but some overflow space was quickly found and set up for those who needed longer to complete their works.
September 10th, 2013
but some overflow space was quickly found and set up for those who needed longer to complete their works.
December 27th, 2012
In recent years I’ve not been reading much fantasy, at least by new writers. I just found it too hard to locate the good stuff (and ‘good’ doesn’t necessarily equate to good in an absolute sense, but rather means ‘that which appeals to me’ – nebulous see), in amongst the huge explosion of derivative mediocrity which we’ve seen.
I do listen to personal recommendations when I get them and generally I’m not (too) disappointed. But when Joe Abercrombie initially appeared on the scene, despite the good reviews it was another case of ‘ I’ll get around to him eventually, but I’m not holding my breath.’ I think what persuaded me to actually get off my backside and read him was the very perceptive interview he did with George R.R. Martin a couple of years back. Something just made me go ‘yep’. Now, just like a great many other readers, he holds me in the palm of his hand – he’s crossed the boundary into that very rarified group where I go out and buy the new hardback as soon as it’s out.
So I thought it might be fun to do my own personal look back on his first six novels all of which I’ve read in the last year or so and which comprise, in my view, one masterpiece, four extremely good books and the runt of the litter; Before They Are Hanged, wherein no amount of dazzle during the siege of Dagoska, nor the WTF scene between Collem West and Prince Ladisla, can fully atone for the bloated, turgid and pointless quest that Bayaz et al go on. Now I can perfectly understand the postmodern need to have fruitless quests in our fiction but making them interesting is something else entirely and this one just ain’t.
The Blade Itself is a fine debut, which brilliantly draws the three main characters of Logen, Jezal and Glokta and sets up the action for the rest of the trilogy. Logen/The Bloody Nine is possibly the best realised berserker ever set upon the page and Glokta in particular, as champion, turned tortured, turned torturer is a fabulous creation (vying with Andrej Koscuisko as the most memorable inquisitor in all SF & Fantasy), but Abercrombie is also adept at fleshing out smaller characters, especially in this book Collem and Ardee West (who deliver the book’s standout WTF moment) and working mum Shylo Vitari.
After Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings makes a satisfying conclusion of the trilogy, particularly the superb coda of a hundred or so pages which details, Scouring of the Shire style, the downbeat aftermath of the conflict.
Abercrombie’s books have copious amounts of fairly extreme violence, which in general is leavened by enough humour to stop it from getting overbearing. This is the test that, for me, Best Served Cold failed, with two scenes, the executions of Gobba by Monza and Foscar by Shivers, crossing the line. The book more than makes up for this with the magnificently bonkers assassination-in-a-brothel set-piece in Sipani and later delivers the greatest WTF moment in all the books to date, when the man we think has gone to kill Vitari, has in fact dropped by to see his kids. I could also have done with more of poisoner’s apprentice Day – she was cute.
The recently published Red Country differs from all the other books in terms of its scale. There are no vast battles or vast cities in view. It’s a much more intimate work. But this isn’t the reason it didn’t completely work for me. My problem was I just didn’t ‘get’ the point of the Dragon People at all. At first I thought Abercrombie was setting up Waerdinur as another regional superhero in the mould of Bayaz for the Union and just as the Gurkish have Khalul and Styria have Cas Shenkt, but no.
Now it may be that later books will provide the context that for me was missing with them – we’ll have to wait and see. Fortunately there was much else to enjoy along the way; Dab Sweet - a ‘wooden Indian’ cliché of a wagonmaster; Crease - a pitch perfect Western gold rush town; the feckless-in-spite-of-himself character of Temple, who may be Abercrombie’s best realised yet; and lastly there was the sublime Mayor (whom fans already would have known well).
The Heroes is unquestionably Abercrombie’s masterpiece; the tightly plotted description of one battle (for The Heroes – a strategic set of hilltop standing stones near to the town of Osrung) taking place over a few days. I can’t fault its perfectly balanced blend of action and scheming, with enough unexpected moments to keep the reader on his toes, my favourite of which was when Stranger Come Knocking and his forces show up out of nowhere and take out Brock’s command post. There are plenty of characters in the battle whom we are already familiar with from previous books and the resolution of the story is perfectly in keeping with what we know about them all.
