Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The results are in...

Well, that's it, then.

I appear to have passed all my exams.

Next stop graduation.

I can't pretend it isn't a relief. Thoughts of failing have plagued me since the exams themselves. I seem to have this habit of going over exams after the event, and it's not conducive to a positive mental state when it comes to exam results.

But all my fears were ill-founded, and I'll be graduating with a 2:1 honours degree. And to cap it off, this year's results have been rather good. No fewer than six firsts in modules. My highest-ever exam mark (88) just topped it off. And it came in my last exam in the place.

Overall, it's a successful day. I'm rather pleased with myself.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The dark side of the Kindle

There are plenty of freebies to be had on the Kindle store. Many are old classics in the public domain, converted to Kindle format by enthusiasts so people can read them free of charge. But others are less well-regarded.

I'm talking about those released by writers without a publisher who want to see their name in print.

It's easily possible to release a book of your own on the Kindle. A Word document can be converted using Amazon's own programme, and then released (complete with artwork, provided you have some) at a price of your choosing. It's no-risk self-publishing. Amazon take from any profits you gain, but you can still get a load of money, as proven recently by one man who recently sold his millionth ebook on the Kindle.

The problem it that it's too easy. Why go through the effort of trying to find a proper publisher when you can just upload a file and have people download it for little or no cost? Why risk rejection when you can be guaranteed to see your name in print? It won't make much money, but it'll still be there. And for me this risks killing the legitimate publishing industry, with the standard of writing dropping.

If I want to read a novella, I'll generally look for something by a writer I know. I downloaded Sublimation Angels by Jason Sanford not so long back, for example. It had a cost (a couple of pounds, if I remember correctly), but I knew what I was getting. I knew I was getting something that had previously been published in Interzone and serialised on StarShipSofa. It had got the seal of approval of the industry before being released as an independent ebook. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading it.

On the other hand, if I'm cash-strapped, I might want to delve into the free ebooks. Some will have come from legitimate publishers, of course, and if they have that's a nice bonus, but quite a few have probably come via self-publishing. And having experienced a couple, the quality isn't great.

It's easy to go for self-publishing for the Kindle, simply because you don't have to improve your writing style and quality for a chance at making some money. The one I picked up recently wasn't bad per se (it had an interesting story), but the writing was lacking. There wasn't any flair or originality. It seemed to be a stock collection of clichéd dialogue and substandard action scenes ("No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die" etc). An editor at Interzone would have taken a look at it and thrown it out. On getting the rejection slip, the writer would have had the incentive to look at his work and improve. With this system, there isn't an incentive.

One of the biggest things I find worrying, though, is the potential to sideline major publishing companies and - even worse - smaller publishing houses and their imprints by the flooding of the market with cheap, substandard stories. A glance at the top sellers in SF for the Kindle at the moment tells me that there are a few 'big' titles from professional publishers selling well (Surface Detail is one; A Clash of Kings another), but will that last long?

And if people get used to less than mediocre fiction, what does the future hold for fiction in the future? We already see the Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyers of the world - complete with their advertising juggernauts - dominate bestseller lists, while more intelligent, better written books are pushed into niches. We're constantly told (or, at least, I am) that being a bestseller is a mark of quality, so are we going to find twenty years down the line that children, having been brought up on cheap, poorly edited ebooks, think of those as being the zenith of literature?

It's all hypothetical at the moment. But it's a worrying thought. It could be that a potential saviour of the publishing world turns into its destroyer, and that would be a real shame.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Scar

When I reviewed Perdido Street Station at the beginning of the year I was keen to get my hands on the sequels. It doesn't feel six months since I said it. It certainly didn't feel like I'd been out of Bas-Lag six months when I started reading The Scar.

It's a slow starter. China Miéville builds his world up again with great care and attention to detail. The journey away from New Crobuzon by one of the renegades connected with events in Perdido Street Station is initially to reintroduce the world and get a feel before the real action gets started. And that takes 200 pages. Not that it's a bad read at this stage. The conflicts Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist, feels draw you in to the character and introduce the mysteries of characters who will play a prominent part in future events.

And then we reach Armada.

