Monday, 31 January 2011

Eleven heroes in blue and white

video

I honestly wish I could say that the game ended as it should have done. To be beaten in such a horrible, horrible fashion was extremely gutting, leaving a hollow sensation in the stomach. But it was a wonderful day out.

Town went down 2-1 to Arsenal at the Emirates in front of 59,375. Alan Lee's goal was undoubtedly the high point of a fluent, attacking performance from Town. More to follow, when I've uploaded pictures.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Perdido Street Station

Some will remember my gushing praise of China Miéville in my review of The City And The City, the book that shared last year's Hugo award for best novel with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. I think I said that I'd be revisiting his work sooner rather than later and that I was looking forward to the day I did.

With good reason, as it turns out. I received Perdido Street Station for Christmas and, after finishing a couple of (much) shorter books in the early days of the month I finally sat down to work my way through the 867 pages of it the other Sunday. From the off, I was captivated.

The writing is superb. Miéville paints his world with florid prose that flows with the smoothness of melted chocolate. The world revealed is a place of wonder, vivid and colourful and grotesque. And the fluency is what makes it stand out. It's so easy to read about, even though the language can be high-flown and perhaps beyond more than a few readers. But for yours truly, it was a joy to read writing bursting with originality, with a fluent, easy style. However, I can see an argument that some may make that it's overwritten and bloated by purple prose throughout - I just happen to disagree.

The story of Perdido Street Station focuses on a group of dilettantes, including an artist, a renegade underground journalist and a freelance scientist. From humble beginnings, where a garuda - a winged hunter of the lands away from New Crobuzon, the steampunk city where the book is set - approaches Isaac, the scientist, with a request, the plot picks up pace and scale with the introduction of the inhuman primary antagonists. The oppressive government and militia become involved, along with underworld gangsters and hyperintelligent giant steampunk constructs.

With a novel of this scale, with the grand ideas and spectacular set-pieces, it would be easy for Miéville to have lost sight of his characters on occasion, and it's not an unreasonable accusation to make on rare occasions. However, by and large, the characters remain human (ish), with real emotions and motivations. Isaac and Lin in particular, with their cross-species romance, are always characters I could connect with in their personal struggles. These struggles combined with the overall grand scheme of the plot make for compelling reading throughout

Perdido Street Station is surreal at all times. In the steampunk world, higher forces exist that help to make this more a fantasy novel than SF. The ideas combine with an unorthodox grace in the grotesque world of New Crobuzon. With a less skilled hand, the whole world could easily have collapsed under the weight of phantasmagorical ideas on the brassy frame of steampunk, but Miéville manages to balance it all out quite nicely.

One thing I will say is that at 867 pages this is not a light read. It takes some time and commitment, and as such isn't generally on the highly-recommended list for busy LLB Bar Exempting students. However, I still thoroughly enjoyed it cover to cover, and will be picking up the sequel, The Scar, in due course.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Kneeding a break?

It's been a long day. Even more so when you consider I've not really had that much to do. Came home, called in at the grandparents, came home, went to the doctors' surgery, came home again...

But there was some news from the day that made it all worthwhile. 22 months after a serious knee injury, I practically got the all clear to go hell for leather into each and every tackle. The instability I perceived to be in my left knee came about as a result of a loose collateral ligament, rather than any real damage. No cruciate problems, no cartilage floating around, nothing.

Hopefully, after a little bit of physiotherapy, my knee will be back to what it was before I dislocated it. But it's certainly a load off my mind; the next time I go into a challenge I won't have the worry in the back of my mind that my knee will destroy itself in the collision. So I no longer have an excuse for bottling a tackle.

But I'm pleased to be, for want of a better phrase, 'fit again'.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, we are tonight's entertainment!


It'll be nice to put my feet up this evening.

That is, it'll be nice to put my feet up even if it doesn't involve watching the football. Arsenal are playing L**ds for the right to play Town in the fourth round of the FA Cup, but, despite having a vested interest, I'm not watching. Partly because I can't be bothered, partly for other reasons.

So I'm spending a rare evening engrossed in ideas. I'll be reading a bit of Perdido Street Station, China Miéville's 2001 steampunk novel, a bit of my short story collection (not a collection of my short stories, I'll hasten to add - that was a clumsy turn of phrase), and for the rest of my time I'll be submersing myself in notes and mind maps, trying to coax a story into being.

I have a couple of ideas I could go back to, but I don't really feel like it. After writing most of those stories once, I really don't fancy writing them again right now. With the last few weeks being spent immersing myself in uninspiring coursework, getting a new idea to work on will hopefully ignite my imagination. From there, who knows: I might finally rewrite Descent (to which WriSoc will be 'treated' tomorrow), or carry on with Under The Railway Arches.

