Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cabin essences - half-demolished holiday camp cabins

While I was away at Conception UK over the weekend - write-up to follow - I came across some fantastically bleak looking half-demolished holiday cabins and fell in love with the structure and geometry that still shone through the wreckage.

This inspired me to take some photos of them and re-start my Flickr account.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Pawn of Prophecy, or How To Become A Wish-Fulfilment Demigod In Five Books

So, having dipped into Stephen Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles and started on the Julian May's Saga of the Exiles, we come to the third of the authors who set me on the path towards geekery at an early age - David Eddings and his Pawn of Prophecy (1982).

That's Book One of the Belgariad, people:

Or, How To Become A Demigod In Five Books
Or, Let's Write The Same Darn Series Twice Over
Or, Yes, Reader, You Will Get To Visit Every Country On The Map

Over and above their writing chops, Donaldson and May are still interesting to me because their books fizz with ideas and idiosyncrasies. Eddings is interesting not for his perfectly serviceable writing, but mainly because he helped to define a template for a whole generation of modern high fantasy.

And sold several shedloads of books into the bargain.

I could spend a few happy paragraphs criticizing Eddings' bad habits: regarding nationality as characterization is a particular pet peeve, as is having your villains into scarification and wandering round in black robes. Y'know, for the avoidance of doubt?

Instead though, I want to use Pawn to try and understand why the Eddings formula worked.

1. The [teenage] [male] reader self-identifies with the hero.

Garion is not in himself an interesting protagonist. But Pawn and its sequels allow the reader to grow with him from a adolescent farm-boy into a hero. Garion takes us through rites of passage like first fight, first kiss, leaving home, first prophecy-fulfilling killing of a deity - the usual teenage stuff.

Bingo - a target audience gratified. Which is not something you can say about the Covenant Chronicles.

2. Cliche weaving

If you want a complete list of tropes Eddings uses - see the TV Tropes entry for the Belgariad. But a quick survey of Pawn of Prophecy alone includes:

- A Gandalf
- A mysterious orphan adrift in the world (see above)
- The classic big man/little man warrior combination a la Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser
- Mysterious prophecies
- Missing magic McGuffin
- Remixed Vikings and Romans
- The slow assembly of a Team to take down the Big Bad.
- Good is rewarded, evil punished.

The point is less that Eddings is working with cliches and old ideas and more that he is weaving them into a very effective formula. So much so, that he re-used it at least four more times in subsequent series.

3. Say what?

I've never read any fantasy writer other than Eddings who crams so much banter into their books. His indisputable grade A talent as a writer is for dialogue, especially light verbal sparring between characters. Otherwise one-dimensional characters come alive through these conversational and behavioural quirks.

He may not be quite up there with the immortal Georgette Heyer, but it's a suitable point of comparison.

“Could you penetrate this palace, Prince Kheldar?" King Anheg challenged.

"I already have, your Majesty," Silk said modestly, "a dozen times or more."

Anheg looked at Rhodar with one raised eyebrow.

Rhodar coughed slightly. "It was some time ago, Anheg. Nothing serious. I was just curious about something, that's all."

"All you had to do was ask," Anheg said in a slightly injured tone.

"I didn't want to bother you," Rhodar said with a shrug. "Besides, it's more fun to do it the other way.”

Having said that, repetition of these tics does mean that five or six books in Garion's companions begin to sound like characters from The Fast Show.

4. The Chronicles of Cosiness

Or the Cosyiad, perhaps?

Pawn and its sequels are fantasy with all the wierdness taken out. Or at least with the remaining magic and strangeness presented in such matter of fact terms, alongside all the domesticity and banter, that it becomes normalised.

The charge, the spark of fantasy comes from its connection to the subconscious, to dreams, to the symbolic language of fairy tales and myth. This means that great fantasy - whether it's Lovecraft, Peake, Tolkien, Moorcock or Mieville - has the power to unsettle through its imaginative leaps.

Eddings does without any of this, but what he loses in greatness he gains in readership. By severing the plot conventions of fantasy from the uncanny, the transgressive, the morally ambiguous or amoral, and the sheer bat-shit unhinged that made it interesting but also disturbed people, he creates a space for 'safe' mass audience high fantasy writing.

So, yes that does make Pawn softcore fantasy. :-)

Tolkien created his own mass market space too, but it's much easier to imitate Eddings than to copy the Professor, who had a pocket universe of scholarship to melt your brain with even if he did pretty much invent cosy fantasy.

5. Brevity

Pawn clocks in 330-odd pages - practically punk rock by the indulgent tendencies of much fantasy novels. And once you pop... Part Two beckons.

To channel my undergraduate economics briefly, the opportunity cost of reading Eddings ain't gonna break your time bank.

I won't be re-reading the rest of the Belgariad, but I've come away with a lot more respect for David Eddings than I expected considering my dislike for what high fantasy has become.

Hmm. Magpiemoth feels conflicted.

Escape The Cheese : behold the publicity

Fantastic news - we're now awaiting these wonderful fliers from the printers - thanks to Rebecca Dudgeon for some great work!

