Close to the Edge - you get the idea. If it had a gatefold sleeve, it was OK in my book. Strange to think, really, that some of this stuff was almost contemporary back then - no more ancient, say, than Oasis's first couple of albums. It was only ten years since Genesis had recorded Foxtrot. I wasn't really into punk, and although I listened to Tommy Vance on radio 1 every friday night, I didn't much care for heavy metal. But Tommy would play the occasional Hawkwind track, so that was OK. My mates were into much the same stuff as me - the only difference being that Ieuan liked reggae, and Dave, Alan and Ieuan liked The Damned and The Stranglers. I did, sort of, but not enough to buy the records. I think I was actually a bit threatened by it. Punk was a big, gob-smeared hobnail Doc Martin threatening to crunch down on the idyllic, fog-enshrouded Roger Dean landscapes of my imagination.

The one thing I remember is that none of us were really into the contemporary chart music of the early 80s - we couldn't give a stuff about the New Romantics and all that bollocks. Ieuan liked Toyah and Blondie, Nige liked XTC, but that was about it.

The prog thing lasted until about 1985. By then I was into King Crimson - difficult, spiky prog - and someone at school suggested I'd like the Talking Heads. So I listened to some TH tapes and was smitten, totally and utterly. By the time I went to university at the end of that year, I was massively into Talking Heads. I'd even gone on a bus to Newport to see the Stop Making Sense film. Not having a record player with me, I bought Fear of Music on tape in my first week at Uni. That's a great album - still is. I really must get it on CD one of these days. I kind of lost interest in Talking Heads after the Making Movies album, but I never stopped liking them.

I bought another tape in my first week at Uni - more or less an impulse purchase. A song had been going through my head for weeks, after I heard it on the radio during a camping trip. It was that remix (I don't know who did it) of Michael Jackson's Billy Jean and Steely Dan's Do it Again, the one where they segue together. I couldn't get Do it Again out of my brain, so I decided to chance my arm on an SD album. I knew nothing about SD, other than they were American. Apart from Talking Heads, I didn't like much American rock music, which I tended to assume was all stuff like Foreigner, Boston etc - urgh. Then I happened to read a remark in the paper about them being "one of the few interesting 70s American rock acts" or something, and my mind was made up. I bought a double casette which had Can't Buy a Thrill on one side (their first album) and - bizarrely - Aja, their penultimate one, on the other side. Stylistically, they're light-years apart. But I liked them both. Really liked them, in fact. By Christmas I'd bought Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam and Donald Fagen's first solo album - The Nightfly. Listening to those SD albums was astonishing. The Caves of Altamira, Don't Take Me Alive - I can't get enough of those songs. I still play SD regularly - they're one of the constants in my record collection, a band I return to again and again, finding new depths. I don't believe I've dropped any SD references in the books, though - Paul di Fillippo seems to have that gig more or less covered, judging by some of his story titles. The title of this blog, incidentally, is a Donald Fagen song - it's on Kamakiriad, his second solo album.

Towards the end of my university days, I hooked up with some goth types, and - apart from ridiculing my taste in laidback, jazz-inflected soft rock (one of them had a record player, so she'd kindly tape my SD albums onto casette for me) they introduced me to the gothier, doomier, more melancholy side of rock. I'd already discovered this great band called The Chameleons (I heard them on the Janice Long show) and that was OK by the goths, even though the Chams weren't exactly goth as it was known and understood. But my flatmate Ian had a great record collection and he got me listening to all sorts of good stuff, including Echo and The Bunnymen, Jene Loves Jezebel, The Skeletal Family, Sisters of Mercy - basically, anything mid-80s and with big hair, echo-laden guitars and singers who had very deep voices. That kind of stuff kept me going for a few more years. SD weren't making records, Talking Heads were in stasis, so it was a good time to broaden my tastes. By the time I left Newcastle and moved to Scotland to begin my PhD studies, bands like the House of Love were getting a lot of attention on the John Peel show. I liked all that stuff, and started cultivating the indie-rock fan's standard issue wardrobe of black jeans and black jumper.

