4/17/2016

Platforming

I suppose platforming could be seen as a variety of performing: creating a "platform" for your writing career and using it to reach out to an audience.

I mention this because Chuck Wending wrote a very good piece on his blog on the subject of whether or not it's worth it for a writer to have a "platform". His prognosis is it's nice, but it doesn't really make much difference, if any. I'd already come to that conclusion since I knew of a good number of writers, old and new, who were very successful despite, essentially, never blogging, face-booking or tweeting. On the other hand, someone like Nick Mamatas does quite a good job at promoting himself simply because he remains his typical acerbic yet entertaining self throughout. According to him, anyway, it gets results.

I only ever started this blog as a way to embarrass myself into getting a book finished. I figured if I started a blog about writing what came to be my first published novel and didn't finish that novel, I'd look like an idiot. So, essentially, writing the blog was a way of keeping me in line. This was long, long before anyone every talked about online activity as some kind of "platform".

Even so, I'm game for new tactics. I've redesigned the website and now I'm going to set up a mailing list through MailChimp. There: now I've said it, I'll look like an idiot if I don't do it. See how it works? God knows everyone else appears to have one, so I might as well get with the program.

But you need an enticement, apparently, something to make people willing to sign up. To that end, I'll most likely make Scienceville, the eight-thousand word story that appeared in Interzone last year, into a freebie giveaway. The intention is to get that all set up within the next month (he said) and in plenty of time for the release of Survival Game in August. More details soon.

4/14/2016

New story in Shoreline of Infinity

I'm back! Well, I was never away, just indulging in my favourite pastime of not getting around to the blog.

As you'll see, the whole place has been reorganised a little and - hopefully - is both more logical and a tiny bit smarter-looking. Like that box with Survival Game inside it over there on the far right. That's my new book! Go click on the link and pre-order it, why won't you? Me? Don't worry about me. I'll be right here and waiting. Only a couple of months to go before it's in your sticky, sticky hands!

Glad to say I've sold another short story, called Senseless, to a newish UK science fiction (print and ebook) magazine called Shoreline of Infinity. Even better, it's a Scottish science fiction magazine, based out of Edinburgh. Senseless will be in their fourth issue, coming out in June. Go check out the link and buy a copy.

This last year has definitely been a relatively productive year for me, in terms of short fiction. Two other stories are doing the rounds of different markets, and a few more are lurking in the back of my head waiting to be written.


3/15/2016

In Progress

I think that's at least the majority of the website tinkering done, although there's still lots of links to be fixed and the like. I've also decided to set up a mailing list, which is the next big thing I have to take care of.

I liked the way the website before, but it had two big problems: the way I'd set it up, for various under-the-hood reasons, was very hard to update outside of blog posts, which is why so much of it is still somewhat out of date. That had to change. The other big problem, at least to me, is that as much as I liked the static landing page with its artwork, it introduced an extra click for a user to make. I wanted them to get as much relevant information about me and the books as possible, which meant going straight to that information. That's going to mean another static landing page, probably combining the 'About Me' page with current news and forthcoming work. Hopefully I'll get to that in the next week.

In the meantime, the Work in Progress continues: the current word count is about seventy thousand words, and I can figure on getting this first draft finished, probably, sometime in early April. The working title is Field of Bones, but it doesn't exactly suggest a Hard SF planetary adventure, at least not to me. Probably I'm going to have some hard thinking on the title.

And it really is a rough draft. I'm not quite sure why, but for just about the first time in my life I've ploughed straight through the story without stopping to tinker and fix things. I've not gone back to rewrite anything, and instead of spending countless hours online trying to find some minute piece of information, I'm making use of textual placeholders and, basically, not worrying about it. This is good, I think, because that tendency towards tinkering is perhaps better suited to the editing process. And, in the past, I've spent inordinate times tinkering only to realise the section I was tinkering with had to be chopped.

So in terms of how I approach writing a novel, I think we can consider this an improvement. 

3/10/2016

Changes

Temporary post: If things are looking a bit skewiffy around here, it's because I'm making some under-the-hood changes to the webpage. All back to normal soon.

UPDATE: Still fiddling, and probably will be for another couple of days at least. 

