Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Friday, January 22, 2010

MPoaF: Making a Book in the 21st Century

Well, one way of making a book anyway. The Espresso Book Machine is already installed here and there, including a few bookshops around the world, I think. Is this a possible saviour for a handful of the doomed bookstores I was talking about last week? I'm a bit dubious, but you can see why they'd want to give it a try. Any straw you can get hold of probably looks appealing when you're sinking fast. It is quite clever, I suppose, and it's fun to watch a book coming into existence like that.

I'm not sure it really offers much defence against the e-book advance, though. Much as I hate to dwell on the gloomier aspects of this revolution, it's stayed on my mind this last week, so a couple of further hints at what the future holds:

As pointed out by Simon in the comments on the last post, Waterstone's, the UK's last big chain of dedicated bookstores is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They plan to turn their backs (partially) on the dreaded celebrity biography and give individual store managers more control over what books their shops stock and promote. It's an idea I can get behind, but will it stave off the coming storm? Somehow I doubt it. Might prolong the life of some of their stores, but can't see it saving large numbers of them in the long run.

20% of digital book buyers apparently stop buying print copies entirely. Can't make up my mind whether that's a higher or lower percentage than I would have expected. One thing's for sure, though - it's a chunky enough number (and one I'd imagine is only going to rise) to put a big ugly question mark over the viability of all bricks and mortar bookshops once the digital habit has spread a bit further through the reading population.

Lots of digital books are illegally downloaded. A staggeringly unexpected discovery, I'm sure you'll agree. Reading about it a bit more widely, it's not obvious the study's findings are exactly robust, since there's a lot of extrapolation and sampling involved, but maybe I should just be pleased to see that fiction titles are actually amongst the least affected. (But in this case 'least affected' still means thousands and thousands of copies). Again, one thing's for sure: the numbers will only rise once on-screen reading of books becomes a more widespread and deeply entrenched norm. What effect it'll have on the financial stability of the whole writing business remains to be seen, and I'm instinctively doubtful of anyone who claims to know.

And as for publishers ... well, all I can say is I'm glad it's not my job to spend all day trying to figure out where all this is heading, and whether I'll still have gainful employment when it gets there ... I'd be in a perpetual cold sweat.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Role in the Demise of the High Street Bookstore

In 2009, my answer to the question 'Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed?' underwent a subtle but significant change. (No one has actually asked me that specific question, by the way - after all, who cares what I think? Well, I do, so I have regularly asked myself the question).

Anyway, up until some time in 2009, when pondering an answer to this weighty self-inflicted question, I would have to think about it a bit. Kick a few ideas and scenarios around in my head. Weigh up the exact wording of my response. And end up with: 'Probably.' Which I would then dress up with various caveats and qualifications.

For a while now, however, my answer has not been something I need to think about too much. Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed? Yeah, pretty much.

I'm still going to stick one or two qualifications on there, though, just to be picky. By 'bookshops' I mean mostly - but by no means exclusively - the big stores that reside in every town centre in the UK. By 'doomed' I mean headed for a potentially savage reduction in numbers and, for the surviving outlets, a future rather different from their recent past. Timescale-wise, I'm no real futurist so who knows? The evidence in the UK would seem to suggest that it's already underway: Borders UK - a small but not insignificant chain - went under late last year. Waterstone's, the last big dedicated bookselling chain, has just announced really horrible Christmas trading figures, at a time when most other high street retailers have been posting surprisingly good numbers. (I've no idea how WH Smiths, the other long-established biggish beast of high street book sales is doing, but they're not solely reliant on books for revenue so may not be so vulnerable).

I really, really like bookshops, so this is not a change I instinctively welcome, but it would be silly to ignore my personal contribution to the hammering these bookstores have been taking. Because I'm definitely part of the problem. A tiny, tiny itsy-bitsy little part of the problem, for sure, but I'm in there doing my bit to destroy their business model. I'm only human, and the forces arrayed against the poor old bricks and mortar bookstore are powerful enough to suck even me along in their seductive wake.

The price- and convenience-appeal of online shopping (not just for books, of course) is too much for me to resist, a lot of the time. Although I'm far from poor, I'm not rich enough these days to be entirely uninterested in the unit cost of my reading habit, and there's a lot to be said for being able to acquire the objects of my desire without having to even leave my house. Result: it's at least possible that in 2009 I spent more buying coffee in bookshops than I did buying actual books. And much as I like coffee (and tediously expensive as it is in such places) I don't spend nearly enough on it to keep Waterstones or any other cafe-equipped bookstore in business for long.

If it was only the competition from online sellers that the stores had to face, they could probably hang on in there. But the supermarkets have driven a coach and horses through the established price structure for bestsellers, destroying what used to be a central plank in the financial viability of dedicated bookstores. I am, at least, innocent of any complicity in this development, since I have never bought a book in a supermarket, and hope I never will. (Which is fairly easy for me to say since, to date, they don't sell the kind of books I tend to read).

And there's the third, and probably most dangerous, club bludgeoning the bookstores about the head: e-readers. Late last year I played around with one in a shop, the first time I've ever really done so with proper attention. And - sacrilege! - I found myself thinking: 'You know, I could actually read a novel like this. It's quite a pleasing bit of kit, all in all. And it would be kind of cool to have hundreds of books in your pocket ...' I might even buy one, one day. (They'll have to be both even better and cheaper, though). And that's really bad news for bookstores, because I'm a paper and ink guy through and through. If even I'm wavering ... well, the end is surely nigh. The real breakthrough for digital books is a little way off yet, but one things for sure: the market for them isn't about to start shrinking any time soon..

