Posts in Category: nonfiction

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)

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The Refreshment of Leonardo Sciascia & M. John Harrison

On a Friday afternoon some weeks ago the Guardian published an interview with the Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, an author best known in the UK for the series of detective novels about Salvo Montalbano. In this interview Andrea Camilleri discusses his friendship with fellow Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia and how his prose recharges him within a couple of pages. “I call him the electrician Sciascia. What I mean is that, when I feel like my batteries are low, I take up a book by Leonardo, I open it, I read two pages and my batteries are recharged,” says Andrea Camilleri.

The following Saturday I escaped Leicester for a day of rooting around Nottingham with Jenny. There was a trip to a fine vegetarian & vegan cafe, where me and Jenny enjoyed smoked tofu sandwiches, and, later that afternoon, Jenny delighted in vegan cake & ice cream. On the final trip into Waterstones I remembered about Leonardo Sciascia and bought two collections of his novellas. So far the only novella I’ve found time to read is his last published work of fiction, A Simple Story. The translation of Sciascia’s prose is deceptively transparent leaving the complexity to the political and moral interpretation of the stories plot

Last Saturday in the same feature series the Guardian published an interview with M. John Harrison. A writer whose work I admire for the same reason Andrea Camilleri describes his admiration of Sciascia. It is an excellent profile and one that gently complements the two video interviews with M. John Harrison produced recently by Arc.

The interview with Harrison appeared in The Guardian due to the publication of the long awaited novel Empty Space. My copy arrived last Thursday and I have been reading it slowly. In part this is due to a poverty of time, but also so I can prolong my enjoyment the novel. So while I do not wish to comment on the quality of the book yet, having not finished the book, I’m willing to say that it is a recharging experience that’s putting time spent reading Katherine Mansfield & Paul Bowles short stories to a less mercenary use.

It’s also a novel bringing Narborough Road — the road infamous for drink, violence & sex that all cities have — to Space Opera, and that’s something I get behind because I’m not a fucking puritan who hates the excesses of life.

“I call him the electrician Sciascia. What I mean is that, when I feel like my batteries are low, I take up a book by Leonardo, I open it, I read two pages and my batteries are recharged.”

— Andrea Camilleri.

Playing Games with Genre


I love games. Everything from the many flavours of video games, tabletop role-playing games, board games, card games, even, as a spectator, team sports like football, rugby and cricket get my attention. Hell, one of the points of rock climbing, for me, is its arbitrary rules that create interesting experiences.

Due to this deep passion for games I treat my own encounters with the arts playfully. Take the idea of genres. Now at this point I’m convinced that trying to define broad labels such as Literary Fiction & Science Fiction is foolish. Definitions abound at this level of labelling but none of them satisfy, either being too universal or too selective without hitting that hard to describe aesthetic sweet spot that makes a game interesting. So I don’t care about these labels or their many definitions apart from when they are used to stamp on other people.

Really from a game point of view I’m interested in the playgrounds that sub-genres create. Now sub-genres, because they have a tighter focus, do have characteristics that can be identified and played around with. They can start with a name and a short list of requirements to sketch out playground’s toys and conventions. If you like, a form of OuLiPo applied to genre. How can this work? Well these playgrounds don’t have any intrinsic meaning so make up a name: Dirty Mediaevalism. Decide on some conventions that apply to it.

How about:

  1. Dirty Mediaevalism is the fiction of everyday life in a society that is post-classical age but pre-industrial.
  2. Dirty Mediaevalism protagonists are not wealthy or powerful.
  3. Dirty Mediaevalism shows are world where magic & religion are always oppressive forces.
  4. Dirty Mediaevalism cares about small personal incidents portrayed within the landscape of the characters.
  5. Dirty Mediaevalism has a muddy and foggy colour palette.

So there’s a new sub-genre and its manifesto, of sorts. A new playground to write in created in five minutes. Genres are just games. Go play and let thousands of new playgrounds be built.

There is an untapped audience for SF magazines

There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines.

