Democracy in action

Hurrah! The people of Iraq are now officially free! No more occupation!!!! Well, except for 160,000 foreign troops and who knows how many foreign fundamentalist fighters. And behold, you who scoffed at Saint Tony and his cowboy pal, Sheriff George – now the cute little people of Iraq have a democratically elected government which truly represents them. Just like in America, where they have a government which was properly elected by the people and fore the people… Oh, hang on a minute… Oh, yes… Er… Hmmmm.

Spare a thought?

Our monthly meeting of the SF Book Group met this evening to discuss Michael Marshall Smith’s rather groovy novel Spares. I haven’t read any MMS for ages and really enjoyed it – he has a wicked sense of humour which appeals to me (surprise) and has some excellent descriptions which I have stored away for future use as put-downs (such as ‘the bartender looked like three kinds of shit in a one shit bag’). It’s interesting going back to this after Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Both feature veterans with moral and psychological hangovers from their service days, there is a real Noir gumshoe mojo going on and both novels feature often amoral anti-heroes in a convoluted world. Coincidentally both authors have had film options taken out on their work (as a sidebar, the new SF Crow’s Nest has a brief chat with Richard Morgan talking about his third novel which will be set on Harlan’s World which is something most of us fans have been hoping to see)

Couldn’t help but think the title Spares is misleading though, and so did most of the group. It refers to the rather nasty business of rich people having clones of themselves made. These clones – known as Spares – are kept hidden away from most human contact in a darkened and locked space so they never develop speech or thought. They are medically cared for and fed by robots but that’s it. They are living organ and limb replacements for their original. Sure, you could use DNA to manufacture new limbs or organs but that takes too much time for the rich folks, so they just keep the poor Spares around and lop bits off as required. Nasty.

Shame he didn’t bring in either some form of pro-life group into the situation or even an underground railroad rescue for them as there was for runaway slaves before the Civil War. But this is because the Spares are actually a McGuffin – pretty much a device to get our main character moving back into places he doesn’t really want to go back to (New Richmond, Virginia, a former flying mega mall which is now over the ruins of the original Virginia – I asked him about that once at an event and he said it was because Richmond was the most awful city, so he exacted literary revenge on it). It’s still a good book but as I said it does make the title misleading since it isn’t really about the Spares. And the general consensus was that the ending was a bit sloppy and rather Deus Ex Machina, as if he didn’t quite know what to do at the end. Certainly well below the standard of such a fine writer. This said, it’s still a damned good read in my opinion, as are all of MMS’s novels.

Next month it’s classics time as we take on Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Was to be John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, but we had to cancel it for the second time due to the publisher, Penguin, being utterly disorganised right now and unable to give us a delivery date. They are relocating their warehouse, which for such a huge publisher is a big undertaking and one sure to give some disruption. However, Penguin – arguably the best know of all publishers – also invested in an untried, new automated system which didn’t actually work when they tried to use it. Some of their books are being sorted from a hastily erected marquee as we speak. As you can imagine this has left the entire UK book trade struggling to obtain Penguin titles. Customers look bemused that they cannot find famous writers such as James Joyce. We’re losing customers and sales and so are all other booksellers. Penguin itself is estimated to lose around £30 million according to this week’s Publishing News an the sales of their large range of travel guides alone are down by an entire third at what should be their busiest time of year for such titles.

So, you’ll understand that as we sat with the group members tonight discussing what future titles we wanted we had to stipulate that we couldn’t use any Penguin authors for the next few months. Luckily we still had plenty of suggestions – one of Diana Wynne Jones’ kid’s fantasies, a Sandman selection (hurray!) and for our late October meeting we wanted a spooky title for the Halloween season and settled on a good Scottish classic, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which should be great. I suspect most folk are only really familiar with the movie/TV versions which often simplify the text into a good man fighting his evil half for his soul, which is not at all what RLS wrote or intended (Mattoti’s excellent graphic novel version has the idea).

Trying Ryan

The utterly gorgeous Queen of the Spacebabes, Jeri Ryan, is in court according to this article from the Smoking Gun via the SF Crow’s Nest, alleging her then husband kept taking her to night clubs which turned out to be sex clubs where he wanted her to go with multiple partners. Gee, suddenly I feel a little guilty for my Seven of Nine, T’Pol and Aeryn Sun fantasies… Although I’d have reckoned Jeri was enough woman for any man to deal with as it was so her hubby was obviously a bit of a diddy. And you’d have to imagine if your lovely wife says no to a saucy suggestion then it probably means she doesn’t fancy it and trying it again is probably not the best move… Well, Jeri, my sympathies to you and just to let you know I am still single if you’re going to be dating again soon.