2/28/2016

Quick review - Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

Books: way back in the mid-90s, I read Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence not long after it was published. I can't remember it made any particular impact on me, although I had already brought other books in his Dryco series (Random Acts is, I think, the third book written in that particular setting, but in terms of the story chronology sets out the path by which we got from here to there). Perhaps it didn't entirely stick with me because I had other stuff on my mind, which happens, but more recently I saw some commentary, possibly on Twitter, by people describing it as one of their favourite books. I'd meant to get around to rereading some of the DryCo books, and that seemed as good an excuse as any.

Random Acts turns out to be an astonishing piece of work, so astonishing I'm not quite sure how it skirted past my attention at the time I first read it. In fact, it's an outright classic. If you're not familiar with Womack's books, they're set in an increasingly hyper-violent, hyper-capitalist near-future USA. Later on, apparently, Womack went to visit Russia and realised everything he'd written about in the DryCo books had already happened, but in Russia. He went on to write another, non-genre novel based on those experiences, which I can equally recommend, called Let's Put the Future Behind Us. I liked it so much I stole the main character's name, Borodin, and used it for the antagonist in my next novel Survival Game.

What may have given Random Acts... a particular resonance is that it's set in an America that feels much like the America that might come about under a Trump presidency. It's also the story of an America on the verge of imminent social collapse. There's what I guess you could call a cyberpunkish sensibility to the books, partly because of the unique language Womack employs, a kind of street patois that might or might not be invented - I couldn't say.

I could say more, but it's easier to just point you to Jo Walton's detailed assessment over at Tor.com. I'm very glad I rediscovered it.


2/03/2016

How I Write, Part Zillion, and Secret Project

What surprised me when I started doing this shit professionally was how often people genuinely asked me where I got my ideas from. Except I decided, unlike, apparently, every other writer on the face of the planet, that it was not in fact an unreasonable question and deserved more than an eye-roll. Obviously there's some kind of underlying psychological process, and how that process works for, say, someone who gets paid to write books or stories is to some extent different from how it works for most people sitting down to make stuff up for quite possibly the first time. 

The bad news is that it's all down to practise and persistence. That's it, no great secret. I also don't believe in writer's block. The real Jack Torrance wouldn't have sat there all day writing nothing but ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY. Noooo, he'd have carefully constructed a step-by-step description of precisely how he was going to slaughter his entire family in intricate detail about the same length as, say, a novel about a crazy person locked up in a hotel with his family who he's going to try and slaughter. 

Don't believe any one would actually be crazy enough to do exactly that? Here's an example from real life

When it comes to ideas, I just start writing whatever daft shit wanders into my head. I essentially talk to myself on the page, which has the advantage of not making people shy away from you in public or look up Wikipedia articles on how to get someone sectioned. Like this:

3 February
I like the idea that electronics - high-end stuff - doesn’t function well or at all on the island due to “interference”. This has three advantages: 1 - it means in many ways they’re pretty isolated. 2 - their cars have to be relatively low-tech without much in the way of fancy electronics. 3 - it explains how people don’t have much luck sending teams into the island because they find it hard to remain in contact.
Disadvantage: if there’s an international audience for this stuff, how do they get to watch it live? Maybe specially adapted low-tech cameras that can nonetheless upload? How?
Okay, I _like_ the idea of electronics not working well there. But people being able to watch the action is where I trip up. Could you build devices like, say, semi-autonomous camera drones that don’t require that same kind of electronics?
Perhaps it’s a distance thing. The cameras don’t work except on the coast, at a certain distance from the ‘rift’. Any closer, they fail. Okay, so it’s a gradation - that works!

What is this? Random unedited text from the "work diary" for an outline I'm putting together. I couldn't figure out how to get something in the plot to work, so instead of staring at the screen, as some people imagine writers do, I wrote that shit out. Once you get it down on the page and out of your head things can start to become a lot more clearer.

As I say, that above text is completely unedited - it's not actually intended to be seen, ever, by anyone but me. The last half dozen books I've written each have tens upon tens of thousands of words of notes like this where I try and work out, sentence by sentence, how something works, why somebody is doing something, how it'll affect the overarching plot, and so on and on.

So the lesson for today is: write it down. It doesn't matter if it's utter gibberish, because typing it up, spelling mistakes, dodgy grammar and all, will fire up the logic-driven part of your wet squishy brain until it wants to make sense of it.

