CABBAGES AND KINGS

The only way that I can describe Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast, Cabbages and Kings, is as amateurish — but in the best possible way.

To my knowledge this is his first attempt at podcasting and he has only produced twenty-three episodes so far. The program’s format is a welcome change from the usual podcast format in SFF and gaming, where two or more friends meet regularly to discuss the things that have excited them in the time between episodes. Here instead, we have Jonah talking with a guest about literary science fiction & fantasy. His opinions expressed through speech and editing are undiluted and this is refreshing.

My start with the podcast came with Maureen Kincaid Speller’s appearance in two parts to discuss The Buried Giant, and after that I subscribed and have listened to one or two more episodes from the archive. In places the editing is jagged and there are signs that Jonah is still fumbling to find his way. However, he is enthusiastic and apparently interested in the topics under discussion and the opinions of the people who he converses with. This is charming and the lack of polish does nothing to obscure that: in fact, it might well highlight it.

If anything, the rawness gives the podcast and the opinions expressed on it an added authenticity, but this is another, longer conversation

Now I have given Jonah some gentle criticism and comments in the past, so there’s nothing for me to repeat here, except as a lead into praising his openness towards improvement. This progressive drive is well evidenced by the last episode which I listened to while driving home from work, where he gave an end of year review of the podcast and thoughts on how it could be improved. (And yes, Jonah, I could have skipped forward to the next podcast in my playlist, but I didn’t.) This introspection and commitment to playful experimentation is a Good Thing!

As an episode to start with, try the two mentioned above about the Buried Giant. They are in the show archive around last November.

So Cabbages and Kings is roughly produced and by someone who’s still learning how and what they are making. There is a voice that’s determined to try new things that’s only going to get more distinct. Go on, give it a chance.

Go here: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/

Currently reading: HIGH RISE by J.G. Ballard (UK) (US)

HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS – Aliette de Bodard

HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS is Aliette de Bodard’s fourth novel and is the start of a series called Dominion of the Fallen. The cover copy describes it a murder mystery, which means I’m sympathetic to it from the start. However, although there are murders and a mystery running through the spine of the novel, the answering of these questions is of secondary importance to the novel’s high politicking between the houses that run Paris. It’s the arguments and the back and forth between the Houses which vie for control of Paris, which make HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS a pleasure to read. Personally, I found the novel slightly too long, but that’s forgivable because what it trades away in pace it pays back in mood and intelligence.

To me it seems to be one of the defining fictional devices of our time — charting the conflicts of gangs. We’ve seen this before in Game of Thrones. And, of course, it also forms one of the foundations of the Harry Potter series. This focus gives us two things: firstly, a deliberate reduction of the world into the smaller, identifiable groups, and, secondly, other perspectives to narrate in a potentially continuing narrative.

But once we’ve found our flavor of gangland fiction then we’re hooked and waiting for the next volume. With HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS I’ve found an experience that I want a repeated hit of when the next volume is released.

HOUSE OF SHATTERED WING – Aliette de Bodard (UK), (US)

house-of-shattered-wings

The Winter Solstice

It’s the shortest day today. Time for a moan.

Although given the year that I have had mostly spent indoors under fluorescents, I am hard pressed to notice. Now if I’d written about the end of the year last year I’d have probably said it was a difficult year, and I am about to say the same thing again, because that’s the present we have. Everything, for everyone, except a few, is difficult. The good times of easy money, free time and no anxiety are gone. Whatever feeling that I grew up with in in the post Cold War era of Blair & Brown has finally evaporated. 9/11 and the decade that followed put the coffin lid on the project we call society, and the Tories post twenty-ten have hammered in the nails and throw it in a deep grave ready to be covered in shit.

And that’s what I thought last year before all of the shit of the last six months. The first major crisis I can’t write about, but it caused me, in an effort to escape from it, to drive down to Nine Worlds at Heathrow Airport on about four hours sleep and thirty hours of work.

Oh yes, and my partner, J, broke her neck and back in October. She’s mostly recovered now. There was no neurological damage and she required no surgery to glue her back together. She was very lucky! But on top of the first crisis still continuing it’s been a tense twelve weeks.

And the rest of the world has shown itself to be complicated and riddled with doubts. In the small, unimportant field of science fiction and fantasy the sad puppies were an unnecessary thing. A misguided, mostly illiterate out gassing of loosing ownership of something that never really existed in the terms that they articulated.

Also the Tories were elected to torment the UK for another five years. They’ll continue to blame their predecessors until the next collapse, and after that’s happened won’t stop the blame game.

Did anything good happen this year? Is there any light on the horizon? Maybe. I went away for a week to think and be taught in Yorkshire. It was not enough time spent away from everything.

Can everything get any worse? Sure. Today, on the twenty-second of December, the temperature was thirteen degrees. December is now apparently experiencing a ‘heatwave’ according to the World Meteorological Organisation definition. Also, November was the hottest on record. Our climate is collapsing. Everything is collapsing.

