sábado, julho 15, 2017

International Science Fiction Convention at IST: Sci-Fi LX 2017 - Look Beyond

(Sci-Fi Lx: United for Science Fiction!)

A reason for Portugal's relatively low profile in the English-speaking world vis-à-vis its neighbour Spain is that -- at least not since William Beckford -- the country hasn't had as many high-profile Anglo or foreign writers celebrating it. In Spain, the rich tradition runs from George Borrow, Géricault, Richard Ford, Gerald Brenan, Orwell and Hemingway to Chris Stewart, Cees Noteboom, Ian Gibson and Michael Jacobs (leading to disgruntlement in Spain that the country is often viewed through romantic, yet ultimately foreign eyes). By comparison, the anglo writers on Portugal (Marion Kaplan, Richard Zimmler, Richard Wilson) offer decent enough insights, yet are not literary heavyweights, while Zadie Smith's “Alentejo Blue” did little justice to the Alentejo.

Likewise, while Portugal has exported footballers successfully, it has fared less well than Spain regarding cultural icons. Generally, recurring themes are anachrony, disjuncture, loss-of-glory, timelessness (Wim Wenders' Lisbon story focusing on this, António Lobo Antunes hallucinatory prose on the subject). Saramago is the obvious star, and is also the most rewarding writer to consult on Portuguese/Spanish tensions: he enjoyed a self-imposed exile in Lanzarote, occasionally courting controversy with rampant pan-Iberianism (his 'união ibérica', and suggestions that 'Portugal could only benefit from joining Spain' infuriated his countrymen!), while his marriage to Pilar del Rio was the perfect way to eschew the maxim 'de Espanha nem bom vento nem bom casamento' (From Spain, neither good wind nor good marriage will come). Paraphrasing Eduardo Lourenço, one of our leading Portuguese essayists, we suffer more from a case of excess of identity (Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe) than from a lack of identity. The Spanish ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640, when they were barely the country we've came to know as Spain these days. Our problem is mostly with ourselves and with Africa. The whole decolonization process is one of the main themes of Portuguese contemporary fiction.

Portuguese writing suffered lots of influences, not so much from Spain but specially from France (XIX-early XX century). We must remember that Portugal was under the French influence as early as the French Invasions in the XVIII century. And as a country we were always very independent, even in our writing, distilling influences and allowing very little in - other than the obvious vocabulary and style influences. I think our literature remains original and set apart from the rest of Europe, and from Spain as well. Portugal has a lot of proximity, in my opinion, to a fringe of south American literature, like Borges and Marquez. Not so plush as those, but very intelligent and closed up on itself.

As every Portuguese knows very well, we don't relate to Spain at all... friendly neighbours may we be, but not brothers at heart...


Luis de Camões (16th century); Almeida Garret (romantic poet, novelist and playwriter); Cesário Verde (19th century, the Portuguese "Rimbaud"); Fernando Pessoa (20th); Jorge de Sena (20th); Sophia Breyner Andresen (20th); Ruy Belo (20th)


Eça de Queiroz (novelist, essayst, travel writer, XIX century. Good English translations); José Rodrigues Migueis (20th century, short-stories and novels); José Cardoso Pires (novelist, XX cent.); Vergilio Ferreira (existential novelist); José Ferreira de Castro (20th cent. novelist, travel books); Joaquim Paço d´Arcos (20th cent. novelist, short-story teller; travel writer)


Gil Vicente (XVI cent.); António José da Silva (Comedires, XVIII cent.); Almeida Garret (Romantic period);

NB: I could tell you about Valter Hugo Mãe, who is also a considerable poet, Lídia Jorge, with her post-colonial insights, Mário de Carvalho, surely one of the best analysts of the contemporary Portuguese quotidian, and Agustina Bessa-Luís, a classical writer who is definitely Portugal's greatest novelist. Watch out for Gonçalo M. Tavares, who only started publishing at the age of 31 and has published, in the last 7 years, at least, 22 books. He's currently being translated all over the place.

(Some of my Caminho SF books)

What about Portuguese SF writers? We have a few, but they’re only known in the portuguese SF tribe: João Barreiros, Luis Filipe Silva, António De Macedo, Cristina Alves, Carlos Silva, Telmo Marçal, Victor Frazão, Mário de Seabra Coelho, Marta Santos Silva, Daniel Tércio, David Soares, Filipe Faria, Inês Botelho, João Aniceto, Jorge Candeias, José Saramago, Madalena Santos, Miguel Neto, Nuno Neves, Sandra Carvalho, José Manuel Morais, João Paulo Cotrim, Manuel F. S. Patrocínio, etc. Why don’t we read portuguese SF? This is not a case of not reading Portuguese SF. We don’t read. Period. There’s an urban saying we the Portuguese don’t read because the books are expensive (most new books coming out now might cost at least 15 euros), but I have some difficulty believing that.  What I think is that art, and literature in particular, requires a certain intellectual maturity and familiarity with the language that can hardly be acquired without some culture and education, something that neither abounds nor has ever abounded in our secluded seafront. If wed don’t read the so-called mundane fiction can we expect a vast readership when it comes to SF? Not in a million years! I am not saying that the book price does not influence the number of books bought by those who are interested in reading, be it SF or mundane fiction. Nor do I reject that the publishers may have a net benefit with a fall in prices and a corresponding increase in the market; it’s possible, but not very likely. But the steep price is no excuse for anyone who has not read anything at all for a year. Probably most would not have read anything even if someone paid them to do so. If I were to run a poll on the street, I believe the possible answers to "why the Portuguese do not read?" would be:

A) We are terrible busy and consequently do not have time to read;
B) We don’t have any money to spend on frivolities;

No one would answer:

C) Because I'm a bit of a troglodyte.

Especially when he or she is not guilty of being unaware of his or her own rusticity.

Now, to finish off with a tangent: call me reactionary; If the only thing you read is rubbish we’re better off not reading anything at all (lots of Portuguese Contemporary Fiction is rubbish to say the least). There is nothing inherently helpful in translating scribbles into ideas, unless those ideas have some substance. To make a point, as I have already heard somewhere else, is that it is through the habit of reading Margarida Rebelo Pinto (one of our leading Contemporary writers of the lite-literature of the crap variety) that one may arrive at AntónioLobo Antunes; this is tantamount to saying that it is by the habit of hearing Lady Gaga that one arrives at Bach. That's not quite the way it works.