In an interesting response to the article there is a counter-claim that this is old news and was only brought up in courts recently because her former hubby, Jack Ryan (presumably not Tom Clancy’s hero) was trying to run for office (as a Republican, so he is obviously a bastard) and the scandal cost him his chance.

Copyright this!

As a very frequent movie-goer I get rather tired of having to put up with the long, two-part bloody copyright signs that come up before each and every bloody film. Like, yeah, 99% of people world wide know they ain’t supposed to sit there with vid equipment bootlegging the movie and the 1% who are going in with the express intention of doing so are unlikely to be put off by these boring and overlong captions. I’m getting so annoyed with having to sit through them several times a month I’m almost tempted to vid a movie just to get my own back on the bastards!Some now come with warnings that the staff are equipped with night-vision goggles to spot bootleggers for smeg’s sake! Anyway, saw this on Boing Boing – out of the mouths of babes, as they say:

“Sunday, June 27, 2004

Three-year-old commentator on pre-movie (c) warnings

James took his three-year-old to see Shrek 2 yesterday and when the copyright warning came on at the start of the picture, his son responded appropriately.

I went to see Shrek 2 today with my son Edward who is 3 next week. He was very excited, he loves going to the cinema. However when the copyright warning about taking pictures and video appeared (the one that Cory Doctorow takes pictures of) he said in a very loud voice “blah blah blah blah”, which had me in hysterics if no one else. ”

Which sums it up. Although I’m glad I wasn’t actually there as 3 is a bit too wee for a movie as almost no kid can stay still and quiet through a movie at that age. I’ve been to a few daytimes showings where folk bring in under-5s with them who then make noise continually. Or in last week’s case the kid wasn’t too bad once the movie started but his mother had to lean over and explain everything to him loudly every few minutes. I could have strangled them both after a while of them ruining the whole film.

Then again I feel like that about anyone who makes noises in the cinema (at least kids have the excuse of being kids, but adults?). At a midnight screening one night friends and I were driven to issuing threats to a group of Asians who had brought along friends who obviously didn’t know English and were kindly translating every single line for them throughout the film… At a recent movie a couple of German students were doing the same for a friend who obviously didn’t have as good English skills. While I am impressed with their multi-lingual skills their lack of awareness for others around them wasn’t so impressive. I’m going to have to start carrying a taser into cinemas I reckon. And those bastards who noisily crunch crap tortillas with that rubbery melted ‘cheese’ which looks and smells (and I imagine tastes) like warm cat sick are second on the list.

Spam-o-matic

Bloody spam, bane of many a web-users life.

“Hi there customer of Barcloyds Bank, our tech department have the problem computerlogical with your database and we are needing your account and password details please. As a thank you we are also giving to you our friend a chance to win money from the Nigerian State Lottery for only the small arrangement fee of £1000 to facilitate the transfer you have already be winning £2506789302048575638. This will also help you to enlarge your penis, win more money, see farm girls being shagged by chicken with strap-on dildos, get you an interest free government loan that they don’t want you to know about and did we forget that your bank be broken – like our English – and we need your details again?”

Just to make things better, some scuzball AOL tech copied customer details, used them to spam folks then sold them on to other spammers… Nice. Then again if you are stupid enough to us Arseholes Online you pretty much deserve everything you get…

Altogether now: “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam WONDERFUL SPAM, WONDERFUL SPAM”

Mirror, mirror…

Also on Neil’s blog which I haven’t had time to check as much recently was a link to Sony Pictures and the official website for Mirrormask, the movie from Hensons that Neil and the wonderful Dave Mckean are working on. Not much to see yet though. There’s also a link to the Hellboy official movie site. It’s been a couple of weeks since I mentioned Hellboy you know.

X

The X Prize for the first successful couple of private flights into space came a little closer. For the first time in history a private group designed, built and flew their own spaceship. I’m not expecting holidays on the moon for the masses in the very near future, but it’s still pretty impressive. Hopefully they will be able to beat the problems which showed up on Monday’s flight.

