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.
I am not a Twitterer. Not yet, anyway, and probably not soon. Maybe not ever, since I seriously doubt I have the staying power to turn out a regular stream of tweets, or twits, or twitters or whatever they're called. But if I was on Twitter, things I might have Twittered in the last few days:
- Aren't staples brilliant? Man, I wish I'd invented staples. That would have been a life well spent.
- Seen some old X-Files recently. Also some old Friends. Thought the latter has aged far better than the former. What does this say about me?
- Sunshine! Sunshine! I almost felt warm just now. Every winter, I forget how good that feels.
- How to tell something (i.e. Twitter) is about to head down the far side of the cool parabola: I start thinking 'Hmmm. Maybe I should get me some of that action.'
Me, I have other means than the 140 character outpourings of countless Twitter pros to amuse myself online. Amongst them is googling the phrase 'crushing the frantic penguins'. I've been doing it on and off ever since I first stumbled upon this means of trawling the depths of the internet for oddities last August. Strange behaviour, you say? Well, I'm not going to argue.
Anyway, I thought it was about time I shared my findings. Because I just know the world has been eagerly waiting to hear what new waymarkers have appeared on the virtual trail of once frantic, now flattened penguins since last we checked. And the answer is:
the complete text of the rather good HP Lovercraft storyin which the noble phrase first appeared. (Specifically, it turns out, in Chapter 11 of said story).
a Lovecraftian monstrosity made of batteries. Like it.
an entire range of perfumes based on the works of HP Lovercraft. No, really. Call me unimaginative, but wouldn't have occurred to me as an obvious source of perfumey inspiration, but the one relating to crushed penguins - Shoggoth - does actually sound quite nice: peony, lemongrass, coconut, lime etc. If they'd included 'essence of dead flightless birds' as an ingredient, I might have been tempted.
The Watchmen graphic novel has been making itself the master of various bestseller charts for a little while now, probably cementing in perpetuity its position as the iconic example of the entire medium. Can't complain too much about that, since it's undeniably a rather fine piece of work, and remains pretty much the last word as far as superhero comics are concerned, despite having been published over 20 years ago now.
DC comics have got an ambitious (and I suspect largely futile, unfortunately) initiative devoted to trying to persuade those who are coming to the comics medium for the first time as the result of Watchmen mania to try some other stuffthey may never have heard of before. Which struck me as a good enough excuse for me to once again parade a handful of my own preferences and hobby horses, since there are quite a few comics (or graphic novels, as we're supposed to call them nowadays, in the hope of imbuing them with some kind of dignity) that came out before the internet existed to spread word of their goodness. Stuff which is well known and revered within comic geek circles, but maybe not quite as well known as it deserves to be out there in the land of 'comics are for kids'.
No superhero tomfoolery here (which isn't as dismissive as it might sound, since I quite like a bit of superhero tomfoolery now and again, personally - well, not personally, since me-in-spandex would be pretty much a synonym for "No! Just No! Please, somebody cover that up!", but you know what I mean.). Anyway, this is a different kind of comics, which even those with an allergy to superheroics might find of interest:
Concrete by Paul Chadwick. Man's brain is transplanted into virtually-indestructible, clunky stone body. Were this a superhero book, crazy battles with eeeeevil supervillains would ensue, but it's not, so instead we get exploration: literal exploration of remote and hostile bits of the world, and not-so-literal exploration of human relationships and behaviour. It's gentle, humane, often funny, sometimes sad, occasionally perhaps just a little too worthy and thoughtful. Now reprinted in a very nice series of collected editions.
Ronin by Frank Miller. What Frank Miller did before he did Dark Knight Returns and Sin City and 300 etc. It's a mad, dark, slightly bewildering (at least it was for me) fusion of samurai vs. demons saga and near-future technothriller. An early work - and perhaps not quite as polished as some of his other stuff, for that very reason - from a highly distinctive artist and writer. Good stuff.
American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin. Crime and sex and politics and media craziness in a near future dystopia. Almost Bladerunner-like in its attention to peripheral detail and the texture of the world, and expects a pretty similar level of attention from its readers, if they're to follow the complicated plots and multitude of characters. Brash and brazen and unlike anything else I've ever read in comics - at least there's nothing quite like it I can think of right now.
The Adventures of Luther Arkwrightby Bryan Talbot. Page after page of awesome, IMHO. Alternate history, parallel universes, Cromwellian stormtroopers on motorcycles, tantric sex, doomsday weapons, a glamorous and charismatic title character flitting between worlds and timelines, all of it beautifully drawn. And all of it as British as fish and chips. Brilliant.
Love & Rockets (the Palomar stories) by Gilbert Hernandez. All the stories produced by the two Hernandez brothers in Love & Rockets magazine/comic have now been reprinted in chronological collected editions. They're pretty unique, and not to everyone's taste I imagine, but I like more or less all of them. The most serious and substantial are Gilbert Hernandez's tales of the inhabitants of the little Latin American town of Palomar (volumes 2 and 4 in the collected editions). Flashes of magical realism, but at its heart it's a saga of the lives - full of little pleasures and not inconsiderable suffering - of ordinary people, told in unflinching detail. This is, I think, comics as high literature.
Previous installments of pre-web books wafflings are to be found here and here and here, by the way.