So to sum up, what can we say about Abercombie? I, for one, will keep coming back to him because I love the way that his reoccuring characters keep cropping up in new ways. Minor characters in one book may take a major role in another Bremer dan Gorst for example, but they seldom stay static, they evolve hugely – the Rews/Pike/Superior Pike arc is one of my favourites; almost mirroring that of Glokta, his initial nemesis - and by the end of Red Country, Caul Shivers has travelled full circle back to where he was at in Last Argument of Kings. The constant reinvention of characters like Carlot dan Eider and Nicomo Cosca is also great fun. So his works are not like a series in the sense that each book has more or less the same characters doing the more or less same things, his character palette is much richer and less predictable- almost as if they are colours that he is applying to a canvas in different amounts according to the needs of the subject matter. Another really nice touch is the gap in time he has between the stories, so we really see characters age across two or three books.
I doubt Abercrombie does requests, but I, for one, would love to see the insufferable Bayaz and his even more insufferable sidekick Yoru Sulfur get their comeuppance in a future book. I also look forward to one where we meet Stranger Come Knocking again in the back of beyond, together with a happily married Aliz and a brood of ten or twelve kids.
October 25th, 2012
Lem's writing career spanned well over 50 years, but the big tidal wave of Lem translations happened from the early 1970's to the late 1980's, mostly done originally for the Seabury Press or HBJ. Approximately half of these were done by the great Michael Kandel, with the remainder done by a variety of other translators. I've made the point already that a lot of Lem's stuff has never seen English translation. The Wikipedia entry on Lem's fiction works is a little garbled, but I'd estimate from that that there are four novels and four collections of short stories out there that are still waiting. Of his twenty-two major non-fiction works however, only one has been translated and two more partly translated, which is a huge shame given how much his fiction and non-fiction writings are interrelated.
Lem's best known works are probably Solaris (1961), on account of the film versions and The Cyberiad (1965), a collection of robot fables featuring the competing inventors Trurl and Klapaucius, that were famously immortalised in Google's most elaborate Doodle to date. For my money however his best work is the stupendous Fiasco (1986) which gives by far the most credible picture of how interstellar travel and first contact may actually be, that I have ever read. The Invincible (1964), an existential tale of implacable alien gestalt micro-drones, would come a close second. Interestingly, the English translation (by Wendayne Ackerman) was done from the German translation rather than the Polish original.
All the Lem in English translation that I've been able to collect is shown in the pics below. Microworlds (tr. 1986) consists of non-fiction essays and Highcastle (1975) is an autobiography dealing with his youth.
A couple of postscripts.
I visited Lem's grave at the Salwator cemetery (below) whilst I was in Krakow in 2010 - I had something to ask him.
Lastly, I'm indebted to Emmet O'Cuana who found this excellent graphic novel interpretation of two of Lem's short stories that was published as part of Poland's celebration of assuming the EU presidency for six months in 2011.
October 15th, 2012
In my previous post I discussed this year's Octocon panel on SF in translation. One of the things that we talked about was Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. It was written in 1972 and the original translation, by Antonina W. Bouis for Gollancz came out in 1977. It is now recognised as being a poor translation, but having done a little digging it would seem that this may be because only heavily censored versions were at first published in Russia and the Strugatsky's definitive version didn't see print until the 1990's. One assumes the first translation done was of one of the censored versions. Anyhow, an acclaimed new translation by Olena Bormashenko is now available. Gollancz also weighed in with an edition of the Solaris-like The Snail on the Slope (the translation originally done by Alan Meyers for Bantam) in 1980.
It's not at all clear why Roadside Picnic saw print in translation when it did. The movie version, Tarkovsky's Stalker, didn't arrive until 1979 so there was no tie-in. It may just have been the next in the queue, since between the early 1970's and early 1980's a whole raft of Strugatsky novels saw translated versions in English by western publishers, beginning I think with Hard To be a God translated by Wendayne Ackerman for the Seabury Press in 1973. This translation was later picked up by DAW who issued it with a gloriously retro cover in 1976 (in pic above). Shortly afterwards DAW commissioned Leonid Renin to translate The Final Circle of Paradise and that was followed by Renin's bootleg translation of Monday Begins on Saturday for DAW in 1977. One assumes that a bootleg had to be done as any satirical novel about a secret Soviet institute of witchcraft and black magic would not be on any officially approved lists for dissemination at the time.
