The list of books submitted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2014 is here. We will whittle this down to a short list of six books and then a winner.
CHAPPiE (Neill Blomkamp, 2015)
So the afternoon was skating on ice — the gallery I was going to go to is now only open Thursday-Monday, but that gave me longer to write stuff in the coffee shop. And when I got to the cinema, they said that they might not show the film, because I was the only person to show. But two people turned up for Insurance (which I may well see sooner or later, but I would have hated today) and apparently that was enough — in fact a second person wanted to see CHAPPiE. But in twenty-five plus years of solo cinema-going I’ve never experienced that. I guess they in theory make a loss, but it hardly encourages me to return. I’d hoped to see it in Westgate on Sea, but that was last week.
So Blomkamp teases us — we have the after-the-event documentary and then we have the eighteen months earlier news footage and then, clearly, he can’t be arsed as we go into standard continuity editing. There’s this RoboCop rip-off police system of robot cops remote controlled by head sets which seems to be bankrolled by the guy who won that Slumdog Millionaire (Dev Patel) competition. Wolverine, meanwhile, has an even bigger badder robot that he’s trying to interest Ripley in.
Meanwhile, in another part of Joburg, Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), Ninja (Ninja), Amerika (Amerika) and Hoodie Guy (Hoodie Guy) have pulled off a drug deal only to be caught by Evil Subtitled Guy (Brandon Auret) who shoots one of them and demands 20,000,000 Rand within seven days. Ninja decides that he will kidnap the guy from Skins to access a RoboCop to… do something or other. Skins chappie, meanwhile, has stolen a RoboCop and has developed artificial intelligence when he clearly doesn’t have any of his own.
RoboCop is the spitting image of Sharlto Copley from District 9, or would be if they hadn’t done all that MoFocking MoCapping. It’s pretty, I grant you, but you too easily forget it’s a RoboCop and it seems to have rather too much servo motion. It needed to be more robotic. Copley gives a great comic performance but Woody Allen was a more convincing robot in Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973). Then you mix in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), because RoboCop has a broken battery — although it’s five days rather than four years. Skins chappie is a younger and more handsome Tyrell, and you keep waiting for the burning so very bright speech. Frankenstein, too, as he’s a bad father and RoboCop gets bullied by some retrobates and some rather unconvincing fire. We have a Meaningful bit when he ponders why his Creator would give a faulty body and you just know that sooner or later he’s going to need a wife, sorry, Bride of RoboCop.
Wolverine’s robot echoes the military suit from District 9, which in turn echoes the suit from Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), or possibly the first one. It’s pretty poor stuff, frankly, which perhaps explains why the South African police force ain’t buying. By now, of course, you have the sense that it’s really an audition piece for Alien This Time It’s Three, in which Copley and Patel are going to play MoCapped aliens as some kind of mismatched buddies. A certain actor presumably was only there for about two days and you have to admire her presence of mind to grab her coat and handbag before exiting in an emergency.
Copley gets to wander around more South African waste grounds and shanty towns and CHAPPiE has a certain amount appeal even if it requires an awful lot of hand waving. Just as Evil Subtitled Guy (random alleged Nigerian) in District 9 wanted Wikus (Copley), so here Evil Subtitled Guy does too. Presumably he’s evil because he’s got knarked at having his perfectly comprehensible dialogue subtitled. There’s a rather better nonwhite acting quotient here — a Black chief of police, Patel of course, Amerika, a television journalist and so forth — but only two females with any significant dialogue. With the exception of Wolverine, I don’t recall anyone getting a backstory.
Maybe I should have gone to see Insurance? Although, of course, it seems to feature Kate Winslet continuing an audition to be Sigourney Weaver.
Beautiful Thing (scr. Jonathan Harvey; dir. Nikolai Foster; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury)
It’s striking how many articles that come into journals for review — or essays that are submitted to be marked — that lack any sense of the secondary literature. Admittedly, I learned whatever craft I have in the days of card catalogue indexes and scholarly indices of periodicals and going through bloody contents pages of journals, so I had it easier than the young rapscallions and skallywags who have to make do with mere search engines to several thousand journals.
Still, it is annoying to locate three articles on a subject that I’ve already published on, which didn’t appear to have been indexed when I’d done the research.
I have a habit of being very — what is the word? — instinctive. I’ll be convinced that X is connected to Y and get some way into writing about Y before I research X. I was convinced, say, that Mary Douglas’s work would help an understanding of The Sparrow, but I didn’t really put this to the test by reading Purity and Danger for rather too long. One of these days I’ll push my luck too far.
So I’d been reliant on my considerable gut on this particular piece and ran out of steam. I needed something else to kick start it. Oddly, I chose to read Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction, one chapter in particular, and a particular term jumped out.
Of course. Slaps forehead.
Searches in search engine for X and Z.
First two results: articles which discuss X, Y and Z. On the one hand, pay dirt. On the other hand, maybe someone already wrote the bleeding chapter. (They hadn’t.)
So, it might be a new journal collection or a new algorithm, but those three articles didn’t show up when I did the research on Y — which admittedly is about two years ago. One of them should have shown up.
But nothing’s wasted, as a chapter I have to write by May will use that very nicely, thank you very much, and my instinct is colliding ideas rather nicely. No research goes unused.
Meanwhile, I am plugging away at a conference paper on “Random Quest” and Quest for Love (you know, the one I wrote on Sunday, ahem) and am struck by how little has been written on John Wyndham. The secondary research on this story has more or less drawn a blank, but my gut says I have enough for twenty minutes.