As for where these notes come from, that's the SECRET PROJECT I'm working on. I've had SECRET PROJECT in my head for a good long time now, in one form or another, and I'm finally putting together a tentative synopsis. What's it about? Well...you'll have to wait. All I can tell you is that it just might be simultaneously the greatest and the stupidest idea for a book I've ever had. 

2/02/2016

That book of mine

Did I mention that book I have coming out? Did I? Did I? The one called Survival Game? The sequel to Extinction Game, that got stellar reviews in The Guardian and other places, as well as a starred review in Publisher's Weekly? What's it about, you may ask? Well, it's sequel to Extinction Game, duh, so you know, more of the same.

Well, kinda, sorta. You didn't think I'd actually do what's expected of me, do you?

Here's a tiny wee snippet:

"The streets were still busy even at this late hour. N’Djamena, on this alternate at least, was a frontier town. Mosques and churches stood side-by-side with bars, tobacco shops and trading posts. From time to time a few people approached us from out of the gloom, looking for easy pickings, but Tomas warded them off by showing them his pistol. Instead of jeering at us and snatching his weapon from his grasp, as I half-expected them to do, they instead vanished back into the shadows. 
‘Wait,’ Tomas croaked, still leaning on me heavily. With a nod of his head, he indicated a blocky whitewashed building with smoky dark windows and a twisted neon sign in one window. ‘We can try in there. It’s as good as anywhere else we’ve seen.’ 
Despite my trepidation, I helped him inside the bar and into a booth. There were perhaps three or four customers at most, but I felt the eyes of every one of them following us as we entered. A broken screen above the bar ghosted fuzzy holographic images: a news report about General Yakov, leading the Tsar’s imperial forces against the rebels on this alternate. 
The bartender was a gangly Sudanese with tribal scars on his cheeks. I bought something to drink and asked him how I might go about buying a vehicle, without specifying exactly how far I intended to go and in what direction. As I did so, I drew out the small metal token I had been given by a contact at the Khartoum inter-parallel transfer facility: an imperial coin, with the symbol of the revolution stamped over the Tsar’s face. 
The bartender gave me a knowing look, and I listened to the sound of my heart thud, unsure how he might react. But then he directed me in halting Russian to speak to a man sitting in a shadowed corner, and twenty minutes later, at the cost of all our remaining money, I had somehow managed to negotiate the purchase of an all-terrain vehicle that had once, apparently, belonged to a goat-herder."

Book is coming out in hardback in August. I know! So far away! But you can preorder right now.  

1/14/2016

Scrivener or Ulysses? The absolutely, positively, final verdict. Really. UPDATED.

In my mind, you're letting out a little silent groan: what, he's on about writing software again?

I swear, this is the last time.

A quick recap: last year, I wrote a post about different bits of software you could use to write books on a Mac, and it got the most hits of any single post I've written on my blog, ever. I wrote several follow-up posts here, here, and here. I was particularly interested in the ability to write on an iPad. Most of my writing takes place in a room where I sit, on my own, with a Macbook, but occasionally I like to venture out, perhaps to a cafe or the park; and, if the ability is there, it's nice to whip out the tablet while on the subway or waiting at the doctors and maybe read over what I wrote earlier that day and edit it a little.

You can't do that with Scrivener. There was talk of an iPad app last year, but they're back to not making any promises. If it comes out - if it ever comes out - I'll buy it. But I'm not holding my breath.

Why is it important? Because a lot of people want to be able to synch their writing across multiple platforms. A lot of people have iPads or similar, and want to be able to use them for writing, usually with a bluetooth keyboard.

Last year I bought Ulysses for both my iPad and Macbook (it's Mac-specific). It's a really terrific little piece of software that syncs very adequately and speedily between the two devices. In that respect, it's everything I'd been hoping to get from an iPad version of Scrivener.

But there are differences. Ulysses in its desktop incarnation is, relative to Scrivener, a much simpler program. Some people prefer Ulysses to Scrivener for that reason, since it lacks the bells and whistles of the latter. I never quite understood that myself, because over the years I've had many occasions (not necessarily out of choice) to use Microsoft Word for nothing more complicated than writing a letter or an invoice or perhaps following tracked edits from an editor, yet the fact it can do a whole bunch of  highly complicated things beyond just typing text doesn't fill me with fear. I simply don't use them.

