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!
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