In Great Linkage

I am not in Toronto, so have some links:


As previously announced, this Saturday is the BSFA/SF Foundation joint AGM day, featuring talks, panels, and the AGMs for both organisations. The guests are Paul Kincaid for the SFF, and Nick Harkaway for the BSFA. Attendance is free, and the AGMs are conveniently positioned to give non-members a long lunch break. The AGM is once again at Conway Hall, and all events will take place in the small hall on the ground floor.

10:00 SFF speaker Welcome
10:05 BSFA Panel – Launch of the British Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey 2009: chaired by Niall Harrison, and featuring Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Juliet McKenna, Kit Whitfield, and Paul McAuley
11:00 SFF Guest – Paul Kincaid
12:00 BSFA AGM
12:30 Lunch break
13:30 SFF AGM
14:00 BSFA Guest – Nick Harkaway
15:00 SFF Closing Panel – tba
16:00 BSFA speaker Closes

Sci-Fi London 8

A belated report on what I did a couple of weekends ago: a trip to the Sci-Fi London film festival. Currently held in the extremely plush Apollo West End, the programme is a mixture of classic SF, newer independent works, panels, film all-nighters, and short films. The latter is one of my favourites, because there are few opportunities to see short genre films, and there’s always a few brilliant films, plus you get a bonus short in front of every feature. This year the short film programme included not one but two sets of sub-15 minute shorts, a feature on the short films of Israel, and even a programme of “long shorts”, for those films which were a little too long to be in the short film competition.

The “long shorts” were first, and ended up containing some of my favourite films of the weekend. Arcadia is a shining example of how well an ultra-low-budget short can work. The sets are made of cardboard – literally, as every set looks to have been built as a tiny cardboard set, with the actors green-screened in. At first it’s distracting, but I stopped noticing the fuzzy edges and the cardboard props, and enjoying the weird and charming film. The very ending is perhaps a little predictable, but too many shorts lose their way near the end for me to fault this one, and the penultimate scene manages to tie everything together in a couple of well-chosen lines.

In Afterville, the countdown which started when spaceships which landed in Italy fifty-one years ago is about to hit zero, and no one knows what will happen when it gets there. It’s reminiscent of Last Night, the Canadian film about how people face the end of the world, except they’re facing uncertainty and not certain death (and consequently it’s less depressing). Clearly made on a much higher budget than Arcadia, they’ve put the effort into some excellent effects shots of both the spaceships and the near-future tech, and it’s shot well enough to pull off a long, dialogue-free walkthrough of a half-deserted Turin. Once again the ending doesn’t quite hold up, with the focus on two young Italians reconnecting rather than on the exciting spaceships, but it just about pulls it off. It’s also notable for featuring Bruce Sterling as a scientist/futurist, who appears to be playing himself. In Italian.

Do It, by contrast, is not only not science fiction it’s not very good. Bernie is a lowly store clerk in Los Angeles, who often fantasizes about cleaning up the streets but never acts out his fantasies. When he learns the Mayor is visiting his store, he decides that killing him will solve all the problems, and he has three days to get the courage to act. It’s another well-made film, with a washed-out and industrial vision of LA, but not SF unless you think that Bernie’s visions make it fantastical. The main problem is that Bernie is a pretty unpleasant character to spend a half-hour with – he fantasizes about cleaning up the neighbourhood, but that equates to befriending prostitutes, imagining himself beating up black guys, and judging the customers of the pharmacy where he works, and he blames all of his personal problems on the Mayor as well. The film doesn’t take sides on whether Bernie is a violent and dangerous figure or someone to be applauded, but the plot is very slim, and as a character piece it has a central character I don’t want to spend any time with.

Soulmates is much more lightweight – a terrible couples counsellor must use his skills to avoid being possessed by an old woman’s ghostly lover. It’s quite funny, but not really funny enough, and it’s the only one of the four I felt could have been done at shorter length without losing anything.

