Thursday, 31 March 2011

Quote of the Day

A well chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders, and may be used as much for prevention as cure.
Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Quote of the day

If a man's got talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep.
Alfred Bester

The art of writing

Science fiction greats Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl discuss writing.

Part 2.

Part 3. 

Part 4. 

Part 5. 

Part 6. 

Part 7.

Part 8.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Quote of the day

People ask me how I do research for my science fiction. The answer is, I never do any research.
Frederik Pohl

Fifty books to avoid

Ever see one of those "50 books you should read before you die" lists?  Michael Gove takes a more practical approach and lists the 50 books you should die before reading.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Quote of the day

Luigi, the restaurant manager, said to me once that he keeps that particular table for the Queen of Norway or the Queen of Denmark. One night the Queen of Norway was eating at this table and the Queen of Denmark walked in. She looked at the table, she looked at the Queen of Norway, she looked at Luigi and without a word she walked out.
Egon Ronay

Review: Automat

The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece by Lorraine B Diehl & Marrianne Hardart (2002)

I've always had a vivid memory of having as a child eaten in one of New York City's famous Automats–probably while passing through with my parents on the way to somewhere else.  All I can remember is a very antiseptic art deco cafeteria with banks of glass boxes that you opened with coins.  I think that the image stuck with me because I imagined that the huge banks of vending machines actually prepared the food as well as sold it.  The Automat seemed to me a perfect example of how the future would look: A world of clean lines, efficiency, and machines carrying out their tasks for man to enjoy.

I would have been bitterly disappointed to discover that there was no complicated banks of machinery behind the enamel and chrome facade.  There was some advanced technology and some very clever invention at work, but it was miles away in a central commissary filled with hard-working human beings who produced the food for scores of restaurants around town. 

The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece tells the history of the Horn and Hardart restaurant empire's rise from obscure beginnings as a Philadelphia lunchroom in 1883 run by two men:  One a restaurant enthusiast with a bit of capital, but no knowledge of the business, and a German immigrant who had years of restaurant experience and the knowledge of how to make a good cup of coffee as his only assets.  Together, they developed a small chain of lunchrooms dedicated to providing good food at very low prices in genteel surroundings meant to attract female clientele.  Then around the turn of the 20th century they added a new twist by installing their first vending machine from Germany that allowed customers to select their own food for the drop of a nickel.  Behind this, Horn and Hardart developed the central commissary that allowed them to produce dishes at low cost and with uniform quality.  All the staff at the restaurant had to do was keep the food hot, the machines stocked, and the steam tables manned.

Relying on a menu with a full range of what today is regarded as "sit down" food, the Automats became a fixture of Philadelphia and New York.  Their decor was upmarket, modern, and spotlessly clean while their fare was good, cheap, and fast.  The cheap part became increasingly important as the Automats became a haven of food and comfort for people struggling through the depths of the Great Depression.

Automat is not an exhaustive history.  It's more of a nostalgia piece about a fondly remembered restaurant chain that in recent decades succumbed to changes in public taste, rising prices, the changing demographics of the cities, and the rise of fast food franchises.  An intermix of interviews, remembrances, recipes, and images that are far too small, Automat invokes the feel of a time when there was a place where a child could have the thrill of getting its own piece of pie from a magic machine, a struggling actress could it well for very little, and where even the unemployed could nurse a cup of coffee for a few hours. 

The Automat turned out to be a paradoxical place.  Hollywood and popular song spread its fame around the world, yet it was really only a local chain.  It was the height of modernity in its time, but became a symbol of nostalgia, and it's very innovation made it impossible for it to compete in the modern world.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Quote of the day

A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanations.
Saki quote

Review: The Ulltimate Man's Survival Guide

The Ultimate Man's Survival Guide by Frank Miniter (2009)

One of the more alarming signs that Western civilisation is in free fall is the way in which the last two generations have seen men cut off from the very concept of masculinity.  Not merely ignored, modern society actively belittles, scorns, and derides men and masculinity to the point where modern Western males are left to degenerate into feminised metrosexuals with all the airs of over-groomed eunuchs, or slovenly man children who rarely bath and spend all their free time in "man caves" drinking lager, playing video games, and growing old rather than up. 

Small wonder that in recent years there's been a reaction as men yearn to recapture their denied heritage.   In the wake of this has come a small flood of books offering to teach men their manhood.  Some have tried to hand men New Age absurdities cut from whole cloth such as Iron John or hanging out in sweat lodges.  Others focus on superficialities about tying bow ties or buying straight razors.   Outdoor writer Frank Miniter's The Ultimate Man's Survival Guide aims for something more practical such as how to survive in the woods, how to pick out a gun, how to administer first aid, and, yes, how to tie a bow tie.  Mixed in with the practical stuff Miniter tries to give some philosophical underpinnings to masculinity with discussions on the character traits that define manliness, answering the question of what constitutes a gentleman, anecdotes about men's men, and whole chapters on codes of conduct. 