I expect there will still be some shops that make enough money solely from selling books to keep going - quite possibly they'll be local, brilliantly managed independent shops with a specialist interest. And there will no doubt be plenty of places that sell books alongside all kinds of other stuff. But I'm pretty sure we're in the twilight of the ubiquitous, big, dedicated bookshops in prime retail locations we've all grown up with. Eventually lots of them will go the same way so many of the music stores have gone, and the way the movie rental shops and the video game stores will probably go in due course. (Is it my imagination, or do all these places, when they close down, get replaced with mobile phone shops? Is there some law about this I'm unaware of? Is there no upper limit on the density of mobile phone emporia an area can support?)

It's just change. It's the way of things these days. Business models, even whole industries, come and go. No point in getting gloomy about it, or too nostalgic for the way things used to be - particularly when I, along with millions of other perfectly well-intentioned folk, am helping to propel the change. But there's no getting away from the fact I'll miss knowing that I can find, somewhere in the centre of every reasonable-sized town in the UK, a big open shop filled with rank upon rank of shelves stuffed with thousands and thousands of books (and pretty much nothing but books), and having the sense of being on the threshold of a great storehouse of knowledge and entertainment and craft. And cruising the aisles touching the books and turning them over in my hands, admiring them as objects. I hope that when these places are gone - or at least much rarer than they used to be - their absence won't be an excuse for people to forget how important and magical books with paper pages are (were?).

But as I said before, I'm no futurist. So who knows?


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Robert Holdstock

I was surprised and greatly saddened to hear of the death of Robert Holdstock this past weekend. With his Mythago Wood series, he produced one of the most singular and significant bodies of work in British fantasy of the late 20th century. His central vision of folklore given physical form is amongst the most memorable, resonant and elegantly presented themes I've encountered in speculative fiction, and I've never forgotten what it felt like to read those books for the first time and be aware that I was experiencing something special.

I met him at the David Gemmell Legend Awards ceremony in London earlier this year. We spoke relatively briefly, about inconsequential things, and he was friendly and full of enthusiasm. But I was not on top form, and more than a little starstruck. I was introduced to him as a fellow writer, but felt entirely unworthy of such a status: I was a fan, meeting someone whose achievements I was somewhat in awe of, and was a little flummoxed as a result.

I should have told him, but did not - or certainly not emphatically enough, just how much I liked and valued his work. I should have told him, but did not, that the first story I sold to a magazine was published in an issue that included one of his own co-written works; and how much that simple fact meant to me at the time, to be appearing in print alongside a name that had so much weight and importance in my eyes.

It's nothing compared to the loss now experienced by his family and close friends, of course, but thousands of readers suffered a loss this weekend too: a creator of wonderful fictions, dying too young, with, no doubt, too many stories still untold.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

What I've Been Reading

Not enough is my standard answer these days to people who ask what I've been reading lately. So much stuff to read, so little time. But still, I'm fitting a little bit of quality time with the written word in here and there, so a quick update.

On the books front, there's been Pavane by Keith Roberts. Something of a mosaic novel: scenes from an alternate history, describing a 20th century Britain that has languished under a repressive and anti-technological Catholic yoke ever since the counter-factual success of the Spanish Armada. The details of the world are fascinating - clanking steam engines hauling land trains, a secretive Guild controlling the gigantic semaphore machines that transmit messages over long distances - but it's the tone and quality of the writing that struck me most. Large chunks of the novel read almost like literary fiction, eschewing grand drama and concentrating at least as much on the evocation of setting and the inner world of the characters as on plot. It's a book that gradually draws you in and although in some ways not a great deal happens, the cumulative effect is immersive and, for me anyway, quite memorable.

And there's also been Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. Fairly regularly a nagging voice turns up in my head and points to some piece or period of history, ancient or modern, saying "Look, don't you think that might be interesting? You don't know nearly enough about it. You need to know more. Go on, buy a book. You know you want to." And I, being of weak will, do as I am told, buy the biggest and most detailed-looking book I can find on the subject in question and spend the next little while discovering that yes indeed, it is interesting, and I did need to know more about it. Hence, this time around, Vietnam by Stanley Karnow.

On the graphic novel front: Rex Mundi, written by Arvid Nelson, volume 1 and volume 2 so far. I can't describe it any better than the author's own 'elevator pitch' for the story: "a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery, set in a Europe where the Catholic Church never fell from power and sorcerors stalk the streets at night". So yes, it's another alternate history focusing on the role of the Catholic Church, this time with some magic thrown in. It's also got a very considerable amount in common, plot- and background-wise, with The Da Vinci Code (which it started to be published before, and than which IMHO it is better). Good fun, though the second volume flails around in the treacherous quicksands of exposition and info-dump a bit. I'll be reading more.

And then there are webcomics. Which are, of course, being digital, touted by some as the future. There's certainly been an explosion of them in recent years, and some seriously talented artists and writers are getting involved (though as far as I can tell they run up against exactly the same problem that so much that is internet-based does, i.e. it seems to be only a small minority of creators who can actually generate any significant revenue from their online exploits, unless they make the transition to print). Anyway, those I'm following at the moment (not counting things like PvP online and xkcd that everyone surely already knows about) include (all the following links are, by the way, to the first page of the comic where possible):

The Abominable Charles Christopher. The webcomic that got me interested in the form in the first place, and which I've praised before here, so I won't go over old ground. But it's still good.