I only saw half of the short short films, and there were no real standouts as there have been in previous years. Too many films don’t seem to have an ending, or a plot – I can see that if you’re making a short film to showcase your skills, the focus may not be on the writing, but too many of the films were let down by stopping rather than finishing – Jerome’s Weakness, an atmospheric and creepy film about the resurrection of a dead child, was technically good but seemed to stop about a minute before I expected it to end. The Day the Robots Woke Up is a cute animation with 50s-style robots roaming around abandoned London and a slightly forced narration all in rhyming couplets, which won the audience award; Marooned? is an entertaining take on live-action roleplay and 50s SF, which no one liked but me; and Die Schneider Krankheit is a bonkers fake newsreel film about a space chimp who brings a deadly virus back to Germany, which can only be treated using a huge turtle-leech-lizard creature which sucks your blood.

Focus On: Israel is intended to be the first in a series highlighting the short films of different countries (next year is Poland): there was an introduction from Uri Aviv, director of the Icon Festival, followed a series of ultra-low budget, incredibly depressing films, of which the least depressing was about the Grim Reaper wanting to give it up. (Aviv assured us that not all Israeli film is this depressing.) My favourite was Circuit, a short animation about a bomb-disposal robot, but the two entries made for the 48-hour film challenge did good things on a very low budget, and were better and more coherently plotted than the bigger-budget War of Salvation.

The only feature film I saw was Cryptic, another low-budget time travel film which gets compared to Primer and is inevitably not as good. Interestingly this one was originally scripted as a much higher budget special effects heavy film and they removed a lot of the flashy effects. It’s focused on a teenage girl who changes her timeline by communicating with her younger self on a mobile phone, and spends a lot of time dealing with teenage drama, while the time-travel is a magical MacGuffin. I did like that the protagonist was a young woman who didn’t get rescued by someone else, but in fact rescued her younger self and changed her life for the better.

There was also the pub quiz, in which our team Ultimate Awesome Fist Explosion came third, avoiding the tie-breaking dance-off which is probably a good thing. They got an Xbox and a crate of beer; we got a Star Trek: Enterprise promotional kite. Maybe next year we will triumph.

Eastercon LX

The full programme for Eastercon LX is now available, both as a PDF, and as a Google calendar for those living in the future (available as HTML, or use the XML to subscribe to it on your phone/RSS reader.)

For those of you who will be there, you can find me on the following panels:
Making the most of your Eastercon, Friday 15:30
New SF for Old, Saturday 20:00
BSFA Focus: Jo Walton, Saturday 21:00
Hugos for Fans, Monday 12:30

I’ll also be at the BSFA Awards (Saturday 18:00), and generally around all weekend in programming and in the bar. Come up and say hi.

For those of you who are not attending, there are a few ways to follow the con online. It looks like wireless at the hotel will be expensive, but inevitably there will be Twittering – try following the Eastercon twitter, or watching the #eastercon tag. (I will be twittering away as usual.) Look for photos on Flickr tagged with “eastercon” or “LX2009”, I’ll try and upload a few if I can find internet access. Following the success of the live streaming at Corflu, there are also plans afoot to stream some of the panels and events live from LX – check out the Virtual Tucker Hotel site for more details as they finalise the schedule.

Further thoughts on Dollhouse

Episode six of Dollhouse was widely hyped as the point where the show kicked up a gear, probably so that the fans would hang in there through the opening episodes, which ranged from mediocre to mediocre with a side helping of exploitation cake. And surprisingly, while it doesn’t live up to the hype, coupled with the episode before it does give me hope that there’s something more to the series than I initially thought.

The first four episodes were hampered by a mission of the week which never convinced me that there was any need for a doll, rather than a similarly skilled person who would do the job for a lot less money. I wouldn’t mind an unconvincing scenario so much if it was entertaining. Episode five, ‘True Believer’, was the first sign that there was the potential for something better, with a more convincing need for a doll and a less predictable plot, as well as more scenes with a fully-clothed Eliza Dushku, but it still fell some way short of greatness.