It's the same with Scrivener. The program has functions I've never used because I can't see a need for them. That's not the same for everyone - non-fiction writers, in particular, would probably get a lot of use out of those functions.

Since I got Ulysses, I've used it for a variety of tasks: writing outlines for new books, averaging roughly ten thousand words each; writing reports on unpublished manuscripts for a manuscript agency; several short stories, and ideas for more stories as well.

But the one thing I haven't yet tried to use it for is writing a full-length book. Nearly all of my books have been written in Scrivener. Would I be able to write one in Ulysses? I knew writers who have and still do. I figured I could at least try and see how Ulysses worked out in that respect.

But I was barely three thousand words into Field of Bones before I exported the text and notes, and imported it all into a new Scrivener document.

So why did I give up on writing a novel in Ulysses so quickly? A book is a huge and complex project that requires constant reference to character lists, invented history (in a science fiction novel), an outline so events being written about can be related to events already written or soon to be written, and also notes of moment-of-inspiration ideas for the next draft. I need to be able to see as much of that as possible, all at once, so I can literally see both the forest and the tree in front of me at one and the same time. I can do that easily in Scrivener; in Ulysses, it's a more difficult and considerably less intuitive process. Ulysses lends itself to a much simpler form of writing, one that has little to do with the workaday reality of plot construction and character arcs.

Writing a novel, for me at least, is not simple. It's huge and messy and tangled and difficult. I wrote my last book, Survival Game (due in August) in Scrivener, before I bought Ulysses. I hadn't yet tried a whole novel in Ulysses, and Field of Bones was to be my first attempt.

Now that I've imported it into Scrivener, this is what I see when I'm working on it:



On the left, in Scrivener's main window, is some of the text from the rough first draft of the first chapter. On the right is a series of stacked windows I can rearrange and move about and change the colours of and essentially do whatever the hell I like with: there's a scratch pad in which I can write multiple on-the-fly rough notes, a 'quick reference' window that allows me to open up multiple other documents to float over or next to the text, and an 'inspector' that again allows me to access a synopsis, multiple project-wide notes, chapter-specific notes, keywords, external online references, and on, and on, and on. I can move it all around and rearrange and close it and reopen it and resize it all just about any damn way I like.

For a writer, being able to do and see all of this at once is hugely empowering. It's like being a pilot and having the ability to glance at the cockpit dashboard and see exactly the information you need with minimal effort. In this respect, trying to use Ulysses to write a book reminded me of just how powerful Scrivener really is. It's the Godzilla of word processors, the all-time heavyweight champion; sometimes a bit fugly, but brutally powerful and easily adaptable to a multitude of personal preferences and habits.

Try as I might - and I have tried -  I just can't do that with Ulysses, at least not with a novel. Ulysses is fine for shorter works, reports, short stories, ideas, outlines and all the rest of it: but as soon as I was ready to do something more ambitious, like a book, suddenly the only thing left to do was go back to Scrivener.

And that's despite its lack of an iPad app. Probably it helps that it's winter here in Taiwan right now, and it's chilly outside, so I'm more inclined to stay indoors and work at my desk. Maybe in a few months I'll yearn to work on the book outdoors. I could take the Macbook out, but it's heavy and the keys are buggered, necessitating a stand and an external keyboard. Or maybe I'll save those days for working on book reports, short stories and outlines with Ulysses.

So, then, let me offer my absolutely final, if personal verdict on Ulysses vs Scrivener, within the specific context of writing a novel. If you absolutely, positively, must have a writing program that syncs easily and smoothly with its desktop version, and you're okay with it being Mac-specific, Ulysses is a terrific little program.

But in all other respects, not to mention the fact it's available on multiple desktop OS's, I'm going to have to declare Scrivener the all-time champion for writing a novel. For the way I write, and for what it can do, it simply can't be beaten. Therefore if being able to write on the iPad isn't a major priority, buying Scrivener is the best thing you can do for your workflow as a working writer if what you're writing is a book. The end.

And I promise, no more posts on the subject. Ever. Err...probably.

*****UPDATE*****. Because putting an update in here is less embarrassing than actually writing another blog post on the subject when I promised no more blog posts on the subject.