Kukuburi. The surreal adventures of a delivery girl who passes through a magical doorway into a dream (or possibly nightmare?) world. Terrific art, and a wild visual imagination at work. Lots of funny and bizarre characters. Pretty light-hearted stuff that's just plain fun.

Sin Titulo
. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what's going on here. It's a mystery, with noirish overtones, but it's also got dream sequences, biographical reminiscences, strange and possibly supernatural goings on. I've no real idea where it's heading, but I find the journey interesting.

The American Dream. Completely different from the above, this is a gentle, engaging dream narrative whose basis is explained in the first panel: 'I dreamed there was no America'. Though it updates regrettably infrequently, I really, really like it. The art is simple, cartoonish, but I find it quite beautiful.

The Futurists. This one's only just started, so here's a chance to get in on the ground floor. Set in India towards the end of the 19th century, it says it's about 'the quest for eternal life gone horribly wrong', which sounds promising to me. The art's certainly quite nice.

So there you are. I've not been entirely delinquent in my reading duties. Up next: What I've Been Writing. Yes, by some mysterious quirk of fate, my novel-writing career is not yet over. News on that front here next week. I'm sure you can't wait.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Short Fiction: My, That's a Big Snake

One of the nicer surprises of last year for me was being asked to write short stories for a couple of anthologies. Makes you feel all kind of warm inside, that does. One of them is all done and dusted. It's called 'Beyond the Reach of His Gods', and will be found in Rage of the Behemoth from a little outfit called Rogue Blades Entertainment, due for publication at the start of June I believe.

No one, famously, gets rich from writing (or publishing, for that matter) short stories these days, so, much as any invitation to write a story is welcome for that aforementioned warm feeling it engenders, you kind of need some other reason to say 'yes'. In this case, I had the time to write something, I had been toying with the idea of trying to write some short stories anyway since I hadn't exercised those creative muscles in a while, and the premise for this anthology - heroic fantasy involving giant monsters - just struck me as a chance to have a bit of uncomplicated fun. Plus as soon as I heard that theme, the basic idea for the story popped into my head more or less fully formed, so it seemed a shame to ignore it.

The story is about ... well, it's pretty much about this:

Seems pretty clear, no? And yes, that's the main reason for this post: to show off the rather fine illustration that Johnney Perkins came up with for my story. Surely nobody could look at that image and not think 'Why, yes. That story's got to be some kind of fun, in a serpent-hero-jungle mash-up kind of way'? Nice work by the artist, and should you so wish you can actually buy the anthology with this image as the cover art from the Rogue Blades website. Whatever your taste in cover art, if doughty heroes and gargantuan monsters sounds like your kind of thing, why not give the book a try?

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Further Book Matters (and a curse)

Does it betray some weird psycho-sexual dysfunction (phallic insecurity, perhaps?) that my first reaction upon receiving the huge box containing my author copies of Fall of Thanes was to pile them all up into a tower and take a photo of it? Probably not, though I wouldn't dismiss the possibility entirely. Behold my mighty book tower! See how it ... towers.

Clearly, since these have shown up on my doorstep - and looking very fine at that - publication of the third and final part of the trilogy is now unavoidable. Early May, in a shop near you (or online if there're no shops near you, of course). For those thinking of putting in an order, a reminder: should you be tempted by the thought of a signed, dedicated etc copy of Fall of Thanes all of your own, the place to go is the Transreal website. Click on my name at top right for all the details, but the most important point is that it'll only cost you cover price plus shipping. Bargain!

While on the subject of books, I have been rectifying a shocking gap in my genre reading. Until this last week or two, my sole experience of Conan the barbarian was the long ago and rather dubious movies featuring a certain US politician in the title role. Now, I'm pleased to say, I'm making up for lost time by working my way through this gorgeous book - close to a thousand pages of pulpy, politically incorrect sword and sorcery merriment. I'm enjoying it considerably more than I thought I might, and for all the lack of 'polish' that occasionally crops up in the writing (these stories were being turned out incredibly quickly, after all), I've been struck by what an effective writer Robert E. Howard really is. There's some seriously vivid and atmospheric work going on, alongside all the vigourous hewing and hacking and thumping. Great fun. How come I never read this stuff before? Idiot.

And finally, to the person or persons responsible for ms antispyware 2009, I have only this to say: may your toenails shrivel and crack, and turn yellow and crusty and stinky, flaking off into your socks bit by bit until they are all gone, leaving only a suppurating blisters where once they lay. And if your stupid little malware gets on my PC again, I hope the suppuration spreads up your legs until it reaches areas more vital than toes. So there.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Tis the Year of the Anniversary

Pretty much every anniversary of the slightest significance to anyone anywhere gets its share of the limelight these days. This year, though, there are some anniversaries that I reckon deserve pretty much all the attention that's being lavished upon them. Both are, in their very different ways, writing-related, and both are ultimately about the power of words - and that's nice stuff to be celebrating, if you ask me.

The greatest hullabaloo, not unreasonably, surrounds a two for the price of one special offer: the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Origin of Species would be pretty high on my personal list of most significant books ever published. Nowadays, if Darwin was unleashing his radical ideas upon an unsuspecting world, there'd no doubt be not only the book, but soon enough the TV series, the website, the YouTube channel of explanatory lectures etc. etc. But even now, in this digital age, I can't help but think it would be the book that really mattered. It would be the book that lasted, and that constituted the most complete prospectus for his theories. All the other, digital, stuff might be seen by more people in the short term, but it would be the book that was the real defining, immortalising statement of his beliefs over future centuries. I think. Or maybe I just hope.