There are millions of people who already read SF novels, and who watch SF based film and television. Even more people also read SF flavoured comics, play SF inspired computer games, listen to music and look at art that could have stepped from the pages of an SF story. Whatever it is SF gives people: challenging ideas, original thinking, mythic storytelling, entertainment or sheer untold weirdness, people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material to consume.

SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are anideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. It is fiction that fits in the small gaps of time that permeate modern living and provide a complete experience. Films and novels are lifestyle products. They are cultural events which demand the attention of their audience. Why do SF magazines not demand the same attention?

I do not think that there are any SF magazines at the moment interested in that sort of attention. Is it because at present SF magazines are deliberately niche publications? Maybe. It keeps the costs down and the expectations low. When success happens it is good, and when lack of sales force the magazine to close then no one is too disappointed.

To actually get people reading SF magazines beyond the present small circulation there need to be new magazines which adopt different tactics. These new SF magazines must demand the readers attention, just as films, books and other SF in the mainstream demand attention. But how?

An successful SF magazine must be a container for radical and entertaining ideas. Ideas able to inspire and enthuse thousands of people, just as the genres original magazines inspired thousands of people their day. Stories that could provoke controversy and discussion on important questions our society faces, and the futures we face.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines must make the short story a prestigious and financially attractive form for talented writers to write for. The stories must not appear to be the work of amateurs. They must not be written as second rate alternatives to making a TV show or film. They must be written in the full belief that short fiction can tell unique stories in unique ways that no other medium can manage, or not written at all.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines also need to be beautifully designed and efficiently distributed. At the moment SF magazines are at best a couple of years behind contemporary magazine design. They all look dated. This is not helping them attract new readers, and it is not helping people read the stories inside. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should be winning important design awards. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should also be on the leading edge of digital distribution so they are readable by anyone around the globe.

And holding together the best ideas, the best writing and the best design, the SF magazine of tomorrow must have a strong identity. Each magazine requires it’s own unique high concept. SF magazines can not continue to face the question: What is an SF magazine? With the answer, a magazine with SF in it. Each new SF magazine must have as strong and relevant concept today as the original SF magazines had in their day.

I think that having popular and widely read SF magazines is important. To me the health of all genre fiction depends on it. Short SF is often seen as the crucible of new ideas in genre fiction, and I think that it can be. However it can only serve this purpose if these stories are being disseminated to a wide audience. Without successful SF magazines the pace of progress in genre fiction slows, and we risk becoming irrelevant and fixated on old ideas and forms; losing readers in a vicious cycle of boredom and nostalgia. To survive in tomorrow’s markets, SF magazines must grow into the imaginations of new readers who will help enrich all genre fiction with new stories to tell and new worlds to imagine.

*

This article was first published August 18th 2010 on Damien G. Walter’s blog. It gathred a lot of comments. Today I am reposting the essay because I read the first issue of Arc. This magazine forfulls some, if not most, of the critera I set forth. As Arc has sound backing from the people at New Scientist behind it I hope that this magazine will survive beyond the difficult early editions.

You can buy the Kindle edition of ‘Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins’ from Amazon. Follow them on twitter.

Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island.

The whole of Africa is in turmoil., refugees from the continent are fleeing to anywhere they can force a landing. In their millions.

In England the trickle of refugees looking for a home, for safety, becomes a flood. Soon the South of England is overrun Towns succumb to mob rule, pitched battles are fought over houses. The refugees gather together a government, an army and soon the Afrims are in negotiations with the British Government. Compromise is reached, promises are made. And broken.

And through these chaotic days, as extremists vie for control, as violence flares and society collapses, one man tells his story.

Alan Whitman has lost his job, his home, his family, everything. He is a desperate man…

This is a curious book. The edition that I read is a revised edition of a book first published in 1972. Fugue for a Darkening Island posses a curious atemporality because while the book has been revised to make Christopher Priest’s intended neutrality more explicit the general attitude and details of the society depicted haven’t. The cover copy refers to the book as being a “classic catastrophe novel” and I read it as part of the same tradition that books by John Wyndham, although harder and generally of a less conservative and hopeful character. And while it is less cosey than other catastrophe novels there’s still some restraint that slows the books down so that actually the book becomes boring.

Not badly written or unreadable, just boring.