So I Wear Glasses Now

10612914_10100414584770962_1829693047010629841_nSome observations about wearing glasses for the first time.

* I am twenty-eight years old and slightly myopic in my left eye and have a fair degree of astigmatism in both eyes. This was discovered yesterday at an eye exam and corrected with two pairs of glasses with single-vision lenses in which I received a couple of hours ago.

* The test showed that I was still legal and fully capable of driving safely without vision correction. Phew.

* After I collected the glasses from the opticians I walked through the High Cross shopping centre towards John Lewis while wearing one of the pairs. I thought that the shopping centre was too bright before knowing my vision was faulty. Now that I’m seeing everything in ultra high definition for the first time some distress was caused.

* Floors are weird. Life now feels like I’m playing a first-person-shooter with a weird field-of-view setting.

* All in all, everything is a bit weird.

* While I was out I noticed three main differences. The first was when I was in Waterstones standing at one end of the science fiction, fantasy, horror grotto. Without glasses Stephen King’s name on the spine of books at the far end of the nook was legible, but fuzzy around the edges. With a pair of glasses on the text became fully legible. The second difference I observed looking through the entrance of a department store. At the back of the shop floor stood a mannequin. With the glasses off it was out of focus and wearing terrible clothes. With them on, it was in focus, and still wearing terrible clothes. Finally in Carluccio’s the wine fridge was far brighter and sparkling than without the correction.

* The notes above were written while drinking coffee in Carluccio’s. I’m wearing the glasses as I write this at my desktop computer. If I remove them, everything is still legible, but not as bright or as sharp around the edges of the letters. If I turn my head to look at my notebook, the same difference. The change is subtle. More colour, finer edges. The basic patterns that I can see do not differ.

* Jenny has given me permission to try playing a computer game. This could be interesting. Also permission to play a shooty shooty bang bang game. :)

* This is going to take some getting used to, but my first impressions are that using a computer is slightly easier than before.

Playing with Anxiety

alienisolationSo many things that I enjoy cause me anxiety. I want to read more of Simon Ings’ Wolves, but I’m anxious about what’s going to happen. I want to play more of Alien: Isolation, but I’m terrified about playing a game where all my expected game agency is stripped away and I’m left mostly helpless inside an industrial hell. Last year, I was anxious about reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, with it’s harrowing final act. But for these things, that’s the point. They are meant to provoke discomfort, as without that feeling they’d toothless. The question that I face as I look at the closed paperback or hover the cursor over Steam’s ‘play game’ icon is, why should I feel like shit when reading a novel or playing a game?

With Wolves, as with Perdido Street Station, it’s the writing that makes me want to feel that way. With Alien: Isolation, it’s not the game play, or even a very strong attachment to the source material, but the quality of visual design that triumphs over ill-feeling. Do you know what I want in Alien: Isolation? A tourist mode. A way of turning off the demonic xenomorph and the pesky humanoids. I want to walk and crawl around the Sevastopol and soak in the atmosphere without distraction.

This can’t be done with prose or films. You can’t just remove arbitrary elements from a book and expect to still have something that’s mostly the same. Everything there is too tightly coupled. It’s not something that I can easily do with a game that I’ve bought off the internet and don’t have access to the source code for it. But more than just not being able to do it for technical reasons. The anxiety effect is cumulative in every sentence, paragraph, texture and sound effect that the thing has. If, somehow, the distressing elements were removed then the thing itself would be pointless. The writing wouldn’t be as interesting and the visual design would become sterile.

It’s a problem because I’m terrible at overcoming the initial starting discomfort and that stops me from getting into the things that I enjoy. I need to be braver.

Failure

Since I last wrote anything for this site I’ve started a new job with a longer title than my last and with an incredibly diverse job description, gotten further involved in Leicester’s Hackspace (and now mostly wish I’d not), and failed to write a short story for an anthology with an extended deadline of today. I’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on work rather than writing. There have been a lot of long, stressful weeks where my lack of knowledge has been made apparent. And as a consequence, I’ve spent a large amount of my free-time diving hard and deep into the world of DevOps and managing baroque LAMP stacks.

It feels to me that since January a feeling of almost constant failure or near failure has bitten at my heels. The Hackspace isn’t the space I’d like it to be (Metalab) even though I’ve tried steering it that way. I found the sixty-five hour Hell Week was both a valuable & knackering learning experience. Of course that’s contributed to a general mood.

But being overloaded with work sometimes is vital and important for my future career. It is also a position I enjoy. Where else would I get to learn about NoSQL database administration and teach Python programming in the same week? But of course I’ve spent time at home studying to catch-up and my working week still isn’t easy. At the end of the week I’m usually exhausted and all that I feel about to do is sit in front my computer shooting Nazis.

And then there’s the failed story. It was intended to be submitted to an anthology of what I’d describe loosely as Venus-themed science fiction. I had a concept: Document the lives of people slightly off-camera in a Venus fly-by mission that could have happened in 1974. Look at their wives and families and how the mission would have affected them. I had a plan of execution. And even though I also had the two things mentioned above to juggle, I had enough time. However, my inclination towards procrastination and the troll sitting at the back of my brain shouting that, ‘You can’t write for shit,’ caught me out.

