Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012: We Survived

I may be speaking prematurely, but I'm fairly certain the year 2012 will end without the end of the world. The much-discussed end of the Mayan calendar didn't bring with it scenes akin to The Day After Tomorrow or Krakatoa's eruption. North Korea's continued attempts to blow itself (and by extension the rest of the world) up with an ill-thought-out nuclear rocket prestige programme have, as yet, failed to cause mayhem in the Pacific. My completion of my first novel in six years caused little other than a small ripple of applause from fellow writers and was not, as predicted by some experts, the harbinger of doom that it should have been.

It's been an odd year. From a personal stand-point, I spent the year employed as a paralegal at a solicitors in Dewsbury after spending the last six months of 2011 despairing of unemployment, and I'll start the year continuing to discharge my duties there. Work has brought structure and discipline back after half a year of lacking both those things, no matter how hard I tried. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed all my work - I don't - but it's a good job, and one that gives me a good starting point in the chase for pupillage.

Away from work, I've had an interesting year in terms of relationships. I won't go into depth here, other than to say that the last four months have, in a strange way, been a relief. Being single and under no pressure has been nice, though I can't shake the feeling that I should be meeting someone soon.

The sporting year has given unforgettable highs and very few lows. Huddersfield Town's promotion at Wembley in May goes down as one of the best moments of my life, never mind in sport. The Olympics gave everyone hundreds of wonderful memories, and with the right support they will prove to have inspired a generation. And then there was the raw drama of the last day of the Ryder Cup, and the Miracle of Medinah. In terms of my own status as a sportsman, I've started playing for the Mirfield Panthers after a 3-year hiatus - one goal in sixteen games since we started playing again doesn't sound impressive, but it's been great to get back into competitive football, even more so as I've not struggled with injuries like I did in my last few months playing in 2009.

In my spiritual life, I've been all over the place - physically, if not mentally. I'm now on the planning committee for OneWord, the bi-monthly youth worship event in the Kirklees circuit, and I've graduated on from doing the lights to doing the words on the screen. The next event is scheduled for 26th January - so pop by and say 'hi', all Christian folk. I've been going to a youth group in Huddersfield (and intermittently attending the church itself, but I have my misgivings about the leadership, if truth be told, even if I like the rank and file), and doing more than a little private study. But I'm still Methodist at heart.

My writing year has been up and down. After setting myself a target of 100,000 words this year, I've managed to make it to 70,000, over 50,000 of which came in NaNoWriMo. Despite this shortfall, I've managed a couple of what I believe to be reasonable short stories. But by and large, it's been frustrating, despite these successes. Too many projects have been left half-complete or not even started. This is a situation that needs remedying in 2013.

It's also been a frustrating year for reading. A quick check of Goodreads tells me I've read 73 books this year, 18 of which have been re-reads. I've only rated 2 new books as being five-star reads. Either I'm getting more cynical, or I haven't read very many books of the very highest quality. Embassytown by China Mieville stands out as probably the outstanding book of the year, being a richly complex and experimental read that at least tries to break out from tired narratives and engage the reader in intelligent discourse. A full review of it would be difficult, such is it's complexity and depth, and I'd rather leave that to the people who have the time to really analyse it.

I've not read as many short stories as I would like. Counting stories I've listened to on podcasts in the total, I've read perhaps 150. As ever, Interzone provided a good source for high-quality short SF. 'The Indignity of Rain' by Lavie Tidhar was one of the best short stories it published this year, as well as its sequel 'Strigoi' - both form part of his connected Central Station series. The always excellent Jason Sanford entertained with 'Mirrorblink', though in my opinion it wasn't as good as some of his other work, such as 'Sublimation Angels' and 'The Ships Like Rain...'. Other short stories that impressed me included 'Ship's Brother' by Aliette de Bodard, and, from Interzone's sister magazine Black Static, 'Sunshine' by Nina Allan.

So what do I want from 2013? The world continuing to not explode under my feet would be a fair start. I'd like to get the mini-pupillages that make it possible for me to apply for pupillage in October, and continue in my post as a paralegal for the time being. It'd be great if I could meet someone, obviously, but in the mean time, being single isn't the worst thing that could happen. I want to stay fit, and score a few more goals for the Panthers, hopefully getting up to 100 games for the team in the process. I want to read more quality work, and increase the quantity of short fiction I get through.

But in terms of all my personal non-professional targets, the most important has to be in my writing. I have to start finishing work far more often. I can't keep stopping stories halfway through because of an over-sensitivity to it not being good enough. I know I won't improve until I start completing things and then working on them. Of all my targets, this has to be one that takes precedence.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Blackout/All Clear

A quick glance at my bookcase(s) should tell you that I'm no stranger to either the doorstopper or the epic series. So when I start a review talking about a book's length, you need to bear in mind that I got A Dance With Dragons in hardback on release day, read The Stand in under a fortnight, am in the process of re-reading Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series, and in general don't mind a good long read.

Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear is certainly a long read. It's one of few novels I've read that's had to be split into two heft volumes, such is its length - 1,400 pages of time travelling, the Blitz, and agonising over whether the course of history has been changed.

For such is its premise. A group of historians are sent to England in 1940 on separate assignments from the time travelling labs at the University of Oxford in 2060. Once there, they find they can't get back home. The greatest worry of the protagonists - Polly, Eileen, and Mike, to use their 1940s cover names - is that they might do something that cost the Allies the War through their actions in the Blitz.

If that sounds like it isn't enough to fill a 1,400 page novel, you'd probably be right. There's a large incidental cast of characters, and the plot isn't quite as simple as it sounds from above (more of that later), but my main complaint does come down to the fact that there's about 400 pages of filler over the two volumes. Willis would no doubt argue that her world-building (which is excellent) and character development (which is less so) justifies the length, and she'd have a fair argument. What could be argued on the other hand is that she'd done so much research that she felt obliged to include it, hence the dragging middle section.

For that criticism, however, it does have to be said that the research is put to good effect. Although much of it fails to advance the action, it lends an authentic feel to events. Constant references to real bombings slipped in to speech remind the reader that the Blitz is a real and present danger in 1940, and the day-to-day lives of Londoners in the Blitz are faithfully represented in the shelters and the department stores where the protagonists sleep and work. However, it's as if Willis felt every aspect of her research had to be represented, hence long sections where little happens but characters point out things that were bombed in the middle of repetitive conversations about how they'll return to Oxford, or make side-journeys that serve only to bog down the pace.

But when the action does advance, it can be exhilarating. There's a section surrounding 29th December 1940, the night the fire watch saved St Paul's Cathedral, which is tense and fraught and genuinely exciting. Multiple plot threads come together and are expertly handled in a brilliant sequence which takes place while bombs hit London and characters are forced away from their introspection and into decisive action.

And, of course, there's the plotting. Connie Willis needs congratulating on her handling of a dozen intricate plot-threads. Some twists can be seen coming from a mile off, it has to be admitted, but when everything comes together it can be seen how well the novel works as a unit. Time travel as a plot device does give a writer licence to obfuscate and then reveal, and if done badly it can be painful to read, but Willis does it quite beautifully.

Blackout/All Clear is too long by some distance. But when it gets things right, which is more often than not, it proves to be an excellent read. As the winner of the Hugo for best novel in 2011, I was expecting a good read, and so it proved to be. It's difficult to think of too many books I've read this year that either equal or better it. And to quote a great man, you'll like it if you're into the wibbly wobbley timey wimey... stuff.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Hyperion Cantos

If I were to be asked right now what books I would take onto a desert island, with a maximum limit of ten, there would be very few automatic picks. Dune would go, as would The Windup Girl and Use of Weapons. However, beyond those three there would be very few easy picks. Would I take A Game of Thrones? Is Perdido Street Station worth reading again and again as one of very few books I'd read for the rest of my life? In short, I'd struggle to pick, in no small part because I would only want the very best with me.

Books one and two of the four-volume Hyperion Cantos would be among the contenders to go. If anyone hasn't read my reviews of both of them (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, if you don't know the titles), I'd recommend they go and read them now. If you just need a recap, I think they're two of the finest space opera novels I've ever read. Both offer something different, with book one being a scene-setter for the apocalyptic second volume. Book two takes a more traditional structure, whereas book one adopts a structure not dissimilar to The Canterbury Tales, forcing each of the Shrike pilgrims to recount their backstory amidst a trek to save the universe as humanity knows it.