Armada is a remarkable creation. I don't normally comment, simply because many steampunk locales have a vaguely similar feel even if they're portrayed differently. New Crobuzon itself is a remarkable achievement, being possessed of its own intrigues and a unique feel, but the floating city of Armada surpasses even that.

Armada is a city comprised of hundreds of vessels lashed together and built upon, turned into a floating city moving gradually around the open seas. Its people are pirates and pressganged, arranged into their districts. No one leaves; should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself kidnapped by the pirates who range on missions for Armada, then that's it. Your life will be spent in the city. Your loyalties will be dictated by your district. It's a city portrayed visually as something out of the ordinary, which Miéville's writing makes it easy to see in your mind's eye.

Then there's the people. There's a vast range of races, mostly humanoid, but some vastly different from the norm. Miéville makes up races for fun: there's the Cactacae, the Vodyanoi, the Khepri, Scabmettlers, Remade, Vampir... Each brings something new to the eclectic mix. And then there's the characters themselves. Mysterious, with hidden agendas aplenty. We only find out the truth of them late in proceedings.

Armada seems to lurch from place to place, guided by the schemes of its leaders. One thing leads seamlessly to the next. On the way through the 800-page novel there are dramatic uses of the sciento-magic thaumaturgy, quests, subterfuges, battles a plenty (both with and without hardy pirate cutlasses being involved). It's a book of great range, epic in its scope. At once it can be intensely personal and grandly epic in the same way as significant historical events. It has a life of its own.

So would I recommend The Scar? Heartily. It's something remarkable. It's not a book to read so much as you experience it. Miéville's writing means you can smell each and every moment as well as visualise it. It is immersive and once it's over you'll feel like you've lost a part of you. It's something to cherish.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Summer reading

It's the same, day in, day out. Wake up on a morning, browse the Job Centre website for jobs, apply for two or more, make lunch, and then have an afternoon to myself. It's starting to get boring already. Fortunately, there is a saving grace in this dull routine, and that's time to engage in my summer reading.

It seems to be a very British thing. The summer read is something that (perhaps thanks to Richard and Judy) has become a part of British holiday and summer society. People who don't touch books all year suddenly pick up the latest bestseller (generally something by Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult) to read either on the beach or in the park. Those who generally do read far more mark out certain books that they want to read. As I'm part of the latter group, I've bookmarked five books I want to read this summer.

5. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

There's always a classic on the to-read list, and this year it's probably the biggest of the lot. Last year, Crime and Punishment had me in the garden soaking up the rays while I read about deepest, darkest Russian winters with destitute students (that sounds familiar) and sordid murders. It was all right - not my cup of tea, but it was bearable enough. I also had a shot at Pride and Prejudice and hated it. But I'm now at an age where I may as well at least have a go at reading Tolstoy's epic, as much to say I have read it as much as anything. Plus, it was only about 70p on the Kindle.

4. Helliconia (Brian Aldiss)

It's another not-short book. This time, it's the omnibus edition of Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy. I've always enjoyed classic SF, and although this is from the 1980s rather than the 1950s, the name of the author alone (and the imprint it's from notwithstanding) is enough to qualify it for classic status. I've read books by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, etc, but never one from British SF's second most influential writer. Plus, I got it for my birthday and wanted to do it justice rather than rushing chapters at the end of the day.

3. Iron Council (China Miéville)

I really need to learn the shortcut for the flick over the 'e', as I seem to be writing Miéville's name every five minutes at the moment. Right now, I'm in the middle of The Scar, Iron Council's immediate predecessor. There's something about the Bas-Lag world that's addictive and which means Iron Council is one of my essential summer reads. Plus, it's always nice to see a player of Dungeons and Dragons who's made it big.

2. Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein)

I've read Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and it only feels right that I should read its spiritual rival. I've also read John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and it feels somewhat wrong that I've read different worlds of military SF without reading the paragon of the sub-genre. For years I've bemoaned the cost of what is ultimately a slim volume, but the Kindle edition is far cheaper, and it's about time I got round to it.

