Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Sporting with the Chid
Now Playing: Barrington J Bayley (1937-2008)

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the upstairs bookcase when I chanced upon my copy of Barrington Bayley's THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT. Great book, I thought immediately - it had been boxed away for years and I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it. I do remember the massive enjoyment I'd had in reading it, twenty odd years ago, and how the titular character - Jasperodus - had stuck in my mind as a kind of emblematic ideal of the science fictional robot. A little of him, I think, rubbed off on Hesperus from my own own HOUSE OF SUNS.

But seeing the book also reminded me of a period when I'd managed to read quite a bit of Bayley, before his books and collections became harder to find. His imagination was quite unlike that of any of his comtemporaries. When I read his short story "Sporting with the Chid", I genuinely felt that it was the most marvellously demented thing I'd ever read, the product of a truly lunatic and unfettered mind. In short: a group of astronauts are captured by ingenious aliens with a knack for bio-engineering. The aliens' great achievement is the ability to make bodily organs function independently of each other, and to this end they devise a "game" for their human prisoners. The astronauts' brains are surgically removed and converted into independent, mobile entities. Their bodies, meanwhile, sans brains, are set walking in zombie mode towards the edge of a cliff. The objective of the brains is to catch up, climb back into the empty skulls and recover control before the bodies walk off the cliff.

Show that one to the next person who says SF is undeserving of literary respectability...

It wasn't just that story, though. I enjoyed almost everything of his that I read, and when Bayley had a story in Interzone, it was always that one I turned to first.  Gratifyingly, it wasn't just me - Bayley always seemed to do well in the reader poll results. He could be riotously funny, as well. One of his last stories was a delightful tale of juvenile deliquency among sentient crabs and ... well, you, had to be there, really.

I never met Bayley or had any correspondence with him, but - even though I still had much of his work to catch up with - he remained one of my favorite British writers. Let's hope that posterity treats him well, and that some of those brilliant stories are made readily available again.

Posted by voxish at 1:03 PM MEST
Updated: Tuesday, 21 October 2008 1:23 PM MEST
Sunday, 19 October 2008
Space is Gonna Do Me Good
Now Playing: Frank Black

 One of the things I've occasionally harped on about in talks and essays is the notion of SF as a tool for mapping the space of possible futures. As is often remarked, SF is not a predictive medium (or at least not a strikingly successful one) on the level of individual stories and novels. In fact, SF's record of direct predictive hits is rather dreadful. We aren't living in giant wheels in space; we aren't required to distinguish between aircars and groundcars; we don't commute to work on rolling roads or eschew elevators for the convenience of the antigravity drop-shaft. We don't live under the benign will of a single World Government or obey the edicts of a "just machine" programmed by fellows with compassion and vision (spot the Fagen reference, pop pickers). Psi-powers and teleportation don't appear to work; aliens haven't appeared in vast ships over our cities and we aren't fighting killer cyborgs from the future. On the other hand, lots of things that do loom large in our lives - instantaneous, ubiquitous communication, the massively networked world, the coming energy crisis - conspicuously failed to be anticipated by SF as a whole; they were not part of the default future that we imagined we were heading towards for much of the twentieth century. And yet, there were individual "hits" - SF writers did occasionally get it right, even if what they anticipated did not necessarily become part of SF's common currency of ideas. I won't labour the point, but while (for instance) SF exhibited a massive blindspot about the possibility of the mass-produced home computer, Murray Leinster got it sort of right in "A Logic Named Joe" (1946). The idea was right, or at least not as wrong as the prevailing notion of the single, world-governing Asimovian supercomputer - but it didn't catch on. Nonetheless, there was that one "hit". It's a bit like Rutherford's scattering experiment, in which only a tiny fraction of the alpha particles fired at the gold screen actually rebounded: SF was the collective enterprise firing predictions at the gold screen of the future, and (in this instance) only Leinster's alpha particle actually scored a hit. Looked at on the scale of individual stories, it's obviously a dismally low success rate - but if we take a step back and look a SF as a kind of collaborative experiment, then maybe it took all those misses before the numbers stacked up enough to make one hit likely. The best strategy for ramping up the hit rate, it seems to me, would be to encourage SF writers to shoot their alpha-particle predictions into the gold screen on as many different trajectories as possible. Not, in other words, to think in lock-step, marching to the same conceptual beat. Of course, why you might care about SF's collective ability to hit the predictive mark is another question entirely - one I'm tempted to gloss over, other than to suggest that if you've imagined something, even only fleetingly, you will at least not be totally surprised when the real thing arrives. SF anticipated human cloning; to some extent we already had an intellectual toolkit to deal with the issue when it showed up.