What I don't have is the time or inclination to explain in detail the world of Hyperion, other than that it's a richly detailed and multi-layered complex of advanced humanity. It's not simple. To get a real grasp on it, you need to read the books and gain understanding of the subtle interplays. We have the familiar extrapolated into the future. Familiar institutions such as the Catholic church and Judaism play an integral role. And then there's the mixture of the political and the personal and the technological, ranged against a backdrop of humanity's fundamentally fragile position.

With humanity in the form of the World Web under threat from the alien Ousters, the Shrike pilgrims are sent to Hyperion, a backwater planet, to visit the Shrike in the Time Tombs. One of the pilgrims will have their request - as explained in their back-stories - granted. The others will find themselves killed by the Shrike. In the mean time, we have the political intrigues and other dramas away from Hyperion, which mostly take place in The Fall of Hyperion.

The richness and the complexity of those two books is nothing short of remarkable. Without reading them it's difficult to appreciate all that goes into them. It would have been so easy for Dan Simmons to have written a simple adventure with cardboard cut-out characters and wafer-thin intrigue, but he didn't. The quest itself takes on an almost mythic scale as it progresses. The decision to go back and have each character tell his or her own backstory and motivations in what count as 80-page novellas helps this scale no end. The immersion is wonderful, made even more so by Simmons not taking us away from the main quest until the second book. But by then we've already seen the World Web, and it doesn't feel jarring to be moving among a separate set of characters - especially as the stories in the first book cover such a range of the experiences to be found in the World Web.

Clocking in at over 1,000 pages in total, the two books aren't short reads, but then this is the sort of duology you don't want to be short. I'd be lying if I said that it was a perfect space opera (because it isn't), but it's an absolutely essential read for anyone who likes a range of fiction. At times gasp-out-loud horrifying and at others heartwarming, this half of the Cantos might just be on that list of desert island books. That the ending actually manages to surprise and live up to its billing only adds to that high recommendation.

Unlikely to be on that list, however, are volumes three and four, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. I'll start by pointing out that this isn't because they're bad books: far from it. When I read them over the summer I thoroughly enjoyed them both, but they fell a way short of the standards of the first half of the Cantos. The depth of the previous duology just doesn't exist in these books, which is what most readers will feel the most keenly. Never mind that there's another brilliant connection to be felt with the characters, nor that the story itself is a pretty good one overall, the comparable shallowness comes across starkly with every page.

At the outset, Raoul Endymion is a tour guide on Hyperion, when he comes to commit murder - or so the courts say. At his execution he finds himself rescued by Martin Silenus, one of the Shrike pilgrims of the original books, and sent out on a quest through human space to protect the new messiah, Aenea. With the all-powerful Catholic church on his tail, it becomes a two-volume epic of high adventure.

Taken on its own, the Endymion part of the Cantos is excellent space opera. It just struggles with not being as deep or as epic (despite being longer) as the first two. It might just be me, but the prose never felt as dense or rich as it had been formerly, but that had no impact on how much I enjoyed it. The characters were still superbly drawn and there were still scenes to thrill and shock. Once again the ending of the second volume lived up to billing and brought with it a glorious poignancy and emotional depth that hadn't been seen since halfway through Hyperion. Everything ended up tying together in a satisfying - and most definitely not happy - ending.

However, there were drawbacks. Certain things felt cheap and ill thought-out. Take the re-emergence of Colonel Kassad, who feels like he's been thrown in simply as filler to make the last volume longer. It's not as tight, and there's a very little amount of bloatedness to it that doesn't become the lean, mean machine that The Hyperion Cantos is as a whole. But, that said, the drawbacks weren't integral to the book, and practically everything else was well plotted and superbly executed.

There's a lot I've missed out in this quick review of the four novels that make up the Cantos. There are a few reasons behind this (one of which is laziness, if truth be told - it's a Sunday afternoon and I don't particularly want to work too hard at anything), one of which is that I don't think I can do the series justice in just a few hundred words. The best thing anyone can do to do The Hyperion Cantos justice is to read it, because I guarantee a sensational read.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Nano and future plans

I finished Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin this morning. After a few days off work, which have been spent deep in fiction both of my own and others' devising, it was satisfying to complete it. As ever, GRRM realised his world well and sucked me in with believable and sympathetic characters. OK, so it wasn't A Song of Ice and Fire, but then what in fantasy is? I can think of maybe two series which rival it, and none which surpass it, although I have to make the admission that this could all change in time, with the last two books of the series yet to even have publication dates.

After 17 days and almost 34,000 words, the NaNo novel is well on the way. I'm not happy with the quality of writing, but the point is that I have to keep ploughing on. Once I finish it (with the target date the 27th of the month, rather than the 30th), it will be consigned to history. But it's helped me get writing on a large scale again, which is more important than the quality. It's also forced me to keep going where otherwise I would have given in. Rediscovering my stubborn streak might prove to be important.

When I started writing this post, I was taking a day away from writing to recuperate. I had forgotten how hard writing was when it was done over a period of time, and when it wasn't trivial amounts. The last time I completed a novel was March 2006, after a six-month blitz. Six and a half years down the line, I'm certain I'll finish this novel, lacking in quality though it is. It lacks so many things. There's no depth, no description, no real character. There's some human interest, but it's limited. With 1/3 of the novel to write, I'm going to start ratcheting up the action to the point where it becomes a caricature of the vampire novel.

But what's next? There's a few projects I want to work on, only one of which is of novel length. Most of the short stories I have in mind will probably take me a couple of weeks at 500 words a day (quality over quantity - NaNo's lesson needs to be learned, in that I can't produce both, unlike many writers). But I'm building up to the big one - there's a certain epic fantasy series that's been sitting unwritten for far too long. Once the little projects are out of the way, it's time to knuckle down and write it.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

This! Is! NANO!

My output since August has been nil.

I'm talking of course about my writing. In every other aspect of my life my output has been gradually creeping up as my creativity is forced to a halt. Seventeen football matches played in eleven weeks is just one area I've been losing writing time to. Then there's attendance at a new church, and going to their Wednesday night course. Throw in the 40-hour work weeks and you'll be starting to get an overall picture of why I've allowed myself to fall out of practice.

But November starts next week, and with November comes Nanowrimo, the annual writing event. 50,000 words in 30 days sounds a challenge at the best of times, but when I get at most one night a week to myself (and when on that night I really want to collapse into bed with a good book rather than worry about my own output) it's going to be near-impossible. But I'm doing it anyway. I have a story idea that may not get me anywhere near 50,000 words, but that's not the real point of this month for me. The point is to get myself writing again. Come 1st December I want to be looking at a reasonable quantity of good quality work that I can take forward to the rewriting and editing process, even if it's likely to never go anywhere near a publisher.

Do I have an idea? The best answer I can give to that question is 'sort of'. A few rogue concepts are kicking around in my mind, given life in no small part by my 4-day blitz on the backlog of short stories sitting on my bedside. The excellent 'Strigoi' by Lavie Tidhar (Interzone 242) and 'Sunshine' by Nina Allen (Black Static 29) are just two of the stories that I'm mulling over in my mind. Old frustrations from my months out of work last year are also at the forefront of my thinking. If I could somehow combine those concepts and put my own signature on it, I may be able to produce something.

Whatever I decide to produce I have no doubt that I'll find this year's Nano a real challenge. Constraints of time and other activities will curtail my writing time, and being out of practice will no doubt initially frustrate me. But if I stick at it, I'll be able to get something done. And it's a challenge I'm looking forward to.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Redemption Ark

I've spent much of the week feeling guilty about my neglect of this blog. There's firstly the nagging irritation of having not posted for a little while, which grows exponentially with each day that passes without putting keyboard to text box. And then there's Wednesday night, where I had my many opinions introduced to someone new by someone saying, 'He blogs,' and then nodding sagely while I looked for an excuse as to why I haven't even tried to say anything on here for a while.

So here we have it: a review of Redemption Ark, the second volume in the Revelation Space series by Welsh hard SF author Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds has become a favourite of mine of the past couple of years. His short fiction is rich and varied, flicking between zany (dinosaurs in rock bands, anyone?) and serious (the end of the world, rich men in cryogenic fugue, and faction wars). Add to that the kind of English prose I would love to write - clean, clear, detailed, but still able to convey a sense of action driving forward - and you've got one of the foremost writers of short SF out there at the moment.