Most of my Portuguese SF friends (the Tribe) only read SF in English. I’m one of those cases. But I also read Portuguese SF written in Portuguese. What I don’t do is read Anglo-Saxon SF translated into Portuguese. With a only a few exceptions, most of the guys translating SF into Portuguese are not conversant with the genre conventions. Forget it! The question of the prevalence of English-speaking authors in Portugal is thus unavoidable (because we don’t read SF in translation). In my view (and I presume, in the case of those with good judgment and enough SF reading in the bag), the notoriety of many authors who write in English is mainly due to the fact that this is the language that dominates the literary market around the world. I believe that if many of these Anglo-Saxon SF authors were Portuguese, born in Portugal and writing in Portuguese, hardly anyone would hear of them because they wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being published. Hence foreign authors (English or any other) are not synonymous with quality; at most, they’re posters of popularity (two things often confused) - Vide my review of the latest Brian Staveley. In the same circumstances, were the Portuguese language to occupy a more dominant place in the world-wide literary market, there would probably be enough names of Portuguese-speaking authors on the bestsellers' lists (of course, some with merit and others only to take advantage of the hitchhiking of the language). What about the question of the role of publishers in the dissemination of Portuguese authors (in any literary genre)? Publishers have to make money to publish, and they have to publish in order to make money. It is the vicious circle of the commercial system which unfortunately excludes national works of potential quality and commercial value. It is the financial risk and not the qualitative opposite that has the last word in the decision to publish a book (in my present perspective of the publishing market). What if the publishers were to risk more than what they do on the household names, i.e., in the almost forbidden territory of recent authors? Well, it would be almost a miracle if they just went on a limb by publishing unknown authors. Even the recent bets of two large Portuguese publishing groups of (pseudo) platforms of independent / new / unknown authors seeking to exploit this entryway to new names for purposes of mere financial gain seems stupid. These bets on new authors (digital publishing only) do not carry the same financial risks inherent in publishing physical books, and yet the business (as usual) seems specifically designed to exploit authors and draw readers near to those who pay for print books. What can I say? The absurd transcends the boundaries of ridicule.
Authors need readers, and readers need authors. Despite the explosion of independent authors in the digital market, publishers still play a key role as intermediaries in this relationship. If readers are always presented to the same authors (independently of how they are good), readers will never know new authors (equally good or better).

What happened to the Line of Science Fiction by Editorial Caminho? I discovered lots of Portuguese writers by reading all the books published in this line of SF books.

There many worthwhile discussion panels, but the real treat was the one presented under the title “Enredos inacreditáveis” (“Unbelievable Plots”) moderated by João Barreiros and Cristina Alves; they gave us SF book plots and the audience had to guess the book title and author. All of my sweet spots titillated...

(From left to right: Cristina Alves, João Barreiros and Carlos Silva)

Some of the books we had to guess:

"The Deep" by John Crowley

 "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

"A Bondade dos Estranhos" (aka "Se Acordar Antes de Morrer") by João Barreiros (A Kindness of Strangers/aka If I Wake Up Before I die)

"Perdido Street Station" by China Miéville

"Dark Universe" by Daniel F. Galouye

NB: This was the only book I couldn't guess the title and author... I've got to read it.

"City of Stairs" by Robert Jackson Bennett

"Tales of Pirx the Pilot" by Stanislaw Lem

Also worth mentioning was the first presentation of the book  "Anjos" (Angels) by Luis Filipe Silva.

(from left to right: Divergências book editor, Carlos Silva and Luis Filipe Silva)

(Anjos' book blurb by Ana Filipa Ferreira)

(Anjos' book blurb by Luis Filipe Silva)

On another registre, Isaque Sanches' presentation on "The Bullshit Art of Game Design" was also quite interesting:

The full programme:

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quinta-feira, julho 13, 2017

Smart-Alecky SF: "Skullsworn" by Brian Staveley

“’If I wanted you dead, you would be dead’?” He sucked some blood from between his teeth, then spat it onto the cobbles. “What is that? A line from some mid-century melodrama? You heard that onstage a few nights ago?”

In “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

Reasons to avoid some Fantasy:

1. Trilogies - a story seldom needs 3 volumes, nobody wants to read the 'excluded middle' of tosh, let alone wait for the third volume when they have forgotten the contents of the first - strike George R.R. Martin;

2. Sequel proliferation. Ditto objection 1 squared - strike Eddings et al;

3. Formulaic - It's often better to re-read Tolkien, skipping some of his embarrassing attempts at females than read the whole thing again with different silly names - strike all sorts of piffle;

4. Silly names - countries; cities; people. How about concepts; recipes; politics - invent something - move to include Iain M. Banks 'Culture' - or does invention have to belong to THE science fiction part of SF?

5. Written by die cast. Surely much is the product of hashish and D&D - this you can make up for yourself;

6. Poor writing - to wit the obviously much beloved Staveley - whilst his books were entertaining they are limited by his repetitive vocabulary; why can't his educated characters master the conditional subjunctive…?

One of the common failing of most fantasy fiction is that the morality and emotional conflict of the antagonists is never explored or it feels gimmicky. We get a lot of stuff wherein the good guys become less good, and the bad guys stay smart-alecky. Characters tend to be stupid. It’s how an author can impart information to the reader that the character themselves haven’t picked up on yet. It’s also an engagement tactic: did you guess, right? May as well read the next chapter and find out, you stupid reader. What else? Ah yes. Strong romance...check, Romance the focus...check, World Without Plenty of magic...check, some clichés...check, Some semi-explicit stuff...check. All genres of books have many poor and average writers and some great ones - fantasy writing is just as good as any other kind of writing and the best fantasy provides some excellent analysis and criticism of reality as well as imagining coherent alternative realities and managing to be both funny at some points and gripping at others.  I despair of so much fantasy fiction. There is a lot of landfill quality stuff out there; but also, too many multi-volume epics with formulaic plots. How many more times will that downtrodden turn out to be the heir to the kingdom? (feel free to substitute “ploughboy orphan” by “Assassin that has ten days to kill ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including ‘the one you love / who will not come again.’” or by any other input placeholder you wish).

I don't know why I bother reading crap like this. Staveley no more...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

terça-feira, julho 11, 2017

Dark Underbelly of Utopia: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

From the moment I picked up the Culture books eons ago they changed the way I viewed the natural world around me, adding a layer of mysticism to every tree, every rock and every hill; along with a wonderment of what untold stories each has born witness too. I think it's often a combination of the book itself and the moment it comes into your life. I was one of those textbook cases - I had read just about everything by Enid Blyton in English as a child, and had never managed to make the jump (and what a jump it was!) to anything else, with a very tiny vocabulary. Then when I was 16, an older friend who I thought was super-cool (and would have done anything to impress) said that I should try Heinlein. I promptly got “Have Space – Will Travel” and read it, not really understanding what I was reading but at the same time fascinated and excited by the twisted tale. It was at that point, I realise now, that I vowed to try and find out what literature was all about. Many years and many hundreds of books later, I'm still on that wonderful journey, and I'm thankful for having come across him at just the right moment in my life. It was this fact that allowed me, many years later, to “discover” Banks. It was just happenstance; without that I wouldn’t be here writing these words.