‘Man on the Street’ is another step up in quality. In Joel Myner’s hiring of a woman to pretend, if only for a day, that the woman he loved is still alive and well, we get a situation I can see that someone would hire a doll for, instead of the non-active with the same skills who could do the job for a lot less money and a lot less hassle. It’s even briefly sympathetic, until Ballard punctures it with the difference between his fantasies and Myner’s – however unhealthy his fantasies about Caroline/Echo are, he isn’t using an innocent to make them come true. And the final scene, where Echo returns to complete the assignment cut short by Ballard, nicely conflicts our sympathy towards Myner with the inherent skeeviness of the dollhouses, and guest star Patton Oswalt pulls off a tricky role which could easily have been unredeemably loathsome. (Even if it was distracting when I spent the first scene wondering why he was so damn familiar.)

It’s also the episode where Ballard gets to be more than the cliche of FBI agent chasing the case no one else believes in, even if I suspect some of it is unintentional. It’s clear that while he might be a good investigator, he’s also obsessive about this case, and not afraid to use violence against anyone who he sees as standing in his way, although I think that what I’m supposed to take away from the fight scenes is how enjoyably badass he is, not how much he enjoys a fight. This being a Joss Whedon show, once he got to the happy post-coital scene with his neighbour it was inevitable that something horrible was about to befall her, and while the revelation of her secret active identity is not much of a revelation, I’d rather have that than have her end up dead, and it sets up the potentially interesting conflicts when Ballard realises what and who she is. And is an FBI agent really supposed to reveal the details of his cases to the woman next door, even if she does make him lasagne?

The third pairing, and probably the least satisfactory, is that of Sierra and her rape at the hands of her handler. Despite the red herring of Victor, her handler was so obviously dodgy that the identity of her abuser wasn’t a surprise, and it was deeply unsettling because of both the doll’s downtime personalities being so naive and childlike, and the speedy resolution of how Sierra would be just fine now he’s out of the way. My interest in this development is more for the character of Boyd – I want to see just how a character who feels so strongly about Sierra’s abuse that he punches a man through a plate glass window can reconcile that with working for the Dollhouse, which performs the same abuse on a wider scale, and how he fell so far from his presumably moral and upstanding past as an officer of the law.

The episode also delivers some hints about where the overall plot is heading, with the Dollhouse revealed to be an international organisation which does not necessarily exist just to provide the doll’s services. This makes sense not just because the Dollhouses themselves take some hiding, but because it gives them a purpose beyond the rather unconvincing mission of the week assignments. And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.

Dollhouse stil has an uphill struggle to get past the problems inherent in the premise – it’s noteable that the best episode so far is one which keeps Echo and her assignment in the background for much of the episode. I still can’t see where it can go in the long-term, because the more they engage with the disturbing nature of the dollhouses, the less I want to watch them try and do a fun personality of the week episode. For now they’ve demonstrated enough potential to keep me watching.

Best Graphic Story

There’s a new Hugo category this year, Best Graphic Story, which means I can stop nominating graphic novels in Best Related Book. I can’t claim a huge knowledge of the field, but I have read some stories released in 2008 which I think are award-worthy. (As to whether they are eligible, that’s a bit trickier – I am counting it as a 2008 work if a story arc or miniseries was concluded, or released as a collected graphic novel.)

Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares
Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca

Writing the first big Iron Man series to come out after the film isn’t an easy task: how do you ease the film fans into the character’s extensive continuity without either overwhelming them with backstory or ignoring the past storylines? Matt Fraction’s first arc on Invincible Iron Man does a pretty good job. The five nightmares of the title refer to Tony’s greatest fears, that the Iron Man armour becomes cheap, disposable, and available to someone else, a thoroughly modern threat to deal with, although at the end the big showdown with the villain is another “two guys in power armour have a big punchup”. My main issue is with the artwork, which looks great when it’s a metal suit, and not so great when it’s real people – everyone is strangely shiny, and I’m not sure what’s going on with Pepper’s face on this page. Still, this is a fun action-filled comic with a high level of things exploding, and Larroca’s art is definitely suited to that.