Who knows, I may even motivate myself to get the rewrites published so they won't just be meaningless words on a barely-read blog.

You may not be able to tell, but I'm excited.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A party political broadcast on behalf of the magazines of the world

Since it was first published in 2005, the Twilight series has sold (according to Wikipedia at any rate) more than 100 million copies of its five volumes. On average, each volume will have sold 20 million or more.

Whether it deserves to have sold that kind of number of copies is neither here nor there. The point is that low-brow, low-quality fluff with the same level of literary merit as the scribblings of a small child is one of the best-selling series of the decade, while talented short story writers go unnoticed in the near-backwaters of the magazine publishing world.

Many critics argue that short stories are the most pure form of storytelling. Certainly they're tighter, better plotted and often better written than all but the highest quality of novels. Short stories don't get the padding that novels get, and that alone means that they're perhaps a higher form of literature. This may sound snobbish, but it's an opinion and I certainly think that there is more than an element of truth to be found in the arguments. I can also add that, in many ways, short stories are truer to life, more episodic by their very nature and more capable of capturing that elusive sense of real life than a novel.

I'm not trying to say that novels don't have their place. They do. And it's not often you'll read a novel and think 'this should have been a short story' in the same way you might think the often. Novels are more engrossing, connect more on an emotional level. But they don't have that purity of storytelling inherent in their nature, for my liking. (I will probably hold this opinion until my primary reading is no longer the seemingly inexhaustive list of anthologies and short fiction collections I'd like to get through, and then resort to a view of novel superiority over short stories).

Short stories do have one fundamental advantage over novels in addition to those mentioned: they're short. They're easier to fit into a train journey. You can get through more in a day, expose yourself to a greater variety of world views and opinions.

So why don't people read short fiction magazines?

Remember the statistic about Twilight? In my mind there's no contest between the quality of writing in that when it's compared to the quality of leading British science fiction magazine Interzone. The quality of the writing - and, it goes without saying, the writers - is superlative. I'm not going to say they're the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. But I am going to say that the current sales of magazines like Interzone don't reflect this superior quality. According to Gardner Dozois in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 23, circulation of Interzone worldwide is around 3,000 per issue.

Other SF magazines don't do particularly well, either. When reading these statistics, bear in mind that these are American magazines with access to a greater market than Interzone (or, at least, that people will have heard of over there more than Interzone). Again, these statistics come from Gardner Dozois's summation of 2009 in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 23.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 15,500
Asimov's Science Fiction: 16,700
Analog Science Fiction and Fact: 25,400

All of those magazines have falling circulations, if Dozois is to be believed (and I personally would trust him on this; he knows a great deal more than me). And the question has to be raised: Why?

Perhaps the internet has something to do with it, but the quality of free fiction there generally isn't as high (there are some exceptions, notably Daily Science Fiction, but by and large free short fiction on the internet is distinctly underwhelming). Is it cost? I doubt it; a year's subscription to Interzone is slightly more than a hardback novel while giving you so much more (around 30 short stories, with interviews, comments and reviews, all contained within 6 issues).

The answer has to be lack of exposure. One barely-read blogger with a chip on his shoulder isn't going to change the minds of the masses when it comes to magazines like Interzone (mostly because they haven't heard of it and because no one reads this blog beyond a select few). But surely somewhere like Waterstones stocking a couple of issues per branch will. Or public libraries having a copy or two lying around for the consumption of whosoever will come through the door.

Unfortunately, I doubt that this will happen. So instead, I implore anyone who reads this to separate with a little of their hard-earned money to subscribe to a fiction magazine. Perhaps this is a little hypocritical, considering that I've only just subscribed to Interzone and Black Static, its horror counterpart. But I can guarantee that it's worth it. And maybe in time word will spread, and the popularity of magazines will increase again, giving the people who work hard for what they love something back from outside, from those of us who simply appreciate good SF.

We can always hope.

To visit Interzone's website, click here

To visit Asimov's website, click here

To visit F&SF, click here

To visit Analog, click here

Friday, 14 January 2011

Long days, dark nights

It's been a stressful few days. Since returning to uni I've worked perhaps 60 hours on various aspects of uni work, and I've had very little time to myself. Last night's football was a welcome work-out to relieve stress.

Unfortunately it's likely to be the last time I play for some three months. Uni's timetable isn't conducive to any of the activities I like doing, so I won't get the chance to play and I'm also finally sorting out my long-standing knee injury. If I need surgery that'd put me out for about six months, as I reckon it's a cartilage problem that'd need more than just physio to cure. But I'm no expert, and it might just be residual problems arising from a dislocated knee.