His longer work was a different story until I picked up the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days earlier in the year. I first read Revelation Space in around 2009, and I thought it was an inconsistent piece of work. Reynolds' inexperience shone through; the prose was still technically excellent, but there was no sense of action moving on much of the time. And then, every now and then, there would be a scene which showed Reynolds' potential - one of a deserted lighthugger being commanded by a mad captain while a woman tried to exert control was particularly chilling, because Reynolds managed to strike a near-perfect balance between his technical prose, building atmosphere, and driving action with the narrative. But it was, by and large, a frustrating, poorly-paced book which only really kicked into gear in the last hundred or so pages. My inclination to pick up Redemption Ark was hardly overwhelming

Then I read the two novellas (I'm certain I've reviewed them, but I might be wrong), and I decided that it wasn't such a bad idea to give Reynolds' long fiction a second chance. Diamond Dogs in particular seemed to have sorted the problems with pacing that dogged Revelation Space. And although Redemption Ark clocks in at over 600 pages, more than 100 more than its predecessor, I had no qualms about picking it up.

Some back story (and a spoiler warning): In Revelation Space we are introduced to the planet Resurgam, an outpost colony on the edge of human-occupied space with an interesting archaeological past - it previously had intelligent life that had been mysteriously wiped out. It turns out that they were wiped out by an intelligence known as the Inhibitors, whose entire goal is to wipe out species as they attain space travel. We are also introduced to Reynolds' hard SF universe, where the laws of physics may be bent but not broken - so no FTL travel (the most notable thing when compared with Iain M. Banks' Culture series or Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos. The Inhibitors want to wipe humankind off the face of the universe because they have interstellar travel. Throw in some potentially memorable characters who just don't quite work, big concepts handled in a way where they don't have the gravitas they should, and some serious intrigue, and that's the sum of Revelation Space's parts.

Redemption Ark, whilst being a direct sequel to Revelation Space, stands perfectly well on its own two feet and its own merits. The above will become clear to readers in time, which is all well and good because, despite the new cast and a few new settings, old faces pop up and the focal point of the story is, once again, Resurgam and the Inhibitors. The main plot point is that there's a cache of doomsday weapons which could save humanity in orbit around Resurgam (left there in Revelation Space), and a variety of factions want control over them. Of course, it's not quite that simple, but to distil the essence of a complex space opera like this down to anything other than that is much trickier than it sounds. We have intrigue, complex characters, a multi-threaded plot that converges at the end to explosive effect, big ideas that are pulled off superbly, and, perhaps most importantly, we have a book that really can be enjoyed.

Those complaints I made above? Most of them just don't apply to Redemption Ark. The pacing issue is sorted. The characters are complex but each has more than a little pathos. Perhaps the main complaint to be made is of the handful of superfluous plot-lines that could have been cut to make Redemption Ark a little more accessible to the casual reader, but then what casual reader wants to have to understand the physical underpinning principles of a writer's universe before getting into the story? And that's probably another complaint: there are a handful of infodumps which just interrupt the flow a little.

But those criticisms are minor. It's easy to get into Redemption Ark and connect with the universe and the characters. Comparisons with the Culture are justified; although the content is different, there's enough in common to see where Redemption Ark is strong against such as Use of Weapons, and that it's a worthy read. As mentioned before, you don't need to read the first book in the series to get into Redemption Ark, and, although it's time-consuming, I highly recommend reading it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

An unacceptable state of affairs

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a defining moment in British politics.

Actually, let me revise that opening sentence; we reached the point some time ago, but we didn't notice it. Petty political posturing has now got more place in our politics than trying to do good. Ignoring the facts is acceptable so long as it's covered by a political attack.

If anyone hasn't seen the Observer article by Nick Cohen, I'd advise them to head over to the Guardian website and read it. For those pressed for time, Save The Children has launched an appeal to raise £500,000 for needy children in Britain, and has found itself under attack from Conservatives and their supporting newspapers.

It's the first time the charity has launched such an appeal in living memory, and it's asking only to raise the money for the essentials - 'a hot meal, blankets, a warm bed'. That they even have to launch such an appeal raises serious questions about the way this country is going. But to then attack the campaign as obscene on grounds that the chief executive of Save The Children has left-wing political links goes beyond the pale.

At the very least, the government should be conducting a serious investigation into the decline in living standards. We have people visiting an ever-growing number of food banks (and not just the unemployed - with wages frozen and benefits for working families cut, more and more employed families can't afford to feed themselves), a state of affairs associated more with post-Wall Street Crash America and the Great Depression than twenty-first century Britain. Child poverty - cut by almost a million under the last Labour government - is increasing exponentially. In Yorkshire, one in three children has gone hungry in recent months. And all Conservative MPs do is sneer and make political attacks, when they should be using the power they have to do something.

This government doesn't care about the people of this country. The rank and file of the nation could be dying in the streets and all the people in charge would care about would be lining their own pockets and facilitating the fraudulent funding of their pet projects.

I'm going to write to my MP. I don't expect a response (not least because he spends more time in court working as a defence barrister in serious sexual cases than in Westminster), but I'll be writing all the same, to both his Westminster office and his chambers in Leeds. I hope I won't be alone.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Railsea

China Miéville would appear to have a thing for trains and ships.

The evidence is clear, m'lud. Iron Council had an eponymous train that gave New Crobuzon hope against the totalitarian regime in power there. It wasn't a bit-part player. It formed the crux of the whole novel. And then there's Iron Council's predecessor in Bas-Lag, The Scar. The floating city, Armada, gave us a memorable setting made up of thousands of lashed-together ships. Like the Iron Council, Armada was a hotbed of political scheming and misdirection all based around a mode of transportation.

And Railsea combines the two.

In Railsea, trains are talked about in nautical terms. It's a world without oceans, but with a rich and varied world. We have the railsea itself, an inhospitable land punctuated by habitable islands, where burrowing megafauna dominate and humans need to travel the rails of the railsea to get from place to place. Sham Yes ap Soorap is a doctor's assistant aboard the Medes, a moletrain that goes to railsea to hunt the megafauna. And what follows from the blockbuster opening is an old-fashioned sea adventure story, complete with pirates, mythology, wild battles with impossible creatures... and a distinct lack of water.

I like China Miéville. Most people will already have twigged that. In the last two years I've read all the Bas-Lag novels, plus The City and the City and Embassytown. None of them has been a let-down; all of them have been phenomenal read, and all for different reasons. In its style and scope, Railsea has most in common with Bas-Lag - the grotesque beauty of another world eerily close to our own will be familiar to most of the initiated. Throw in an epic adventure where the little man takes centre stage and it becomes a must-read for Bas-Lag fans. It may not be in the same world, but there's a steampunk feel, as well as there being something a little 'off' about the setting.

Being for younger readers, all aspects of Miéville's usually verbose vocabulary are pared down. It's still a little spicy for the really young 'uns, and I think most readers under a certain age would still be daunted by the complexity of Miéville's prose, but as a stepping stone to his adult work I can't see a better option. Older readers will still love it, and I know that I will thoroughly recommend it to anyone who asks.

There's plenty I could say about the literary influences behind it - such as Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe - but in truth you don't need to know about them to enjoy the book. It's just an added literary Easter egg.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The problem of confidence

So it's been an interesting few weeks. Here isn't the place to go into all that's happened, but it's safe to say that I'm back to square one after a week and a bit where nothing seems to have gone right. And to add insult to injury, I have a day off on Tuesday that I no longer have a plan for. If anyone fancies taking me out for a coffee in the afternoon to stop me from imploding through boredom, editing, or self-reflection, feel free.

I could write, of course. Ideas have been coming thick and fast lately, after a short break in Suffolk got the creative part of my brain working. I've completed one short story, put forward a suggestion for a collaborative project on a graphic novel, started planning a novella in my head, and started to work on another short story. After a long period off form, it feels like some progress is being made. I'm still hopeless at deciding on titles, but that's a weakness I just have to work on. But in the last week the self-reflective streak in me has dominated, thwarting my attempts to write with the little voice that tells me I'm not good enough.

If you asked members of Wrisoc whether I'm a good writer or not, I'm certain they'd reply positively. Some of that may be down to a sense of loyalty, but I certainly hope that not all of their positivity about my writing would be down purely to that. They gave me great feedback on my submission to this year's anthology after praising my two previous works I did for them highly. And the editing work they did on pieces in the past has always been good from my perspective: I've never had to make major overhauls as a result of their input.