Still, Origin wouldn't be that high on my list of 'great reads'. Since one of the many flavours of my geekishness is 'biological sciences nerd' (a little known subspecies, that), I did find it interesting when I read it long ago, but the journal of his voyage on HMS Beagle is a bit more of a straightforwardly enjoyable read: an intelligent and observant 19th century traveller visiting places that most of us, even now, will never get to, and thinking about what he sees there in ways that most of us are not capable of. You can get abridged mp3s of it here, and this would be a good year to give it a listen.

I'm halfway through Janet Browne's giant two volume biography of Darwin, incidentally, and for any fellow biological sciences nerds out there I can thoroughly recommend it.

The other big commemorative party this year, in Scotland at least, is for the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth. I can't claim to be much of a Burnsologist (though I'm a big fan of Burns Night - especially the food and drink involved) but I've always thought he had a certain special something: he wrote populist, accessible stuff, without great literary pretension or elobarate, elitist intent, but he wrote it with such elegance, with such a neat turn of phrase and such an instinct for the rhythms of language, that he sometimes conjured a kind of magic out of apparently simple series of words.

Plenty of people seem to agree with me, since he is a Scottish national icon who is actively and genuinely treasured here (as well as overseas) almost as much as the international publicity and tourist-targeted promotions would have you believe.

So a couple of Burns' best bits, for your listening/viewing pleasure:

Thou Gloomy December

and, of course, A Man's A Man For A' That, first spoken:

and then done in a way I suspect Robert Burns would wholly approve of:

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Robert Louis Stevenson says ...

'In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should be thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, or the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.'

There's a man who loved his medium, and had mighty and noble aspirations for his - and every other author's - writing.

I've been reading Jekyll and Hyde, (recommended long ago in the comments here), which although it's rendered me incapable of neither sleep nor continuous thought, I've certainly found absorbing.

More thoughts on it another time perhaps (they boil down to it's a good and interesting tale), but one thing that strikes me particularly clearly: it's the most glaring, most unambiguous, illustration I've ever seen of the capacity of a spoiler to detract from enjoyment of a story. The novella is robbed of a very substantial portion of the power it must have had for its original audience by every modern reader's foreknowledge of the central conceit. I can't think of any other classic work of fiction that is quite so handicapped by its own fame. RLS very carefully and deliberately structured the story to keep the reader uncertain of the true nature of the events it describes until almost the very end: all that authorial care and intention undone by his own immense success in creating a mythic and cultural icon. I guess that's the kind of unforeseen problem most authors would not lose too much sleep over.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

More Lynd Ward Goodness: Beowulf

A while ago I was doing some unseemly drooling over Lynd Ward's 1934 Frankenstein illustrations. Five years later (I learn from The Beat) he was turning out some gorgeous work on another, even more venerable, classic: Beowulf.

It's a very 1930s style, but works well for sf and fantasy themes, I reckon. I think I can now be officially classed as a Lynd Ward fan. A full set of the pictures can be seen on Flickr, put there by the chap who runs the A Journey Round My Skull blog (which is itself well worth a look for those into obscure and weird book illustration and design of the 20th century).


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Odds and Ends in the Twilight of the Year

A few quick notes as 2008 heads towards its end and 2009 looms on the horizon.

I am one of a great many guest posters on the Fantasy Book Critic blog, offering some brief comments on stuff I read this year and stuff I might read next year.

New for 2009! The latest addition to the universe of prizes for genre books is the David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy. The inaugural winner will be announced in 2009, once it has been chosen by ... you, the public! You can check out the long list of nominated books here (and yes, Bloodheir's one of them), and vote for your favourite here.

For any early-adopting, US-based, ebook geeks out there, Winterbirth has made it onto the Kindle.

Most Shocking Realisation of 2008: I have reached a point - I don't know whether it's age-related, or career-related or just a transitory state of mind - where the single most exciting shopping experience I can have is apparently delivered by ... stationery superstores. The long lines of endlessly but subtly different office chairs (ever single one of them just crying out to be sat upon, and every one of them seeming more welcoming than my current model), the packages of photocopy paper stacked in bricky towers, the notebooks - the notebooks! - of every hue and size and binding. Pens. Even better: pencils! Folders. I have no need of folders - I already have more of the things than I have stuff to put in them - but I can't help but embark on a critical examination of their robustness, their rigidity. It's possible I may need to get some professional help in 2009, to cure me of this strange affliction. I mean, I realise these places are sort of consumerist temples to the business of writing, and therefore bound to be of some interest to the likes of me, but I can't help but feel there's something vaguely unseemly and deeply uncool about finding them so ... exciting.

For those who are Facebookers: you can now follow this blog, or be a part of its network, or something, over there. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what the deal is, but it's available. Whatever it is. And you've already joined the gang on the Winterbirth page, right?

Novels that have come into my possession, in one way or the other, over the course of the festive period so far: Vinland by George Mackay Brown, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks, Black Man by Richard Morgan, Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory. Such bounty! Is any of it going to be any good? Oh, I should think so ...

Etymology! I like a good word, and 'swashbuckling' is a good word. But where, I wondered, did it come from? Thus I discovered the very handy Online Etymology Dictionary. And the quite interesting origins of 'swashbuckling'.