So much going on in this one. With Sma, we see the Culture in all its high-minded liberal splendour. Then through Zakalwe we see the gritty, grubby reality of what the Culture's interventionist ideals demand. Add to that one of the more charismatic drones, a dual narrative and one of the most gut-wrenching twists I've ever experienced and you've got yourself a Big Book.

"Use of Weapons" is not a 'gung-ho boy's own adventure', or if you read it that way, you missed the point. It's a pitch-black, bitter satire of every gung-ho boy's own adventure ever, the tale of the indefensible at the service of the supposedly enlightened, the dark underbelly of utopia. It's vicious and cruel but it draws us in because we are so used to this being the way of things especially in military SF: this is the anti-Niven.

To hijack an old axiom - it's 'The Use of Weapons', stupid. TUoW is the 'ur-Culture' novel. It's the one where Banks' trick of basing mind warping, giga-death scale interstellar stunt plotting around a simple, 'man done wrong' storyline built around a relationship between two central characters works best (mostly because of the sting in the tale). “Phlebas”, “Excession”, 'Inversions' all do the same, but not as well as TUoW. Plus, Zakalwe is, arguably, the definitive M. Banks bad-ass hero (and, arguably, the human blueprint for the “Mistake Not”). You know there's a reason why he reappears at the end of “Surface Detail”. Lastly, missing Iain a lot just now. I happened to glance at my book shelf at the weekend and looked along the spines of my Banks collection and thought, "I wonder when the next one's due out?". Then I remembered. Among other things, I never got to ask him what his thing with 'The Wasteland' was all about - ". . . Phlebas" and " . . . Windward".

Reading “Use of Weapons” was a life-changing experience, and Zakalwe is a precious character, his mind a brilliantly messed up the labyrinth of desires and pains.

domingo, julho 09, 2017

Multidisciplinary Show in Lisbon: "Once Upon a Time" at Maria Matos Theatre by LX Dance Group

Just as a cats brain appears to be tickled by certain types of movement, so the brains of many humans appears to be tickled by beauty - giving us a sense of pleasure that I tend to think once served some primordial purpose. Perhaps it still does.

I've also noticed that not everyone appears to share this sensation; humans divide themselves in many ways and one quite striking division is between those who think we ought to survive at any cost, however cramped and crowded, ugly and distasteful the world becomes; and those who prioritize the quality of human life and the life of all other flora and fauna. For the former, beauty appears to me to be a lesser consideration. For the latter, it is of paramount importance.

So if you have beauty in art, for me, you need no other excuse. If you 'deprioritize' beauty and dismiss it as 'sentimentality' you do need some other excuse.

Art for art's sake is an understandable reaction against overbearing ideologues and political activists of every stripe, but beyond that I suspect art cannot separate itself off completely from life. However, the idea of it being useful for any purposes misses the real point of art, which is precisely that it is not useful. Pure science is not in itself useful either, but it might become useful when it influences human practical activities. I think the same applies to art (Dance, Music, Painting, Literature, Opera, Theatre, etc.), although perhaps in a different way. It can help shape our responses to things. Think for example of Hamlet, after Horatio has said, "So Rosencrantz and Guildenstein go to't." and he replies, "Why man, they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / doth by their own insinuation grow. / 'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / between the pass and fell incensed points / of mighty opposites." Such lines have a kind of application in practical life, even though they are contained within a play and their validity depends on how well they fit into the play's fictional context. There are two aspects here. One is purely aesthetic, while the other one is connected to the world outside the play as well. And, ultimately, the one can't be divorced from the other.

There are several examples of how things we humans do with the most beautiful of motives can so often end in an ugly mess when we sacrifice beauty for practicality or other excuses (waking up everyday to go to work for example). Oscar Wilde could have chosen the practical route, hidden, lied, recanted, done and said anything to save his own skin but he didn't. He wasn't prepared to sacrifice beauty and that's probably why he is remembered and revered. I'm mainly seeking to illustrate the differences between the pleasurable beauty of the aestheticism, derived, as it was, directly from nature (all art - even an accurate portrait - is strictly speaking an "abstract painting", since it is abstracted from nature) and other kinds of beauty we're more familiar with since the 20th century.

For example, that rational, pared down, minimal "machine for living", function before form, detail-less beauty for detail-less minds, empty white box and concrete cube type of beauty. Or the "ugly" beauty of the chaotic - detritus as art, melted carnage, etc. Or "banal" beauty - the mind-numbingly mundane in an art gallery, potted cacti, Tupperware, a recreated 50's living room, that kind of thing.

For me, the one 'abstracted' from nature, is a purer kind of pleasure. The one abstracted from excuses of our own invention not only lacks nobility but also smacks of self-justification.

For those who questioned the (im)morality of his "ethics" Nietzsche would presumably echo Whistler. Nietzsche's master was truth; beyond good and evil; telling us what morality was/is/could be, not what we wished it was/is/could be. 

Telling us that God was absent; that we're on our own in an indifferent universe; that life in general was a momentary minuscule fluke of nature. That we created our world and died failing to sustain it; what a futile act of doomed defiance! But laughing and dancing all the while as he pointed to the paradoxical contradictions in all he said, in all our efforts to find wisdom, to learn, to gain knowledge, to live a good life.

Part of our modern (in a general sense) understanding of "art," allows for considerable social status for the person who makes it, if the maker, or what is made, can persuade someone of its value. That value, of course, may be very transient. The status that society allows an artist is also historically and culturally variable. The ideal of creative freedom is far from universal, but it is true that most societies acknowledge that "artists," in whatever medium, can access a peculiar power.

However times and places define it, "art" as we now rather vaguely understand it, is culture created and presented in a visible and audible form. It can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, from its creation onwards, and it's neither good because it was made/collected by someone with the noblest motive, nor bad because it was made to advertise a corporate product.

Perhaps a better and shorter way of saying this, is that certain things are not quantifiable, because you are dealing with the qualities of something as it impacts on us. There are certain things which happen below the level of language - and understanding - even when words are in question. In this sense, Shakespeare is no different from an abstract dance artist like Fátima Veloso or a composer like Bach, as anyone who has tried to understand what Hamlet's about might tell you.