All-Star Superman
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

I’m not a big Superman fan – he just never seemed that interesting compared to Batman, or most other superheroes. He’s too powerful, too upstanding, a bit too dull. Which makes it even more impressive that I like All-Star Superman as much as I do. Maybe because it barrels through the origin story in a single page, and gets down to business, which in this case is Supes flying next to the sun and saving astronauts from a mutant creature which is going to explode. The ideas get bigger and madder from there on, and since this is not bound by the main DC continuity anything really can happen. The art is good but the colours are even better – it’s bright and primary-coloured and fits a character who wears a blue suit and is powered by the sun.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning
Mike Mignola and Jason Shawn Alexander

A solo outing for Abe Sapien, his first mission alone, to find a mysterious dagger last seen embedded in the chest of a mysterious warlock off the coast of a small strange island. Yes, it is another Hellboy-universe story where some weird supernatural shit happens, and there’s not so much that we haven’t seen before, but it’s a well-done story about weird supernatural shit. Alexander’s style is very different to what you get from Mignola, plus it has a zeppelin and creppy little monks, and watching the younger Abe feel his way through his uncertainty on the way to becoming the confident character of later years gives it a twist on your standard Hellboy smack-it-in-the-face approach.

Hellboy: Darkness Calls
Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo

Back to the story arc for Hellboy after a few standalones, and this is pretty continuity-heavy if you haven’t read the previous volumes. The Baba-Yaga is still upset that Hellboy shot out her eye in 1964, so she drags him into her world based on Russian folklore and traditions of the past. Then he fights a guy who can’t die and makes a lot of wisecracks, and this is volume 8 so you know the drill. Mignola wrote this but didn’t draw it, and while Duncan Fegredo’s art is pretty good when he’s drawing a simpler scene, the fight scenes are a bit busy (and there’s a lot of fighting in this one).

Penny Arcade
Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulic

So technically this is a webcomic about video games, but it’s quite surreal and fantastic at times, especially with strips like The Fangspire (man fights giant bird) and fantasy stories within the story like the Songs of Sorcelation, and it is the comic which has most consistently made me laugh this year so I think it’s worthy of a nomination. The question of what to nominate is trickier – my favourite storyline is Paint the Line, which is alternate history if you squint a bit, but the collection released this year was The Case of the Mummy’s Gold, and that’s what I’ll go for.

If you want more ideas, the Comic Book Resources Best of 2008 list recaps their favourites of the year.

Call for papers, applications, and nominations

Firstly, a reminder that the Third Annual Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass is still open for applications until the end of the month.

Secondly, the Science Fiction Foundation has issued a Call for Papers for their latest book, The Unsilent Library: Adventures in new Doctor Who:

Published by the Science Fiction Foundation
edited by Simon Bradshaw, Antony Keen, and Graham Sleight

The Science Fiction Foundation, which has published a number of books on sf (including The Parliament of Dreams: Conferring on Babylon 5 and Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature) is now seeking contributions for a new book, proposed for publication in 2010, on Doctor Who. This book will focus on the series’ revival since 2005. Contributions are invited on all aspects of the new series, including its scripting, production, and reception, as well as links to the “classic” series. A variety of critical approaches/viewpoints will be encouraged.

Potential authors are asked to submit brief proposals (max. 250 words) for chapters by 1st March 2009. Final chapters (max. 6,000 words) will be due by 1st August 2009. Please send proposals to

Finally, another reminder that if you have not yet nominated anything for the BSFA Awards, you can do so until Friday 16th; here’s the list of current nominations if you need some inspiration.

Top Five Books Not From 2008

And my second list, the five novels I read in 2008 which weren’t written in 2008:

1. Stay, Nicola Griffith
This is a book so fantastic that not only did I not realise I was reading a sequel without reading the previous installment (The Blue Place), but it didn’t matter that I hadn’t. Aud, the main character, is absolutely fascinating – a broken, grief- and guilt-stricken woman rebuildling herself after the death of a lover, capable of brutal violence but still able to help the two women she comes across while investigating a missing girl. While the strong, intelligent, female character is a big part of the appeal, it’s also gorgeously written, especially when descrbing Aud’s cabin in the woods, and the minor characters are never ciphers or cliches.

