Friday, 30 September 2011

In a bit of a pickle

Anyone on Twitter today will have noticed that Communities Minister Eric Pickles is a trending topic. Closer analysis will reveal why: he has unveiled plans to support councils who plan to revive their weekly bin collections to the tune of £250m.

What follows is an angry tirade at the announcement and the scheme itself. So don't say you weren't warned.

Let's start with the scheme itself. In the greater scheme of government spending, £250m is pocket money. So why has it got me so angry? We live in a time of cuts, and so seeing some money being spent should appeal to the part of me that believes a government needs to do its utmost to help growth (and that includes spending money on various schemes). And yet this scheme hits me as being beyond stupid, in the context of the day.

The Tories are making cuts to crucial services. Over 1,000 Navy staff were told they would be out of a job, to save a sum of money smaller than the amount which would go on this scheme. £1bn was cut from adult social care. But it was so important to make sure that Middle England could have their weekly bin collections that these thousands of people who had their livelihoods and standards of living directly affected by the cuts could just go hang.

I've used just two small examples there, the two examples used by former deputy PM John Prescott earlier today. But I could go on. Schemes to help young people find work have been cut. NHS staff are left underresourced for their work, spending 13 hours and more working one shift. £250m might be pocket money in political terms, but it could still go a long way to making the lives of thousands of people better.

Were this announcement made at a time when Britain was enjoying prosperity, with falling (and already low) unemployment, an NHS working at its most efficient, etc, then I wouldn't be complaining. But it's all about context. And in the context of its time, this is a scandalous move which just shows the Tories don't give a hoot about 90% of the people in this country, just that minority of backwards reactionaries who underpin the party and its policies.

And now, I shall move on to the announcement itself.

Eric Pickles is an idiot.

There. I said what I think straight off the bat. He's an idiot for a range of reasons. I encourage people to go off and read the announcement in any number of newspapers (Guardian here). It just makes my blood boil that he can describe weekly bin collections as 'a basic right'.

Here's a list of basic human rights (as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights):
  • A right to life
  • A right to freedom from slavery
  • A right to privacy
  • A right to freedom of expression
And I'll add a few of my own to that list. Notably, the right to an education and the right to the highest quality of free healthcare available, as well as, arguably, a right to work. Does Pickles think that the 'basic right' to weekly bin collections is as important as any of those? Or is he just an idiot who has risen to far too high a level of responsibility?

Something else Pickles said was that bin collection was the most visible of all front-line services a council or local authority would have on offer. To sum up: that's utter rubbish (pardon the pun). What about schools? Provision for businesses to set up shop? Financial support for those going to university? Libraries? Planning departments? Housing? Ombudsmen? I'd argue that each and every one of those provisions is more important - and more are more high-profile to anyone not just sitting at home waiting for the bin men - than a weekly bin collection. Yes, the rubbish needs collecting at some point, but right now it's not the most important thing in the country. To say it is the most visible of all front-line services is a self-serving and ignorant statement.

I'd like to end with a message to the Daily Mail. Let us not forget who campaigned for this, and who Pickles is trying to win over. Congratulations to them. On their campaign to make Britain as xenophobic, ignorant, selfish and moronic as possible they have won a famous victory. They must be so proud.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Ghost Brigades

Why did it take me so long to get round to reading The Ghost Brigades? Old Man's War was as good a military SF novel as I've ever read (even including The Forever War, but that stands apart on different grounds), with engaging characters, an interesting story and a well-realised universe.

On this evidence, John Scalzi could write the handbook on writing accessible, engaging, compelling SF in the twenty-first century. The Ghost Brigades continues on where Old Man's War left off, both in terms of the story and stylistically. Scalzi doesn't overcomplicate his language, and some would criticise him for perhaps not stretching his abilities as he should... but why would he do that when he writes crisp, clear English with just the right amount of quirk as it is? True, he's not going to win awards for use of poetic language, but it works just fine as it is, thank you very much. The result is that a casual reader would do well to pick up Scalzi's work as a gateway to modern SF.