I think we remember all kinds of art & artists - depending on our personal likes & dislikes. And not even that - every artist of merit should be noted for "his thing" as 'twer - whether you take to the work or not - the artist at least expressed themselves creatively. And isn't that what art is for? For people to express themselves - if the public like what they're doing that's a bonus - if not then "sei's drum".

NB: This show will be presented on the 12th of July by my friend Fátima Veloso, LX Dance's director. The "Nossa Senhora do Amparo" sacred music choir to which I belong will also make an appearance. Yours truly as male tenor will also sing his heart out...

sábado, julho 08, 2017

For the Love of the Game: "Lions vs. All Blacks - 2017 Series - Third Game"

(Owen Farrell goal kicking)

Series tied 1-1 (third's test score: 15-15).

What a game, the Lions put on a defensive effort. I don't think any other country or countries could have withstood the All Black onslaughts, so good and heavy was the defense that I have never seen the All Blacks drop so much ball. At one stage the All Blacks had 78% possession and whilst the Lions never looked like scoring a try they continually repelled the All Blacks.

I don't think the All Blacks tight 5 have received enough praise, they virtually dominated the scrum and negated the Lions platform over the advantage line, something they could do in the 2nd test although with a man advantage. I was slightly perplexed with some of the penalties given in the latter stages of the game by Poite to the Lions that evened up the possession somewhat. Warburton was fantastic at breakdown and stole or slowed down so much ball, with Johnathon Davis a colossus in the mid field.

The question asked earlier in the tour who of the Lions players would make the All Blacks team, currently I would say Davis and Warburton, whilst Itoje is the flavour of the month in the press, I still don't believe he could oust Retallic and Whitlock. I was skeptical with Hansen calling in Laumape and Barrett for their first run on debuts however they were both fantastic, I am not saying Smith and Crotty could have done better however we will never know. It was also good to see the fridge running over people as is his want, with himself and B Barrett making incredible running metres along with the Lions Williams.

Both Hansen and Gatland showed their collective coaching nous and in the end finished with one apiece. I would however be fearful if I was teams in the upcoming Rugby Championships as they now can see what they are up against in this new look All Black team. The Lions can go home with the knowledge they have dented the mighty All Blacks in way not seen since 1971 and all players have finished way ahead in so far as many pundits had given them credit prior to the tests.

I do believe the NZers are in long-term decline. You can feel a drop-off in self-belief after McCaw's departure. They are jittery in possession when subjected to sustained pressure against sides who are fit enough (i.e., most sides now) to make front-on tackles and scramble defend for 80 minutes. The captain Read has no instinct for bargaining with referees. Carter used to convert the goal kicks that mattered. Your current kicker (as well as the other candidates) is flaky to say the least. They are no longer able to get away with head shots on pesky opponents (viz., Williams' and Kaino's sending-offs), something they relied on during the McCaw era as a way of subduing opposition. You can tell also that Hansen has been in the job too long, is too cosy with his favorite players, and cannot see what is going on objectively any more. Moreover, I sensed that having beaten the Lions in 2005, he wasn't desperate enough to do the job this time. Instead, he has been spouting his naff homilies about how rugby is just a game and we'll all have a chuckle and a beer over it later. That is a loser's mentality.

A draw’s a fair outcome of the series, a series dominated by the All Blacks and showed by scoring tries and not allowing the Lions to score a try in the last game, however the style of play by the Lions was the conduit to force the All Blacks to play different styles, styles they have not had to play for a long time, so end in the end it was fitting that a draw is what the game amounted to. A cricket draw is often a slow buildup of mutual respect in terms of skill and mental fortitude Football, basketball, tennis and others are interesting peaks on a cardiogram that soon enough return to a spell in bed and some warming soup. Rugby though, played across a series like this, is something else. The staggering physicality, the mental pressure, the ballet of contradicting genetic attributes and the absolute inherent base respect, conjour a unique cauldron that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Fair play to both teams; they created history by winning nothing. They made more rugby fans proud than if either side had dominated. They walked a path that even those of us who have played at any level, have never walked.

I think rugby is the only sport in existence where a draw can elicit the feeling that this series did. It's just an unmissable sporting spectacle. Bit like the Ryder cup, it's not about the money or fame. They're playing for the love of the game and it's great to see. From my armchair, it seems that this series breathed life into the spirit of rugby. Both sides honoured their shirts on and off the pitch.

sexta-feira, julho 07, 2017

Fragile Cromwell: "Wolf Hall" by Peter Kosminsky

NB: I have not read the novels yet, but I'm afraid I'm going to be a little negative.

I had a “couple” of problems with this drama: firstly, I thought it felt a little 'empty' in terms of atmosphere. The camera-work, lighting and (to a lesser extent) the art-design was, for me, rather 'plain' - as if they were going for a very orthodox, no-frills adaptation of the novels. Likewise, I also thought that the soundtrack was rather dreary and 'safe' - although 'Tudor Pop' admittedly isn't my cup of tea. It would be nice - in general - if TV dramas would take more of a risk with their soundtracks: in the last week, I have re-watched Paul Thomas Anderson's “There Will be Blood” (with Jonny Greenwood's superb, experimental soundtrack) and then saw Birdman (which has a soundtrack almost solely composed of avant-garde jazz percussion) and was struck by how much these films were enhanced by a more original approach to background music.

Secondly, I'm not sure about Mark Rylance as a TV actor. I saw him in several Shakespeare productions and he took my breath away but, on TV, I find him somewhat nondescript and 'static' - which may of course be how they were trying to portray Cromwell... a man who stuck to the shadows and didn't make a name for himself, at first. And, as I suspected, I thought that it showed how much more experience and screen-presence Damien Lewis has during their short scene together - although I also thought that this was Rylance's best scene also.

I thought the decision to cast Rylance was odd when I heard it (appropriate for the fragile David Kelly, but not the bruiser in Holbein's portrait) but presumed the director etc. had something special in mind, because they decided to delay production to get him. I haven’t read the books as I said, but I was still looking forward to this, but I was really disappointed. Rylance is wrong for the role, and he's on screen constantly looking world-weary and sad and old, with his tired eyes and croaky flat voice - not dynamic, not convincing as the former soldier, merchant and lawyer with the vim and brains, social skills and physical presence to rise though the Tudor court. Jonathan Pryce, a better screen actor, looked beaten throughout (even with the time-jumping, I didn't get a sense of 'fall from power'). Half the time I couldn't work out if Rylance wasn't just little startled and a little confused at everything.

