Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber fits well into a string of ambivalent fantasies from the 70's. 

[mild spoilers ahead]

Amber's distrust of heroism - and the collateral damage it causes - places Zelazny (like contemporaries such as Donaldson, Harrison and Moorcock) in dialogue with the newly-minted tropes of the genre after the Tolkien boom. 

It being Zelazny - it's also at least superficially about a load of superhuman magnificent b**tards having a right old barney (see also Lord Of Light and This Immortal).

The scoundrels in question are the fourteen princes and princesses of Amber's royal family, squabbling for the vacant throne while also defending the kingdom - the literal centre of the multiverse - from external nemesis. Long-lived heirs to ancient powers, they are able to walk between worlds, discerning possibilities and picking the best (or worst) reality has to offer.

Our narrator is missing-presumed-dead Prince Corwin, who starts the first of the four books (all practically novella-length) collected here as an amnesiac exile on our Earth. Over the course of the Chronicles, he regains his memory and takes a lot of bad decisions which usually involve trusting his relatives. 

Notwithstanding this drama, Corwin ultimately helps to save the day from the forces of Chaos* threatening to unpick the warp and woof of Amber (and thus the universe). He also becomes less of a self-obsessed ass, which by the standards of his family is no small achievement. 

A big part of the pay-off in reading the Chronicles is the gradual revelation that he's not the chosen one, that he doesn't want the throne, and that someone else in the family has been on an even longer emotional journey than he has - that is to say, they are the protagonist

This reversal of expectations, this sense of displacement from cliche is pretty fundamental to Amber's appeal. Take our apparent heroes for another example. 

All of the Amber siblings are capable of heroic acts, but they are monsters too. They win the day not necessarily because they are better than their opponents - on that, your mileage will vary - but because they are more resourceful and more ruthless. Entire armies are recruited from across the planes and perish in their service, while the series is ridden with their one-on-one fratricidal cruelties and plots.

They are Olympian in every sense of the word. And now that I come to think of it, the whole family drama lays itself wide open to a Freudian reading. Hmmm.

Given the above, it's no surprise then that altogether the best scenes in the books, as is usual for Zelazny, are dialogue. It's a delight to read passages with the squabbling sibs aiming rhetorical barbs at each other, like characters from a multi-planar telenovella. 

Elsewhere the writing can be described - like much 70's SFF - as pulp with a side-order of experimentation, usually taking the form of fragmented slide-show descriptions of travel between the worlds. For my money, this side of the Chronicles hasn't aged as well as it might, although I suppose its jarring quality heightens the sense of displacement, this time from the text itself.

And Amber's age does show in its portrayal of women as lovers, wives and femme fatales, but at least tends more toward sins of omission rather than Greg Mitchell style commission.

But in its confounding of expectations and in the richness of its dysfunctional family, Amber is greater than the sum of its parts. It might not be Zelazny's masterpiece - that's still Lord of Light - but in its ambivalence and ambiguity lies its lasting value.

*Zelazny's cosmology here is similar to Moorcock's: lots of law and chaos, only not so psychedelic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

By the time I get to Phoenix '96 - another student music review flashback

In my wasted youth at University of Hull, I penned the odd review for Hullfire, the student newspaper. For the sake of completeness and comedy value, I'm adding them to this blog. 

Here's a never-before published (because not very good) reflection on the Phoenix Festival 1996, which I came across in the recent loft clear-out.

1996! [shudders]

It is the nature of festivals to promise more than they eventually deliver. The hoped-for epiphany of a second Woodstock, with all the rose-tinted, incense-scented baggage this entails, pales before the reality. 

Hours spent gridlocked in traffic outside Stratford-upon-Avon, only to be confronted by second rate bands (hello Gene, hello Bis, hello Shed bloody Seven) plugging holes in inadequate schedules. Yet complaining about the toilets, or the price of food, or even the irritating habit half the camping field had of shouting b******s as I was trying to sleep misses the point: the Phoenix was nevertheless fantastic this year.

Taking place at a Warwickshire WW2 airfield in mid-July, the Festival's keynote was rampant eclecticism. While the headliners were unusually dad-friendly (David Bowie, Neil Young, Sex Pistols), indie, dance, acid jazz and folk thrills were yours for the taking elsewhere on the site, together with the usual sideshows, stunts, strangenesses and stupid hat stalls.