Fair and balanced

I found this article on Guardian unlimited via a spot on Neil Gaiman’s blog. With Murdoch’s Sky cable-satellite service now also carrying the odious Fox News UK viewers are being treated to the endless spewing or right-wing bile completely devoid of a basis in fact our journalistic integrity. Now they are broadcasting to the UK they decided to have a go at the BBC:

“The Fox presenter, John Gibson, said in a segment entitled My Word that the BBC had “a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Americanism that was obsessive, irrational and dishonest”; that the BBC “felt entitled to lie and, when caught lying, felt entitled to defend its lying reporters and executives”; that the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, in Baghdad during the US invasion, had “insisted on air that the Iraqi army was heroically repulsing an incompetent American military”; and that “the BBC, far from blaming itself, insisted its reporter had a right to lie – exaggerate – because, well, the BBC knew that the war was wrong, and anything they could say to underscore that point had to be right”. “

After the article I posted last autumn on Al Franken’s excellent book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them dealing with Fox and the other right-wing Nazi shock-jock hate-mongers (and Fox’s own goal when they tried to sue him but only pushed the book to the top of the NY Times bestsellers) I found this particularly interesting. Glad to see that at least in the UK the regulators will not just sit back and let these wankers dress up what are almost neo-Nazi rants as ‘news’. Guess this means Anne Coulter won’t be getting a daytime show on UK services then, eh? For shame.

What dreams may come

I had a nice dream a few nights ago. Along with Alex, Ariel, Vegar and my mate Gordon we had set up our own c-operative SF book and comic store. All ours, with row upon row of excellent books we had picked, a bar and even a broom handle for chasing James Lovegrove away from the comics section (it’s not a library you know!). And it was our, pardon the pun, ‘dream bookstore’. Not only was it like the one in San Fransciso (the name escapes me) where the only books stocked were ones picked by the staff as good books, we also had discerning dream customers. No-one ever asked us how to get to Edinburgh Castle and none of our book browsers ever, ever asked for the next instalment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (this is when you realise you’re having a dream). As an added bonus Harvey Pekar came by (and why not?) and decided our lives should be immortalised in comic form in a mixture of American Splendour and Box Office Poison. Naturally we sold issues in the store too. Alt.EdReality Bookstore was famous, with our favourite writers coming in to do events and our favourite bands wanting to do gigs in the bar area. Alas, tomorrow sees a return after a nice weekend off (first whole weekend off in about 6 or 7 weeks) to Bastardstone’s. Oh well, a boy can dream.

Deep Blue

No, not the supercomputer which beat Kasparov in decidedly dodgy circumstances, but a film from the makers of the BBC’s excellent Blue Planet series. We can all carp about the decline of quality broadcasting but one thing the BBC still does extremely well is natural history. Actually, I’d go so far as to say no other broadcaster can match them anymore. With most TV franchises these days around the world being subsumed into larger conglomerates who pump out maximum drivel for least expenditure the few quality programmes are produced by small, independent companies for sale to the bigger ones.

This leaves pretty much the BBC with it’s unique funding system as the only independent who has the resources and budget to fund multi-part documentaries like Blue Planet where it involves filming on several continents and ocean (and under those oceans – far, far under) over a period of years. Even National Geographic can’t match this. Anyone who has watched series like Blue Planet or Attenborough’s ground-breaking Life on Earth is likely I reckon to agree nto only with this view but also agree that is in our best interests that such programming continues to be made, not only to fight dire ‘reality’ TV shows and other cultural rot but also because of the beneficial effects. They are educational; they explain and show us the world around us in a way that adults and children alike can understand and present it in such a way as to make us marvel. A child who has watched these documentaries is one who will grow up to question why we allow corporations to rape and plunder the natural world and poison our own environment.

As with any such years-long endeavour there is a lot of extra footage which didn’t make the cut in the broadcast series. Deep Blue takes a lot of that footage and presents a kind of digest form of the series. Obviously a couple of hours of film can’t match a ten-part series narrated by Attenborough for information content, but that’s not really what Deep Blue is about. This is about taking some of the most spectacular footage of our marine environment and displaying it on a movie screen where the only thing you can do is marvel at it. Some of the imagery from Blue Planet was superb – some shots of whales took years to capture – but here on a big screen it is quite simply stunning.

Starting with an aerial view accompanied by narration by the excellent Michael Gambon we move through enormous, rolling breakers and into the blue ocean itself. The content is similar to the series but the makers have realised quite rightly that this film version if principally a visual feast and Gambon’s narration is minimal – the camera work and the natural world are the stars here. As cinema is above all a visual medium I have no arguments with this. And for anyone who says there should still be some sort of narrative structure to any film – newsflash, NO, there doesn’t have to be, it depends what you’re making – here we have birth, life, death and rebirth. We have gentle giants and the smallest organisms on the planet, soft-eyed seal pups and dangerous Orcas all set against the source of all life on planet Earth. Now that’s a narrative, if you know how to open your eyes and read it.