I think “The Wire” changed the dimensions on how you introduce a character in a television series. Leave out the exposition and let the viewer gather clues based on their actions. I think in this it was suggesting that Cromwell, now devoid of his emotional grounding, was beginning to shift in character to something more calculating and ruthless. I think the problem with this first series is that they just don't have enough time to cover everything from the books, so they're just diving into the thick of it, with only brief flashbacks to give a feel for what had happened earlier. Especially for those who haven't read the books like myself, it does mean I don't get a real understanding of what made Cromwell who he is, and how he is so very different from all the toffs at court.

I wish the budget had stretched to 8 or even 10 episodes. The Tudors needed 20 episodes to cover roughly the same time period of the books. The scenes have to hang together or cut against each other. They have to relate both in sub-text and plot. This was lacking. Most scenes were isolated little dramas, without any lead in. There was no through-line. Not really. Just a character wandering through each scene. There was also no direction or rhythm to the dissemination of plot and story.  
Rylance is a wonderful actor but physically wrong for Cromwell: he'd have been a ringer for Thomas More, however. And I thought the time-hopping was a bit clunky, relying on wordy captions which weren't left on the screen for long enough.

Bottom-line: At times I was bored to the core of my being; I love history but this was dimly lit, Mark Rylance walked around like a man who was hit in the face with a kipper, Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) as a woman who had changed the world was portrayed as plain looking with no wit and poor dress sense (Joanne Whalley as Katherine of Aragon was lovely though); the plot jumped more times than a kangaroo; I would rather watch repeats of Scooby Doo; it's worse than “Jamaica Inn” and that’s saying something; I could not watch this to the end; I was losing the will to live; utter drivel.

quinta-feira, julho 06, 2017

Gaming All-Nighters: "The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains make-able, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense "perfectly", such as a grid, Prallian scope, 'nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a realistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine-sentience societies.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks

“I… exult when I win. It’s better than love, it’s better than sex or any glanding; it’s the only instant when I feel… real.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks

Some of the imagery in Bank’s novel concerning gaming strategies closely remind me of my own: “In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially. He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he had been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically … of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.” This means you know you’ll get a biased sort of review. Just so you’re warned.

Back in the day, I eagerly anticipated my game playing binges. The ritual was always the same: I sat down, ready to get in a few minutes of gaming. Hours passed and I’d suddenly become aware that I'd been making ridiculous faces and moving like a contortionist while trying to reach that new high score. Where did the time go? When did I sprain my neck? That happened because I usually reached a critical level of engagement with whatever game I was playing. Often, these types of gaming sessions occurred when I was playing great games. Later, when I went into game design, I always wondered whether it’d be possible to characterize and add design considerations that facilitated these engaged states. The game that got me hooked was Age of Empires (AoE). Before AoE there were a lot of them that I liked to play, but it was AoE that awakened the game geek in me. The culprit was a friend of mine, JohnnyR. At the time, we were both working in a System Administration SAP R/3 ecosystem and the long hours and all-nighters went with the territory. When an all-nighter was in sight we started honing our game skills. While waiting for an Oracle Database reorganizations to finish (or waiting for a huge problem to pop up), we also put in a lot of effort acquiring game time. I was so desperate to play this at home, that I gutted at least 4 PC’s and went foraging around old PC sellers, to custom build a PC that could run the game. It sounds absurd in this day of not-needing-to-build-gaming-PC’s-from-scratch. AoE itself didn’t require a massive PC to play, but at the time there was no such thing as a gaming machines, unless I built one myself. So, I did precisely that, built an extraordinarily powerful gaming PC (for its time) out of bits from other machines (I even got hold of a SCSI disk to give the machine an extra boost). So my first custom built PC was not for a general computing purpose, but for gaming… How did Bank’s book meet my hunger for gaming? I first read this book in 1994, and by that time I hadn’t found AoE yet; that came later. But the time came when the click happened, and that time was 1997. Playing AoE and reading this book made me come to terms with a lot of things. The AoE theoretical meta-game had been nearly perfected even back then, and the random components in game generation did not make a difference to the point of my needing true improvisational play. Later I met a lot of players spending months, if not years, carefully practicing minutely differing iterations of the same game scenarios. I saw professional players end games over early-game mistakes that an intermediate player might not even notice. I considered it a little like chess, in the sense that the meta-game/opening theory was so well explored that the game could rarely be considered improvisational, but was more like a ballet performance: an extremely well-studied routine that had to be executed as perfectly as possible. At the time, I put in a lot of study into the game. The 1997 AoE version had less units than modern games, so every unit was worth more. I remember I could create unlimited number of towers (my favourite strategy was playing tower defense style game-play). There is something almost hypnotic about sitting there late at night with the rest of the household asleep, watching other competitive units moving on the map and manipulating your own to react or to interdict as necessary and to further your own strategic goals. Indeed, many times I woke still in the chair after midnight having dozed off thinking “just one more turn”. It has been a long time since I first read it, and in some ways, this re-read was almost like reading it for the first time. It seemed so fresh, and coming back and savouring it slowly this time around has allowed me to notice how much detailed information it gives us about the nature and practices of the society of the Culture. 

SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, julho 03, 2017

Post-scarcity Society: "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks

When Banks died, I was in the process of starting one of my usual re-reads of the Culture novels. I decided it was not the time to start that re-read. I said to myself, “I’ll just wait another couple more years.” It’s now 2017, and I’m not sure I’ll re-read them now in one large gulp. I want to be able to savour the remaining books over time. One of my main attractions to Banks' novels lies in his version of AI. Stephen Hawking and colleagues worry about tooth and claw Darwinian features of AI, that threaten us all. Why not allow for the possibility that a truly superior intelligence would follow its own independent moral code? Banks' machine minds have values and follow courses of action that are far more admirable than what our species can manage.

No longer being able to look forward to a new Iain. M. Banks novel every twenty months or so is a source of great sadness. "Consider Phlebas" was such a dazzling, utterly astonishing tour-de-force, the grandest and saddest of all space operas, which nothing before or since has even come close to. And I can still remember the delight of coming across a 'hard' SF writer whose politics were, for a change, anti-authoritarian.

The concept of The Culture was brilliant, partly because of the wonderful plot opportunities it offered, but also as a wildly optimistic if improbable speculation about how human (and by extension, alien) intelligence might one day be weaned from self-destructive selfishness. Banks' descants on the Culture, its workings and philosophy; they're always intriguing and never preachy. The one question he tended to skirt around was the age-old one of humanity's inherent if occasional will to evil for its own sake: in a perfectly liberal society in which everybody can have almost anything they want, what do you do with somebody who just wants to hurt others? In one of the novels, the question is posed by a new arrival to a Culture planet or orbital, and the answer is something like "they don't get invited to parties very often", which is not good enough...