As with all such events, the festival was not entirely without disappointment, with both Leftfield and Massive Attack proving shadows of their recorded selves. Fortunately, it's far easier to name the bands who made it great: the terrifying-bassist-rock of Scheer, the good-time soul of Corduroy and the genre-transcendence of Beck and Bjork.

My festival moment? Being awestruck by obscure New York hip-hop eclecto-rock geniuses New Kingdom whilst caught in water pistol crossfire from the crowd and roadies alike, and then shot some more outside the tent for wearing an Oasis T-shirt. I was soaking wet, but - and if I can sum up the festival experience at all then this is it - why gripe about it all when the music was this good?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

From the archives, my brother's rather wonderful mix-tape designs

Here are some rather wonderful mix-tape covers by my brother, dating back to my teens and found again during the loft clear-out.

Bonus points to him for the hand-drawn and coloured space invader.

Bonus points to you if you remember Sister Wendy, featured here as the cover star of the literally named Nun Over Medieval Toilet comp :-)

And bonus points to the shouty man, because he seems very needy. But to be fair, I did mistakenly attribute him to my brother. Anyone want to claim shouty man as their work?

From the archives - designs, doodles and typography

Drawings, doodle designs and typography found going through the boxes from the loft after the move to the new house. Mostly dating from my late teens to early twenties.

Nope, me neither. And I drew it.

Space-station/lute overlay and ditto.

Stuart Heritage would approve, I hope.

Because the mortgage payments on that spooky pyramid won't pay themselves.

I'm still quite impressed with this French vocabulary typography after all these years. :-)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Introducing the Libertarian Dismount

As coined by US SF writer John Scalzi, the libertarian dismount is an attempt to disrupt the discussion of any social or political issue by re-framing it around the individual and their freedoms.
This is a prime derailing maneuver, [...] e.g., 'It’s a shame that so many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, but this is just why government has no place legislating relationships between people, and why in a perfect society government steps away and blah blah blahdee blah blah.” 
A generation ago, we would have been more familiar with its kissing cousin, the Marxist dismount, e.g. "It's a shame that so many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, but come the revolution..."

It's the bane of many an (online) political debate in the US, but rarely do you see a libertarian dismount tried over here. Unless, of course, you're Brendan O'Neill, The Big Issue columnist, Spiked editor and professional contrarian.

Last month in TBI O'Neill - and I offer reluctant admiration here for his sheer brass - attempted a libertarian dismount against the entirety of identity politics when writing about the upcoming elections.

Here's a couple of extracts demonstrating O'Neill's MO - wrapping an unreasonable claim inside several reasonable ones:
We’re all being put into biological or generational boxes. It’s no longer ‘one person, one vote’ – it’s one gay person, one vote; one pensioner, one vote. It’s expected we’ll vote according to the supposed interests of our race, sex or generation.
But why should we? These are phoney communities (my emphasis). Generation doesn’t determine our worldview, nor does sex or skin colour.
The PC communalism tells the young to see themselves in opposition to the old; it says the black community has different concerns to the white; it says women are a distinctive bloc. What happened to viewing us as The Electorate, a vast group of many equals, to be appealed to on the basis of what we think, not what’s in our underpants or what year we were born?
This denial of lived experience barely needs refutation - and I suspect I'd be playing into O'Neill's assumed intentions in writing the article by trying to do so. Not to mention recapitulating Sociology 101.

So let's just say that here that by making this argument, it seems to me that O'Neill is obscuring real common interests, real issues of discrimination and hardship for which characteristics like race, gender, sexuality and age are flags. It feels like he is suggesting that only his terms for debate are the right ones.

And that, squire, is your actual libertarian dismount.

Any good faith argument of sufficient sophistication - including libertarian ones - will meet its counterpart in the middle. There will be points of agreement. Complexity, like the coexistence of individual rights and collective interests - will be acknowledged. But the libertarian dismount tries to kick away the very fundament of an issue without having to address the points it raises. 

At heart, it's a cheap rhetorical trick disguising a refusal to engage. 

And I think we're going to see more of the dismount here in the UK in the years to come. Not only is the boundary between the market and the state once again becoming contested territory, but there is a worrying backlash against the politics of diversity on the breeze too. 

So, keep a look out for the libertarian dismount when you see it. Know it. Challenge it. If there's one to be had, insist on a good faith debate instead.

*Interesting the only community O'Neill does seem to acknowledge is class - presumably the roots of Spiked in Living Marxism are showing here.