But no amount of praise from Wrisoc will ever rid me of the whispering voices that wait for the quiet times between drafts - or sometimes even while I write. Some of the voices assert that I'm a good writer, and that I should be confident in my ability. The other voices constantly analyse my writing style and tell me that it's not what it should be, and that I should give up now. After recent events, it's the latter whisperings that surface every time I sit down to write.

The sum total of words saved this week has been nil.

Something needs to give me a kick-start. Reading Mira Grant's Feed has given me some confidence because I don't see any great difference between her style and my own, other than that mine has a more English base. Watching The West Wing is helping me to think about dialogue and quick interchanges between characters - something that's always been a problem of mine, with my dialogue often being too serious and lacking in the tempo you'd find in real-life conversation.

But without the confidence to write I'll keep on putting down a couple of hundred words and then hitting the command and 'Q' combination to come out of Word. The frustration I feel doesn't help. It contributes to the pressure I feel to produce good quality work in reasonable quantities. And it's counter-productive.

Most writers will feel this way at some point. You don't improve as a writer without being able to reflect on your writing. You can't effectively edit without seeing the flaws in your style. Sometimes we go too far. When we go through crises and feel that we've done something wrong we'll all suffer that voice being hypercritical of our writing. But I don't mind admitting that I'm really struggling to overcome my writing insecurities at the moment, or that I haven't a clue how to deal with it. Any help is always appreciated - especially if Wrisoc want to pander to my needy ego!

Monday, 23 July 2012

ECHR v The Second Amendment

The Aurora shootings have, it is fair to say, shocked the world, and sparked yet another debate about the American obsession with gun ownership. Certain segments of society over there will say I should keep my opinion to myself because I'm not American and therefore have no right to say anything about their laws and society - not something I agree with, although anything I do have to say has to be qualified by me saying any opinion formed is from the outside looking in. It's those same segments who refuse to debate whether it's right to own a gun based on their 'rights' laid down in the Constitution. I read an excellent short essay this morning on the provisions relating to the right to bear arms as laid out in the American Constitution this morning, and before  I offer my opinion on other issues I'd advise reading that. I'd also advise reading some of the reactions to that piece.

I'm going to approach the issue of American gun ownership from the perspective of an English lawyer with a background in the European Convention on Human Rights. Whilst the ECHR has no power in the US, I've always respected it as a beacon of the basic rights a human being should have, and it's high time the US looked at it and adopted at least some of its principles into their own law.

To start, I'm going to go on a tangent. The US Constitution is a document it's possible to respect from afar, but when you look at it from a modern lawyer's perspective it's easy to see how the once-peerless document is no longer what it should be. For over two centuries it has stood at the heart of US law and politics. And that's the problem: it was written over two hundred years ago. Since it was written, the world has moved on. Political forces have changed, society has developed.

There's nothing to force a change to the US Constitution. Thus we see the advantage of an unwritten constitution based on convention over a single constitutional document: flexibility. Should apparatus exist within the legislature to enable the continued development of a constitutional document - say, a court who can rule on the interpretation of provisions within the constitution and suggest amendments to the legislature - then there's not so much of a problem. But this doesn't exist in the US. Hence, we see a dusty document being clung to as sacrosanct even though the world it was relevant in passed from memory a hundred years gone.

A brief comparison is required between the ECHR and the US Constitution. One is what I would describe as a living legal document, whereas the other is a dead one. The European Court of Human Rights (our Home Secretary's favourite legal chamber) rules on interpretations; over the years, as the world has moved on, the Convention has developed with it to reflect changing values in society. It's not perfect, and will be a bone of contention for years to come with politicians, journalists, lawyers, and other commentators alike. But in its sixty-some years of existence it has already fundamentally changed in substance. The Articles themselves have remained the same, broadly speaking, but if you look closer you'll see how things have changed.

The Convention in place now is not the Convention as it was enacted in 1953. The modern Convention bans capital punishment, for one. The European Court of Human Rights has pushed through rulings that have had far-reaching effect on the reading of the ECHR - on topics such as gay rights, transsexuality, torture, the right to a fair trial, and the right to life. Recent commentators have said the ECHR has moved away from its original purpose, to which I'd say the world has moved on. This isn't a world the treaty-makers of 1950 would recognise in its values. We're a more open, more permissive society; the fundamental documents need to reflect this, and the ECHR has the mechanisms for its continued development enshrined in its fabric. This can only be a good thing.

To compare: Amendments to the US Constitution are near-impossible to force through. The courts are bound by it, and have no power to make amendments. The legislature itself needs a two-thirds majority to push an amendment through, and in over two hundred years only twenty-seven amendments have been made (the most recent of which was in 1992, and a staggering fifteen of which were made before the start of the twentieth century). The fabric of the Constitution remains as it was when it was drafted - and that includes the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.

The mini-essay I linked to should have given you an idea of what the Second Amendment is really about, and just why it appears ludicrous that so many people should hold it as sacrosanct.

A modern human right, in the Western world, is the right to life, or the right to freedom from slavery, or from torture, or freedom of speech, or any of the others enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. It's notable that the 'right' to bear arms doesn't appear anywhere in the ECHR. What does appear is the right to life: or, to put it more bluntly, the right guns are designed to infringe. From a ECHR-centric standpoint, the 'right' to bear arms and the right to life are mutually exclusive. And I know which is more important to my mind.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Wolves of the Calla and other thoughts

In his introduction to the Dark Tower series, Stephen King discusses being nineteen and its influence on the work that follows. He's right. It's a good age to be. Indeed, it was the age I was when I read The Gunslinger for the first time, and embarked on the quest for the Dark Tower with Roland - the perfect age to immerse myself into Mid-World, given the significance of the number in King's magnum opus.

But no man remains nineteen forever. And I turned twenty - that age of maturity and professionalism - while reading Wolves of the Calla, book 5 of The Dark Tower. Perhaps it's ironic, but what I've read since I turned twenty hasn't had the quality of what I read before that date. When I was nineteen, the number associated most closely with the Tower (alongside ninety-nine).

This isn't a review. I'm not going to assess the qualities of Wolves of the Calla like I've tried to with other books. Instead, I'm going to go through why, in my opinion, this is where The Dark Tower loses its way. If you've not read the series, I'll warn you now: I'll be talking about events that are spoilers.

Wolves of the Calla follows a plot most of us would be familiar with, because it's most clearly inspired by The Magnificent Seven (with a shout-out being made to this by Eddie Dean of New York in the next volume, Song of Susannah). Our ka-tet of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy come to the Callas, small towns dogged by raiders who take their children for purposes unknown. The ka-tet meets Father Callahan, formerly of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, and agree to defend the towns and stop the Wolves - those who raid the towns.

For almost seven hundred pages it's as good as The Dark Tower gets (Wizard and Glass aside). There's the mix of SF, horror, westerns, and fantasy that made the world so haunting and believable. It touches our own world a number of times, with characters slipping through more of the doors we saw in The Drawing of the Three. And there's the growing sense of drawing close to the Tower itself, with the whole story taking place on the threshold of End-World, where the Tower stands.

It's another slow-burn building to a climax (with pacing for the most part that worked brilliantly in Wizard and Glass - my favourite of the series), but unlike previous volumes that climax ends in disappointment. The battle with the Wolves is all over - after hundreds of pages of build-up - inside twenty rushed pages. There's no excitement there. Again, returning to Wizard and Glass: book 4 ended with a triple climax, one a thrilling battle where there's a real sense of danger to the characters, an emotional climax that leaves you shattered, and then to top it off another emotional climax that gives you a punch to the gut and makes you want to jack it in - but you have to because you're already so invested in the characters and the world. Wolves of the Calla has none of those things. We can pretty much guarantee the ka-tet's survival, and even the emotional climax and resultant cliffhanger with Eddie and Susannah falls flat and hurried.

I think it falls flat because the whole ending sequence feels cheap. The Wolves are robots, which is believable enough in Mid-World. But they carry lightsabres and grenades called 'sneetches' - and if that latter sounds familiar, I'll add that they're the Harry Potter version. It jars. It cheapens. And then there's the final punch to the gut: a novel called 'Salem's Lot by a certain Stephen King comes into the possession of the ka-tet, making Callahan realise he's a character in a book.

Whilst I'm not against a writer giving himself credit (especially after a project he's invested thirty years of his life in nears its conclusion), but the effect of this cheapens not only the whole conclusion of this book, but overshadows the whole series. Suspension of disbelief is required for immersion in another person's world; when that person reminds you that someone wrote it, the characters you've grown to love seem to become so much less than they were.