The Culture is a fascinating fictional presentation of a "post-scarcity" society, and it's to Banks's credit that he explored the implications of that idea intelligently and honestly enough to raise some questions.
If the only way for human beings to experience their full potential is to exploit the services of a technology so advanced that the technology itself is sentient, how is that different from human slavery? it's very noticeable that Banks's Culture characters sometimes tend to act and speak like spoiled aristocrats - and these are some of my favourite characters.

If the answer is that the AIs are so far advanced beyond us in power and intelligence that their apparent services are just trivial (to them) gestures to keep us happy, are we not then the slaves, the happy sheep, who could be discarded by the actual masters at any time?

Is slave/master the only relation possible between sentient beings?

Certainly, I never read the relation of minds and humans as anything other than symbiotic cooperation between equals (different but with the same rights and expectations). In the same way that humans cooperating can achieve great things, minds cooperating (with other minds or with humans) can also achieve more than they would alone.

Finally, and I think this is a point that Banks is making with minds too - if minds are sentient beings with infinitely more power than humans, would it be a bad thing if humans, having created minds, disappeared? I don't think so. I'd weep for the extinction of intelligence in our universe, but not for the extinction (or evolution) of a species to something greater. But then, one of my favourite Banks’ novels was/is ”Excession”, so what do I know.

(My own copy bought in 1994 at the British Bookshop)

Some of the other books are also cleverer but “Consider Phlebas” will always be my first and favourite Banks even when I gave it “only” 4 stars when I first read in 1994. It's a noirish take on space opera with enormous vistas, action scenes, dark humour and grim determination. It's like Star Wars for adults. Too much so for Hollywood, but perhaps not for HBO. “Consider Phlebas” knocked me out, slung me over its shoulder and carried me off; by the time I woke up I was hooked.

I like all the novels and love the idea of the Ships who get to name themselves. I always got the sense that the Culture was more like a 'phase' than an 'empire' - bits of it sublime or break away at the edges but there's always new species deciding they quite fancy living that way for a while, so there will always be a Culture or something like it as part of the galactic ecosystem.

God, I miss Banks. I have “The Quarry” but can't bring myself to read it because then there'd be no new ones to look forward to.

After having lost touch with SF for 10 years or more, it was Iain Banks's books that drew me back into it. As I said, I had given up on SF for more than a decade when someone persuaded me to try it, and I was enthralled. It may not be great literature, but it is great fun and better written than most "serious" novels I must plough through. The only SF author I still read at a time when I mainly eschew intentional fiction altogether. Consistently brilliant. His books could sometimes do with pruning these days but I still love The Culture and his ability to tell a tale.

One of the brightest and most original minds in SF; he is sorely missed.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, julho 01, 2017

Causality Violation SF: “Version Control” by Dexter Palmer

“For months now, Rebecca had felt what she could only describe as a certain subtle wrongness – not within herself, but in the world. She found it impossible to place its source, for the fault in the nature of things seemed to reside both everywhere and nowhere. Countless things just felt a little off to her.”

In “Version Control” by Dexter Palmer

A lot of the debate around this book must be surely undermined by the lack of a clear definition of time.

The idea of time 'moving forwards or backwards' is just a metaphor that people adopt because it's easy to identify with physical objects that move and since time is a dimension- a dimension of space-time, the continuum in which everything has its being. Time itself doesn't 'move' or 'pass' any more than length can pass or move. However, everything moves, or occupies a series of different points, in space-time. I also suspect that our perception of time as a progression in one direction, with a remembered past and a future of multiple unrealized possibilities, is a 'fiction' or mental construction that allows us to make sense of cause and effect. If we could imagine a being outside of space-time, whether God, or Vonnegut's Tralfamadoreans, that being would see all those points simultaneously. As we do when we remember someone's life.

You think SF can't be literature? You think there is a procedural difference? This is going down the Delany 'paraliterary' route. I suspect most readers who expressed a preference would say that they are generally rather keen on ideas. In fact, the literary-fiction crowd often use 'the idea is the protagonist' as a stick with which to beat SF. The problem is that the notion of travel comes from movement through space. When we're standing still, and on no conveyance, we are not traveling relative to the world around us (of course, the planet is traveling through space). But in the case of time, when we stand still, we are indeed moving forward at the pace of life in time. So, in that context, time travel must mean more than that standing still movement - it must mean traveling faster than that to the future, or at any speed at all to the past, which does not happen at all in natural life time. One view of time is that is does not actually "pass”, as we experience it, and that there is nothing uniquely real about the present. There is a 21st century and there is a 15th Century, there are lions and there are trilobites. The past or future are not less real because we do not exist in the same plane with them, any more than distant universes, separated from us by the speed of light, are less real because we cannot perceive them. I think it was Einstein who put it that people who understand physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stupid illusion. The events, say, in a person's life, can be viewed, not as a cradle to grave time frame, but as continuous arrow that can be narrated in any order. Forwards, backwards, or hopping around like an ant on a chessboard. This view of time is explored in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five", and a 'backwards' version in Dick's "Counter-Clock World". This kind of time-travel is, I'd argue, consistent with physics; Time cannot 'move' because it doesn't occupy a physical location from which it can move. As Palmer states:

“But in real life, connecting two naturally non-contiguous points in space-time such that a corporeal object can move from one to the other is extremely difficult! And it’s not really moving through time that’s the problem: moving through space is the problem.”

The idea of time travel was first set out by H G Wells but since then, like the internal combustion engine, very little of the idea has changed. We still generally think in terms of a machine or cabinet that propels the passenger backwards or forwards in time. Think for one moment however of the written word used by Mr. Wells to convey this idea. The book was written in 1895 following thoughts happening inside his head. Without the written word, those thoughts would have remained trapped in 1895 unless some form of aural tradition of storytelling had taken it forward. Hence thoughts inside Mr. Wells' head have traveled from 1895 to 2017 and beyond.

There's two basic ways of thinking about time, one is it’s like a film reel, the present is the frame that's currently being illuminated by the projector, the past is the film that's been through the projector and it might conceivably be possible to move back to it, there are two debatable models for the future - the film that hasn't been illuminated yet, one is that it's there on the not yet seen frames just waiting to be illuminated, so one could conceivably travel to them, the other is that those frames are blank and the image is created on them as they're illuminated.

The other time concept is that it's like a (cathode ray tube) TV, the present is the image you see now on the screen but neither the future nor the past has any meaningful existence, an image that was on the screen, the past, is simply gone, and an image that will appear on the screen, the future, doesn't exist yet. The reason you cannot travel back (or forward) in time is because all the matter you are made of will suddenly be the same as matter already existing in the universe.

I'll explain.