The big burst of Strugatsky translations came just after (1978 - 1979) with the McMillan imprint, Collier books, doing a 'Best of Soviet SF' series which included works by the Strugatskys and a number of other writers - I'll deal with some of those tomorrow. Aside from the ones in my picture above, there was also Noon 22nd. Century - a collection of linked short stories, and the Tale of the Troika. The excellent McMillan translation of Prisoners of Power by Helen Saltz Jacobson was issued in the UK by Penguin in 1983. St. Martin's press issued a translation of The Time Wanderers in 1988. It's a poor read - no translator is credited in my copy, so it could just be badly done or it could just be that as a late novel their muse had begun to fade and it's just not a very good book.
But the much more important reason was that as an SF reader I have always tried to seek out translated works, so as to get different cultural perspectives on otherwise well-worked themes and as a result I suppose I have built up a little bit of knowledge on the topic. It's certainly a subject close to my heart.
Celine Kiernan, Emmet O'Cuana and a very able fan from Russia whose name escaped me made an excellent panel. Among the topics that were bounced around between the panel and the floor were the works of Karel Capek, the Strugatsky brothers, The Witcher games and books, Dmitry Glukhovsky's Metro 2033, The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov which ably retells The Lord of the Rings from the Mordor standpoint, the Internet communities where fans provide authoritative manga translations and last but not least, the cross-plagiarism of penny-dreadfuls between London and Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, which as Emmet O'Cuana noted, is satirised in Paul Feval's Vampire City ( just one of a whole raft of translations into English of hard-to-get French fantasy and SF, that Brian Stableford has done for Black Coat Press (don't whatever you do, miss his stunning translation of Feval's Knightshade)).
Celine Kiernan made the point forcefully and often that publishers from English-speaking countries frequently prefer to encourage their own writers to craft tales of other cultures with an 'outsider voice' rather than discover indigenous writers and that this was something that needed addressing. But, she mused it takes time, money and effort to uncover the writers in other languages who are worth translating, unless a foreign language book by chance develops an unusually high profile.
This isn't always the case though - I made the point that if you visit a bookshop in Poland today the first thing that strikes you is the amount of Stanislaw Lem that has never been translated into English. An icon like Lem doesn't need any discovering, so there must be other barriers at work as well. Does he not sell? Is he too hard to translate?
The relationship between the author and translator was brainstormed in detail and was maybe the most interesting part of the discussion. We discussed the original and new translations of Roadside Picnic (the basis for Tarkovsky's Stalker). There was consensus that the original translation was bad (though I remember enjoying it when I read it, which if nothing else illustrates the strength of the idea that has made it the Strugatskys' best-known book). The author-translator relationship appears very variable - apparently they are often not encouraged to be in contact with the author and may even be discouraged from sticking with the same author for a series, both of which seem mad to me. Of course there are exceptions - to me author Michael Kandel's English translations of Lem's works will always be definitive, such is his joyful grasp of the material and, going in the other direction, we also learnt of the Internet community of Harry Potter translators who regularly compare notes.
One thing that emerged strongly from the panel was a general lack of knowledge of what exactly has been translated into English, presumably because they are quite often from high-end publishers with small print runs and little marketing. So in a series of follow-ups to this piece, I'll itemise a few of the translated works I've picked up over the years, beginning tomorrow with those by the Strugatsky brothers.
September 22nd, 2012
I'm sure it's no surprise to anyone for me to note that Ian was unfailingly courteous, hugely articulate and exuded considerable magnetism as he held court. He arrived sporting a beard, but was quick to point out that he had grown it for another job and didn't know if it would be required for S3 yet, having not so far shot any of his scenes, although he had read his scripts.
Obviously there were few specifics talked about as to what was coming, thanks to the double-whammy of an HBO minder in attendance (a thankless job, done with silent good humour this day by Ryan Marshall, for those who follow him on Twitter) plus the TitanCon spoiler policy of no discussion beyond A Clash of Kings. However we talked about where Ser Barristan might end up at the end of it all and Ian expressed a preference for him surviving and having his niche in the 'new world order' whatever that might turn out to be. He said he had met GRRM a couple of years ago, but didn't know what was lined up for Barristan; he didn't even know whether Barristan would remain a PoV character in the last two books or whether he would get any big combat moments.
In terms of how Ian is interpreting the character, we discussed loyalty. Ian reckoned Barristan's dilemma was whether or not the demands of being a Kingsguard had meant that he had had to be loyal to the wrong people during his life - a madman then a drunk. A good insight was his observation that had Barristan not been sacked, he would certainly have remained loyal to Joffrey. He reckoned that as things stood now Barristan certainly couldn't wait for the day when someone did away with Cersei.