The great undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau once said the ocean is the source; the beginning of all life. I have a lot of respect for Cousteau – I adored his programmes when I was a boy and I learned much from them. Not just facts about the natural world but also respect for our environment and, equally important a sense of wonder at the amazing variety of life we have on this little globe we call home. As a boy watching Cousteau I was struck by how similar deep-sea exploration was to my other great interest, space exploration. Dark, mysterious realms both – often hostile to human life yet both important to us as a species and both places only small groups of us have had the chance to explore. As Gambon observes in the film more humans have been into space than have reached the deepest depths of the world’s oceans. A well-loved writer of SF and a fervent proponent of manned space exploration is also a keen diver and lover of our undersea world: Arthur C Clarke. Clarke, a passionate diver of many years once remarked that ultimately we all came from the ocean. We still bear that birth in our very body structure, he went on – our bodies are mostly water and our skins like a spacesuit which allows us to live out of the water.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons so many are fascinating by the deep oceans. A deep ancestral memory from untold epochs past which still whispers in our head and reminds us where we came from. And after all, we all begin our loves on this planet in a warm, liquid environment. Perhaps that’s why we feel so comfortable swimming, floating in water’ ancestral memory and personal memory of the womb combining. Add to this an incredible abundance and variety of life. Tiny plankton, bizarre, alien-looking creatures from the crushing depths, sleek sharks, playful dolphins, corals, living structure of beauty and fragility which can spread for hundreds of kilometres. Fish, squid, octopi, seabirds, reptiles and even mammals – pretty much every form of life on Earth has it’s representative in our seas. Including the Blue Whale. The largest animal in the entire five billion year history of Planet Earth. Bigger than the largest dinosaur with the greatest heartbeat of all animals; veins running from that heart are practically big enough for a human to swim down. Like us, a mammal; warm-blood flows in those veins as this creature with a huge heart and huge brain moves effortlessly through deep waters.

Deep Blue is limited release only, but I commend it to any and all of you. Just sit back and let his incredibly beautiful imagery wash over you like an ocean swell. This is something marvellous and the images from the deepest ocean floor (Blue Planet not only captured some deep-ocean creatures for the first time on film, it also found species new to science) are remarkable – you have to remind yourself that in all the thousands of years humans have sailed the seas it is only the recent coupe of generations who have seen these sights. The Marianas Trench was as mysterious as the Dark Side of the Moon was until Russian probes photographed it only four decades ago. We’re the first people in history to see these marvels – deep, cold, lightless depths where no sun ever reaches. There should be nothing here, but instead there is life in abundance. Every niche in our magnificent world has been colonised by life. This was beauty. This was wonder. If you are depressed you will feel uplifted. Remind yourself just how remarkable our world truly is.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to resurrect my ocean-themed poem, Blue. I wrote this – or more accurately it wrote itself almost – in my head a couple of years ago while stressing out dealing with Xmas shoppers one December in the bookstore (a most hideous experience). I started thinking on a calm, blue ocean to keep myself sane and within a few minutes the poem just grew from a single image. My friend Sarah liked it so much she made a painting of it in the style of a cover of a children’s book (Sarah writes and draws her own) and gave it to me (I still have it on the wall – the words swirl around in the deep blue surrounding a mermaid).

B l U e

Blue,

Deep blue,

Pulsing currents,

The sea moves

To a rhythm,

Like the blood,

Like the heart.

The salt water,

Ebbing, flowing,

Do the tides

In my veins

Mimic the oceans,

Or do they mimic me?

High and low tides,

Troughs and peaks,

In waves and souls,

The oceans speak.

I float serene,

Amidst the blue,

It whispers gently:

This is where

You came from.

This is where

You find peace.

Here be dragons

There is an excellent series on the History Channel on Sundays at the moment on cartography and the great age of exploration. This week decided to spurn the more (unjustly in my opinion) famous Columbus for the scholars of the Saint Die school who were not only master cartographers of the age (and this is an age when maps are state secrets because, like words, they have great power) but radical intellectuals, pushing the barriers of human knowledge in a time when it could be dangerous, even heretical, to challenge the status quo (read Catholic Church) view of how the world was.