If you travel to the past before you were born, all the matter you are made of now would have been around in different forms. If you travel to the future after you are dead your matter will be in your ashes, decomposing bones, cells that constantly renew and reform and absorbed into the great cycle. Once that matter is exposed to the same universe the quantum force known as spooky action at a distance comes into effect, it forms a massive feedback loop and annihilates itself. That is why we don't see time travelers in the real world. The reason you cannot travel back (or forward) in time is because all the matter you are made of will suddenly be the same as matter already existing in the universe.

There's more than one way to skin Schrodinger's cat. And Palmer found a way to do it. Who would have thought that tackling Big Data and quantum physics in addition to more mundane subjects like marriage and friendship would produce a novel of this magnitude?

“And yet Rebecca felt that it was hard to tell whether the secret algorithms of Big Data did not so much reveal you to yourself as they tried to dictate to you what you were to be. To accept that the machines knew you better than you knew yourself involved a kind of silent assent: you liked the things Big Data told you were likely to like, and you loved the people it said you were likely to love. To believe entirely in the data entailed a slight diminishment of the self, small but crucial and, perhaps, irreversible.”

Palmer does it also with Einstein-Rosen wormholes, in a way that feels not only thoughtful but new and unreservedly fun. And now when I thought modern SF was going down the drain…

NB: Anyone looking for an explanation as to why we don't see time travelers should seek out John Varley's novel "Millennium". I believe in time travel. It explains why Simon Cowell looks younger every year.

SF = Speculative Fiction. 

quarta-feira, junho 28, 2017

Bloviated SF: "The Ninth Rain" by Jen Williams

“’I’m fine,’ she said again, her whole body shaking. She reached out a hand to the plants growing in their neat rows and saw with wonder that she had slumped next to a tomato plant. There were tomatoes growing on it, tight in their skins and perfectly red. After A moment, she reached out a trembling hand and plucked one from its stem, jerking a little as she did so. […]”

In “The Ninth Rain” by Jen Williams.

A tomato?

The great city of Ebora didn’t seem so alien after all…If I were reading a physical book, this would probably be the only book that I’d purposefully abandon at a train station, hoping that it would go to some "Lost Items" limbo. I'm an old-school SF fan, and I hate the way the SF shelves in the bookshops are increasingly dominated by great slabs of swords'n'sorcery, usually endless volumes of the same stuff by the same author, like they're paid by the meter. And the covers are astonishingly awful - like SF covers were in about 1968. Yech. My point is that the fantastic genre has always been with us ever since the first bard sat at the hearth and sang his songs. Think of the Greek heroic myths - Odysseus, Theseus et al and the Celtic tales of magic and questing knights. Today's SF literature is just a continuation of what is hardwired into our psyches. By contrast Dr. Who for instance just doesn't cut it. I can remember when the Daleks looked like giant pepper pots that threatened to knock over the flimsy stage scenery every time they were on the warpath. I thought it was daft then and I haven't changed my opinion. “The Ninth Rain” is also daft epic fantasy. At the end of the day, what is important in literature is having something interesting to say and being able to say it well. The genre, really, is just scenery. And add only that a genre is more implicated in an author's choices than "just scenery", but not so much that compelling, well-written stories aren't plentiful, or at least "findable", in almost any genre I've tried. And don’t start with same all story that all Fantasy is crap. Two names: George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson. Martin is a swords-n-dragon’s medievalist, and Erikson is, over 1000s of pages, uneven (there are parts that, for me, drag), but they're fine writers with smart ideas, good sentences (sometimes), characters and plots with plenty of unpredictable 'reality'. Jen Williams milks the same epic fantasy field others have already milked more successfully; it's the usual story of “Horrible Things from the Other Side” trying to break through and destroy everything, but unfortunately she hasn’t got the knack for writing both memorable characters and good action scenes; it's all very fluffy, too. Going from the evil priestess/sexy seraglio girl of the Conan series, to Melanie Rawn's vision of a matriarchal world (“The Ruins of Ambrai”) and Erikson's female marines, Lady Vincenza 'Vintage' de Grazon just seems odd even in a fantasy context. With fantasy, in this day and age, one either has the choice of a Tolkien rip-off or a bloviated, multi-volume saga that goes seemingly nowhere a la Robert Jordan. Yet sometimes from the past comes a true gem like the Fahferd and Grey Mouser series by Fritz Leiber and all is well once again with fantasy. One can only hope that more in this vein will out and not the crap like the one I’ve just read.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, junho 24, 2017

Intertextual SF: "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu

“Lord Garu, you compare yourself to a weed?” Cogo Yelu frowned.
“Not just any weed, Cogzy. A dandelion is a strong but misunderstood flower.” Remembering his courtship with Jia, Kuni felt his eyes grow warm. “It cannot be defeated: Just when a gardener thinks he has won and eradicated it from his lawn, a rain would bring the yellow florets right back. Yet it’s never arrogant: Its color and fragrance never overwhelm those of another. Immensely practical, its leaves are delicious and medicinal, while its roots loosen hard soils, so that it acts as a pioneer for other more delicate flowers. But best of all, it’s a flower that lives in the soil but dreams of the skies. When its seeds take to the wind, it will go farther and see more than any pampered rose, tulip, or marigold.”
“An exceedingly good comparison,” Cogo said, and drained his cup. “My vision was too limited to not have understood it.”
Mata nodded in agreement and drained his cup as well, suffering silently as the burning liquor numbed his throat.
“Your turn, General Zyndu,” Than prompted.
Mata hesitated. He was not witty or quick on his feet, and he was never good at games like this. But he glanced down and saw the Zyndu coat of arms on his boots, and suddenly he knew what he should say.
He stood up. Though he had been drinking all night, he was steady as an oak. He began to clap his hands steadily to generate a beat, and sang to the tune of an old song of Tunoa:

The ninth day in the ninth month of the year:

By the time I bloom, all others have died.

Cold winds rise in Pan’s streets, wide and austere:

A tempest of gold, an aureal tide.

My glorious fragrance punctures the sky.

Bright-yellow armor surrounds every eye.

With disdainful pride, ten thousand swords spin

To secure the grace of kings, to cleanse sin.

A noble brotherhood, loyal and true.

Who would fear winter when wearing this hue?