There are violent set pieces and scenes of domestic breakdown caused by both the crisis and Alan Whitman’s own emotional immaturity, and taken individually these scenes do excite and hold interest. Like I said, this isn’t a badly written book. But there’s a lot of bumbling around the south of England and all the standard problems found in a catastrophe are all present. We are shown there is a genuine lack of shelter (except the book does, for a short while, turn into a typical British camping holiday), security, and a place to go for a pint and read the newspaper. However this is a two hundred page novel and I’m quite sure that if this was compressed into a novella of half its length with all the fat and faffing cut I might not have drifted off into periods of profound boredom.

One final problem is that the novels end is fatally obvious and very Daily Mail. But Fugue for a Darkening Island is curious and I’m not sure if this is a deliberate dissonant effect intended by Christopher Priest. Not sure because while Fugue for a Darkening Island demonstrates a complex attitude towards extreme immigration issues, with Alan Whiteman being a tolerant liberal at the start of the novel, by the end of the novel we are left with a text that demonstrates Africans are always cruel savages and that white Anglo-Saxon little Englanders are decent people.

All I’m going to say is white people rape and kill women too.

So there’s Fugue for a Darkening Island. It’s a problematic book and I haven’t even begun to explore the issues raised by this being a revised edition of a forty year old book. That might be an issue not worth starting as unwrapping the past from the present is a notoriously difficult task and in a book like Fugue for a Darkening Island is rife with double arguments that leave us with no firm answers. Maybe all I can say on this issue is that I think I’d rather have read the text unrevised from the original 1972 edition.

This is a boring, yet curious, book. A dull catastrophe that in places seems close to the way thing are or would be, and in other places seems like the rantings found in the Daily Express/Mail letters page. Not bad, but also not good.

All the Possible Routes

I am turning into my Dad.

My memories of trips to the mythic north to visit Grandparents during the festive season follow a consistent pattern. In the morning we blasted up the M1 and across the M62 to get to Rochdale before lunch time. Meals and small talk took up the afternoon until we had to leave for the return south. Our stay often only equalled the time spent travelling. The return route never exactly retracted our original tracks along the M62 and M1. We’d drive along the M62 until we reached Barnsley and then drove over the moors to Huddersfield. When asked why my Dad does this he only replies it makes the journey more interesting. I suspect that like me he cannot stand to retrace his steps too often.

The hundreds of times I’ve travelled through these places as a passenger has given me a virtual knowledge of these towns. One day I’ll stop in Huddersfield to find out what it’s like. I suspect I’ll be disappointed.

Last weekend I met my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. I made jokes to friends about the risk of being buried in a Warwickshire field, but in the end it turned out fine. There was a meal, slightly tense, but aren’t meetings like that always a little bit? There were two Sundays that weekend, not one. With Sunday #1 involving a wander along bucolic county lanes covered in mist and lit by the weak winter sun. On Sunday #2 Jen showed me her village. It scared me with its event horizon of restaurants and the existence of a village auction house.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mostly because of the deli and second-hand bookshop.

Leaving on Monday afternoon I decided not to follow the motorway corridor that me and Jen took on Saturday. That’d be rammed with rush hour traffic and it’d be boring. Instead I consulted Jen’s Dad for advice on alternative routes, bringing him the vague idea that following the Coventry orbital in my silver Fiesta might prove more interesting. The great God Google was consulted for directions. Directions were printed. They proved illegible in the dark but useful to consult in a petrol station. After goodbyes I disappeared back to Leicester with a kiss from Jen as I left her behind for nine days. The journey was only bearable because I got to throw my car around dark country roads while getting mildly lost and using my initiative until all the possible routes converged on the M69 as the final leg to get home. Driving is only worthwhile when it illuminates new places, otherwise it becomes a chore I’d rather avoid by catching a bus so I can read.

I am only turning into my Dad by repeating his behaviours.

Next time: what a small car filled with books is like to handle while driving up hill in heavy traffic.