... 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.
Books: 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.
Comics: Or graphic novels, I suppose, since I only ever read this stuff in collected trade paperback format nowadays.
Umbrella Academyis 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.
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 ...
... 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.
To be honest, there are already enough short fiction podcasts to make it tough to keep up with them, but the latest addition is far too cool to ignore: TTA Press, the publishers of the UK's major sf/fantasyand horror fiction magazines, as well as a rather good (if excessively infrequent) crime one, have launched Transmissions from Beyond, podcasting selected stories from their huge, multi-genre back catalogue. I'll be listening.
Another new podcast: Reality Breakis putting out interviews with authors, most of them originally done for radio in the 1990s. Some notably big guns have already been deployed: Will Eisner, Cory Doctorow and the late Robert Jordan.
Since Watchmen featured in the last post here, thought I'd mention an interesting transcript of a 1988 round table discussion about the series. But first: BEWARE! This is as SPOILERIFIC a discussion as could possibly be contrived by the wit of Man. If you have not yet read Watchmen, or if you want to see the upcoming movie without actually knowing every last detail of the plot in advance (and, believe me, you really do), FLEE! The imminent link will utterly and completely ruin the whole thing, including all of the many surprises the story has up its sleeves. Seriously. For those who have already read Watchmen, it's a fascinating discussion, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are involved, and it unpicks in great detail a lot of the story's many layers, influences and concerns. It can be found here.
Thanks to everyone who's e-mailed asking about a release date for Fall of Thanes. It's nice that people care enough to be interested! I wish I had a more definitive answer to offer, but at the moment I don't. It's taken longer than I hoped and intended to finish the thing off, for a mixture of writing and non-writing related reasons, but it is almost done. Should be going to the publisher for consideration in the next few weeks. In the past, it's taken about a year to get from that point to publication. Sorry I can't be any more specific than that yet. More news as and when it's available. It has been raining all day. Raining hard, for a lot of it. Frankly, it's all a bit disappointing, as the weather has been for weeks and weeks. So I thought I'd post a photo, grabbed in one of the few sunny interludes I remember from the last couple of months. It commemorates the chance discovery of a wonderful country lane, thick with wildflowers, bees and butterflies. As I sit here listening to the rain gurgling along the gutters and down the drainpipes, perhaps it will provide a little remembered warmth, and remind me that we do still notionally have things called summers, even if these last couple of years the only possible description of that season has been 'damp squib'.
EDIT to add: the youtube clip may get yanked at any time, I guess, so here's a link to the official trailer, which unsurprisingly is vastly better quality and really rather pretty. (Still got slight reservations about how well this is going to work as a movie, though ...)
At the risk of becoming a bit random, a few more pointers to how I've been spending my (increasingly limited) online time in the last week or so.
A handful of feeds I've subscribed to recently:
FreakAngels. An online comic written by Warren Ellis, distributed in weekly chunks. The comics industry, like book publishing, is still trying to figure out what the digital age means for it; this is one of the signs of change, I guess. I think it's got an 'adult content' warning, by the way.
Alt.Fiction Day. A blog for the one-day sf/f/h event in Derby this April. The early versions of the programme I've seen are full of good stuff. Big names like Charles Stross, Ramsey Campbell, Mike Carey doing their things: well worth a ticket if you're in that neck of the woods, I should think. I should be there, doing the panel thing and generally milling about, so say hello if you bump into me.
Best of Natural History Radio. I like me some wildlife, so this BBC podcast is overdue as far as I'm concerned: features on all kinds of things that crawl, fly, grow and eat each other.
Stephen Fry's Podgrams. Stephen Fry is one of those rare people who can talk for 25mins without a script and be conversational, coherent and engaging. (He's a very well-known and ostentatiously clever UK actor, writer and presenter, for any non-Brit visitors who've never heard of him). This is his new podcast, starting off with a report on what it's like to smash your arm to pieces in the middle of the Amazonian nowhere (answer: not much fun).
And don't forget you can find a feed for this very blog here, if you've got an itchy subscription finger.
A couple of links to stuff I've noticed recently:
Neil Graf offers a list of notional Tintin titles fit for the 21st century. My favourites are probably Tintin in Darfur and Tintin Parties at the Everest Base Camp, not because they're particularly funny but because I can immediately all but see those comics: perfect topics for dark, seriously twisted takes on Tintin's world. I think someone should write/draw them. Someone unafraid of litigation, probably.
Another minor signpost on the road to the end of liertature as we know it: fiction originally written on, distributed by and read on mobile phones dominates Japan's bestseller lists. Japan doesn't always play its tune to the same beat as the rest of the world, so this might not catch on elsewhere, but it's still a sign of the times. It's all quite entertaining, the multi-stranded digital Ragnarok that seems to be slowly closing in on the worlds of publishing and writing. God knows where it will all end up, but I expect things'll come out OK in the end. Majorly different, perhaps, but OK. The world does get destroyed at Ragnarok, I know, but a new one comes along shortly thereafter (albeit with a rather different set of Gods, which undeniably might be a bit worrying if you're a current God of publishing).
And finally, this, for no good reason other than that I found it curious enough to watch twice. What firefighters get up to when there're no fires to fight:
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.
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.