Back when I started playing around with alternative word processors (as in, alternatives to Scrivener) like Ulysses, I also tried the iPad version of a program called Storyist and found it wanting.  Like Ulysses, it has both a desktop and a tablet version, but although I tried a demo of the desktop Storyist I only actually shelled out for the iPad version. I used it a few times, but that was it.

The one big change between now and then is that Storyist will now allow you to edit Scrivener projects. That is huge. It's not a perfect solution by any means, but it's a damn sight better than any of the other attempts at linking Scrivener on the desktop to other word processors on the iPad. Usually, when you use other programs to open a Scrivener project, you're faced with a bunch of randomly named files with no clue as to which is the chapter you were last working on.

Storyist doesn't do that. I gave it a quick test run the other day on my iPad and it syncs very well indeed over iCloud - I usually store my working files on Dropbox, which I prefer to iCloud, but opening a Scrivener project stored in Dropbox in iPad Storyist, while feasible, isn't nearly as smooth. This apparently is partly down to the way Dropbox works.

But what really matters - and what you should take away from this - is that while there may not be a Scrivener iPad app yet, opening Scrivener projects on an iPad using Storyist seems so far like a very acceptable halfway solution. This, of course, puts Scrivener even higher above the competition like Ulysses. 

1/06/2016

Outlines and World Building

Back last year, I wrote a couple of outlines for new novels, one of which I started, very tentatively, in late November. I only got to work on it for a couple of days before I had to spend all of December working on the final, final edits on Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. At the same time, I had some freelance editing/book doctoring to do, so it's only in the last week I've managed to get back to that novel.

It's been just about bang on two years since I last started work on a book. This one's got the working title of 'Field of Bones'. It might just turn out to be the single most hard-sf book I've done yet, in that it's a science fiction novel featuring space travel of the non-FTL variety. Which isn't to say, of course, that it doesn't have some pretty far-out speculative ideas tucked in there as well.

I say 'working title', by the way, since although I actually quite like 'Field of Bones', it's not a title that suggests a science fiction novel. If anything, it sounds like a horror novel. But for now it'll do.

As usual, I wrote an outline of the novel first, and that took me about a month last summer. It's seven thousand words long.  Now, the outline describes the plot. But it doesn't completely explain why these things happen.

That's the difference between a plot (a sequence of events) and a story (why those events happen, and why the characters do what they do). Major background events are described in the lightest of detail - events that took place before the time at which the story will start. These events, even though they're likely only to be hinted at in the finished novel itself, are important because they provide motivation for the characters.

So what I'm doing at the moment is working out all that background detail in considerably more depth than I had time to last year, which is why I've spent the past week researching corporate black-ops. environmental tragedies, and the potential for toxic algal blooms to threaten the existence of humanity. Needless to say, I'm the kind of writer who likes to have as much of the story nailed down before I even begin writing.

(In the middle of all this, I learned that somewhere between fifty and seventy per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans. Anything happens to that phytoplankton,  we are seriously screwed. Kind of wish I'd known that back when I wrote Extinction Game...)

All this work is necessary, because even if all this detail doesn't end up appearing on the pages of the book itself, it explains why certain characters do the things they do, both before we meet them and after. Further, these events, and their relationship to them, help define what kind of people they are.

I should probably give Aeon Timeline a shout-out here. It's timeline software (obviously), and very good for figuring out who does what, where, and when, with a very fine degree of control. Right now I'm loading all the story details into Aeon to make sure the order of events makes logical sense. Including all the stuff that happens before the story begins.

Most of which you will never see.

A lot of unpublished writers don't realise their world building should mainly stay off the page. When I've got my book doctoring hat on, I often find the manuscripts I'm sent are filled with page after page of intricate detail regarding the customs, language and history of cultures and places that don't exist. Don't get me wrong - that kind of intricate world building is fun, but it's usually only of interest to the person who came up with it. Show it to anyone else, they're going to fall asleep from sheer boredom after five minutes.

So if you're writing a novel for the first time and doing a lot of world building, take my advice. Leave about 95% of it out of the final book.