King later inserts himself into Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower as a key character. I don't think it's an act of ego, like many other writers who have put themselves in their own work; rather, it's a writer acknowledging how much the series took from him. But the effect is to go within an ace of ruining the last three books. Immersion is lost when you're reminded that a book is fiction.

It's a shame. King as a character isn't that bad. He's not a hero (far from it), and he's not painted in a positive light. But I wonder how much his inclusion is as a result of rushing through the conclusion of what should have been one of the finest fantasy series of all time following his near-fatal accident in 1999. I'll always enjoy the first four books. They were books written by a writer who wanted to write them, and who had allowed the stories to mature and tell themselves. King himself doesn't like plotting, and from Wolves of the Calla on they have the feel of a writer going against his instincts by doing just that.

However, they're still worth a read. Some people will love the final volumes. As for me, I'll always be disappointed with how they turned out, and I hope The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to form for The Dark Tower.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

"The problem with death is that it's so damned permanent" - Ray Bradbury

This week saw the passing of one of the great visionaries of modern literature, and possibly the last of the great SF writers from the field's true golden age.

Ray Bradbury was a writer everyone had at least heard of, even if they hadn't actually read anything of his. I didn't read any of his work until the end of 2010, when I read Fahrenheit 451 for Law and Literature. But I knew of him and his influence. Fahrenheit 451 had been on my to-read list for upwards of two years before reading it. I'd heard of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. I knew of Bradbury's place in the pantheon of great SF writers, alongside the Isaac Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes of the world.

When it came to the dystopia workshop for Law and Lit, I could easily have got away with not reading anything. The other options were all books I'd read: 1984, Brave New World, and The Road. Of those, I could talk about 1984 until the cows came home from a night out in Newcastle. But instead, I chose to use it as an excuse to read Fahrenheit 451. It was a good decision.

Bradbury was never a prolific novelist. His strength lay in his short fiction, and that strength shone through in the short novel that will probably be remembered by many as his seminal work. There's a tightness to the lyrical prose that you just don't get from someone who isn't an expert short story writer. And it's a joy to read.

For anyone who doesn't know, Fahrenheit 451 is ostensibly a book about censorship. Set in a future where books are banned, Guy Montag is a fireman, responsible for burning books that people may hoard in their homes. Most entertainment in this future world is provided via the television, and is focussed on the attention-deficient masses. Bradbury himself went on record arguing that the book is about the rise of new media and its affect on reading (and, given the way things seem to be going in entertainment for the masses, I'm not going to argue with the author's interpretation of his own work). However you want to read it, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking novel that should be read at some point in a person's life - the earlier, the better.

When it came to the two-hour Monday afternoon workshop, I ended up in a group that discussed The Road (as only one of two people in the whole group of around 16 who had read it at any point, even if it had been two years previously for me) rather than Fahrenheit 451. But I was determined to read more of Bradbury's work. Earlier this year, I dipped into his short fiction for the first time. The Illustrated Man is a collection linked together by Bradbury himself, with a prologue to the collection that focusses on the Illustrated Man, who has a series of tattoos on his body which tell the the stories contained in the collection.

As a framing device, it's OK at best. But the stories it frames are far from merely acceptable. Again, there's that satisfying tightness to Bradbury's prose. His style isn't jarring like other tight, precise prose, however. It flows with lyrical abandon. Every writer should read it and take notes.

The stories themselves range broadly through the SF spectrum. But there's always a sense of bleakness to them which counters the occasional whimsy of the prose and characters superbly. It can be seen in 'The Veldt', initially a charming tale seemingly about the fantasies of children which takes on a darker edge. This isn't the cosy 1950s SF people seem to expect - it's far more compelling than that. And it gives me a spur to pick up more of his short fiction (once I'm caught up with Interzone and the anthologies I've started and haven't finished).

So where does Bradbury rate for me amongst the great SF writers? Better than Vonnegut? Better than Asimov? To look at his works as a whole, it's worth noting that he was prolific, but never as prolific - or over as long a period - as Isaac Asimov, and his technological and scientific influence never reached as far as Arthur C. Clarke. Bradbury's career had a distinct peak in the 1950s, unlike other writers of his time who produced cornerstone works of SF over several decades (again, just look at Clarke - Childhood's End in the 1950s, 2001 in the 1960s, Rendezvous With Rama in the 1970s, and The Songs of Distant Earth in the 1980s). But he still stands as one of SF's greats, the last of the Golden Age writers to pass on to the publishing house in the sky. He'll be missed, even as his works are cherished by future generations.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Gunslinger

My first thought was, he lied with every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the workings of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
-Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

I can think of only a handful of openings to books that are so memorable that they stick with me for more than a few hours. The Day of the Triffids is one. Dune (or at least the chapter heading) is another. And having had a flick through the first few pages of Endymion, I think that could be another.

There can be no doubt that the opening of The Gunslinger is among these ranks, just for the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. 'The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed'. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? Why is the man in black fleeing? Why does the gunslinger follow? It's the perfect example of an opening hook.

In its way, the opening line embodies The Gunslinger in its entirety as an opening hook. For this is the opening volume of The Dark Tower, Stephen King's crowning achievement. It's a seven-volume epic spanning much of time and space. It stands at the very heart of King's work, acting as the lynchpin of all his creations. Few of King's works can be said to be essential reads, but if you've ever picked up any of his works you should give The Dark Tower a go. And The Gunslinger is where you'll be starting.

Compared to what follows, The Gunslinger is a slim volume. At 236 pages, it's hardly heavy going (by comparison, Wizard and Glass, book 4, weighs in at a hefty 840 pages). But it packs in plenty. Editions available now are that bit thicker than those available before 2003, when King embarked on a tidy-up and expansion of the book. It's supposedly a bit easier to read - King himself has stated that the original version is 'difficult' to read, and urges readers to give the second book a go where the story 'really finds its voice' - and the discrepancies with later books have been tidied up. For instance, Farson is no longer a town, but a man, as it was in Wizard and Glass.

He's right in saying that the tone of the story is a little different to the volumes which follow. But if he's being honest, he'll have to look at it and admit that, in the context of the journey as a whole, it works. The Gunslinger starts with Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, pursuing the man in black on a solitary quest for the Dark Tower, which stands as a nexus of time and space in the heart of all realities. He's been alone for a long time, though quite how long for we're never told. His former friends and allies are long dead, and he appears to have sacrificed his humanity for his quest for the Tower. There's a distance between Roland and the rest of humanity because of this solitude, one which comes across nicely because of the way the story is written. King's style isn't his usual colloquial, easily-relatable style. It's tighter (betraying the novel's origins as several short stories originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction), whilst also being oddly dreamy. Told from Roland's perspective, a transparent wall is erected between him and the rest of the world.

What really drives home Roland's distance from - and indifference to - the rest of humanity happens in the opening part. He comes to the town of Tull, a place the man in black recently left. The man in black left a surprise for Roland: that of a man resurrected after succumbing to his addiction to devil-grass. In Tull, Roland encounters a woman who becomes his lover - not that he's any closer to her than he is to the rest of humanity - and a woman who preaches hatred. The man in black has set the trap for the gunslinger, and the trap is eventually sprung, leading to Roland dispassionately shooting down every person in the town. There's no remorse on Roland's part. The horror on the reader's part isn't that Roland gunned down every man, woman and child of Tull; it's that he does it without emotion. At this point, he's little other than a monster in a man's clothing.

It's only when Roland meets Jake, a boy from New York mysteriously transported to Roland's world , that Roland's walls start to come down. With human company, he becomes relatable, just as he is relatable as a flawed but oh-so-human teenager in the flashbacks to his youth which start to intersperse the journey. But he's still the same gunslinger who killed Tull. Events later in the book inspire the same horror - the same feeling of Roland being a complete monster - as the death of Tull.

But Roland's inhumanity is somewhat suited to the book, which is ultimately the scene-setter for the other six volumes. In setting up Roland as something both less than and more than a man it provides scope for the changes that would come about in future volumes. But it's also nicely self-contained. The Gunslinger works as a standalone novel in a way none of the others can manage - partly because they follow on, but also because this alone of all the Dark Tower novels has a distinct beginning, middle and end.

So where does The Gunslinger rate for me? Of all the Dark Tower novels, it's perhaps the only one I'm prepared to dip in and out of. I like the distance King manages to put between Roland and the reader because it makes the action so much more compelling. His motives remain a mystery, and therefore we're always left wondering what he'll do next. He seems to flit between humanity and monstrosity (always veering to the monster side of things when it comes to others and big decisions). And that's without mentioning the setting and the pseudo-Wild West feel to the whole thing. There's this constant feeling of a world similar to ours, but just dislocated enough from reality that it jars and becomes unsettling.