But that pain would pale in comparison to my present workload. Two pieces of coursework, several SPSs to prepare, a dissertation and the SLO all going on at once makes for a very stressed and not particularly happy me. Especially seeing as one of those pieces of coursework is being redrafted after I made a mess of it the first time. And progress is sloooow, or so it seems; considering the volume it feels like I'm hardly making an indent.

Progress is also slow on the short stories I'm writing and the books I'm reading. I've only completed two in the first fortnight of the year (an unprecedentedly low number), and the Lovecraft collection has taken me almost 3 weeks.

I'm not sure I like Lovecraft. His style is hard work to read and he sometimes seems lazy in his descriptions. When he says something defies description it feels like a copout, and the multiple times he finishes a story in exactly the same way is just plain frustrating. Still, he has his moments.

On the short story front, I have half a dozen ideas I'm trying to work on, one of which is properly in the writing process, but it's just getting the chance. Uni is, unfortunately, a little onerous in its demands at the moment.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Whatever Platini says...

I have nothing personal against Hull City. In fact, I'd go so far as to say most people have nothing against Hull City. Quite a few neutrals around the country will have cheered a little when they beat Arsenal at the Emirates a year or two back with that screamer from Geovanni. Part of this comes from the fact Hull don't really have any natural rivals. Scunthorpe and Grimsby are as big as Hull rivalries really get, and I can imagine that Hull fans are a bit miffed about that (especially when you consider even Torquay have cracking local derbies to get stuck into every now and then).

Anyway, I'm getting off my point already.

Hull have been in financial trouble for a while now, since Adam Pearson left them and Phil Duffen took over. Quite how they managed to get into financial trouble with 25,000 fans coming through the turnstiles every week and a further £30m incoming in TV money I really don't know. It isn't as if they spent masses of cash on players (unless it all went on Phil Brown's tan). Since their relegation back to the Football League, they've been taken over by Arabic businessmen who have, apparently, put the club back on a stable footing.

I don't know why people keep selling English clubs to foreign owners. Perhaps in the short term it reaps rewards (look at Notts County last season - from 19th in League Two in 2008/9 to champions in 2009/10, with a progressive side featuring the likes of Kasper Schmeichel), but in the longer term it's a recipe for disaster.

What emotions tie an Arabic businessman to an English football club? Precisely none. Some would suggest that this is an advantage; a business needs to be run in a certain way, and that way doesn't involve emotions ruling the roost. But unfortunately very few clubs will ever be run that way by a foreign businessman because the aim is simple: success at any cost.

Do Manchester City have a sustainable business model in their quest to win the Champions League? The answer is no. Spending £27m on Edin Dzeko this past week, plus goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands on weekly wages is just one example of the way foreign - and in particular Arabic - owners throw money at the problem in search of prestige. Foreign owners aren't interested in the team or the fans, per se, but instead are interested in their own bragging rights. Owning a successful club is a badge of honour, and that club being a sustainable business doesn't matter one jot.

Not all foreign owners are like this. Randy Lerner at Aston Villa has been a good chairman and owner. Villa haven't thrown money at players except in rare instances (wasting £8m on L**ds no-mark Fabian Delph springs to mind instantly), and have instead relied on talented youngsters. And some of these youngsters are superb. Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Jonathan Hogg, Gabby Agbonlahor, Ciaran Clark and Eric Lichaj are all players with international futures ahead of them and, with the exception of Agbonlahor, all are players who have made their mark this season. The impression I get from Villa is of a side building for the future through steady, sensible progress rather than going for broke in a do-or-die scenario. In recent times, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea has become far more like this, although success is still the bottom line for him.

Going back to Hull, I fail to see how these new owners will benefit them one jot in the long term. Spending £40m on buying the stadium may endear them to the fans for the immediate future, but when they're bored and success hasn't materialised they'll leave the club to the vultures, with players on stupid wages and with a mounting debt. Sometimes this isn't the case, but because the emotional attachment isn't there why would they stay? It's not as if they were watching on from the terraces at Boothferry Park with a young Dean Windass playing for Hull, is it?

Oh, for the days of Jack Walker and Jack Hayward. Both Englishmen, both determined to see their clubs (Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers respectively) advance, but never jeapordising the future of the clubs. Walker was accused of buying Blackburn the title, but if that's the worst you can say about him he did his job properly. His legacy was a club capable of sustaining itself at a high level, with the very sensible John Williams taking over. The same can be said for Hayward. Now compare Jack Walker's running of the football club with the new (foreign) owners, who are more interested in bringing in short-term prestige over long-term stability.