People don't care about the six thousand year history of your invented magical city state. They do (hopefully) care about whether or not the apprentice wizard will get to save the princess from being poisoned by the evil Queen before she can take the throne and prevent a war that no one can win.  They don't want a seventeen-page essay on the history of the city gardens plunk in the middle of the action, just because you mentioned the princess likes to take an occasional rose cutting.

Sure, you have to have some idea of the setting and the background. But you know, you can say a lot in just a few words, and beyond that the reader's imagination takes over. In fact, the reader's own interpretation of the action and setting counts for a lot more than you think. You don't need to explain literally everything, down to the significance of the sigils etched into the apprentice wizard's coat buttons.  Unless, that is, it directly and significantly impinges on either our understanding of the characters or contributes to the plot in some significant way.

But if you can cut it out without affecting the story, then out it goes. So do as I do, and come up with a story background that makes your story plausible - but leave it off the page unless it definitely contributes to the story.

(And no, that example isn't drawn from one of the unpublished novels I get to edit. But it could be.)

12/30/2015

Count Motorhead

I had the privilege of seeing Motorhead play live, once, some time in the mid-90s at one of Glasgow University's two student unions. It was pretty great. I was very sad to hear of his passing. Having Lemmy in the world was one of the few things that made having to live through the Eighties bearable (shit music, shit fashion, at least in the mainstream).

I've long been a fan of the band Hawkwind, for whom Lemmy was also, for a number of years, the bass player. It's hard to think of an appropriate tribute to such a remarkably iconic figure, since everyone and their Granny has by now posted videos on Facebook of the band playing Ace of Spades or Killed by Death or even Silver Machine when he was still in his old band.

Few people are aware Lemmy was also a character in a novel. A really, really terrible novel called The Time of the Hawklords, purportedly co-written by Michael Moorcock (who had some involvement with the band) and Michael Butterworth in the mid-70s. A quick google reveals something I didn't know: Moorcock had nothing to do with it, and worked hard to disown the book.

Having read it, or at least a fat chunk of it, I really don't blame him. The writing is amateurish at best, and there's no trace of anything that might have come from Moorcock's hand.

Weirdly enough, my memory informs me that the plot featured the characters roving a largely depopulated Earth, the majority of the species having opted instead to go and live inside a vast virtual reality. In other words, it's a work of singularity science fiction before anyone started using that word in that context, and does indeed contain Lemmy in the form of a character known as - wait for it - Count Motorhead.

You could track it down and read it, but you wouldn't thank me. 

12/29/2015

That was the year that was: books read, movies seen, TV watched in 2016.

It's my second year (back) in Taiwan. I finally finished redrafting the sequel to Extinction Game. It was originally going to be called The Deeps, but Pan MacMillan's marketing department didn't like that, apparently, so now it's Survival Game. I'm pretty happy with the results. In truth, my editor, Bella Pagan, is probably a big part of the reason why it came out as well as it did. A good editor is the one who tells you the things you don't want to hear. The revised ending in particular has come out very well. Anyhow, you'll find out all about it once August 2016 rolls around, because that's when it finally comes out.

We acquired a dog, Cooper, currently asleep in the same room as me. There are also some career changes afoot, but I'm not quite ready to talk about the details yet. Maybe in another few months, once I've got a better idea of what's happening.

I sold my first short story in nearly twenty years, Scienceville, which was published in Interzone in December 2015. I have several other stories doing the rounds of various markets. Hopefully I'll be able to write more next year as well. I never found it easy to write short stories, because there was something about the writing of them I just couldn't figure out. And then it just...clicked. It's also resulted in me reading a lot more short fiction than I used to, and that's definitely a good thing.

Movies: The Force Awakens was...okay. It relied too heavily on the original movies and was essentially Disney playing the safest bet possible. Avengers: Age of Ultron was just fun. To be honest, I'm incapable of being entirely critical of the Marvel movies because I grew up reading those comics. But so far they've done a pretty excellent job of taking the comics and adapting them to the screen. Ant-Man was far better than it had any right to be, given the loss of its original and highly talented director.

I think we can safely say the Fantastic Four movie is proof of just how badly these things can be done.