“The King of Flowers,” Cogo Yelu said.
Mata nodded.
Kuni had been tapping his finger on the table to follow the beat. He stopped now, reluctantly, as if still savoring the music. “By the time I bloom, all others have died.’ Though lonely and spare, this is a grand and heroic sentiment, befitting the heir of the Marshal of Cocru. The song praises the chrysanthemum without ever mentioning the flower by name. It’s beautiful.”
“The Zyndus have always compared themselves to the chrysanthemum,” Mata said.
Kuni bowed to Mata and drained his cup. The others followed suit.
“But, Kuni,” said Mata, “you have not understood the song completely.”
Kuni looked at him, confused.
“Who says it praises only the chrysanthemum? Does the dandelion not bloom in the same hue, my brother?”
Kuni laughed and clasped arms with Mata. “Brother! Together, who knows how far we will go?”
The eyes of both men glistened in the dim light of the Splendid Urn.
Mata thanked everyone and drank himself. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel alone in a crowd. He belonged—an unfamiliar but welcome sensation. It surprised him that he found it here, in this dark and sleazy bar, drinking cheap wine and eating bad food, among a group of people he would have considered peasants playing at being lords—like Krima and Shigin—just a few weeks ago.”

In “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu.

Goodkind is responsible for the worst thing ever written by a human being; the now legendary evil chicken scene. I still have his books at home. Mea Culpa. That reminds me. I must give them away the next chance I’ve got… the following passage is underlined in my book. To wit:

"Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken's head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway. "Shoo," Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn't enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn't tell if it had the dark spot, but she didn't need to see it. "Dear spirits, help me," she prayed under her breath. The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart, she knew it wasn't. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People's chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest."

In “Soul of the Fire” by Terry Goodkind.

He really wrote this. Seriously. Yep, I'm afraid that's a direct quote. Terry Goodkind literally wrote those words. They spewed forth from his brain and onto the page. I still remember throwing book against the wall. For a long time, I stopped reading Fantasy altogether. Recently I’ve been trying to get back to the genre, but I still shudder at the thought I might find stuff akin to Goodkind’s writing. It was with some trepidation I tackled Liu’s epic fantasy starting with the first volume of his Dandelion Saga. I’m a huge fan of Liu’s short fiction. That’s why I dipped my toes in the fantasy genre once again.

Terry Pratchett's withering response to J K Rowling's assertion that she wasn't writing fantasy is worth mentioning as well. The problem with Rowling is that she's so leaden: the children's response to the discovery of a dragon is not “wow! A dragon!”, but “dragons are against school rules”. Magic as coursework. They are fantasy in that they're as thick as doorstops and chock full of chosen ones and dark lords, but compared to “A Wizard of Earthsea”, they never take flight. Philip Pullman was lucky, marketing-wise, to get what is clearly a “fantasy” series listed as a children's book and thus allowed into the hallowed ground of serious proper books at the front of the bookshop. That reminds me. What Philip Pullman writes is also crap.

I'm not that keen on pure fantasy (all that dragonrider crap), but China Mieville's excellent, when he remembers to give characters a character, M. John Harrison's Viriconium series (some call it anti-fantasy) extraordinary, Mervyn Peake's one of my favourite writers in any genre, and Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' was the most enjoyable thing I read last year (when I also finally read 'War and Peace', which was agony).

Has no-one mentioned comics? I used to like Cerebus the Aardaark, until I realised it wasn't taking the piss out of the fantasy genre's macho right-wing misogyny, it was macho, right-wing and misogynistic.

Yes, there are different ways of reading. Some people are clearly only interested in the surface narrative of a novel. Others read more deeply into a text, seeking its poetics. The person who taught me to read beneath the surface began by saying it would be like learning to drive a car - at first we would wonder how anyone could be on the lookout for so many linguistic possibilities at once, but that it would soon become a natural process - and she was right. I'll admit that it was one of the more important discoveries of my life, but it doesn't bother me that some people find it boring.

Those unwilling to let others be themselves are, I suspect, insecure in their own opinions. Do I really have to pose the rhetorical question, "What would life be like if we all had identical tastes?" I read a lot of SF in my teens, for the ideas, not the poetics, of which I then knew nothing. The potential weakness in the genre (which it shares with all fantasy, including "magic realism") is that without any given constraints a writer can be extremely lazy. Not all fantasy authors are lazy writers, but it takes a greater skill to write creatively when there are no boundaries.

At the bottom of all this is the need some people have to label and categorise everything, without which many of these arts blogs would not exist. It's the labeling and ranking I find boring.

As I said, Goodkind is highly irritating, like Donaldson. Both cannot write. I shudder to remember I read them, knowing time is so precious. There is something wrong with the linked series format. It hooks into the collector dysfunction in us. We cannot pick up book six and understand a thing, apart from the language and the action. We must get them all. It is consumerism. We are not supposed to consume books. We read books because we love them, or because we must, but we should not read books because we must love them. It is slavery of a strange kind. In Imperial Rome, a man could sell himself into slavery. With these books, we pay to be enslaved. That is the source, for me, of the discontent that may ground the question raised by the Fantasy genre nowadays. Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series like the above-mentioned Malloreon saga drove me away from fantasy. I just disliked being played for a fool, really.

This long preamble is just to say I’m glad I tackled Liu’s “The Grace of Kings”. Is it a perfect epic fantasy example? Nope. Is it better than most of the fodder out there? Undoubtedly yes. Does it have problems narrative-wise? Sure. But it’s still one hell of a romp, and I didn’t feel I was wasting my precious time reading dross. What did I bring home after having finished this 1st volume? Intertextual SF.  The Odyssey. It might be because I started on this novel after doing a quick skim of Homer’s duology, but I kept seeing shades of both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in the novel. Sometimes it was in the language. Other times it was the characters: Mata’s Achilles vs. Kuni’s Odysseus, for example. Plus, the fact that they influenced the mortals the same way the gods did in Homer’s work. I know that if this novel might be said to have any antecedents in the classics it’s in these two examples. I can’t help see Homer in it. Of course, I could be over-reading it too, but I tend to do stuff like this all the time.

Minor beef: “I know a mother from Xana who was willing to bear a corvée administrator’s lash to save her son. I know a wife from Cocru who hiked miles through mountains filled with bandits even while she was pregnant and managed to save the man who was sent to save her.” This impassioned speech Kuni Garu gave about women, while standing atop the walls of Zudi, in the middle of a siege seemed forced, out of place and unnecessary. There were plenty of times that character could have lectured his comrades about the role of women in society (including all the times they had visited local bars where women acted as hostesses), but the author chose the middle of a battle, when tensions are high, to have Kuni give that speech. It took me out of the story for a few heartbeats…I shrugged and moved on.

NB: To push my personal agenda a little bit more SF-wise, I''d recommend Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series. Plausible, (well, kind of; Reynolds was an astrophysicist), well-written and hugely entertaining. Beats watching television. The problem with SF was that it is about the impossible, space travel and such. Doubtless, the same criticisms were leveled at Jules Verne with all his crazy talk about 'flying machines'.