What on Earth does any of this have to do with space, as intimated by the title of this entry? Well, maybe nothing, but when I'm writing a story in which space travel plays a significant role, I try to be honest with myself about the kind of game I'm playing. Am I indulging in a purely literary exercise, using spaceships to facilitate a story I couldn't otherwise tell? Or am I indulging - or attempting to indulge in - genuine speculation about where we might be headed a hundred or a thousand years from now? Zima Blue, for instance, has space travel in it; it's set in a teeming colonised galaxy somewhere in the early fourth millennium. I don't, however, seriously think that our future is going to look anything like the background in that story. It's a colourful, fun construct, with FTL travel and spaceships so huge they have sky-generators on their bellies so they don't cast massive shadows when they're hovering over planets. Great fun - a future I'd love to live in - but not one supported by anything much resembling physics. On the other hand - pause while Reynolds searches his brain for something in his back catalogue approximating a hard SF story - something like "Great Wall of Mars" or "Glacial" is me trying to play semi-fair with the laws of physics, and not get too carried away with the space operatics. I don't think we'll be zipping out of the solar system in 4 kilometer-long Conjoiner drive ships any time soon, but I still earnestly believe that we will extend a human presence beyond this solar system, and that we'll find a way to do it with living, breathing people, not just DNA smears or uploaded personalities. All that other stuff might happen as well, but I'm convinced that there will be actual, honest-to-god starships. They might bear little or no resemblence to anything SF's dreamed up - or about as much resem blence to a real ship as Leonardo's sketch of a helicopter does to a Cobra gunship - but they will still be something we can call starships. They'll travel at slower than the speed of light (how much slower I wouldn't like to guess) and they'll carry pioneers and explorers to other solar systems, systems we will already have studied via telescopes and robotic envoys. I believe this, although I don't expect anyone else to.

It seems to me, though, that SF might be on the verge of exhibiting a collective loss of faith in the old dream of space travel beyond our solar system. Maybe it's already happened. On his blog, that excellent writer Ian McDonald has stated his position very clearly - he doesn't feel that he's engaging with anything real when he writes about spaceships. I can't argue with that; I feel differently but it's that personal response that's precisely the issue here. Writers should go with their hearts and minds, and not follow the pack. If you believe in something, write about it with conviction and sincerity. If you don't, don't.

Maybe I'm just on a space buzz because I've recently come back from visiting the Kennedy Space Center, fired up with the grandeur of Apollo and my continued love affair with the space shuttle, compromised and inefficient thing that it is. I don't think so, though: I've felt this way about space for years, decades. Perhaps I'm just in denial, unable to process the demoralising truth that the dream is dead and gone. That may be the case; I'm the last person you should ask. Certainly, public enthusiam for space travel couldn't be at a lower ebb. But I've a hunch things are going to change. The shuttle fleet retires in 2010; five or six years later NASA will debut its new manned launcher, which in many ways is a return to Apollo-era technology (precious little wrong with that; the 747 is Apollo-era tech and they still seem to work pretty well). By the end of the decade - 2020-ish, maybe as early as 2019 (there's the small matter of honoring a fifty year anniversary), NASA wants to go back to the Moon, using the same kit of parts that will ultimately give it access to Mars and beyond. I can't help but be excited by this; I really do feel that we could see a renewed surge of excitement and inspiration when the Constellation program takes wing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, even if SF turns its back on space, I'm still going to be holding a candle.  I know I won't be the only one. But I don't demand or expect anyone else to do so. This is not a manifesto. Space is gonna do me good, but it might not work for you. That's the beauty of SF when it's at its richest and most kaleidoscope - it's not just one alpha particle being shot into the gold screen, it's thousands, each carrying its own specific injection energy and angle, its own unique scattering cross sections. Some of those visions will be intensely pessimistic, some otherwise, some will resist analysis on those terms. There will be hits and misses. Mostly misses, in all likelihood - but that's how it has to happen...