Fury Road was a standout for me because its' the first Mad Max movie I've seen that I actually liked. I wasn't keen on them when I was a kid, possibly because they seemed to appeal to the most thudding morons at school. I finally watched the second movie this year all the way through, and it wasn't bad. Not great, but not bad. But Fury Road was the perfect distillation of all the elements of the previous films. The best way I can think to describe it is that it's either a 2000AD comic strip with a vast budget, or an Iron Maiden video without the song. But the flames! The guitars! The soundtrack! The visuals! All were amazing.

I also managed to catch Ex Machina, but to be honest I found it a little disappointing. It seemed, if anything, like a missed opportunity, featuring supposedly very smart people behaving like absolute dunces because the plot would be impossible without the characters being severely damaged. The non-human characters were really just one more variation on overly-familiar and frankly cliched tropes.

Outside of genre, the stand-outs for me were Birdman, Whiplash, and The Gift, probably in that order. Sicario also deserves a mention, because it seems like it's going to be a standard cops-and-heavily-armed-drug-dealers movie, then turns out to be something quite different. An arthouse action movie, if you will.

Similarly, The Gift may have been misunderstood, by those who didn't see it, as a standard stalker/horror movie. It isn't. It's so much more than that. If you have a Netflix account and a decent VPN, you can watch it on the French Netflix.  Then you can come back here and thank me.

Actually, Netflix has turned out to be an absolute Godsend. Especially with a VPN to get past the regional restrictions. The Netflix Original series of Daredevil was...entertaining, but proved, for me, far from essential. Jessica Jones was much better, and David Tennant as Kilgrave was terrific. But it worked best the longer it stayed away from any reference to its origins as a superhero comic.

I also had fun with Sense8, even if it did get a bit...Californian at times. I'm hoping for less group hugs in season 2.

I think Jodorowsky's Dune deserves a special mention. I caught it on Netflix. I still haven't managed to watch more than the first twenty minutes of Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain, although there's something deeply compelling about it. Actually, the most fun I have with that movie is probably just when I try and describe it (or the first twenty minutes) to other people. I once tried watching El Topo, but gave up after ten minutes. Sorry, it just seemed quite, quite terrible.

But Jodorowsky comes across in the documentary as really quite a lovely man and very charming. Shame his movie version of Dune, most likely, would have been deeply impenetrable if it had ever been made. I say that with some uncertainty, however, since the glimpses we see of the Dune storyboard are also quite, quite compelling. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it could be an animated movie some day?

I think the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle deserves a shout-out. It was very good (I had a free month of Prime to use, and took advantage of the offer to watch the whole series), even if it took a remarkably laissez-faire approach to adapting the book. But then again, the book as it stands really can't be adapted to the screen very easily, I suspect. Adopting a more straightforward thriller structure was likely the only way they could do it.

Books!

I read 43 books in 2015, and took out two subscriptions - one to Interzone, and one to Wired. Both were digital subscriptions. The last was a special offer, hence dirt cheap.

I re-read several books this year: I use a website called ereaderiq.com to track the prices of Kindle books I'm interested in and grab them when they drop to a certain level. In this way, I've been slowly buying up electronic copies of old favourites to reread on my Kindle and/or iPad.

So far, I still read exclusively ebooks.

I re-read Philip K. Dic's The Man in the High Castle because, well, Amazon. It's been many years since I read it and what a strange, if nonetheless deeply compelling, book it is. A statement that might be made about much of Dick's catalogue. I remember being eternally flummoxed by the ending of the book when I was younger. I'm less so now, although I certainly did come away with at least a few questions as yet unanswered.

Peter Watt's Firefall was something of a stand-out. I can't necessarily say I enjoy reading Watt's books, which is neither to say that I don't. But I always come through the experience feeling enriched and enlightened by some very big ideas.

On a lighter side, I read those of Kage Baker's Company books I hadn't yet got around to. The most fun books I've read in quite a while, even if she had some very, very strange ideas about a) Britain and b)the future and what it would be like.

I was very underwhelmed by Michel Faber's Under the Skin; a silly book, that essentially collapsed in on itself halfway through, and contains absolutely no surprises to anyone who's read even a scintilla of decent sf. Far better was Ian Sales' All That Outer Space Allows. Louise Welsh, a Glasgow crime writer I've always had a soft spot for, did a better job with genre - and indeed, with disaster fiction - with A Lovely Way to Burn.