Finally, and most importantly, to all readers and visitors to these parts, all best wishes for the year about to be new. Here's hoping 2009 is good to us all. See you next year.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Pre-Web Books: The Christmas Edition

The festive season is almost upon us. Ho Ho Ho. The world will soon be awash with book tokens, accumulating in great drifts like so much cardboardy snow. Maybe there are even one or two poor souls still scrabbling about for a gift for some bookish relative. So, I thought, why not pay a brief return visit to the land of Books that Preceded the Web (previously sampled here and here). Think of it as a vain (in both senses of the word) attempt to divert a minuscule fraction of the seasonal bounty towards books I like, and which happened to come out before the internet and its multiplicity of best-of-the-year lists had become ubiquitous.

This edition has an all-star cast: nothing obscure here, just good stuff that has long been recognised as such but which inexplicably still hasn't been read by 100% of the human race. If you've heard of it, but not yet tried it, can I push you over the edge?

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Depending on my mood, sometimes this is my favourite sf book of all. So widely lauded that I can't really add much to the chorus of praise. But I re-read it this year - not for the first time - and, also not for the first time, thought 'Wow. I really like that book.' So here it is. Mind-stretching sf with a structure based on Canterbury Tales. Far too much going on in it for me to try and summarise what it's about. Clever - it's got far more good ideas in it than seems fair for any one book - and very well-written. Plus, it's got the Shrike, and the Shrike is just ... cool.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller. A classic that fully deserves its status IMHO. Thoughtful post-apocalyptic sf that covers the entire, slow recovery of civilization. It's about religion, but also about science and humanity as a whole. It was first published in the 1950s, but personally I think it still reads as a remarkably fresh and imaginative take on the whole end-of-the-world thing. Which suggests either that it's a very fine book, or that I'm hopelessly out of touch.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. That rarest of beasts when it was written (and still not exactly common nowadays): a stand-alone fantasy novel. Not just that, but a very good stand-alone fantasy novel. I've always thought that its publication was one of the key moments in the development of the secondary world fantasy genre; by which I probably just mean that me reading it was a key moment in the shaping of my attitudes towards the genre ... The magic is relatively subtle, the violence is - by today's standards - moderately restrained, but the whole package is just beautifully put together: well-written, evocative, deceptively simple in some ways.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Murders in a medieval monastery. No, it's not speculative fiction. But I've always thought (and I realise I'm probably in a minority of one here) that it's got a distinctly spec fic vibe to it. It's a novel of ideas (and indeed a celebration of ideas and reason and learning) cast as a murder mystery, with sinister (albeit human) forces and conspiracies in the shadows, set in a historical and cultural context that's alien enough to most of us (and vividly enough realised in the book) to be as engaging and immersive as any imagined fantasy world. Reminds me of Neal Stephenson's work - indeed I sort of think of it as literary historical cyberpunk, with books and ideas instead of computers and virtual realities, monks instead of hackers. Top quality stuff.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Currently ...

... breaking blog silence, briefly, for this update.

... writing! Fall of Thanes is making its way through the publication process (still seems to be on course for a summer 2009 release date - early summer, at that), so my attention turns elsewhere: to short stories, specifically. One of 2008's nicer surprises was being invited to contribute stories to a couple of upcoming anthologies. Nice, but a bit scary. Writing short stories is hard.


Infoquake by David Louis Edelman. First sf book I've read that's essentially a corporate boardroom thriller. Only about halfway through it, but so far it's interesting and feels at least somewhat original, which is (almost) always a good thing.

World War Z by Max Brooks. Subtitle is an 'Oral History of the Zombie War'. Seriously clever idea: the story of the zombie apocalypse, told as if it's non-fiction through transcripts of interviews with those who witnessed and survived the struggle.

Or graphic novels, I suppose, since I only ever read this stuff in collected trade paperback format nowadays.

Umbrella Academy is an sfnal superhero romp, with robots, apocalyptic music, time travel, sentient chimps and a hero whose head has been grafted onto the body of a space gorilla. Very well written (despite the fact its author is considerably better known as a musician), and with great art. It feels full of excitement at the freedom offered by the medium, and is positively wanton in its flinging about of crazy ideas and striking images.

Scalped is quite a contrast. A crime story set in a modern day Native American community, it's stuffed with brutal violence, spectacularly bad language, sex, drugs, local and cultural politics and messed up relationships. Very definitely not for kids (or easily offended adults). The characters, setting and tone are interesting enough to make me want to read more.

One thing about both these comics that appeals to me is that they keep their plot and character cards quite close to their chest. They both very deliberately create the sense that they have a hinterland, as yet unrevealed, of plot and history and setting, and there is an implied promise that we will be digging deeper, peeling back layers, in future volumes. I like that.

... listening!

To tales of financial armaggedon on the NPR Planet Money podcast. An accessible, often illuminating and occasionally even amusing, guide to the ongoing implosion of the world's financial system. It's like watching/listening to a slow motion car crash in which an endless succession of security vans laden with our money plough into one another and explode, incinerating their contents. Boom! There goes another billion. Smash! Yes, that's your pension turning to ash ...

...admiring Julian Beever's 3D pavement drawing!

Go check out his remarkable online gallery. Seems ludicrously, almost indecently, clever to me.

... in awe of the ruthlessness and efficiency of Nature!