Snow Country

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”

— Opening Paragraph

In Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata we are presented with the story of Shimamura’s escape from Tokyo and his family. He escapes his responsibilities by travelling to a snow covered spa town in the mountains of western Japan. Over the duration of Shimamura’s first visit to the town he has an affair with a local geisha, Komako, who is looking for love and another life. However, Shimamura is also attracted to Yoko, the maid he first saw on the train as he arrived at the town. Shimamura and Komako’s lives and desires are incompatible, and their relationship is destined to fail. From the time that Shimamura returns to the town for a second visit in the autumn they both know this. They still fight it.

The language that Kawabata uses has often been described as haiku like in form. This is an accurate description. What we read here is a series of brief scenes presented in slight but carefully composed images. A style of storytelling which leaves the meaning in the crisp shadows cast by the words given.

Overall this short novel is a fine example of the virtues of brevity. It left me with a feeling the edges of mono no aware. Snow Country is not a book for a reader seeking a neat escape. As the novel closes, Shimamura, Komako and Yoko have been irreversibly changed. How have they changed? We don’t know every detail. We are left only with an ambiguous and open ending. The only knowledge we have is that we have reached the end of the novel’s 121 pages and that we have to close the book even the story is unresolved and closure hasn’t been achieved.

Note: I have employed Western name ordering in this review. The correct order for Yasunari Kawabata’s name is Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata is the family name.

On Hotel Street

An anonymous purple coach filled with EDL supporters drives pasts me. It is sandwiched between four police motorcycles: two at the front and two at the back. The protesters inside are banging on the windows and whooping as the coach slows at the line of police officers twenty meters away from me. They start to get off the bus. One of the youths in a black hooded sweater is taken aside and searched. As I watch this I am approached myself. “Can you tell me what you are doing sir?”

The voice belongs to a police constable, dressed tactically and ready for a riot. He is much taller than me. He looks down at me. I decide that it would be a good idea to cooperate.

“I’m taking notes,” I say.

“Could you tell me what for?”

The Evolution of Beautiful Science Fiction

(I strongly object to the idea that Science Fiction has to be about science. In that regard it is the worst named genre ever. But undoubtedly some of it IS about science…)

— Damien G. Walter “To be true, Science Fiction must be beautiful”

Over on his blog, Damien G. Walter has written a short piece about beauty in science, mathematics and fiction (with a focus on Science Fiction). I agree with Damien’s argument that where prose fiction is at its most beautiful is when it interrogates the internal human experience. When fiction, under whatever label, takes the plunge and dives deep into inner space.

However, I want to talk a little about the statement quoted above, within the parentheses. Science Fiction is not the end of all fiction. No form of fiction is the final word. What evolved from one label (Scientific Romance) into another (Science Fiction) will evolve into other forms with a different labels. Maybe it is time to accept and understand that as a whole genre Science Fiction is just a step on this evolutionary path which will continue until all human language dies out.

(There is at the heart of Science Fiction I think a very American and extremely mid-twentieth century set of attitudes which is becoming a distant memory, even for Americans.)

Does that mean that Science Fiction is dying? Not exactly. At least not in an obvious and visible way. But at some point in the future it will be extinct. Nothing lives forever; everything dies. This is only natural and it causes less suffering to accept the transient nature of all things. Science Fiction is just a stage in the evolution of fiction that was born in 1926 and has, for a literary genre, had a long and relatively stable life. I do not want to be a cheerleader for the death of the Science Fiction label, but something better adapted to its environment and more beautiful will emerge to replace it and its institutions. Just as the literary fiction of the 19th, and the early and mid 20th centuries have been usurped by new fictions with new labels

Of course, on a personal level I would be very disappointed if in a thousand years, or even one hundred years, we were still reading something we’d easily recognize as Science Fiction.

Musical Story Modelling


My major operating metaphors about fiction are all about making equivalences between music and stories. For instance in my general scheme of thinking, short stories are singles and short story magazines are compilation albums.

There is a spectrum of different kinds of singles which has at one end pop music and pulp fiction. This the realm of the two and a half minute single with a strict adherence to traditional song structures and of squids in space with plot and conflict at the heart of every scene. It isn’t the smartest music out there, but it is made to be danced to while pissed. Here we are all about the chorus and surface story, and what that makes the audience feel in their heart.