I read Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time. It's...odd. Extremely so. Was this really considered a classic? The first half is set in a training camp that, powered space suits aside, could have been set in Fifties America, with extra recruit-whipping. Not to mention a Heinlein stand-in howling at classrooms full of kids about the horrors of democracy. As a result, I look at the movie with far greater respect. No wonder the director couldn't take his source material the least bit seriously. Or was Heinlein writing some kind of clever satire? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The whole book reads like one long howl of 'get off my lawn, you damn longhaired commies'. Or at least it does as far as I could read it: I wound up skimming the last fifty or hundred pages because it was full of fairly predictable military moves involving planets, burrows and mean, mean aliens.

I reread Childhood's End by Arthur C.Clarke, which while terribly old-fashioned, is thoroughly decent in only the way that Clarke chap could be. Thoroughly indecent but utterly brilliant would be an apt description of Lucius Shepard's Two Trains Running, which I first read on Omni Online, of all places, many, many moons ago. Highly recommended.

In non-fiction. Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, about a British double agent in World War 2, was hilarious. Who thought the Nazis loved English country dancing so much?

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: a brief history of humankind was also quite brilliant. So was Jon Ronson's Frank, about his time in a band with Frank Sidebottom, a man who can only possibly make sense to the British.

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was one of the most eye-opening books I've read in a long, long time. If you were to pick one book out of all these to read, make it this one.

Again in the fiction stakes, I bought Jay Stringer's Ways to Die in Glasgow almost entirely because I liked the title and the cover. So naturally I bought it and it's quite excellent. It's a very disconcerting book because half of it is set literally within five minutes of my flat back in Glasgow. I know every single bar, street and location mentioned in the book, even if some of them I would never dare to tread within. I'd highly, highly recommend it. I strongly suspect Stringer is or was a close neighbour of mine.

Every now and then I try and break out of familiar reading patterns by finding something unlike anything else I'd normally read. Unfortunately, the experiment rarely seems to work, and this is one of those times. The book I chose was the New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, only the first third of which I could bring myself to finish. Does something this amateurishly-written genuinely rate as high-quality literary fiction?

A very good book on writing technique I read this year is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It's not so much how to write, as it is why the right techniques make us want to read a work of fiction. It's a book, essentially, about the physiology of writing, and what it is readers want on a deep, unconscious level, and I found it thoroughly fascinating.

And that's it!

12/28/2015

Political Metal

One of the things about living in a different country is you get to observe all the things that are probably completely normal to the locals, but which have that unmistakable quality of otherness for the expat or economic migrant, such as myself. 

Despite being a country that retains an unwavering and perhaps inexplicable love for Air Supply and Europe, one of the bigger bands round these parts are Chthonic, a metal band. They've been around a couple of decades. They're also pretty political, on the leftist/progressive side of things, which around these parts often also means anti-China. China insists Taiwan is Chinese, and the majority of Taiwanese say we are, and always have been, Taiwanese. They have their own flag and their own elected government. It's a little more complicated than that, but at heart that's the essence of it.

Anyway, the singer is running for a government post. There's an election coming up next year. All this came together in the form of a free concert at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Here's what the Guardian said about it in an article:

"Wearing combat boots, lead singer Freddy Lim held the stage with the brand of music that has seen the Taiwanese “black metal” band dubbed the Black Sabbath of Asia.
But this was not just any gig: it was also a political rally ahead of a crucial year for Taiwan. Described as a “concert to calm the soul and defend the nation”, the event was intended to energise Taiwanese youth and gain political support for Lim’s new role – as a parliamentary candidate for the New Power party (NPP).
The party, which was formed earlier this year, emerged out of Taiwan’s 2004 Sunflower student movement and represents, said Lim, a means “to channel the energy and frustration of young activists and frustrated Taiwanese” ahead of the parliamentary elections on 16 January."
Naturally, we went along. It was pretty good. I haven't been at a full-out metal gig since I saw Opeth sometime in the mid-2000s. I'd have to think about it to be sure. But there's something decidedly surreal at being at a gig like this and seeing various besuited politicians trotting up onto stage between songs to rouse the crowd. Now try and picture Hilary Clinton turning up at a Rage Against the Machine gig, and you're pretty much there.

Here's a short clip from the gig to give you a wee taste of what the experience was like. There were a LOT of people there. We were stuck somewhere way, way, way at the back.