 With the exception of Wizard and Glass, The Gunslinger is my favourite Dark Tower novel. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to read a modern fantasy series with a difference.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Little Brother


Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
-The American Declaration of Indepencence


People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.
-V For Vendetta


The Americans have got a lot wrong when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. In fact, in recent times it's become a habit of mine to read a headline related to American justice and predict the story. The continued existence of the death penalty is a particular bone of contention of mine - how can a nation that thinks of itself as civilised maintain such a barbarous way of dispensing 'justice'? I can point you in the direction of Guantanamo Bay for another human rights abuse. Hundreds of men have been held without indefinitely in a detention facility, to face trial in a military tribunal rather than in a open civilian court. And then there are the civil rights abuses which you still hear about, where a black man is apparently worth less than his white contemporary and a gay man can still be pilloried in the courts of public opinion for his sexuality.

A lot of work needs to be done to make America the proud nation it should have been.

The saddest thing about it is that there are so many fantastic underlying principles that any civil liberties or democracy campaigner could admire. Just look at the Constitution. As a modern document it has its problems, but in setting out the inalienable rights of the governed it acts as a barrier against tyranny and blazes a trail future documents - such as the European Convention on Human Rights - have been able to continue along. By modern standards it's grossly outdated and needs an overhaul, but it was the trendsetter that the entire free world should look to as the venerable grandfather of human rights legislation.

It also set out the principles of American government (based famously on Montesquieu's principle of the separation of powers, one of the first things any politics or law student learns at the start of their degree), along the lines of the declaration of independence. The attitudes of the people who use it may leave a lot to be desired politically, and its execution is somewhat overcomplicated and self-defeating at times, but the document itself is still a thing to be admired in its principles. With a man like Josiah Bartlet in charge (allied with a seismic shift in attitudes towards the left wing, finally getting rid of the American loathing of socialism), America's political and social future, with this document at its heart, could put it at the forefront of the world's developing attitudes.

Cory Doctorow is a Canadian writer who uses this vision of an ideal America to influence his 2008 novel Little Brother. Doctorow is a name well-known in SF circles, having come to attention in recent years with many excellent short stories and a number of novels. In Little Brother he focuses on the post-9/11 world, on civil liberties and increasing security measures - and on what powers the people have to take back their rights.

Ostensibly, Little Brother is a young adult SF novel, but no one should let that put them off. It's a sophisticated novel which harks back to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, among others. In it, a terrorist attack hits San Francisco, killing thousands. Marcus, a seventeen-year-old high school student and tech-wizard is caught up in the attack with a group of his friends, only to find himself arrested by the Department of Homeland Security, detained for several days, interrogated and eventually set free with a warning that he'll have his every move watched. On the outside again, he finds his country transformed into a police state, with everyone's movements tracked, communications monitored, and free speech curtailed. So he decides to do something - bring down the DHS.

Most YA readers will enjoy the story of one boy sticking it to the man. It certainly has enough to keep the more mature readers of that age group engaged, even if they're not looking for a novel that investigates the erosion of civil liberties. There's an everyman protagonist in Marcus, who has an interesting group of friends and even does a bit of dating in the name of growing up. It's not a difficult read by any stretch, either, but there's enough depth to make it satisfying even to the casual reader.

But to glean the most from it you shouldn't read it as a casual read. Read it with human rights, governmental powers and the Big Brother world in mind. To a point, it's a love letter to the rights of every man in the West and the ideal America, best summed up by Marcus's outburst against the government's actions in combating terrorism by curtailing rights on page 203 of the Harper Voyager edition:

"The whole point of America is that we're the country where dissent is welcome. We're a country of dissidents and fighters and university dropouts and free speech people."

The sentiment is idealistic in the extreme. No reader will read that and think that the country depicted is the true America - the land where being socialist is almost a crime and where not too long back having the wrong colour skin made you ineligible to vote and pushed you to the back of a bus - but it's what civil liberties campaigners would love to see.

The other thread running through the book asks the question of how far a government should go in order to protect its people. In this case, it instigates a surveillance society - that has already been encroaching on some liberties even before the terror attack - with ever-more heavy-handed tactics. Arresting dissidents and disappearing others is the tactic of a totalitarian society that inspires terror in its people - with the government to a point becoming the terrorists. Marcus also notes this early on. It all provides food for thought.

People are the power in democracy, another theme that runs through the book. Doctorow shows the power one individual can hold if they are determined enough. He shows that a government does indeed rule with the consent of the governed (see again, idealistic vision of the United States).

So how highly would I recommend Little Brother? Extremely. With the exception of Embassytown, it's the best thing I've read so far this year. There are a few problems with the writing, but that shouldn't put anyone off. Read it and think.

And even better, it's available off Cory Doctorow's website for free. (Spot the mug who paid £7.99...)

Friday, 13 April 2012

Heart-Shaped Box


I have 18 minutes to write a coherent review before Not Going Out starts on the telly. So here we go.

Heart-Shaped Box is a 2008 horror novel written by the son of Stephen King. I, like many other reviewers, appear to have started by pushing aside the pseudonym Joe Hill and revealing Joseph King. Who understandably doesn't want to have his father's name hanging over him. And with good reason: on this evidence, he's better.

I'm not knocking Stephen King. When he writes well, he's a good read, and some of his works have had me properly enthralled. Misery was a visceral, engaging horror novel. The Dark Tower is a fantasy classic, and will be for years to come (provided that The Wind Through the Keyhole and any subsequent additions are up to scratch). 'Salem's Lot can reasonably stake its claim to be the best vampire novel of modern times. But it's when he's off-colour that the problems start: bloated middle sections (The Stand), rambling sequences, irritating protagonists and Song of Susannah are just some of the less good parts of his work.

King Junior (hereafter to be referred to as Joe Hill) has some of his father's habits. There's an easy readability to his style, which occasionally meanders when it doesn't need to. His characters seem to very much do their own thing and drive the story rather than events overtaking their importance. Pop culture references make more appearances than they probably need to.

But he's also got the knack of writing much tighter, focussed prose. Heart-Shaped Box isn't a short book (403 pages), but it has a drive to it and doesn't meander like some of King Senior's works, and there isn't the same lightness that seems to dog even King's heaviest works. The pacing is superb.

The book starts with Judas Coyne, ageing rock god, buying a ghost off the internet. As a concept for horror, it's not the most original, but it evolves from that point into a thoroughly engaging and suitably haunting ghost story. There's nothing fluffy to it either; don't have visions of gothic creepers in the night, this ghost is a hypnotic ex-soldier who twists minds and drives people to suicide. And it's out to get Judas Coyne.

It may not be my longest - or most coherent - review, but I appear to have managed it with 4 minutes to spare. Not bad.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Chrysalids


One thing that may be said of the best SF is that it has the quality of transcending the time in which it was written. It remains relevant in a way contemporary mainstream literature can't, because by its very definition it has to be stuck in its time (whereas SF isn't). A good example of a piece of SF that remains relevant is Dune, which has the same thematic relevance now as it did on its publication in 1965.

Another novel from half a century ago that retains its relevance despite its age is The Chrysalids, written by the author of The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. First published in 1955, it's a story about intolerance that should be read by anyone who goes out into the world and deals with people on a day-by-day basis.

David Strorm is the son of the local community's chief preacher in a post-nuclear apocalypse world, where mutations are commonplace and religious zealotry rules over reason. Anything that differs from the norm is regarded as an offence against God, and has to be destroyed - including people. David and several of his contemporaries have a psychic link that they keep secret, fearing discovery as mutants. David's father is the biggest zealot of the community, urging his flock to stay pure and blaming any mutation on the weakness of others who slip into sin.

It may be because I haven't read The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos for quite a while, but Wyndham's writing feels different. There's far less 1950s sensationalism, and it's far more fluent than what I've come across from him before. On a sentence level alone it's a good read, without having the detailed exploration of intolerance and the actions of the intolerant. Throw in a compelling story and you've got a top-notch read, possibly finer than what are widely regarded as Wyndham's greatest works.