Meanwhile, here’s one learned analysis of another short story by Wyndham. I shan’t insult your intelligence by telling you which one.
It is Sunday, it is 7.30, I am in the library. I have been here since 11.00, delayed getting here by an hour because I thought I’d lost a book I needed (I hadn’t and it turns out I didn’t).
So, let’s look at the to-do list based on 26 January 2015:
- a paper to write for the Sideways in Time conference — next
- a keynote to write for the SF postgrad conference
- a book to read for review
- a book proposal to finish — I’ve had some ideas
- a conference paper to convert to an article
- a secondary bibliography to annotate — not started
- two chapters to write for companions — lots of ideas for one, no further than Christmas for the other
- an overdue biographical piece to write — Tuesday afternoon, I hope
an overdue survey chapter
- an article that’s been bounced from a special issue but has been taken up and needs another thousand words adding
- a book manuscript to rescue — I printed out chapter one…
- a submitted chapter that I’ve heard nothing back on
- several reference book entries that are missing in action
a submitted chapter that may well need a proofread
- *new*: an appreciation of Pratchett
Hmmm. Let’s see what I can do for March 31st. I have written and published an obituary and written something like three lectures a week.
While I’m at it, perhaps I should nod to
- the review article* I did for LARB of … I forget which Simon Ings novel it was … Painkillers (2000): Finding the Plot: On Simon Ings and the British Boom
- the review of David Brittain’s Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds (2014) for Science Fiction Studies 42(1) 2015.
* I was sent one of his books (although not the one I was asked to review). Fortunately I had most of the back catalogue, but I paid good money to write the review…
I was invited to do an appreciation of Terry Pratchett for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog: “Death and the Author: A Brief Commemoration of Terry Pratchett“.
(Thanks to sister Kelly Butler for additional proof reading.)
So, along with the Saturdays searching through Good Vibrations or Rob’s Record Mart for copies of albums by Tangerine Dream or Edgar Froese or Peter Baumann or Yes there was a band called Gong. I might have been recommended them by my big bother, I might have just stumbled across them.
I bought Camembert Electrique with an ambivalent attitude toward its gatefold interior — too hippy and yet pleasing. The music itself swang from noise and howls to heavyish guitars. I bought a couple more albums, Angel’s Egg and You, but I never quite followed it up or understood what the pot head pixies were up to. Now, their lead musician during that period, Daevid Allen, has died of cancer.
I don’t think I can do more justice to him right now than quote from Solar Flares:
Allen had discovered works by writers of the Beat Generation in a bookshop in Melbourne and travelled to Paris in 1960, staying at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter, frequented by poet Allen Ginsberg, and visiting jazz clubs. Travelling to Dover the next year, he wanted to be part of a band, and, inspired by the mythology of jazz musician Sun Ra, formed a trio with Wyatt, performing at William Burroughs’s happenings in London, before he helped found Soft Machine. Refused re-entry to Britain after a European tour, Allen settled with his partner, academic Gilli Smyth – who performed as Shakti Yoni – in Paris; in the lead up to the May 1968 student protests, they formed the band Gong. Their albums – including Camembert Electrique (1971) and the trilogy Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974) – offered an expansive fusion of psychedelia, quasi-Eastern mysticism, concept albums and fantasy, with overt drug references. The band continued through many incarnations, changes of personnel and
different names over the next forty-plus years. The Radio Gnome trilogy drew upon Allen’s own mystical experiences, especially at Deià, Majorca; Zero the hero has a vision in the Charing Cross Road and goes through a process of seven initiations, enabling him to leave his body for the Planet Gong. Having gained an audience with the Octave Doctors (which appear in the form of a giant eye inside a cone inside an egg-shaped aura), he is charged with bringing the vision to the rest of the world via a music festival, but fails. Allen’s cosmology of pot-head pixies, flying saucers, flying teacups and flying teapots, the Planet Gong, the pirate radio-like Radio Gnome and the recurring characters such as Mista T. Being, Herbert Herbert Esq, Fred the Fish, Selene the Moon Goddess, the Good Witch Yoni and the Submarine Captain offer a kind of mind-expanding science fiction.
I’ve yet to follow up the Canterbury Scene or the Canterbury Sound (which arguably has barely more to do with the city than Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales), but I will one of the days. I suspect I missed Allen more than once at the Adelphi Club in Hull and at Lounge on the Farm, and now he’ll be missed forever.
Another one gone.
From “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels’, The Lion and the Unicorn (2004), 28(2): pp. 171-185
[This article in part draws on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that the self has to respond to the other’s right to be and to aid the other, even at expense to the self. This philosopher was central to my PhD. The other three novels were Gillian Rubinstein’s Space Demons (1986), Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992) and Gloria
Skurzynski’s Virtual War (1997)]
There is a moment in Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (first published 1992) when the hero Johnny Maxwell watches some television: “There was a film on the News showing some missiles streaking over some city. It was quite good” (22). By comments in subsequent chapters it becomes clear that the military action being shown is the Gulf War of 1991, a war which Jean Baudrillard has argued did not take place, and which for the children who are central to Only You Can Save Mankind has taken on the shape of a video game; indeed, they hear that the bombers have grown up playing such games:
“There was a man on the box saying that the bomb-aimers were so good because they all grew up playing computer games,” said Wobbler.
“See?” said Johnny. “That’s what I mean. Games look real. Real things look like games.” (116)
The virtual Gulf War is counterpointed with the computer game Only
You Can Save Mankind, which Johnny has started playing and indeed
It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.
At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for Foundation, Guilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.
It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.
At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.
This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised. Continue reading →