Old Man's War introduced humanity's colonies, the CDF, and the ghost brigades themselves. I'm not going to go into too much depth about them - read the book to find out more (and you'll enjoy it, believe me). And now the world is nicely fleshed out we can progress deeper into its depths. Relatively speaking, Old Man's War was a simple tale of a man going to war; The Ghost Brigades goes several steps further, with a far more complex story, which also offers the humanity we've come to expect from Scalzi.

We have a traitor who has left his consciousness behind. In an attempt to get to the bottom of his treachery, Special Forces try to transfer the consciousness into a Special Forces soldier. It doesn't take, and so Jared Dirac (that's his name) ends up in the ghost brigades, fighting to defend humanity's interests in space.

What Scalzi does particularly well is create characters who at one level have to be identical, but on another, completely different, level need to be individuals, suited to different roles in the narrative. There is one character who comes into the book already well established in-universe, and Scalzi keeps her character consistent with what went before, but he creates another half-dozen or so well-drawn characters. Even those he doesn't go into depth with are left with distinct personality traits which mark them out as different.

It's possible to connect with those characters because they are well-written and distinct individuals. Moments that shock the characters are felt by the reader (well, by this reader, at least), and every triumph and defeat is met by an emotional response.

At its heart, The Ghost Brigades is a good old-fashioned adventure story set in space. In many ways it's what the Star Wars prequel trilogy should have been if it was literature and not a set of undercooked films with too many special effects. And I don't think I can pay it a higher compliment than that.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Fall of Hyperion

After my gushing praise of Hyperion back in January, it's perhaps a surprise to many (well, both of my readers) to hear that it's taken me until now to get round to reading its sequel. This surprise will be compounded by the fact The Fall of Hyperion has been sat on my bookcase waiting to be picked up since May. Surely I'd want to know the ending while the events of Hyperion were fresh in my mind?

Well, yes, but there has been plenty to read in the mean time. The Scar. Iron Council. Helliconia. A Dance With Dragons. You get the picture. Besides, I didn't want to get to the end of The Fall of Hyperion and find I didn't like it. I was so emotionally connected to certain characters that I didn't want an unsatisfying end to their tales.

Whether the conclusions of those individual threads of narrative were satisfying or not is for you to find out. Read The Fall of Hyperion. Read it now. Rush out of the house without setting the alarm and camp outside Waterstones if you have to. (Or just buy it on the Kindle, which is easier and probably much cheaper). Because The Fall of Hyperion is a worthy successor to Hyperion.

The first thing to note is that the narrative structure is much-changed. The Canterbury Tales style of the first volume of the Hyperion Cantos served its time and was released in favour of a more conventional, linear style. The background tale has been told and from now on it's only forward, with events quickly unfolding.

The events of the first volume - not counting the prologue - covered around six days. The events of this volume last around a fortnight, by my reckoning. It's a fraught three weeks. This instalment introduces a cybrid of poet John Keats, who serves as the main narrator. It's through him that we hear the events unfolding which surround the Shrike pilgrims and the other events which plunge the Web into chaos in the face of war with the Ousters.

This is the volume where the action is. For the 471 pages of Hyperion we got back story, set-up, exposition - call it what you will. For the 535 pages of The Fall of Hyperion we get that back story placed into context, twisted, linked, like sand being melted into glass, with all becoming clear. Anyone who has only read the first volume should read it again and try to predict the twists which follow - they're unexpected, but work superbly. The pace of events is relentless, and Simmons does well to not get bogged down at times.

Simmons writes with clarity and sharpness. He's very technically correct, but his characters lose nothing for it. I criticised Alastair Reynolds' debut novel Revelation Space once upon a time for having excellent prose but very little character, but Simmons doesn't fall into that trap (and I'll be the first to admit to really liking Reynolds' short fiction, which doesn't have the same problem). There's still a pathos to each individual character. And one of the best things about them is that they're all different. Whilst there are one or two caricatures to be found in the minor characters (a la Iain M. Banks), by and large each character is well-rounded and human. They have motivations for everything they do and there aren't any moments I can think of where a character does something that has me asking 'why'. Their reasoning may be flawed... but it is at least reasoning and not irrationality.