So how does The Chrysalids relate to the modern world? Even today, intolerance is rife, because we don't understand the differences between peoples. In Wyndham's devastated future, we see physical differences marking people out as being less than pure, and therefore inhuman. Such people are, at the very least, ostracised and sent into exile in the Fringes, lands affected more badly by the unspecified disaster that led to the breakdown of civilisation in the first place. In cases where it's felt the difference poses a risk to the way of life, people are hunted down and disposed of. There are so many analogies that could be drawn. Were it written today, Wyndham could have been writing about religious intolerances in places like Saudi Arabia. He could be talking about racial tensions in the Deep South in the 1930s. But as it is the broad analogy may be applied to any number of situations. In truth, it does make it required reading for living in the modern world, where tolerance is still sadly lacking.

One final word: the cover of the edition you're most likely to pick up at the moment is an interesting exercise in spotting the artist's error.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Wise Man's Fear


Patrick Rothfuss's beard is fantastic. In the moody black and white photos of him on his website, it's clearly the star performer. Even the 'Joss Whedon is my master now' t-shirt can't topple something of such wild beauty. Had Galen Tyrol's fledgling stubble in Battlestar Galactica been allowed to grow to its fullest extent, it would surely have matched it, but as it is it stands alone, its facial follicles unsurpassed.

You're probably getting tired of hearing about Patrick Rothfuss's beard at this point. I'm pretty sick of writing about it. I certainly grew tired of one thing in particular in The Wise Man's Fear, the second novel of Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles: hearing about Kvothe's hair.

Let's start at the beginning. The Name of the Wind was the first novel from Rothfuss. It focussed on a barman, Kote, telling of his past as the legendary Kvothe, before he started to live in hiding as a red-headed landlord. As is standard in fantasy novels, Kvothe was orphaned and lived rough for a few years before, through sheer nerve, blagging his way into a prestigious educational institution, the University, to study to become an arcanist, the world's equivalent of a sorcerer. It was an enjoyable read, being fast-paced, with interesting characters and a well-realised world, ticking all the basic fantasy boxes and then taking a step beyond as it unfolded to become a story told with flair.

Did I mention that Kvothe was red-headed?

The storytelling medium is Kvothe himself, talking to a travelling chronicler. The first novel covers the first day of Kvothe telling his tale. In between times, other things happen in the present - this is a story told on two apparently separate (but I suspect otherwise) levels, one happening while Chronicler takes down Kvothe's memoirs, the other the memoirs themselves. The Wise Man's Fear follows the same narrative structure - as presumably the rest of the series will be as well - and picks up where The Name of the Wind left off.

By the way, Kvothe is a flame-haired magiciany bloke.

Being quite honest, it feels at times like the story barely moves on. But we do at least get to see the development of a character first-hand. We were told in the first volume that Kvothe was a fearsome warrior and magician, and throughout The Wise Man's Fear he grows into this role. He was a young and relatively innocent boy at the start. Two years down the line, we're starting to see a hardened man who is far easier to reconcile with the barkeeper telling the story. And the joy of it is that the development feels natural. Offhand, there aren't any sudden breaks in his development where Kvothe suddenly leaps from being one thing to another. Transition is smooth and barely noticeable. Even when he seems to do something out of character (as he does twice), there is a reasonable explanation that doesn't hinder the book.

The other characters are interesting as well. The enigmatic Denna provides a focal point for Kvothe's attentions, and she retains her mercurial air throughout. Elodin, Master Namer at the University (for a fuller explanation, read the books - it's easier that way), is also enigmatic, but he's also convincingly borderline insane. And then there are others.

But that's a problem. The location shifts on a regular basis. Whilst the University provides a base of sorts, we're taken elsewhere several times and this means we're introduced to a new set of characters, who need to be fleshed out and developed. In terms of the scale of the cast, it's large enough to rival George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, but Rothfuss has yet to develop Martin's mastery of a large set of characters. Many characters feel paper-thin. Too many appear and then suddenly disappear, never to be heard from again. Rothfuss is on occasion reduced to telling us facts about these characters and then advancing. In some ways, he's been over-ambitious, writing things above his ability.

He also indulges in a few irritating habits. He insists on telling us Kvothe's skills time and again (as well as the fact he's red-headed). I certainly didn't forget that Kvothe's a fantastic musician; but it's like Rothfuss doesn't trust his audience. He didn't do this in his first book (or if he did, I didn't notice). I accept that the second novel is tough after a successful first, but Rothfuss doesn't quite do himself justice.

It's still not bad. At times, it can be very good. Kvothe is a sympathetic character, and it's easy to like his cheek and wit. But I was hoping for more.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Caprica


Anyone who knows me knows my love for Ronald D. Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I've yet to see a finer series. Nothing else has managed to capture the modern mentality towards differences in society whilst providing an illuminating allegory to the War on Terror. Then there's the last season, which, despite its bleak tone, carries a message of hope for humanity. And all of this without mentioning the core narrative of man on the run from a superior enemy that has forced the human race from its home after an attempted genocide on a massive scale.

The Cylons were an intriguing set of characters. They were human, but with a different psychology coming from their robotic roots and some unusual religious beliefs. They didn't believe in the polytheistic religion of the Twelve Colonies; instead, their beliefs lay in the worship of one true God.

Caprica tells of a time before the First Cylon War, when Cylons were invented. This is before even the initial 'they rebelled' bit of the opening titles of Galactica, when the Twelve Colonies weren't one supernation, but were fractured states. Daniel Graystone, computer genius and CEO of Graystone Industries, has a contract to fulfil, providing mechanised soldiers for a Caprican defence programme. His daughter is caught up in a terror attack (one she's linked to, in a way), and ends up dead. She's also a computer genius, and has secretly synthesised true artificial intelligence - or, as Cylons would probably have it, a soul in something artificial - which takes her form in a virtual world. We meet Joseph Adama, father of Admiral William Adama, who is a mob lawyer in Caprica City, and have a major side-plot involving gangsters and family homour in the vein of plenty of mob films.

The most intriguing character is Clarice Willow - played by Polly Walker, Atia of the Julii in Rome - who is Caprica's closest equivalent to Gaius Baltar. She's the leader of a cell of monotheistic terrorists - the Soldiers of the One - who provide the series with an interesting focal point. Working out their intentions is difficult, to a point. Are they evil or misguided in their pursuit of Apotheosis, or resurrection? What is obvious is that they're utterly ruthless. In a series of few action sequences, where the drama is largely personal, they give us a few moments of very strong violence. Seeing failed Soldiers of the One candidates lined up and shot is one of the series' most shocking moments.

Caprica has a major problem: it can't quite decide what it is. Too many episodes feel like they're a mismatch of ideas. At times the series seems to decide what path it will follow, and as a result there is an excellent episode or two. But these moments are few and far between. Part 1 has perhaps two episodes from nine which could be described as very good; part two has a similar ratio of very good episodes to those produced, one of which is the final episode. In between times, there are moments of excellence, but rarely more than one or two an episode.

That Caprica is a Battlestar Galactica prequel and is made by the same people is apparent throughout with things like camera angles, dropped hints of the future and references to Galactica ('The shape of things to come' from the final moments is one of the most obvious references, but there are plenty of others). Production values are high, and the acting standard is also good. There are also actors and actresses popping up in new roles, such as Luciana Carro (Kat, Starbuck's constant irritant, in Galactica), and Christian Tessier (Duck, another pilot).

But it serves as a constant reminder to what Caprica doesn't achieve. Battlestar Galactica is one of the essential TV shows to watch of this century, and one of the greatest of all time. Caprica is merely decent, convoluted in places, with some excellent moments.

To a Galactica fan, it will be essential viewing. It answers questions about the inception of the Cylons and their religious beliefs - and at times does it well - as well as providing an insight into the origins of everyone's favourite Admiral. The series finale will catch the eye for others, being what the series should have been throughout rather than for 41 minutes. But if you're not a Galactica fan the series may leave you feeling alienated with its glacial pace and convoluted storytelling.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Forever War


There's a set of clichés that attach themselves to war stories like limpets to rock. 'War is hell'. 'Soldiering is nine-tenths boredom and one-tenth terror'. 'Somewhere there's a bullet with your name on it'. Sometimes something is produced that manages transcend the clichés and become truly memorable for its particular depiction of war - an obvious example is Blackadder Goes Forth - although more often than not we're left with the same tired depictions which come back to the same old sayings. It's not to say that those idioms aren't true - because they clearly are - but I'd argue that we've all heard them so often that we've become desensitised. Which is why when something exceptional does come along we heap well-deserved praise on the book or film or series.