More information about our fantastic Valentine's event is here: http://www.facebook.com/Escapethecheese

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Alternative Valentine's Fundraiser is Go!

Yes, we have plan! Boy, do we have plan!

Behold: Escape The Cheese, the trailer

Escape Valentine’s day and raise money to help Brum bloom

Sick of all the usual Valentine’s day events, two Brummies got together to organise an alternative - a night avoiding all the cheese and clich├ęs of Valentines.

The night would combine good company with live music and performance, allowing people to come together and have a great time. All to raise money for planting trees in Northfield which will one day grow into local orchards.

It would take place on 14th February from 6:30 pm till 8:30pm at Urban Coffee Company, 30 Church Street, Birmingham, B3 2NP

18+ only. Tickets £2 – booking information coming soon.

If you have any questions you can contact us on

Please follow us on Twitter at @escapethecheese and like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/escapethecheese

Monday, January 16, 2012

The hipster Harry Potter - review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians bootstraps its own way to greatness, but it does so on the shoulders of two classic fantasy tropes - the school of magic and the 'through the wardrobe' magic realm. Both are particularly popular in children's fantasy, and I'm going to come out and say that The Magicians is my favourite genre work about the end of childhood since The Wizard of Earthsea.

Yes. it's that good.

The story follows Quentin, a gawky teenage prodigy who finds himself training to be a magician at a so-exclusive-it's-secret New York state college of magic more reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History than Hogwarts - a bitchy, Gothic, pressure cooker of higher education. The school is intricately realised, but more so are Quentin and his fellow pupils. They are moving in their desire to transcend themselves, to move beyond doubt, in that way that young adults often are.

Quentin is also fascinated by Fillory and Further, a set of books resembling the Narnia series in their parallel worlds, talking animals and schoolboy/girl messiahs. When he discovers that Fillory is more fact than fiction, he and his dysfunctional friends find a way over to the other side. Grossman is able to use this quest to expose their illusions.

It's a mark of how good The Magicians is that it doesn't make the account of Fillory any less fascinating or the quest more brilliant.

Darkly humorous, human, deconstructive - this is a modern fantasy to relish.

Timothoth presents Sing-yule-arity: SF horror poetry at its most unspeakable

As the winter has finally arrived, I'm belatedly posting my first ever attempt at spoken word. It was written for Adam Ings' annual Bibby Factors Christmas compilation and recorded by Jim Kennedy. Big thanks to both for helping me make this happen!

True to form, it's a gothic horror story about the dangers of leaving artificial intelligences in charge of Christmas.

The recording on the compilation, recorded outside in the rain for additional lo-fi effect, can be found here, while the text is below.

The rest of the compilation is probably awesome, but as the speakers have blown on my laptop, I'm taking this on faith at time of going to press.

All feedback welcome, but be gentle. I may even write more. :-)


I'm the last man alive
Within 25 miles
And I'm not feeling the Christmas spirit
Though the snow is falling and the songs are calling
From every little high-tech-old-world booth
In this android market

So come ye, so faithful to your programming
And tell this last lookout, this not so merry gentleman
What kind of Beast
Has sledged its way to Bethlehem to be born?

Cause it's the middle of July,
And I don't know why,
These Yuletide Brynners got things going outta season,
But there's a star overhead and it shines a deep red,
On this Fimbulwinter, cyber-Santa, pine-clone, smart-snow, angel-glow,
Mask scene playing out below.

And hark, herald!
So joyless in your triumph,
And tell this last look-out, this bleak midwinterer,
What digital beast,
Has sledged its way to Bethlehem to be born.

Down we go, gently go,
Into the LED-lit, terabit grotto,
Where Lady Gray Goo and her recondite, Stakhanovite nanites,
Will reshape you in a form better suited,
To the most terrifying time of the year.

Now I have seen,
I have seen,
And this last lookout, this vain-taking cavalry caller,
Knows what singular beast,
Has sledged its way to Bethlehem to be born.

(with some apologies to W B Yeats for the steal)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Escape the cheese... with your help

Escape the cheese is now the working title for the alternative Valentine's Day event I'm working on with the fantastic Rach Shah.

Our concept is no tackiness, no speed dating. Just entertainment, some live music, food, drink, mixing people up who don't know each other so good and random weirdness. Hopefully raising money for small local charity or project, to be confirmed.

We have two important questions we hope you can help us with to kick things off:

1. Friends, Brummies, Readers - give us your ideas for venues. We currently have a budget consisting entirely of goodwill, so benefactors and creative thinking are both heartily welcome.

2. Good causes - we'd love whatever intriguing creation we are able to conjure up in precisely one month to help raise funds and awareness for a local project or charity. Please let us know if you have a worthy destination for the cashola that you'd like to suggest.

Thanks for your help!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Maggie Thatcher, coming atcha: The Iron Lady reviewed

Warning - this post comes with Thatcher speaking in Lolcat

The title of this post may suggest I'm not taking this review with the seriousness it deserves. Believe me, I'm not doing anything to this film it hasn't already done to itself. The Iron Lady is well-crafted froth, but it's the least political biopic of a political leader since Springtime For Hitler.