2. Look to Windward, Iain M Banks
It’s a little more thoughtful and less violent than some of the other Culture novels, but it’s probably my favourite because of the way it explores the morality of the Culture, and delves into the long-term implications of their decisions. PLus it has megafauna and I am a sucker for those.

3. White Queen, Gwyneth Jones
This makes my list purely on the strength of the thoroughly alien aliens, which may be superficially physically similar to humans, but soon turn out to be as strange as I’ve ever encountered, with different approaches to communication, gender, birth and death, and which affect all the humans they encounter. I usually find Jones’s books a difficult read to follow, but this one was worth it, and I enjoyed the complexity of Braemar and Johnny and their strange relationship.

4. On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers
I didn’t like The Anubis Gates, so James persuaded me I should give Powers another go by giving me a copy of On Stranger Tides. It’s a joyous adventure full of pirates and voodoo and ghosts and the Fountain of Youth and rampaging around the Caribbean, madness and obsession and a severed head in a box. Plus it inspired one of the greatest video games of all time.

5. Only Forward, Michael Marshall Smith
Starts off as a light, funny, crime novel in a weird and fascinating cty (about as close to Douglas Adams as anything I’ve read), but turns into something sad and moving and even more interesting, and somehow the mixture of the two works incredibly well. As a bonus it also features one of the few science fictional cats which I do not hate.

Next year’s reading resolution is to keep a list of all the books I read so these best-of posts aren’t quite so difficult to write.

Top Five Books of 2008

There’s still a few books I hope to get through before award nomination time (notably The Quiet War and Half a Crown), but this is my list of the top five of books I read in 2008 which were actually published in 2008.

1. The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway
It’s not the most polished novel I read this year, or the most tightly plotted, but it was the most exuberant, enthralling, joyous novel I read this year. Niall said the “meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess”, and I loved nearly every wandering digression it takes. Some chapters are more engrossing than others, and the ending feels a little anti-climatic, but the main reason why this and not Anathem is sitting atop my list is that unlike Jonathan’s experience, it pulled me in emotionally and I didn’t realise it until one twisty chapter two-thirds of the way through.

2. Anathem, Neal Stephenson
I covered it in more detail here, but I liked the way that Stephenson has taken his love of meandering digression and found a way to work it into a science fiction plot. Much like Cryptonomicon the female characters are not much cop (although the unreliable narrator can be blamed for some of that), and the first hundred pages are a hard slog, but once it all clicks into place it is magical.

3. The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan takes his love for writing (and subverting) extremely manly novels into the fantasy genre, and it’s not surprising that what we get is a brutal, bloody, swear-filled, angry novel with lots of fucking. when I read I hadn’t read any Moorcock, and now I’ve read a little Elric I can see the debt it owes, but it feels like a modern take on the idea. The three characters are a little unbalnaced, and I would have liked to see more of Archeth, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, especially the take on homosexuality.

4. Song of Time, Ian R MacLeod
It doesn’t have the exuberance of the previous three books, nor is it as filled with wonderful ideas, but Song of Time has its own charm. The alternating narrative, between an old woman looking back on her life and the experiences she had, is elegantly written, and reminded me of McAuley’s Fairyland in the descriptions of a near-future Europe in turmoil. I was impressed with the ending, which manages to pull off something which would in less capable hands feel like an unsatisfying revelation.

5. Matter, Iain M Banks
I’ll be honest – I read this book very early in the year, and I can’t remember so much of the detail. But I remember thinking it was a fine return to the Culture, and as you may have guessed from my top three books of the year I am a sucker for anything which has enthusiasm and humour and great big SF ideas, and Matter has all three. I’m pretty sure that you could have cut 200 pages or so without problem, but I enjoyed reading them anyway.

Sparkle Motion

When I mentioned I was planning to read Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire blockbuster Twilight, many people reacted with puzzlement. Why was a reading a book with so many negative reviews, so many articles about the disturbing gender roles and creepy romance? Partly it was curiosity, to see if there’s anything to explain why these books hit such a chord with female readers, much like I read (and enjoyed) Harry Potter to see what all the fuss was about, but mostly it was because I don’t like writing off books without actually reading them just because everyone else says they are rubbish.