As far as other characters were concerned, he said he was most interested as to where Tyrion might end up.
Away from the Game of Thrones plot, Ian noted the hugely beneficial impact that the series was having on the growth of the Northern Ireland film and TV industry and gave us the sobering story of doing TV work back in the 1980's. He noted that as a younger actor he often played police officers; most of the time back then, Northern English cities like Manchester or Sheffield stood in for Belfast, but when filming was done in Belfast itself, anyone playing a police officer role was kept out of sight until as close as possible to the take and was covered up again immediately afterwards.
The thirty minutes of the round table flew by. I don't think it any exaggeration to suggest we could have gone on for three or four times that. Clearly that would be unrealistic - I can appreciate that such special guests shouldn't be overstretched, but thirty? C'mon guys, make it forty or forty five minutes next year.
September 6th, 2012
No SF writer has ever delivered gruff, Northern-English misanthropy as well as Trevor Hoyle. Couple that with a surreal take on quantum physics, plenty of mucky sex and a general air of doom, gloom and nastiness and you have one of my all-time favourite writers. Here's a perfect pinch of Hoyle from Vail (1984) - his grim satire set in a near-future, dystopian UK:-
The boy or youth sighed wearily. "Where have you been living? Never heard of Heisenberg?"
"A new Bavarian lager?"
"Cause can precede effect and effect can precede cause at one and the same time. What you do later affects what you do now - it's all the same."
"Not in my world, " I said, shifting feet.
"Sure. Remember what Max Born said: 'I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy'."
Two in one day. First a terrorist loonie and now a mad quantum mechanic. Which of us was going off our rocker, the world or me?
"Suppose I say I'm not going to do the favour, - will you still give me the Temporal?"
"That all depends on whether you do the favour or not."
"But you won't know till later."
"That's when I'll decide."
"How can you decide later whether or not to give me the Temporal now?"
"Simple. I won't have given it to you if you don't do the favour and I will have given it to you if you have."
"You call that simple?"
"It is to me, squire."
"All right." I'd made up my mind. "Give me the Temporal and I'll do you the favour, how's that? Happy?"
"I thought you'd say that," he said, handing me the foil strip.
Temporal is one of Hoyle's finest conceits - time and space bending quantum mechanical effects in pill form, that enable our hero Vail to later undo his untimely death at Watford Gap.
Several of Hoyle's other novels written in his most prolific writing period 1972 - 1984 deal with the same themes including The Relatively Constant Copywriter (1972), The Man Who Travelled on Motorways (1979) and his iconic 'Q' series (1977 - 78), comprising Seeking the Mythical Future, Through the Eye of Time and The Gods Look Down, relating the adventures of 'Myth Technologist' - a kind of quantum investigator - Christian Queghan as he does battle with aliens, Nazis and ancient religions in alternative realities.
However there's much more to Hoyle than that. His was the ideal dark, gritty voice to deliver the superior Blake's Seven novelisations that coincided with the first run of the series. His long novel The Last Gasp (1983), memorable for its egregious caricature of paedophile, animal-hating US General Lloyd Madden, describes an Earth in environmental meltdown and reads like a fusion of J. G. Ballard and Michael Crichton. Unusually for Hoyle it has a moderately upbeat ending. Crossover novels like The Stigma (1980) and The Sexless Spy (1977) import Hoyle's usual concerns into the horror and espionage genres respectively and still other works deal with porn, juvenile crime and rock-music in a similar voice.
Taken as a whole, Hoyle's works present a literary, understatedly erudite, and remarkably unified, if pessimistic, vision of the present and near future, that will richly reward any SF fan's time.
August 18th, 2012
Above: amnesiac shipwreck victim 'Lady Mary' emerges from the sea.
Beatrice Grimshaw (1871 - 1953) came from Northern Ireland but lived most of her adventurous life in the South Seas. A quite stunning autobiographical sketch is to be found here; do read it!
Other commentators have noted that she qualifies as a somewhat peripheral figure amongst the ranks of Irish fantasy writers, on account of just two of her many novels; The Sorcerer's Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919). The former, 'a tale of New Guinea magic' I have not yet read, but in that by-line its bona-fides seem self-evident. The latter's claim to be fantasy from the narrow genre-based point of view hinges on a single plot device; an island cursed by the native Ku-Ku, where 'pigeon devils' blind those unwary enough to set foot on it. Whilst the blinded people definitely exist, we don't find out the cause until the end, so for most of the book one is left to choose whether to believe the supernatural explanation or assume something more mundane such as disease or poisoning.