A sparrowhawk killed a pigeon in the back garden not so long ago, and spent close to an hour sitting on the grass right outside the window methodically dismantling its victim. The pigeon was plucked and devoured with awesome precision, and its remains were then carried off, leaving just a near-perfect circle of feathers, a few strands of gut and a bizareely neat and tidy little pile of corn, presumable decanted from its crop. The corn was soon gone, eaten by other birds - pigeons, as likely as not - picking it out from amongst the remains of their late colleague. That's recycling for you. No room for sentiment out there in Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw World.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Frankenstein 1934

I mentioned how much I like Frankenstein a while ago. Now some very classy illustrations from a 1934 edition of the novel have shown up online, and I don't think I can remember a visualisation of the story I've liked more.

The image above is a fair sample, but there are many larger and more striking ones to be seen at Nick Mullins' blog. He's done the world a small service by scanning these and getting them online, I reckon. They're by someone called Lynd Ward, and the fact that they're woodcut engravings just makes them all the more impressive, if you ask me. It's amazingly dark, dramatic and dynamic art, especially in the way it handles the monster.

Want the book these illustrations adorn. Cannot have. Out of print. Life unfair.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Half A Millennium / Alien Surfaces

With merry inevitability, Festival season has descended upon Edinburgh once more. A month or so of arty (and not so arty) madness is underway. (And lo, with almost equal inevitability, the heavens did open and they did rain at considerable, if intermittent, length upon all the multitudes of tourists. I suspect no one benefits more from the Festival than Edinburgh's umbrella sellers.)

My sole dipping of toe into Festival waters so far has been two bookish things:

At the National Library of Scotland, they're marking the 500th anniversary of the first book to be printed in Scotland. It's an interesting little exhibition, but it took a little while for the causative fact to really sink in. Half a millennium of printing books.

And they actually have that first book sitting there in a glass case: someone speaking to you through the printed word from 500 years ago. It's not all that easy to read, since the language has changed a fair bit since then and, funnily enough, legibility doesn't seem to have been the most immediate priority of the first font designers. But even so, it's a nice moment to lean over and read something printed that long ago. Kind of wonderful, even. In the most literal sense of wonderful.

And that transformative, revolutionary technology of 1508 connects beautifully to our very own current transformative revolution-in-progress, because anyone anywhere in the world can, if they can access the internet, also read the very first book to be printed in Scotland, because it's online, every single page of it, here. Might not make much sense to most, since it's in pretty heavily Scottished and archaic English, but even so: that is also kind of wonderful, still in the literal sense, when you stop to think about it.

And at Edinburgh's specialist sf bookshop, Transreal Fiction, they do Festival stuff too: a rather cool little exhibition of semi-abstract images by Madeleine Shepherd, each one inspired by an sf book. The series is called 'Alien Surfaces', and there's an online gallery where you can see (and buy, for that matter) most of them. Click on an individual image there to see the passage of text that inspired it.

It's good fun. They're pleasing on the eye, particularly when paired with the relevant quotation:

'...a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of litter.' - HP Lovecraft, At The Mountains of Madness.

That Lovercraft text made me think three things, by the way:

1. the guy really was remarkably good at what he did;
2. is it actually possible for a tunnel to be evilly free of litter?; and
3. if I was thinking of starting a blog about 20th century horror fiction I would totally call it 'Crushing the Frantic Penguins'.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Brief Return to Pre-Web Books

Is it cheating to turn an exchange in the comments on a previous post into a new post? No, I say, and what I say goes around here.

Anyway, some chap/chapess called Anonymous chimed in on the recent post about books that arrived too soon to benefit from online buzz with some welcome additional recommendations. Two in particular caught my eye: one because I very nearly included it in the original post, and have ever since been feeling vaguely guilty about not doing so, as if the book itself now watches me from the shelf with an accusatory and faintly disappointed eye; the other because ... well, just because I think it's interesting really. So here we (briefly) go again:

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. This is one of my favourite sf books, and was within a gnat's whisker of appearing on the previous post. A picture of a crowded, complex 21st century Earth, written in a very distinctive non-linear style, with multiple storylines, numerous contextual snippets, oh just a ton of stuff going on. It was written in the 1960s and feels like it: innovative, eruptive, engaged, playful. It's quite long, so you do need a bit of stamina, but that's obviously not a problem if you're enjoying the ride. A lot of its concerns - over-population, corporate power, media saturation, the rise of computers etc. etc. - still strike a chord now that we're actually living in the century Brunner anticipated, even if events haven't followed exactly the course he suggested.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. As it happens, I don't think Dracula is as remarkable as Frankenstein, but I do think it's good. Why do I prefer Frankenstein? Basically, I guess I just find it the more interesting of the two books. Its premise (Man is undone by his Creation) is both more potent and more succinctly and imaginatively explored. Dracula is much, much longer, and I don't think it quite has the narrative or thematic legs to sustain it all the way through. And, for me, Frankenstein has a certain timeless quality: it's a vision complete and coherent and somehow separate in itself, whereas Dracula has always felt to me more clearly rooted in and constrained by its time (the late Victorian era) and context. But I don't want to seem like I'm knocking Dracula too much. I do like it. It's got an interesting and largely successful structure, telling its story through letters and diary extracts, and it definitely has a certain Gothic, melodramatic, power. Worth a try, if you haven't yet read the original, and arguably still the best, vampire tale.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Books That Preceded the Web