Twilight is the story of Bella Swan, who selflessly moves from California to live with her dad, the sheriff of the small, exceptionally damp town of Forks, Washington. There she meets the mysterious and pale Edward Cullen, falls in love, meets his family of equally pale and attractive vampires, and has a run-in with a nasty vampire before the Cullen family rescue her and Edward takes her to the prom. While I was prepared for how much of the book is devoted to the love story, I didn’t realise how lacking in plot it actually is. For 300 pages we follow Bella around as she goes to school, is terrible at gym, makes dinner and does the laundry, and has lots of teenage angst, before she and Edward actually go skipping through the meadows and meet the proper villain. Surely there are better ways of portraying the mundanity of Bella’s life pre-Edward than to tell me every detail.

Bella is clearly an attempt at a character the female readers with empathise with – she worries about fitting in at her new school, she’s bad at gym and worries about her clumsiness. Other than that, her personality is a blank slate, which is why it’s so unbelievable that all the boys she meets are attracted to her, and the clumsiness is so exaggerated that she can barely walk a mile without falling over. It becomes an even bigger problem since the whole plot hinges on Bella being Edward’s one true love, and the only evidence we have for that is Edward’s continual declarations that she smells nice and how intriguing she is, mostly because she’s the one woman whose mind he can’t read.

When James the bad vampire turns up, things get more interesting and more disturbing, at least from a gender angle. The vampires are playing baseball, in an unintentionally hilarious scene as they reveal that they can only play baseball during thunderstorms as they hit the ball so hard it sounds like thunder. (And yet the bats and balls can stand up to this treatment.) The vampires in Meyer’s world draw lightly on traditional vampire mythology, as they do drink blood, and get “turned” by another vampire, but other than that they have superpowers – immortal, exceptionally fast and strong, and a variety of powers which allow them to foresee the future, read minds, control emotions, track humans, and also compose heart-rending piano pieces. In a fight between two groups of superpowered individuals, Bella gets literally picked up and carried about, ordered around, and when she decides to confront the villain herself, it all goes wrong and she has to be rescued, and being a first-person narrative we don’t even get to see the fight as Bella is out cold.

While the relationship between Bella and Edward is undoubtedly creepy and disturbing, with Bella lacking in agency and awareness about how weird it is, I was never sure quite how much was deliberate and how much is Meyer unintentionally robbing Bella of her agency because that’s the only way she can think of to make the plot work. There are occasional nods to Bella having thoughts of her own, as she comes up with a plan, or protests a little at Edward ordering her around, but it is unconvincing against such events as how romantic it is that Edward spends his nights sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep. The writing might be an attempt to write like a seventeen-year-old girl in love might write, but it is drowning in adverbs; everything is ‘utterly absurd’ or ‘gloriously intense’, Edward has a ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘scintillating arms’, and he even has an alabaster brow, which I hope is a nod to Anne of Green Gables but I’m worried it’s meant to be sincere.

I can see why Twilight does appeal to teenagers, because Edward is the perfect, older boyfriend, one of the cool kids from high school, who takes her out to dinner and wants to know all about her, always the one restraining himself from taking the relationship further while Bella is eager to progress. I don’t worry about teenagers reading it, because I read piles of books with much worse role models and gender issues than this as a teenager. It’s just disappointing that of all the good books out there, so many people are obsessing over it, but if I could predict what book would sell a million copies I’d have a lot more money.

Your Twilight linkapalooza:
Helen-keeble is more forgiving than I am, and has interesting theories on why Bella appeals to teenagers.
The first of Cleolinda’s many Livejournal posts.
Ide Cyan at the Feminist SF blog talks about the cultural positioning of Twilight.
A feminist takes on Twilight’s abstinence message.
Liz Henry is enjoying it so far (it’s true that Bella does think about how she might think about hurting her attempted muggers, but then Edward comes along and rescues her and tells her how she needs a healthy does of fear).
A set of Livejournal posts on Twilight and mormonism.
And just for the funny, Growing Up Cullen, which fills in what Edward was doing for years and years waiting for his true love to turn up.