The most significant musical discovery I made after moving to Scotland was The Fall. OK, The Fall weren't exactly obscure - they'd been on the Tube, I'd heard them on John Peel etc. But it had always sounded like an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket. On a whim, though, I bought a cheap copy of The Frenz Experiment, The Fall's seminal album from 1988, and within a few plays - or maybe within one play - I was hooked, a fully-paid-up member of the church of Mark E Smith. The Fall's output was already vast - the band had been going for ten years already, and were (and have remained) massively prolific, so it wasn't a case of going out and buying all their records. But I did buy every subsequent one, and went back and filled in the gaps when I got a CD player. I still love The Fall. In many respects my initial assessment was valid - they are an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket - but there's gold there, if you've got the patience to sift for it. I've dropped Fall refs into things, but I've noticed that the only ones I tend to get called on are the prog ones. I think it probably says something about the SF reading demographic - and me, for that matter.

I'll leave it there for now, but as we're still only up to about 1990, there's a lot to go. Thanks for tolerating this blatant self-indulgence... 




Posted by voxish at 9:43 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007 10:36 PM MEST
Monday, 3 September 2007
Now Playing: Therapy

I got news of a couple of short fiction sales over the weekend. Nick Gevers and Jay Lake are taking my story "The Receivers" for their forthcoming alternate history anthology "Other Earths". The Receivers is my take on what might have happened to Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth if the Great War had still being going on in 1935 ... with some added weirdness on the side. And it's set in Dungeness!

The other story, "The Fixation", also has an alternate history theme, although it's a very different kind of piece. This story was originally written for a birthday surprise for Helsiinki SF fan, music critic/broadcaster and all around good guy Hannu Blomilla, and it appeared as part of a book made for Hannu by his friends in Finnish fandom, which also includes fiction by Jeff Vandermeer and Peter Watts. The rest of the book's in Finnish, so don't ask me what's in it - the only words I know in that impenetrable language are Salmiakki and Koskenkorva, for some reason. Anyway, as only 200 copies of the book were produced, I didn't think it would be too naughty to offer the story for sale elsewhere, and I'm pleased to say that it will appear in the third Solaris anthology, as edited by George Mann. I am very grateful to George for agreeing to take the piece.




Posted by voxish at 9:26 PM MEST
Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007 2:03 PM MEST
Wednesday, 29 August 2007
This turnpike sure is spooky at night when you're all alone
Now Playing: Bruce

I really ought to update this thing more often, but the sad fact is that weeks and weeks go by with nothing of the slightest interest to report. Taking that as a theme, though, what's going on right now? Well, nothing much. I'm still beavering away on the new book, which is more or less the only thing dominating my plans for the next couple of months. I've reached that point where I can see the end of the tunnel, but at the same that glint of light is an awfully long way off and there's much work to be done before I get there. Nonetheless I am enjoying the process - it's great fun to be writing about life six million years in the future, where almost anything goes. This is a book which takes Clarke's famous dictum - any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic - as its fundamental credo. I know this will irritate some people, as I cheerfully toss in all manner of futuristic technology such as stasis fields and antigravity, without ever explaining how any of it works - but I hope at the same time that there's still a sense of things being governed by rules; it may be magic, but it's not all-powerful and there are costs. The characters, incidentally, may in some cases have what we would consider as godlike powers - the ability to move and destroy worlds, to rejuvenate stars and manipulate wormholes - but for the most part, although they are living in the deep, distant future, and have outlived countless cycles of human civilisations - they are people who were born near our own time (about a thousand years from now) and have carried the mental baggage of that era with them. They still like a good glass of wine, a nice sunset, human companionship. There are posthuman intelligences, downloaded minds, etc - but the main characters are resolutely flesh-and-blood, and far from immortal.

That's House of Suns, but what else has been cooking? I'm waiting to hear back on a couple of stories, but other than that it's been all-go on the novel. I don't have to write anything else until March of next year (when I have to hand in a novella) so I can afford to focus solely on the book until then. Editing and revision will undoubtedly last until Christmas, and probably spill over into the New Year, as it did with The Prefect.

What am I looking forward to? Next week I hope to catch the new Bourne film, which ought to be a treat. I don't think I've enjoyed many thrillers in recent years as much as the first two, and the reviews all suggest that the third installment is not likely to disappoint. Like all right-thinking people, I'm also anticipating new material from The Boss, whose new single is available for download courtesy of The Guardian. I like Springsteen very much - in fact, my admiration only seems to deepen with each new album. But it wasn't always thus. I had a couple of friends who were into him before he went nova in the mid-eighties with Born in the USA, but although I borrowed tapes and records, it just didn't click. The breakthrough for me was hearing "Meeting across the River" (from Born to Run) on some Radio 1 program - so sparse, so ominous. I just had to have that. Later I got into Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, and never really looked back.