Posted by voxish at 10:16 PM MEST
Monday, 1 September 2008
Sci-Fi Lullabies
Now Playing: Suede

When I was growing up, the term "sci-fi" had almost universally positive connotations - to me, at least. There were "sci-fi" double-bills on BBC2. My dad would sometimes let me stay up late on fridays if there was a "sci-fi" film on. I liked drawing "sci-fi" pictures and writing "sci-fi" stories. I liked going to the "sci-fi" section of WH Smiths and buying "sci-fi" books (usually media tie-in novels by the likes of Alan Dean Foster, but that's another story).

Then it all changed. When I started reading into SF more seriously - reading about the genre as well as the genre itself - I quickly learned that calling things "sci-fi" was a bit of a no-no. The term, if it was used at all, was reserved for the schlocky, tacky, end-of-the-pier stuff: second-rate comics, bad films and TV shows, derivative tie-ins and so forth - all the stuff that proper, serious SF wanted to disassociate itself from as quickly as possible. To use the term "sci-fi" in polite society - well, what passes for polite society in SF circles - was to reveal yourself as a bit of an ingenue, not yet fully versed in the ways of grown-up SF discourse. Over time, I too learned not to talk about "sci-fi" unless I was explicitly talking about the bad stuff. And I quickly learned that many SF enthusiasts liked to talk in withering terms about something called "skiffy", a word I've never used and never will, because it speaks volumes to me about the smug insularity and in-jokiness of a certain strain of fandom. I think that's their clever way of saying "sci-fi", but in a manner that "mundanes" - for which read: most normal, well-adjusted people - won't get.

 It took me almost as long to realise that "soof-wah" was what people in fandom said when they meant the SFWA (itself rather an obscure, niche organisation, when you get down to it, as if it needed to be made even more obscure by pronouncing it in a funny way).

The thing is, I don't think we're going to win this one. To the average person in the street, sci-fi is what we do. It's what copy-editors will always insist on putting into newspaper articles, even if the original author used the terms SF or science fiction. And guess what, I'm a sci-fi writer. I write sci-fi books. They get shelved in the sci-fi section. It's not the worst thing in the world.

So here's a suggestion. We get over the sci-fi thing. We can still keep talking about SF and science fiction, but we should give up the knee-jerk sense of insult whenever the sci-fi label is applied to what we do. To the outside world, we're like music bores getting upset with the term "hi-fi". It should be "high-fidelity", doncha know.

If we still need a term to isolate the tacky end of the genre, I've got one right here. We can call it "crap sci-fi", like the rest of the world does.

 (Today's post has been brought to you by the letter Q and a sense of grumpy injustice that it's the first of September and we haven't had a summer).

Posted by voxish at 10:30 AM MEST
Updated: Monday, 1 September 2008 11:03 AM MEST
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Big Issue Cymru now out
Now Playing: Crystal River - Mudcrutch

Before I bore everyone senseless about this, just a word to say that I popped into Cardiff today and (thanks to a couple of friendly vendors) was able to pick up The Big Issue Cymru with my story in it. It'll only be on sale until the weekend, so get cracking if a) you want one, b) you live in Wales.

While not wishing to dent sales of the magazine (not very likely) the story in question will eventually reappear in the UK edition of Zima Blue in April 2009. So even if you can't get hold of the mag, you'll still get a chance to read the story eventually.

Trying to play on my guitar: Andante, by Ferdinado Carulli, Carrousel by Gerard Montreuil, Like a Hurricane by N Young.