The Forever War is hardly new. It was written in the mid-1970s by Joe Haldeman, a veteran of the Vietnam war. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became the first title to be released as part of the SF Masterworks imprint from Gollancz. Rumour even has it that it was written as a response to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

It's not even new to me. I read it when I was 17, just after I first read Dune. At the time I was struck by the violence. Some of the emotional impact was fairly hopelessly lost on me, as was much of the cultural significance of what Haldeman was saying. All I knew was that I was being treated to a rip-roaring story about the horrors of war.

I've grown up since then, but it hasn't stopped me enjoying the re-read. The story remains as strong as ever. William Mandella is a young man conscripted to the United Nations Explorer Force (UNEF) following the Elite Conscription Act. He has an IQ of over 150 and the physical attributes needed to fight humanity's newly-discovered enemy, the Taurans. He - and 99 others - are trained up (which is where we come in, with the memorable opening line, 'Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man'), and then sent off to fight in a series of hellish encounters.

Thanks to time dilation (a topic I'm not convinced is covered accurately by Haldeman, but I'm no expert on the subject), when the recruits get back to Earth decades have passed while they have only aged a matter of a couple of years. Mandella is incapable of adjusting to the new Earth, being alienated by the massive changes in society, and chooses to re-enter the army with Marygay Potter. Yet more military fun and frolics ensue.

The whole book is good. The action scenes are brutal, with matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific injuries. In between, we have the military discipline and turmoil of a man who doesn't particularly want to be there. Mandella is a sympathetic character, and he's easy enough to like.

But, for me, the most haunting part of it isn't anything to do with the battles or the science or the sex (and there's quite a bit of that, on the quiet). It's the return to Earth. The soldiers are warned beforehand of the changes, but it's jarring once they get there. Mandella's inability to adjust to the planet he has been fighting for is almost heartbreaking. There's a palpable sense of almost traumatic alienation throughout the sequence, which only lasts for 30 pages or so, but which sticks with me more strongly than any of the blood and guts. All he has throughout is the companionship of Marygay, one of his co-enlisted. Eventually, the couple choose to join up again, the army being the only thing they're adjusted for.

It's this which marks The Forever War out as an exceptional war novel. Haldeman's own experiences come through strongly (and some feel that The Forever War has an autobiographical element to it - I for one wouldn't disagree with them), and they leave an almost bitter taste in the mouth. It's a war novel that makes you think beyond the battlefield, and one I'd recommend to anyone. Whilst the clichés are there, Haldeman works expertly with them to bring home more than just the bombs and bullets.

Sadly for Haldeman, I've yet to come across anything else which even comes close to The Forever War. Its sequel, Forever Free, was a train-wreck of a novel, the companion novel Forever Peace merely passable and the short stories I've read have been underwhelming. But if you're going to write one great novel, it's better that it's something like The Forever War.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Hi ho, hi ho, a-novelling we go

I can never work out whether I listen to Feeder because I'm depressed or whether it's because I'm listening to Feeder that I'm depressed. All that needs to be known is that at the end of a long week I'm listening to Feeder and feeling distinctly introspective and deflated. Something tells me I need to listen to something that'll get me fired up.

Unsurprisingly, I've not had much time for writing over the last few weeks. Work has had me exhausted and at the end of most days I've not wanted to pore over many words - it's my job to read thousands of pages of records every week. More often it's been a case of tea, kill time on the internet, watch an episode of Caprica and then bed.

But it's not stopped me doing a little writing. I've managed to get some sent off over the last few weeks, and I've been making sure that I'm gathering Lab Ways influences to me. This has entailed purchasing the full box-set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spending time making pointless notes before finally setting finger to keyboard and writing 300 words last weekend. This weekend I plan on writing more.

How much more? I really don't know. I've occasionally thought of trying to get someone as a reader to encourage me to produce more work rather than ditching the project a few weeks after I start it on grounds of frustration, having tried to draft the opening six or seven times and getting no further than perhaps 6,000 words in (out of a projected 125,000). But I don't really want to do that.

Instead, what I want to do is get rid of the frustrations I have with my own writing and just cut loose. I want a few sessions where I write 2,000 words a time. I want weeks where I write 15,000 words. But I have the problem where my own perfectionist nature will take over. I sometimes think if I can get a buffer of 30,000 words behind me I'll be able to crack on. And so it is once more that I try to get this novel out of the way.

I'll be having a full afternoon on it tomorrow, and probably an hour or two on Sunday. The target is 5,000 words, beginning with Chapter Two. Chapter One will wait until later.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Every man and his rights

I can't help but notice that the Conservatives don't seem to be able to keep their noses out of the human rights issue. One of their election pledges was to repeal the Human Rights Act 1999, Theresa May criticised the Act in her Party Conference speech last year, and just yesterday David Cameron made a speech to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, criticising the court.

There are many things to say on each issue. Repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a more comprehensive Act, which does more than merely enact the European Convention of Human Rights in a limited fashion into British law, wouldn't be a bad thing. Had Theresa May criticised the Act in those terms, there wouldn't have been a problem. And had David Cameron merely criticised the bureaucracy of the European Court of Human Rights in allowing such a massive backlog of cases build up, I wouldn't have had a problem (given the delay in cases being heard I'd even go so far as to say the ECtHR itself is in violation of Article 6 of the ECHR - the right to a fair trial).

But that wasn't what was said in any of these major cases.

The Conservatives promised to introduce a 'Bill of Rights' to replace the HRA. The idea itself was nebulous, and information about the Bill itself is sketchy. Whether it would contain provision enacting the ECHR into British law isn't clear. Even assuming it would, it would be fair to say that it would be a far narrower document because of what has been said by the Conservatives in criticising the HRA. They feel it gets in the way. It's an inconvenience when it comes to dealing with foreign nationals (more specifically, deporting foreign nationals). According to Theresa May, one man wasn't deported because of the enactment of Article 8 of the ECHR (right to a private and family life), which meant that because he had a cat he couldn't be moved. That whole story is rubbish (in making the decision a tribunal won't consider a moggy as part of the private and family life), but it serves to illustrate perfectly the annoyance that the Conservatives have at the HRA.

I have a gripe - and a big one - with the HRA. It's not that it's too broad and allows convicted foreign nationals to remain in the country when their home nation is likely to kill them. It's that it doesn't go far enough. The courts can only declare an Act of Parliament incompatible with the ECHR, and it's then at the Secretary of State's discretion whether or not they act to make the relevant provision compatible. Should the Secretary of State decline to make an amendment, then the injustice ultimately continues. The courts don't have sufficient powers to rein in Parliament other than essentially issue a strong telling-off that no one will take a blind bit of notice of. It's about time that courts did have the power to force politicians to act and amend legislation rather than just express an opinion about policy.

This impotence is the big problem that has led to a backlog of cases at Strasbourg. ECtHR bureaucracy will have played a part in allowing the backlog to become so large, but the question has to be asked about why there are so many cases going through in the first place. In our case it's because the courts don't have sufficient powers to remedy a situation - although the ECtHR hardly has any more - and we have had several governments who thought they could pass legislation what was in breach of the ECHR (and were sadly right).

So now we have David Cameron criticising the European Court, despite the problem being at home. And my biggest problem isn't even the fact he's missed the major problem about the backlog of case: it's that in his speech he trivialised human rights as a whole in declaring that the ECtHR should only concentrate on the big cases and let home governments get on with their own policy.

Cameron has forgotten the underlying purpose behind the ECHR itself: to enshrine the rights of human beings so that abuses such as those seen in the Second World War could never happen again. And it's not just the basics - right to life, right to freedom from torture, right to freedom from slavery - that it's enshrined. Article 14 prohibits discrimination on any ground (I wonder if Theresa May has seen it - if she has she's probably going to ignore it). Article 12 is also an interesting one (read it with Article 14, and you'll see exactly what I mean). If it's enshrined in the ECHR then someone has a right to take it to a national and eventually European court to argue for their right under it. Every human right is a major issue, not something to be trivialised. It's not for a pig-headed politician to tell the ECtHR what it should and shouldn't listen to because he doesn't like certain things going before it, hiding his attack behind the veil of attacking bureaucracy.

The ECtHR does need to speed up getting through its caseload, that much is certain. But to suggest that it should concentrate only on certain cases and let national governments have their own way on certain issues undermines the very concept of a pan-European convention. Regardless of what the right-wing press think, the ECHR is one of the most important documents drafted in the history of Western civilisation, on a level above even the Magna Carta. It's about time that the Tories learned to respect what it does.