Springsteen's good even when he's throw-away. Lucky Town and Human Touch, the two albums he released back-to-back in 1992, were well received at the time but the reaction cooled as time went by - it was all loud and brash, all a bit too obvious. The perceived opinion was that Springsteen had nothing to sing about except being rich and famous, with a marriage on the rocks. But even a song like 57 Channels has a power to worm its way into your brain. I can't channel hop without hearing the Boss singing that one. 57 Channels and nothin' on. It's great, really it is.

For me, he's always been at his best stripped-down and intimate, on Nebraska and Tom Joad. I can't process Devils and Dust yet - it's too recent; ask me in ten years. Listening to Nebraska, all that stuff about refineries at night, radio relay stations, New Jersey turnpikes - I sometimes get the impression you could reconstruct almost the entirety of late-twenthieth century america from that record. It's in the grooves, stored holographically.

Which leads on, more or less, to Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels - an Americana-drenched tale of alternate realities waging war against each other, which I'm reading right now. It's very good indeed...



Posted by voxish at 1:44 PM MEST
Thursday, 16 August 2007
Cosmic Thing
Now Playing: The B52s

The BBC moves in mysterious ways.  In January - thanks to the suggestion of a friend who works for the Open University - I was interviewed for one of the episodes of BBC2/OU's forthcoming series Cosmos, presented by Adam Hart-Davis. They wanted the perspectives of an SF writer and former scientist on the future of space exploration, so I blathered about fusion rockets and space elevators and hopefully tried not to make too much of a fool of myself. I enjoyed meeting Adam and the rest of the production team - they were clearly enthused about the program, and had been doing a lot of travelling around the world in connection with it. I looked forward to seeing the series transmitted, assuming that the BBC would make a big splash about a new science program.

Much to my surprise, I was channel hopping last week (wondering if Mastermind was on) when I came across Cosmos actually airing. Now it's called The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide. But there'd been no mention of it that I was aware of. I watched the first episode and thought it was well done - exactly the kind of non-gimmicky, non-patronising science programming that the BBC used to do so well (don't get me started on the dumbed-down travesty that is Horizon, please - a program which seems to assume that the basic steps of an argument have to be repeated at least six or seven times, and which now seems incapable of presenting science unless there's some kind of personality politics involved). Anyway, I caught the second episode of The Cosmos this week, involving CERN and dark matter among other things, and it was also very good - scientists being asked questions and allowed to answer in their own voices.

So why aren't the BBC telling us all about it? We all know about EastEnders, thanks - we don't need to be told it's on every five minutes. And yet a solid, well-made science documentary seems to have been shunted into the oblivion of a mid-evening slot of BBC2, with zero fanfare. Very odd - one almost gets the impression that the BBC is hoping it will go away, so they can squeeze in some more lifestyle programming.

Anyway, worth watching...

Posted by voxish at 11:24 AM MEST
Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007 11:49 AM MEST
Wednesday, 8 August 2007
What film is this?

Has anyone else seen the early 1960s Czech science fiction film Ikarie XB1? (Also released as Voyage to the End of the Universe).

When I was a kid, I saw a film on television that had a considerable effect on me - so much so, that at least part of it fed into Chasm City nearly thirty years later. I remember seeing this film in our house in Cornwall, and we moved out of there around about 1974. It was in black and white, but then so was everything - we only had a black and white telly. (Such is the power of suggestion, though, that when I think back to Pertwee-era Dr Who episodes I only saw in Cornwall, I see them in colour).

The film was set on a spaceship going somewhere. I have the feeling it was foreign (the film, not the spaceship). Now and then there exterior shots of the ship whizzing along at a very high velocity.

At one point a holographic clown or clown-like figure appears to give instruction to/entertain a child (see the clown subplot in Chasm City, which was a conscious nod to this exceedingly vague memory).

My key recollection, and the thing that I found quite disturbing at the time (keep in mind I would have been no older than six or seven) was that one of the crew on the ship was kept in a kind of upright black box with only his head sticking out of the top - it was some kind of suspended animation device, I think - although I remember that the crewman was conscious, or became conscious. Later I recall him breaking out of this box.