1. A Dance With Dragons (George R. R. Martin)

A few people will be annoyed at me. I've been ever so smug over recent weeks while the HBO series Game of Thrones aired on Sky Atlantic, knowing each twist coming well in advance. Reading the book before it came out on the telly was a good idea. I've also read the rest of the series, finally reading A Feast For Crows back in February. And since then I've been waiting to find out what happens next. In July, the next volume of the series comes out, and I'll be getting it for the Kindle (despite having it pre-ordered for when it comes out in paperback... next September). I'm rather looking forward to it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The City And The Stars

I always struggle when writing titles containing lots of 'ands' and 'thes'. I'm never sure whether to capitalise them or not. In this case, I've gone for the 'yes' option. No doubt before too long I'll be opting in favour of 'no' for a while.

What I'm trying to say is that the title of Arthur C. Clarke's 1955 novel annoys me.

The book focuses on the city of Diaspar, a city apparently existing in perpetuity through the ages. Even by SF standards the setting is a long way in the future, taking place over a billion years in the future. Throughout the preceding billion years Diaspar has sat on 'the breast of the desert' (loved that phrasing) of an otherwise deserted Earth. It's apparently changeless, with even its population recycling itself. The city itself is run by a central computer, into which the city's founders have programmed a plan, the precise details of which are unknown by any of the human characters. In the previous billion years various stories have been passed down about the empire of humanity in the stars, and how the mysterious Invaders ended the empire.

As the population of Diaspar recycles itself, a new person is 'born' only once every deciaeon. This is someone with none of the pre-programmed fears and superstitions of perhaps twenty thousand years of life (each of the recycled people rediscovers all the memories of previous incarnations after 20 years). And the book follows one of these 'Uniques' on his journey beyond Diaspar.

If I had to liken The City And The Stars to another novel, it would have to be Asimov's Foundation. There's something analogous between them, right down to the whole galactic empire thing. Thematically they differ, but the two plots are comparable.

Of all of Clarke's works I've read to date, this is the best-written. The example above included, the use of language is somehow more lyrical than later works such as Rendezvous With Rama. However, it greatly differs from Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey et al. TCATS is more character-driven, relying on characters to influence events. By contrast, those it's being compared to were written in reaction to the latter part of the Space Race and the later, post-Stalin Cold War. They also had far more emphasis on the hard science of the here and now (relatively speaking).

That being said, there are a few Clarke staples to be had. Unfortunately, I can't say what these are without spoiling the book.

There are weaknesses in the book. For one thing, it takes far too long to get going. Only once our protagonist, Alvin, get out of Diaspar does the pace start to pick up. Of the 256 pages, over 100 feel plodding. As a result, it's not easy to get into. Once it does get going the book flies by (I read the final 150 pages in a sitting), but readers will be put off by the slow start. The book also struggles with one or two loose ends, and would perhaps have benefited from losing one character completely.

However, I enjoyed The City And The Stars. It may not be Arthur C. Clarke's best-ever work (at least, not for my money), but it is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Guest review: Surface Detail

Being of an unemployed disposition, I have a little more time to engage in writery activities. And I was offered the chance to do some guest reviews on a friend's reviews blog/website. So I took it. My review of Iain M. Banks' latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, is now available to read here. I'd also recommend following the blog, for no-nonsense, common sense reviews (apart from mine, obviously - I can't resist showing off!).

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The end of all things academic

So that's it. The end of my career as an undergraduate student. After four years of hard work I'm out the other end.

Of course, I haven't graduated yet, and for the next few weeks I'll be in limbo about my final results, but barring disaster I won't be back. And in mid-July I'll graduate once and for all from Northumbria. Being honest, I can't say I'll be sorry to leave the place behind, considering its ability to make life harder than it needed to be. The people will be what I miss.

And then there will be that ever-so-frustrating few weeks where I'm graduated, but can't call myself a barrister. My call to the bar is a couple of weeks after my graduation and for those agonising days I'll know that I won't be able to put 'barrister at law' on my CV, even though my exams will be finished, I won't have to go back (all being well), and I'm just waiting for the formal rubberstamping of my status.

In the mean time, it's job applications after this next couple of days, where I'll be determined to chill, at least for a time. I've spent today watching cricket and the evening will be spent reading Iain M. Banks' latest novel, Surface Detail. Which isn't a bad way to spend my time.