Instead, we get the triumph of the individual and her struggle for respect and self-validation as Margaret Thatcher ascends to Prime Minister, then falls and declines. "There's no such thing as society" might as well be the principle the film follows. The country, the Conservative party and the struggles of the 70's and 80's are nothing more than the occasional backdrop for One Woman's Titanic Struggle Against Teh Odds.

This approach celebrates Thatcher's iconic status
as the first female PM and her undeniable personal virtues - hard work, thrift, determination - and deftly avoids any closer look at her decidely non-feminist politics or the social, political and economic impact of her time in office. Anyone coming to The Iron Lady with little knowledge of the period would be none the wiser for watching it.

What do you think, Lolcat Thatcher?


Exactly. Much more informative than watching The Iron Lady.

What is the point in making a film about the most divisive PM of modern times - from any point on the political spectrum - and not trying to address her legacy?

I can't make up my mind whether the plot device of having present-day Margaret, suffering from the onset of dementia, experience her life in flashback, is inspired King Lear-ing or cheesy and slightly exploitative. Whether the same treatment would be meted out to a living male politician is an interesting question.

What lifts it out of made for TV territory is an A++ performance from Meryl Streep as the Baroness for all seasons. I haven't seen anyone totally own a film in a while and she was a total delight to watch.

And here's a final word from Lolcat Thatcher.


Or perhaps not.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tanu dig it? Many Coloured Land and The Golden Torc reviewed

My reader's block seems to have been well and truly overcome - hurrah! Checking back in with the 'classics' has reinvigorated me, even if, like the Covenant chronicles, I've been reminded of their flaws as well as their merits.

An easier ride this time with my rediscovery of the latter-day planetary romance par excellence, The Saga of The Exiles by Julian May, or parts 1 and 2 thereof, The Many-Coloured Land and The Golden Torc. For novels of aliens, prehistoric beasts and psychic powers, they've aged surprisingly well.

The Golden Torc, with our very own sabre-toothed kitteh.

The set-up - misfits in a post-scarcity future take a one-way trip back in time to Pliocene Europe (pre-ice age, post dinos) to find that aliens got there first - requires a fair amount of willingness to suspend disbelief. To find that these aliens - the Tanu and the Firvulag - are distinctly reminiscent of the Tuatha de Danann and Formorians of Celtic myth, even more so. On the other hand, it sounded pretty awesome when I was 15.

All credit to Julian May - she takes this superficially very silly idea and makes it tick like Swiss clockwork. While TMCL is her first major novel, she came to it after a lifetime of writing and editing and it shows.Few genre novels juggle the perspectives and stories of eight (eight!) main characters and make each of them interesting, three-dimensional and vital. And without screwing up the plot - that's serious writing chops.

The thoughtfulness which lies behind two alien societies, her intricate model of psychic powers, and her future galactic civilization is deployed lightly but clearly. For example, I can't think of many science-fiction writers which would draw on the ideas of 'universal consciousness' put forward by theologian Teilhard de Chardin. I can think of still fewer writers that would do without resorting to screeds of exposition.

Reading as an adult, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the main theme of the series was love. Straight-up romance, loveless sex, sadomasochism, same-sex love, narcissism, amour fou, love of God - all are embodied and worked out in the lives of the ensemble cast. And done in such a way that I can only remove my reading hat in the profoundest of respect.

Not only did this pretty much all elude my teenage self, I also hadn't realised quite how much sex there was in the Saga. I can be partly forgiven for this, given that it's very rarely happening in the scene and when it is, it's described in a few passing, delicate remarks. More often, it's alluded to, talked about but off-stage. A masterclass in how to have a novel with a lot of [justified] sex in it without having to write screeds of awkward description or objectification.

Possibly even better than I remembered it - a pleasant surprise.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Terrible SF paperback covers

Here's an example of deranged semi-symmetry I'm going to submit to the wonderful Good Show Sir and it's collection of terrible SF paperback covers.

Follow the James P Hogan Way of Enlightenment for only $10 and you too will have your path picked out by lurid red spotlights, and not one, but two, terrible, terrible fonts.

Our "at least they made the trains run on time" correspondent writes

Gob-smacking North Korea apologia in the letters page of the Birmingham Mail on Monday this week.

I'm particularly taken by two things in this letter. The quote about the North Korean army and its 'brilliant [..] discipline' conjures up images of our correspondent wandering around his back garden in Weoley Castle trying to marshal paperboys, postmen, his pet cat and local wildlife into replicating the huge theatrical parades for which the regime is known.

It also conveniently overlooks the horrific human rights violations on which that discipline is based.

Second, he asks when North Korea has ever declared war in the world or directly interfered in other nation's affairs.


I had to check, as my knowledge of the Korean War comes largely from M*A*S*H, but yup, I was right, Wikipedia confirms his Utopia threw the first stone here.