In my recent interview at A Dribble of Ink, I mentioned that I quite like it when sf/f book bloggers shift their attention away from new releases and try to tempt their audience into giving some older books a try. Figured I might as well put a little of my blogging time where my mouth is, so herewith - selected semi-randomly by staring blankly at the bookshelf nearest my desk and seeing which titles telepathically suggested themselves - some books that first saw the light of day long before 'online buzz' was anything other than what might happen if you trod carelessly while crossing an electrified railway line. They're hardly what you'd call obscure, but there might be one or two readers out there just waiting to be persuaded to try them.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Was very well known when it first came out (1984, I think), yet over at Neth Space it was recently mentioned as a book that isn't as widely read now as it deserves. I was shocked. Shocked, I was. I would have assumed that everyone had heard of Mythago Wood and its (even better, in some ways, I think) sequels. Shows how much I know. The basic concept is brilliant: a wood in southern England is, to an extent that would shame the Tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside, and has the power to give physical form to the mythic and folkloric concepts lurking in visitors' brains. I'd be willing to cut off my little finger for an idea as good and rich in story potential as that. Well, maybe not cut it off. I'd be prepared to lightly bruise it, though.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Okay, everybody's heard of this one, but not everybody's read it, which is a bit of a shame, I think. Since it's a product of the 19th century, the style and pacing can be a bit off-putting for the modern reader, but I've found that there's a certain unquantifiable proportion of people who, if they can get past that stumbling block, find it an extraordinary book. It might not work for you, but if it is does, there's a good chance it'll really work. Personally, I think it's got a sort of deranged clarity of theme and vision that marks it out as a genre high point (and maybe, as you sometimes hear people say, the beginning of the sf genre too) even after all these years .

Earth Abides by George Stewart. Possibly my favourite post-apocalyptic novel, certainly in the top two or three. Was written around 60 years ago, and its style and attitudes might seem a little dated now, but despite that, I love it. It's an evocative and ultimately rather moving look at what might happen if (in the mid-20th century) you came home from a solo wilderness trip to discover that almost everyone else in the world had died during your absence. There's relatively little action (though I do think there's a certain kind of heroism going on), so it's one for those who like their sf, at least occasionally, thoughtful and cumulative in its effect. It also, as it happens, has one of my favourite endings of any book, which resolves everything and nothing simultaneously.

The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss. The fact that I can't immediately find this, or any of its three constituent volumes - Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter - in stock at any of the big UK online bookstores leads me to consider the mildly distressing possibility that it might be out of print. I'd be surprised if so, but life's full of surprises. It's got some fantasy trappings but is actually sf through and through. Loads of stuff happens (some of it a bit weird, this being an Aldiss story), but the real star of the series is the planet Helliconia itself, with seasons that last centuries and whole societies and cultures that rise and fall as the climate changes. Visionary stuff, painted on a huge canvas. And it also contains one of my favourite of all non-human races in sf/f: the bipedal, goat-like phagors, who trade dominance of the planet with humans depending on the season.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Fiction Special: Free Books and Other Things

For anyone in the Edinburgh area next week: a great big free book swap on Tuesday 1st April (I know the date's suggestive, but this really is real.)

For everyone else: download a free Jeff VanderMeer novella.

As I might have mentioned here before, I have an intermittent love affair with podcasts - intermittent only because I just don't have enough time to listen to as many of them as I'd like. Until I discovered the blessed technology of the podcast, I never really gave much thought to audio fiction. Now, I find myself making time to squeeze in an audio short story now and again. Forget all that music stuff: this is what mp3 players were made for. So I thought I'd just offer a round of applause for one or two of my favourites:

In The Late December by Greg Eekhout, on Escape Pod. A Christmas story with a difference: Santa Claus at the end of the Universe, in apocalyptic conflict with entropy. Seriously. Loved it.

Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt, also on Escape Pod. A beautifully balanced and paced story, I thought, blending romance, parallel worlds and movies. If you're a film buff, it's made for you.

Shark God vs Octopus God by Jeff VanderMeer, on StarShipSofa. A fairly simple but perfectly-formed little number riffing on what sounds like Polynesian mythology.

And finally, The Onion is funny: Novelists Strike Fails to Affect Nation Whatsoever. (via UK SF Book News).

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A Whole Mess of Links

Alt.Fiction is a one day spec fic jamboree in Derby on Saturday, April 26th. Sort of a mini-convention. I will be there, but fortunately so will a whole host of much more interesting and famous folk. Those who have been in previous years tell me it's a good day. If you like the look of that list of attendees, why not come along?

Here's one of the most deserved blog-to-book deals I've ever heard of: Strange Maps is to be immortalised in print. I predict a big success, especially if the publisher's got the muscle to get some offline publicity going.

Advance notice of a potentially cool addition to the podcasting world: the long-delayed PodCastle will finally be starting April. If the quality matches that of its stablemates PseudoPod and Escape Pod, it should be good.

This here is a pretty good comic. Just saying.

I mentioned Public Lending Right a few posts ago, and Lo! It is under attack. Not life-threatening attack, but erosive 'if we make lots of little cuts maybe they won't notice' kind of attack. In government terms the amounts of money involved are microscopic, but for many authors and illustrators (not me at the moment, but one day who knows?) PLR income is a big chunk of their total earnings from their creative work. If you're a UK citizen, and happen to think PLR cuts are a bad idea, there's an online petition you could sign. Only if you feel like it, obviously.