That's it. I've looked at online summaries of the plot of Ikarie XB-1, and while none of them specifically contradict these memories, nothing confirms them either. There are also lots of things in those summaries I don't recall.

Did I see this film? Did it mess with my mind and set me on the course to being a miserabilist, left-leaning SF writer?

Posted by voxish at 5:17 PM MEST
Now Playing: Ash - 1977

I just got back from an enjoyable weekend in Belfast, as one of the guests at this year's Mecon convention. It was great to hook up with some people I'd met only briefly before (Ian McDonald, Paul Cornell), as well as some I'd never met - CE (Catie Murphy), Leah Moore and John Reppion, and the great Iain Banks - all of whom turned out to be lovely people, making for an excellent couple of days. The convention organisers did a good job of creating a relaxed and sociable vibe, with the panels tending to be free-form things where the participants more or less made it up as they went along. We'd not been to Belfast before (or NI for that matter) and we liked it a lot. In a couple of months I'm off to Maynooth (near Dublin) for Octocon, where I'll get the chance to meet some of the Mecon attendees and guests again - I'm already looking forward to it.

I don't normally go in for this sort of thing, but my main purchase of the weekend - apart from a Weather Report CD and an Early Doors DVD (remember - crime can't crack itself) was a massive, lavish hardcover entitled "The Making of Star Wars". I got it for 18 quid because it was supposedly a bit damaged, but almost invisibly so to my eyes. This is a monster of a book which contains a wealth of interviews and production sketches detailing the making of the film (you'd never guess it from the title, would you?) including story boards, early script ideas, and much insight into the shifting identies of the main characters before they were nailed down - Luke as a girl, for instance. It also includes lots of geek-specific data which I will treasure, such as the fact that the model of the Rebel ship which comes in at the beginning was six feet long, whereas as the supposedly much vaster Imperial Cruiser which swallows it was only three feet long.  You can also see, in germinal form, much that later fed into the sequels and even prequels - there's an early mention of Mace Windu, for instance. Or is it Mace Windy - hard to tell. We also learn that the trench on the Death Star isn't (supposedly) the equatorial band which goes around the whole moon, but one of several grooves converging on the pole. Learning this, I really felt as if a fundamental aspect of my worldview had just been unhinged.

Being a serious SF writer, I'm not supposed to like Star Wars, but I do, so there.

Posted by voxish at 4:50 PM MEST
Monday, 30 July 2007
All things in moderation
Now Playing: British Sea Power
I've been having intermittent problems with Tripod's software, which has meant I couldn't log into to authorise comments (including my own). I've found what appears to be a workaround, but in the meantime, since I've not yet had to refuse a single comment, I've turned off the moderation. Let's see how it goes.

Posted by voxish at 1:07 PM MEST
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
The act we act
Now Playing: Sugar

The comment to the last post by James Russell raises the interesting issue of visualising characters as actors - James "got" Edward James Olmos as Dreyfus in The Prefect. I certainly wasn't thinking of that actor when I wrote the Dreyfus sequences in the book, but he wouldn't be a bad choice, in the unlikely event that the novel would ever need casting. He certainly has something of Dreyfus's dour intensity - and of course, he has a history of playing policemen.

It begs the question, though: when writers sit down to develop a character, to what extent does "dream casting" factor into the process? I made no secret of the fact that I visualised Clavain (from Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap etc) as an older, grizzled Sean Connery - in fact, I was thinking specifically of the Russian submarine commander he plays in The Hunt for Red October. But now that I'm done with Clavain, and I see him from the outside - as a character in some stories that I hardly remember writing - the Connery association is now much less important, if it's there at all.  He could just as easily be played by Ian McKellan, come to think of it.

I know I'm not the only writer who indulges in dream casting, but it's not something that you see discussed in public very often. And perhaps I'm less inclined to show my cards now than I was a few years ago. If you want to know who I had in mind as Floyd, for instance, you'll need to pin me down in public, preferably over a beer (oh, all right - John Goodman). But I'm not going to tell you who I had in mind for Dreyfus, or Gaffney, or Thalia... at least until that book is well out of my system...

Posted by voxish at 6:26 PM MEST

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