It's a laudable effort and much of the advice is actually useful.  You won't learn how to land a jetliner or shutdown a nuclear reactor, but you will find out how to sharpen a knife, what films a man should see, the difference between legalisms and codes of conduct, and the importance of manly vices.  Perhaps the most important criticism of the book is that Miniter tries to cover too much in too small a volume, so much of his material is often superficial and unsatisfying.  He also isn't as selective as one would like.  A list from one major code of conduct that Miniter finds impressive would have been useful.  Providing a shopping cart from Jesus to Buddha gives the impression that Miniter can't make up his mind.  Some of it also comes across as naive, such as when the author is disappointed when his Red Indian guide doesn't end the hunt with a native ritual.  Just as well.  I always thought that thanking a animal for letting you kill and butcher him is asking a bit much from the beast. 

This is best seen as a casual read–something to whet the appetite on a rainy afternoon, but as a guide to manliness, it's more a starting point than a destination.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Quote of the day

If a man dreams that he has committed a sin before which the sun hid his face, it is often safe to conjecture that, in sheer forgetfulness, he wore a red tie, or brown boots with evening dress.
Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Quote of the day

The best measure of a man's honesty isn't his income tax return. It's the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.
Arthur C. Clarke

John Wyndham: The Invisible Man of Science Fiction

Only part 1, but still fascinating.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Quote of the day

It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that "it can't happen here"–that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.
John Wyndham

Review: Without Warning

Without Warning by John Birmingham (2009)

I'm not a great reader of airport trash fiction.  In fact, I don't read it at all–even on holiday.  My idea of beach reading is pretty much the sort of fiction I usually read, but in the form of an old paperback that's on its last legs, so it's no great loss if it gets washed out with the tide.  Last week, however, I broke habit and picked up John Birmingham's Without Warning from the public library.  This was largely out of curiosity after the novel's "The world without America" theme was used by political pundits as a way of describing the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, this was a curiosity that wasn't worth indulging in.

Without Warning's premise is that on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003 (it's not only sci-fi, but alt hist) the continental United States along with most of Canada and Mexico are enveloped in a mysterious "Wave" that destroys all life, or all animal life, or all primates, or all human life by reducing them to piles of smoking ash.  Or is it goo?  Birmingham can't seem to make up his mind about these basic plot points.  With the world's only superpower reduced to Alaska (which barely gets a mention), Hawaii, and (for some reason) Seattle, the geopolitical implications are earth shattering and threaten to destroy civilisation itself, so naturally Birmingham spends the first chapter rabbiting on about the adventures of a American female super-spy/assassin with a brain tumor. 

That's where the novel falls down; in the fist sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter.  From the book blurbs, you'd expect Birmingham to give us an insight into what the world would be like if the United States just vanished.  How would the world cope?  Sorry.  Instead, Birmingham deals exclusively with how Americans deal with America vanishing.  His situations all revolve around America, American armed forces abroad, and the rump state that comprises the new United States.  All of his main characters are American except for some cartoon villains and an English lady aristocrat, but don't worry; she talks and acts exactly like an American.  For the rest, we have to content ourselves with tiresome and unedifying pronouncements about the dollar collapsing and the Muslim world rising up in an orgy of murder and destruction.  But we don't see any of that except as it impinges on the American characters.  Even then, Birmingham doesn't bother to explore beyond the superficial.  Seattle has power rationing.  Why?  The power is hydroelectric, so are the dams behind the Wave?  We're never told. Petrol is rationed, but Alaska is untouched and both Hawaii and Seattle have refineries, so why?  There may be good reasons, but Birmingham isn't interested in supplying them.

The novel seemingly follows a number of points of view, but it soon becomes clear that these subplots have literally nothing to do with one another and that Without Warning is really five short novels cobbled together like literary All Sorts.  As much to kill time as anything else, we get to follow the afore mentioned spy as she tries to escape counterespionage killers in Paris, the commander of Guantanamo Bay as he does nor much of anything except succumb to stress, endless meetings in Honolulu, Martial law in Seattle, an embedded reporter in Kuwait, and American refugees trying to escape from Acapulco on a luxury yacht.  As to the main plot, there isn't one; just a lot of excuses for characters to goggle at the destruction, emote, and rush from one cinematic action sequence to the next.  Sometimes it feels like a bad spy thriller, sometimes like a bad Tom Clancy pastiche, sometimes like bad science fiction, but mostly it's just bad.  The characters aren't complex, but they are "colourful".  I hate colourful.  Motives are simplistic, yet still incomprehensible.  The story just spins in circles for page after page.  It gets so bad that when a nuclear war breaks out halfway through my reaction wasn't the demanded horror, but elation that something had actually happened.