I know 2007 feels like a long time ago already, but here's Locus' summary of the sf/f books that appeared on the most Best of 2007 lists. That'll be the 'best of the best ofs' or something, then. I have read precisely one of the books mentioned, which is clearly a pathetic effort of which I should be ashamed, but hopefully it doesn't make me a bad person. The one I have read is The Terror, which is very good in all sorts of ways.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Downs and The Ups

Today started badly. Man in truck reversed into the front of my car, destroying number plate, breaking bumper and inserting tow hook so decisively into the wreckage that the two vehicles were as firmly attached as a pair of mating dogs. Much fiddling about with a jack, splintering of plastic and general struggling later, and they were finally parted. Sucks as a curtain-raiser to a new day, and on the whole it set the pattern for much of what was to follow.

There was one glimmer of sunshine, though, since on my return from the scene of the truck v. car strife, oily-handed and irritated, I found an e-mail tipping me off to the existence of kind words about Winterbirth, uttered by a notably talented author. Jeff Vandermeer, in his Best Sf/f of 2007 report for Locus, says 'Winterbirth is the debut of a formidable fantasist, capable of writing complex and often fascinating heroic fantasy.' Very nice, and all the sweeter for coming from someone who has written remarkable books: City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek are distinctive, strange and fascinating concoctions that linger in the mind long after you've finished reading them.

Ah, life's rich tapestry. It'd be nice to dispense with the downs and only have the ups, but I guess that would asking a bit too much.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Reads and The Watches and The Listens

I've just finished Vol 2 of The Walking Dead, which is one of those things that used to be called a comic back when I was buying a lot of these things, but now that they put them out in nice fat collected editions we get to call them graphic novels. Anyway, I'm liking it lots. Really, you should give it a try if you like your fiction with word balloons. It may be set during a zombie apocalypse, but hard as it might be to believe, it's not actually about a zombie apocalypse. It's about people trying to get along together in a distinctly pressurised situation. And like all the best comics, as it goes along it gathers layers of chronology and relationships and backstory that make the whole feel greater than the sum of its parts.

Way back in the early days of this blog I spent a happy couple of posts complaining about Torchwood. By the end of that first series, I'd watched almost all the episodes, and had lost a big chunk of self-respect along the way. I really didn't like it, for specific and to me glaringly obvious reasons, and yet I kept watching the damn thing in the foolish hope that they could salvage something from the pheromone-soaked wreckage. They never did, really. Apparently some people liked it, but me ... not so much.

So now series two is underway, and I dutifully watched the first episode, and lo and behold I think I might actually have quite enjoyed it. They've tweaked the tone in a pretty major way, and it works a lot better for me: bit more humour, taking itself fractionally less seriously, a few more one-liners, marginally fewer holes in the plot. Definitely enough to get me to come back next week.

And over on ITV, we've got Primeval starting its new series too, and the first episode of that was OK too. It's a lot clearer - and a lot simpler - about what it's trying to do than Torchwood is: let's have some sf-ish fun with CGI monsters and secret organisations. The actors play it pretty straight on the whole, but it's in the service of straightforward, fun entertainment. A perfectly harmless way of spending an hour or so in front of the telly. It's kind of cool to have two UK-made sf series on the box both at the same time, and for them both to be watchable (so far).

And finally, since that's a lot of entertainment to be inserting into your brain through your eyes, here's something interesting that goes in through the ears: The Reality Check podcast interviews the man behind the Escape Pod fiction podcast. Escape Pod has turned itself into a definite fixture on the sf short story scene, and it's interesting to hear a bit about where it came from and where it's going. Well worth checking EP out, if you haven't already.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Books and Orbit

For no reason other than that I was idly thinking about it just now (terrible thing, the way the mind wanders when you're supposed to be writing ...), in no particular order and without comment, my favourites amongst the books I've read so far this year:

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

River of Gods, Ian McDonald

Britain BC, Francis Pryor

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

The Civil War Vol. 2, Shelby Foote

Winter Tales, George Mackay Brown

And look: Orbit (my very nice publishers) have a spiffy new website covering both the UK and US bits of their increasingly globe-spanning empire. It's got a corporate blog and future publishing schedules (as pdf files) for anyone who's curious about what's in their pipeline for the next year or so.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bits, Pieces and Links

A few things that have been keeping me amused recently:

A webcomic aimed at a pretty specific audience: My Elves Are Different. Possibly incomprehensible if you don't spend unhealthy amounts of time paddling about in the virtual pond of sf and fantasy blogs, websites and discussion boards. Funny, if you do.

I finally got around to reading City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer. It's good stuff, a bit like someone put China Mieville, Alasdair Gray, M John Harrison and Mervyn Peake in a blender and asked the resulting soup to write a book. If that sounds like your kind of thing, give it a try.

I've always thought there's a shortage of films about Vikings and Native Americans fighting each other. Seriously, I have, ever since I was a child and found out they'd met each other. Come to think of it, maybe that's part of the reason why the humans and Kyrinin carry on the way they do in Winterbirth: the author giving his childhood self something he always wanted to see? Anyway, a new movie on that very subject is about to appear. I've no idea whether it's any good or not, but the trailer provides a few moments of entertainment and a belated dose of childhood wish fulfilment.

And last, but not least, the first great fantasy written in the (Old) English language. I've been listening to Beowulf on CD, and it's great. Ancient, in its bones, but potent and atmospheric. Never mind your modern heroic fantasy, this is the unrefined, undiluted, unpolluted original. It was always meant to be heard, rather than read, so audio's its natural habitat. There's a film in the offing too (a motion capture effort, rather than live action). I know it doesn't do to get one's hopes up, but hell: Neil Gaiman's got a writing credit and Ray Winstone's playing Beowulf. How bad can it be?