As a Huddersfield Town fan, I'm delighted Town aren't owned by a foreign owner with no real connections to the club. We're owned by a man with a nine-figure fortune, yes, but this is no oil tycoon from the United Arab Emirates. Dean Hoyle is a self-made millionaire, born in Heckmondwike, who has supported Town through thick and thin for 30 years. He went straight from the Kilner Bank not too far along from yours truly to the boardroom. His investment is heavy - but when we come out of this phase of investing the club will have been revolutionised and will, most importantly, be a sustainable business.

In many ways I'm an extremely lucky football fan. These days there seems to be a choice between a foreign owner with wads of cash but no emotional attachment who leaves the club in dire straits when he leaves or a succession of well-meaning but ultimately not-very-rich owners who try to keep the club on the straight and narrow. Having a fan with money and business sense in charge leaves me with the feeling that the club is in very safe hands.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Mirror, mirror, on humanity's wall...

There's something so rewarding when you realise what you're really writing about. You might be writing an epic story about starships and planetary destruction, yet hidden amongst the detritus there will be the true human content of a piece, whether it's the value of friendship, discrimination and the value of equality, or the importance of being earnest (yes, that's a terrible joke, I'll readily admit it). It doesn't matter what you're writing; I'd like to think that every piece of writing has some way of reflecting on the human race, even if the author doesn't realise it.

I've been working on a piece for a month or so now, and it's been bugging me to death. It's a dark, dystopian piece that hardly reflects accurately on my normally-cheery personality, and I'd been struggling to get to grips with it. What if this isn't realistic? What if it's far too overblown and unlikely? My mind was proving more a hindrance than a help, until I realised I wasn't writing about a dystopian world. Not really.

I was writing about a human trait we all have in some form or other. Through the protagonist I was projecting a particular view on humanity, even if this was completely subconscious on my part. As a result, I expect the remainder of the writing I have to do on this particular novelette to be far easier. Well, until I have to start writing it again, of course.

Friday, 7 January 2011

On Jason Sanford and Harlan Ellison

For people not familiar with Jason Sanford an education is in order.

Sanford is a writer still fairly new to the scene. He made his breakthrough a couple of years ago, and has since established himself in a fairly short time as one of the most exciting talents in SF. Recently, Interzone ran a special issue in his honour, including 3 new short stories of his and an interview, alongside a further story he had forwarded to Interzone. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend his fiction to anyone.

In this blog on his website, he passed comment on Harlan Ellison and his constant claiming that he has had most of the original ideas ever in the universe.

I can't personally pass comment on Ellison's works. I'm not familiar with them and this is an oversight on my behalf. But I can pass comment on his protestations that people take his ideas, notably James Cameron when writing The Terminator. I recommend to all that you read what Sanford has to say. He says what I want to far better than I can.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Hyperion

After putting down Hyperion having finished it I was struck by how much it had managed to engross me. In its way, this is unsurprising; it took me five days to get through and after investing some ten hours in reading it I'd expect that for my money.

But what is surprising is how connected I felt with the central cast of characters.

Here we need some context. The galaxy is under threat. The human race is under attack from an outer enemy. Seven pilgrims go to the planet Hyperion, each with their own unique connection to the place. Their goal is the Time Tombs, a place where the tides of time itself are somehow reversed in a temporal anomaly. At the Time Tombs, they'll meet the Shrike, part god, part force of nature. One of the pilgrims will have their wish granted; the others will die.

Hyperion is the tale of that pilgrimage. Unlike other novels of its type, it doesn't go all-out to bring action and adventure to the reader. In fact, the space opera element is far from central to the story. Instead, characters dominate. Each of the central characters tells their story to the others, in the style of The Canterbury Tales, and it is through these novellas within the novel that the connection is forged between reader and character.

It's an effective technique. It's been a long time since I felt a real connection with a cast of characters, but with this group I felt a palpable bond forming after just the first couple of stories. Simmons expertly weaves each character's motivations into their being, and they really are real people in how they are portrayed.

Not every story is the same, and that's one thing that counts in favour of Simmons. Had he pursued telling six stories of a similar type he'd have quickly had a bored audience. Instead, there's a horror story, a war story, a love story, an intense personal drama and a detective story in the midst of the individual backstories. Not every one of these is outstanding, but by and large the standard is excellent.

My personal favourite was possibly the most character-oriented of the stories. Sol Weintraum's tale is a tale of a family tragedy, superbly handled by Simmons. It's not often I say this, but I really was sucked into the heartache of the family. But I was also struck by the multifaceted characters more here than at any other time. In the face of the tragedy there's the love between Sol and his wife, his unwavering dedication, his determination to see it through.

I wish I could read books more like Hyperion on a daily basis. It doesn't have to be epic space opera, or massive in scale in any way. Just get me involved, make me feel every character's emotions, and you'll have me truly drawn in. I'm looking forward to reading the second in the series.