Posted by voxish at 11:28 PM MEST
Geek out

Meant to mention it earlier, but I participated in a panel discussion on the subject of maps and illustrations in SF and Fantasy over on Bookgeeks. The other writers were Jaine Fenn, Brian Ruckley and Jeff Somers.

I come across as a bit snotty in my initial posting, for which apologies to all concerned. Must have been having a bad guitar day...

Posted by voxish at 12:16 AM MEST
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
Weather Report
Now Playing: Three views of a secret

I'm delighted to say that "Weather", one of the original short stories from Galactic North, has won the Japanese National Science Fiction Convention's Seiun award for best translated short fiction. That's my second award of any kind, so you can understand that it means a lot to me - especially as I'm rather fond of the story in question.

My thanks to all the members of the convention who voted for "Weather". Technically, it means I'm perfectly entitled to say that I've "won the nebula award" (Seiun=Nebula in Japanese.)

Which is nice. 

Posted by voxish at 7:28 PM MEST
Updated: Tuesday, 26 August 2008 7:35 PM MEST
Saturday, 23 August 2008
Joker Hysterical Face
Now Playing: The Fall

First up, Miles (see comments below previous post) got a copy of The Big Issue Cymru last week and according to that one, my story will be running in this week's issue, not the previous one as I reported below. Apologies for any inconvenience...

In other news, I caught up with The Dark Knight while back in the Netherlands, and for the most part enjoyed it rather a lot. As has been noted elsewhere, it's very much Heath Ledger's film, and I don't think there's ever been a better Joker. Nicholson's version is still pretty damned iconic ("Wait 'til they get a load of me!") but Ledger's take on the character wins in terms of sheer, oozing menace: a truly evil and psychotic villain, up there with Kurtwood Smith's superbly deranged Clarence Boddicker from the first Robocop film. You certainly wouldn't want to be in the same room as any of them.

What I didn't like so much - and this is seems to be the case with all the big superhero films of recent years - was the excessively convoluted plot, in no way helped by the apparent need to stuff another villain into the story. Two-face (another Fall song, pop pickers - and there's also Riddler, while we're at it) would surely have merited a film in his own right. And he didn't really get to be Two-Face for long enough, in my view. Perhaps he's not dead after all.

I also didn't like the nonsensical subplot about cellphones and sonar, and I couldn't for the life of me work out what Batman was doing in that forensic reconstruction scene with the Joker's bullet. The fact that Bale delivered all his Batman lines in a gutteral croak didn't exactly assist matters.

But I liked Ledger, I liked the Batpod motorcycle (although I bet Judge Dredd is fuming); I liked the action set pieces (not too much obvious CGI, for once) and it was fun to relate to Chicago in a way I hadn't been able to do before my recent trip. I much preferred this film to Spiderman, Hulk, Superman etc.

Onward to Hellboy II.

Posted by voxish at 11:34 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 23 August 2008 11:53 PM MEST
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
Now Playing: The Bats

Right - the StarShipSofa podcast is up (Aural delights number 37):


As always the whole thing's worth listening to, but for them that's interested, my bit is 29 minutes into it, followed by the narration of "The Real Story". Which is very good, incidentally - the narration, I mean. Top marks to Tony Smith of the Sofa for coming up with this idea.

I've got a naff voice for this kind of thing, incidentally. In my head I sound like Anthony Hopkins, but for some reason it comes out more like Mr Bean.

But everyone hates their voice, don't they?

Moving on, I'm told that the Big Issue Cymru with my story in it will be on sale next week. More on that when I know for sure.