And the ending? Did I find it satisfying? There were a few problems with it, to be honest. After 970 pages, the final 35 or so struggled with having to finish off the whole shebang. The climax had been reached already, the major revelations unveiled and all that was left to be done was the tying off of loose ends. It felt typically post-climactic and was frustrating in that regard. But considering that standard of what went before it's not perhaps too much of a surprise. Simmons made a rod for his own back with his own standards of storytelling.

So, what do we have? We have a space opera of the highest standard, vying for a place alongside Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons in the SF hall of fame. Disappointing final few pages aside, it's as gripping a story as I've read all year. I'll be moving on to the second part of the Hyperion Cantos soon: roll on Endymion!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Shuffle Anthology

I've been sitting on this announcement all week. I've told a few people about it (WriSoc being the obvious group of people who know), but I'm going to announce it to the world now. If 'announce' is the word for something only a handful of people will read on my blog.

I'm starting work on a new anthology. I'll be editing it, rather than writing anything for it. The anthology's working title is 'Shuffle'.

The aim of the anthology is to showcase the best work of young writers nationwide. I want to be reading through work bursting with quirk and originality, selecting around 80-100,000 words of it to go in the final anthology. At the moment, I'm targeting a release on the Kindle in around June time.

As I'm trying to get as many people as possible involved, I'm in the process of contacting creative writing departments in universities, writing societies and any other creative organisation I can think of. A post will probably be going on Duotrope's Digest, calling for submissions. I'll be setting up another website/blog, and an email account for submissions.

I can't do it all on my own. If anyone's interested in lending a hand (whether that's in the editorial process, in contacting different universities, or on the technical side - especially the technical side), please don't hesitate to get in touch.

I'll release more details on the Shuffle site itself. Anyone wanting to submit now, hold your work for a week or two, until I've got an email address for you to send it to! I'll be happy to receive any short stories you have (so long as they're original works), regardless of genre.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Slaughterhouse-Five is a funny book. In many ways it was not enjoyable. It was stark, bleak, depressing. The style in which it was written was no-nonsense, straight to the point. It was jumpy and inconsistent. And yet, despite all that, despite my own feelings of disgust at the blasé way things were depicted, I could feel its ideas influencing me.

Of course, all the above is deliberate on the part of the author. It's a semi-autobiographical work with features of science fiction, set around the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Those events, at least, happened. As did the capture of Kurt Vonnegut at the Battle of the Bulge, and many of the events described at the concentration camp. It's impossible to write a book around those events which doesn't inspire feelings of disgust. And it's meant to - it's meant to show the author's disgust with war.

Fundamentally, Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel. It runs deeper than that, however, analysing the illogical and irrational nature of the human race. It adopts the life of one Billy Pilgrim (supposedly a campmate of Vonnegut in his POW days) as a vessel through which to tell its story and get its point across. Through a temporal anomaly as a result of kidnap by aliens, his life unfolds in a non-linear fashion. One second he's in the concentration camp, the next he's on honeymoon with his wife, or an exhibit on an alien world.

The way the narrative jumps about is jarring. It's unconventional. And in the context of the themes the book tries to get across, it works. I'll admit to getting frustrated by the constant scene breaks (as a fan of a flowing narrative, without scene breaks apart from where strictly necessary), but otherwise the structure is well-suited to the story.

Some things in the book do stick with me. What was written on Montana Wildhack's locket, for instance (and its thematic significance), or the description of the bombed Dresden as being like the moon. But admiring a book is different from liking it. It was a gripping read, one which affected me, but I couldn't bring myself to like it in the slightest.

And for Kindle owners - I got my copy on the Kindle for £2.86. If you want to get it and read it at that price, it's more than worth it.