However there are other things here that the modern reader might find fantastical. The descriptions of the lifestyle of foreign expatriates in remote parts of New Guinea at the beginning of the twentieth century is sufficiently alien to be quite fascinating. Then there is the gloriously existential MacGuffin of Ku-Ku's treasure which comprises a fabled cache of currency made from red seashells, of no convertible value to anyone except to certain indigenous tribes, for whom it represents fabulous wealth.
These days, Grimshaw's novels seem to be most valued as ethnographic records of the time and place she was writing about and that's certainly one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book. On the evidence of this work, her writing can be pedestrian at times and rarely soars, though the set-piece where our party of mostly unarmed expats first happen upon the blinded pirates and then flee whilst they blaze away in all directions with their guns, is particularly nicely done. But I would have liked to have been given the explanation as to exactly how Trobriand islanders undetectably insert poison into coconuts.
July 31st, 2012
Well good for that at least! But for all the cynicism about reboots, someone will sooner or later have to try for the next big thing - the next putative long running SF franchise. It's puzzling, or perhaps not, that the most successful and enduring franchises have started life either as originals (for example Star Wars, Alien and its siblings), or based on comics (most of the superhero canon), or toys (Transformers) or have been TV shows first then movies (Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, X-Files) or the other way around (all the Stargates, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) or as yet have been only on TV (Lost) and none have really come from the classic SF novel. Of course there have been almost-examples (2001 and then some years later, 2010, all the I am Legend movies and now the Total Recall reboot) but the first really big, long running, quality franchise from SF literature has still to hit us.
So what might it be? Reflecting on the success of Game of Thrones as the TV adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire leads me to wonder if that might be the model to do it. An SF series with a similar sort of level of grit, misery, surprise, backstabbing, violent death and naked people might might be just the ticket. What then? Thinking back through all my reading over the years, I can posit nothing better than Stephen Donaldson's Gap series. Would I like to see Nick Succorso, Morn Hyland, Angus Thermopyle and all the rest of 'em on the small screen - Hell yeah!
Another I'd love to see would the Hyperion and Endymion books of Dan Simmons, but that's NEVER going to happen. Why? Three words - The Golden Compass. Of course if it got past that hurdle (which it won't without being neutered) then the sheer scale would also push budgets sky high. The Gap series has the advantage of a lot of grim, claustrophobic spaceship and planetary base interiors.
A personal favourite, but possibly one with not enough of a cachet to get the nod, would be the Jurisdiction series of Susan R. Matthews (An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience, Hour of Judgement, Angel of Destruction, The Devil and Deep Space and Warring States) featuring (with apologies to Sand dan Glokta) fiction's most sympathetic torturer - Andrej Kosciusko. Again this series has the advantage of lots of gritty interiors on ships and bases and the level of political intrigue, impending doom and general misery is at times mind boggling.
July 20th, 2012
The issue is very simply the question of how an eminent writer might best go about securing his or her legacy and place in writing history. My touchstone here is James Joyce, who famously nominated James Stephens to finish Finnegan's Wake for him, if he should fail. I don't believe for one minute that Joyce took this step because he cared about his readers; I think he did so because he knew how much he was pushing at the boundaries of literature and he wanted his legacy to be secure. GRRM has redefined fantasy writing to such an extent that and has now achieved such a level of eminence that it makes me a little bit sad that he doesn't apparently think the same way.
My own view is that if such considerations were good enough for Joyce then they should be good enough for any eminent writer. The issue of that writer's age, health or anything else like that doesn't enter into it - if he or she has achieved eminence, then be they old or young, frail or robust, cautious or reckless, then let them safeguard their legacy. The issue of giving the fans and readers the finished work that they crave and kick up so much fuss about doesn't enter into it either - it's an entirely fortuitous (for the fans at any rate), side effect that the book gets done, because of measures taken for quite different reasons.
As it is the whole question is probably a poisoned one forever now in the case of GRRM, and that makes me sad, since it gives me the impression that he cares nothing for his position of eminence, nor for his literary legacy. Maybe that's true and he couldn't give a toss about the whole thing, or maybe it just looks that way because the fans have pissed him off by addressing the question in completely the wrong way.