Posted by voxish at 8:51 PM MEST
Wednesday, 6 August 2008
Not the most organised of people
Now Playing: Still Walter Becker

Lately I've become very poor at dealing with correspondence, for which many apologies. I hit a difficult patch after Christmas, which meant that I was finding it unusually hard to finish, or even get started on, various projects. It had nothing to do with anything going on in my life, except perhaps as the fallout from a difficult and stressful year involving relocation to the UK. Whatever - the point was, I hit some roadblocks, and work wasn't going as smoothly as I'd have liked. I've talked a bit about this in a podcast which will be going out as part of StarShipSofa in a little while. The upshot was that - after I got back from Minneapolis - I badly needed to get some focus and cut out distractions. That's a large part of why I removed my email address from the website - not because I didn't appreciate the feedback (most of the emails I received were interesting and welcome, and generally very kind, and very few encouraged me to go and kill myself) but simply because dealing with them was swallowing more and more of my time, even after I'd made it clear that I wasn't necessarily going to respond to everything. (In fact, I think I still responded to 95% of all emails).

However, that's not really the point of this update. Very occasionally, I do get actual mail, forwarded on via my agent or publisher. Again, they're mostly very welcome. I've received some crank material, but I doubt that there are many SF writers who haven't.  The problem, though, is that I'm just as chronically bad at dealing with this form of correspondence as I am with the electronic variety. A case in point - and I really hope she's reading this - would be the nice letter I received from a young lady called Megan some time ago. I put it aside with the intention of replying ... and then didn't, and time went by, and now - even though I swear I knew where the letter was - I can't find it. I'm still hoping I'll turn it up, of course. But I feel an apology is due. At least with emails I can go back into my inbox and theoretically locate any that I haven't responded to, but a physical letter is a different matter.

 So. Much grovelling from me, and due apologies to anyone else who's still waiting on me for anything.

Veering in a completely different direction, I'm taking guitar lessons. On one level, it's an admission of failure. I got a guitar 14 years ago (ta, mum). I got some books and started teaching myself how to play. I kept doing this for another 14 years. I got a bit better, working slowly through the exercises. I enjoyed myself tremendously, but - a year or two ago - it began to dawn on me that I wasn't really improving, at least not at any measurable rate. And while I could sort of read music, I had an almost hopeless lack of understanding of basic theory - scales, key signatures and suchlike. What I could play, I'd more or less figured out by a painful process of memorisation.  So it was time to do something about it. The tipping point was the Telecaster I treated myself to after the House of Suns signing in Forbidden Planet - that and spotting an advert for guitar lessons in a shop window.

So now, once week, I get on my bike and cycle around to Richard. Richard's a nice young guy who can play just about anything - he's classically trained, but likes Steely Dan and death metal. And under Richard's guidance I think I've learned more in the last couple of months than in the 14 years since I got my first guitar. I'm still crap, of course. But it's a different, more refined crap. Right now the reason my fingers feel like the ends have been sawn off is "Prelude" by Matteo Carcassi, and I'm having a blast. Maybe because I don't have a musical bone in my body, I'm enjoying it all the more. And I'm doing it because I want to, not because I'm made to do it by a teacher.

Posted by voxish at 11:34 PM MEST
Updated: Thursday, 7 August 2008 12:07 AM MEST
Monday, 4 August 2008
We got the Steely Dan t-shirts
Now Playing: Walter Becker

Walter Becker has a new album out. It's called Circus Money and is his first solo release since 1994. This can only be a good thing.

Have you ever bought an album on the basis of who produced it? If the answer's no, then I'm willing to bet you're not a Steely Dan fan. If you are, on the other hand, then you may well have bought Zazu, Rosie Vela's one and only album, purely on the basis that Fagen and Becker were on it, reunited for the first time since 1980's Gaucho. Or you may own albums by China Crisis or Fra Lippo Lippi that wouldn't otherwise form part of your collection, because Becker produced and played on them.

Since 1982, Fagen has maintained a blazingly productive output of approximately one solo album per decade. Becker, by contrast, has recorded a scorching two albums in the same time interval. Of course, there's the not insignificant matter of Steely Dan reforming in the mid nineties, but even allowing for their two new studio albums (or is it three? I can't remember) they can hardly be accused of flooding the market. Which makes Becker's new one all the more welcome, and I for one expect to be enjoying it for at least a decade.

Oh, and the title of this blog? A Fagen song, of course.

Posted by voxish at 3:10 PM MEST
Updated: Monday, 4 August 2008 3:51 PM MEST

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