They took charts from Amerigo Vespucci, a great explorer almost unknown to most folk today, who is almost certainly the first European explorer of that age to land in mainland America (beat to it by the Vikings, but they didn’t come back and by the Sinclair lords of Orkney in Scotland who did and left carvings of New World crops in Roslin Chapel to remember them by). He was the first to realise this land mass was a continent, unlike Columbus (who never set foot on it) who still assumed he had found a far western archipelago of the East Indies…

Only one fine example of this amazing map, called the Waldseemuller Map has survived in a German collection. Eventuall, after a century or so of trying, the US Libray of Congress finally secured it for their collection. Why such perseverance? Well, look at the map. Look at the name of the explorer. Amerigo. Continents were then normally given feminine namings, which lead to ‘America’. And there it is on a distorted map which nevertheless still has some parts of Florida recognisable. The first time it is drawn, the first time it is named. How little they could have known then that they were naming such a vast land.

I don’t know about anyone else, but as a boy the tales of the great explorers were amongst my favourite reading. The tales of adventure, daring, danger and wonder astonished me. They still do. Many of thsoe explorers disappointed me in later life when I grew up and found many were greedy men out for gold and power, but some still inspire, like James Cook. An explorer a fine sailor, amazing navigator, a man who looked after his crew in days when many did not and also a scientist. This series covers the time when our world was largely unknown to us. It is hard today when we all see a satellite view of our home on the TV weather to realise that once we simply did not know what the world looked like. Was it flat? Round? What lay out inthe great Atlantic ocean? Were there really lands with giants? The wonderful embellishments on those maps then were partly decorative but principally they were a way of marking the limits of the cartographer’s knowledge. ‘Here be dragons’ is perhaps something of a cliche nowadays, but once those dragons were real. They were dragons of darkness and ignorance of our own planet and like the mythical dragons they had to be challenged to relinquish their treasures. Imagine sailing out into the unknown in a small, wooden sailing vessel, literally sailing off the edge of the map, truly going where no-one had gone before. When people argue today that the space programme is not worth the money or time I point out that without this urge, this need to explore and to learn our civilization would still be in the Middle Ages. Exploration is in our blood. It drove us from the trees, across continents and then across vast oceans and one day, across the stars. Oen day someone will look back at our generations and marvel at their early star map and basica rockets and the achievements they created with them and wonder about our great age of exploration.

Hat’s off

If you fancy a laugh and to be reminded of the ridiculous absurdity of the upper classes then have a look at some of the dreadful millinery sported by the wealthy and inbred members of upper-crust Brit society at Royal Ascot here.

Cover story

As a sort of coda to my mate Vegar’s recent ruminations on book covers I overheard two 20-something female customers remarking on the jacket designs for Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mysteries from Orbit. They thought they ‘looked silly’ and ‘like kid’s books’, a charge a couple of magazine reviewers have also raised, all though their reviews were generally as favourable as my own on the Alien.

I like the cover design for these books. They reflect a big attempt by major publishers to do something about the jacket design for titles, especially for genre work such as horror, SF&F or crime. Orbit, the UK publisher of Sookie have been revamping their entire stable with mostly rather good results in my not very humble opinion as a reader, reviewer and professional bookseller. Their make-over of one of my favourites, Comrade Ken MacLeod’s entire range has given both good-looking jackets and also a uniformity to the series – they’ve actually designed them not only individually but together because they know readers will often have a range of an author’s work and that they like to have them look good on their shelves.

I liked them so much I actually sent a message to Uncle Tim Holman, head of Orbit to tell him that I thought the new covers were quite refreshing. I thought the Sookie ones were great – fun, light-hearted and yet with a comedy-laced form of Gothic not unlike Charles Addams or Ed Gorey or Richard Moore. But these girls didn’t like them, so I guess that proves you can’t please everyone, can you? On a more positive note, I received my UK edition from Orbit of our local lad Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky. It too has a pretty cool cover and a nifty looking smaller hardback format. I’m re-reading it right now to see how it comapres to the much earlier draft I read about 18 months back when it was still called Festival of Fools (it has a sly dig at the Edinburgh Festival in a way most non-Edinburgh dwellers won’t really get but made me smile) and as Charlie himself observes, he’s been working and pushing it for a fair few years to get to this stage. Looking forward to interviewing Charlie soon for the Alien and recommend the book to anyone – a chance to get in on the ground floor before his new book deals in the states elevate his name. And how can you resist a book which begins on a backward colony world of a 19th century-style Russian Empire society with a rain of telephones falling on their cities from orbit?