It really annoys me that I’ve failed to submit a story to this anthology. It’s a great idea for a collection and the brief was sufficiently wide enough that I hoped there was a chance of sneaking some quirky kitchen-sink stuff past the editor. There’s most of a story written in first draft, but it isn’t yet good enough, and it’s already gone through three iterations. Oh well. We learn from our failures, don’t we?

I hope so.

Tomorrow I’m at a comic creator’s meet-up. I intend to go to bed tonight thinking of ideas and throw them at other creators there. Hopefully something will stick and someone will throw an idea back to mutate my concept in an interesting way.

Peace & Love & Coffee,

Will

Brutal Legend

brutallegend

My current no thinking game1 is the PC version of Brutal Legend. I played most of the X-Box 360 version when it was released and mostly enjoyed it. It’s a Tim Schafer not-adventure game so I expected terrible controls, but the odd thing is that in Brutal Legend they do become more tolerable the longer I’ve played. For instance, the guitar solo magic tricks felt laggy at first, even on a joypad, but after a couple of hours play today I can perform most of them without too many missed notes. Am I getting used to how bad the controls are or do the controls, somehow, get better the further I play into the game?

I don’t know. The buggy you get given to drive around in still handles about as well as the very similar looking buggy you get given in Grim Fandango, which given this game is ten years younger is offensively stupid. Also the camera controls still remain in the way of uncritical enjoyment. Bah.

Is this replay changing my opinion of Brutal Legend? Not really. The idea of Brutal Legend is better than the execution. Now Brutal Legend does have some of my favourite visual design I’ve seen in a game, and I really love the soundtrack, etc. But the controls are still crap.

If only they’d fixed them.

1 Some games I want to think about, others I don’t. I’m also playing Fez and Dark Souls (which has its own issues on the PC) when I want to engage my grey matter. Brutal Legend is just stupid fun.

A Confession

Please sit on the other side of the confessional screen and listen to my sin: I’ve only finished reading five novels this year. I’m sorry, but I just haven’t had the time naturally occur. And because of this it feels that for most of the year something important has been absent from my life.

I have however not finished a bad novel this year. All of the books that I’ve forced myself through have been in their own way examples of excellence. I started the year with The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson and then moved onto the first Martin Beck novel Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, for something easier to digest. It was after this I started reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I only finished the crawl through it’s ~800 pages the other week, but it probably isn’t to blame for the limited number of novels, since I rattled through the last twenty-five percent in the space of a week. While reading Perdido I took a day trip to read Joanna Russ’s short novel We Who Are About To after hearing it being evangelised at Eastercon in Bradford. The most recent and last novel I’ve finished was The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, the second Martin Beck novel by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Again, something easier to digest after the heavy meal of Perdido.

The reason I’m sharing this dismal fact is not because I’m proud of it. And although I’m not sure if I’m utterly ashamed of this poor record, as it just happened, I don’t remember what I spent the time not spent reading doing. Yes, I’ve spent hours trying to write short fiction. And I’ve played video games and watched films and TV series, but not all the time. I don’t know where this year has gone. It has evaporated over the course of five novels.

Now I suppose that this is the point where I’m meant to share a solution to the current situation or raise a question from the audience/priest to find help, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing here. No, all I want to do is record my sin against literature that in the eleven months that have passed this year I have only read five novels.

It isn’t the worst crime, but I wish to remember it so that I will perform my penance of reading more next year.

The Voices of Leicester Forest East

M1_Leicester_Forest_East_Services_Sign_-_Coppermine_-_1990
Magnus, a friend of mine from back in the day, runs a weekly audiobook podcast called Telling of Tales. This week he’s recorded a version of one of my stories, Leicester Forest East. It was written at the start of this year after reflecting on Paul Kincaid’s review “The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies” for several months. Leicester Forest East , then, is one of my attempts to write a science fiction that’s more quotidian than what’s generally out there and explores our shared common failures.

Please do tell us what you think of the story and podcast by leaving us a comment. I have also been told to share the fact that Telling of Tales is starting a short break so do send your stories to him if you enjoyed his efforts here.

Anna & Isaac

Anna & Isaac dress up as Vikings. Anna & Isaac go on a quest. Anna & Isaac do the washing up. Anna & Isaac have an argument. Anna & Isaac goto outer space. Anna & Isaac take drugs. Anna & Isaac go to inner space.
Anna & Isaac kerb stomp Karl Jung. Anna & Isaac have sex. Anna & Isaac become Maoist revolutionaries. Anna & Isaac get married. Anna & Isaac form a suicide pact. Anna & Isaac trip the light fantastic. Anna & Isaac
get a kitten. Anna & Isaac start a family. Anna & Isaac get divorced. Anna & Isaac grow old together. Isaac dies of cancer. Anna goes to a home.