Then there are the action sequences that get a bit "samey" after a bit as one firefight blends into another.  By the last half of the book, the start lapping themselves as the yacht repels hijackers for the second time and the reporter is thrown unconscious from yet another exploding vehicle.  This isn't surprising, since this is a world where nothing can crash into anything without wiping out a cargo of innocent children–which also happens with monotonous regularity.  Still, we at least learn the valuable lesson that slim, hot women with ample bosoms stuffed into low-cut tank tops can fire heavy machine guns from their hips.

As to the Wave that caused all of this?  It hangs about through the book, but no one learns anything at all about it–not even the sort you'd expect to learn by poking sticks at it.  That is, even if you don't know what it does, you can figure out what is doesn't do and extrapolate from there.  But Birmingham has no interest in his device, so we're left hanging.

The worst part is at the very end when, after slogging through 528 torpid pages we discover that this is only the first doorstop volume in a series.    Nothing is resolved, there is no climax, and the only stop to running out of paper is a cliffhanger that reads like it was tacked on by the editor as an afterthought.

If you're going on holiday and get stuck in the airport without reading matter, pass this one up and see if there's a paperback Jan Austen somewhere.  If not, even the unending CNN broadcasts are a step up.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Quote of the day

If we did not bring to the examinations of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them.
C S Lewis


Friday, 18 March 2011

Quote of the day

There's a point, you know, where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.
George MacDonald Fraser

J.R.R.Tolkien: Master of Middle Earth

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Quote of the day

Fortune cannot be flattered by such fetish worship. But she can be wooed and won by hard work.
Lord Beaverbrook

Newspaper Story: predigital edition

Monday, 14 March 2011

Quote of the day

If naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational cuts its own throat.
C S Lewis

Review: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E Howard (1998)

Solomon Kane is a perfect example of Howard's technique of completely immersing himself into his characters until, like a method actor, his own personality would fade and he'd even start talking like his fictional offspring in real life.   Kane is one of Howard's lesser known characters, which is a pity because he is a stunning contrast to his better known creations like Conan. Where Conan is the embodiment of Howard's ideas about barbarism; a vital historical force that is man's true state of nature and one, given time,  guaranteed to overwhelm any civlisation like the sea bashing against rocky cliffs,  Solomon Kane is a much more complex character representing man's refusal to bow before a hostile universe.  Ostensibly a Puritan and a "landless man" from Devon in the days of Sir Francis Drake, Kane is a remarkable contradiction.  A man from a mysterious past who roams the world with only sword and pistols as baggage, he seeks out wrongs to right–not as a knight errant, but as the self-styled instrument of God's wrath.  This is not entirely affectation because he's been known to cross entire continents to slay a stranger girl's murder.  However, Kane may be a fanatical Christian, but there is more pagan than monk about him.  Never showing much of God's love, he is a man given to vengeance more fitting to a Viking warrior and for all his denial of self, Kane cannot abide the thought of ever being mistaken for a coward, which at least once was almost his undoing.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of Howard's Kane stories interspersed with poems and story fragments about the Puritan warrior.  Following Kane as he deals with English ghosts, French rogues, pirates, slavers, and the like, the bulk of the stories deal with Kane's wanderings in a central Africa that owes more with H P Lovecraft than Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Not only does he deal with wild beasts and cannibals, but Kane also does battle with lost civilisations collapsed into horrible decadence, voodoo, hordes of vampire zombies, harpies, and things that literally defy description.  Through it all Solomon Kane walks as a symbol of defiance before horrors that laugh at man and mock justice.  It's a hard anvil of a world that Howard draws, but it captivates and remains long after the average airport novel has faded into dim memory.

It's entirely possible to finish off a volume of Robert E Howard stories in an afternoon, but that's like saying that one can wold down a plate of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, dripping, new potatoes, and sauteed asparagus in ten minutes, but why would you want to do so?  The whole point of either is to savour the richness and flavour in every bite. I'd recommend at least a week to read this collection with a time out between course to cleanse the palate with lighter fare.  A crisp 1925 P G Wodehouse might suffice.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Quote of the day

I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.
George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Quote of the day

There ain't nothing that breaks up homes, country and nations like somebody publishing their memoirs.
Will Rogers

Making a book–predigital edition

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Quote of the day

Editing is the same as quarrelling with writers - same thing exactly.
Harold Ross

Proofreading tips

Proofreading is one of the most essential and least welcome parts of writing.  It comes at the end after all the creating, revising, rewriting and general tinkering.  This is the point where you're looking for errors, making those final tweaks, and giving your manuscript that final polish before pushing it out the door.  It's also maddeningly boring because it involves going over every page line by line, word by word, and punctuation mark by punctuation mark.  It requires that final fact check, that final update, and all the thousand and one little things that need to fixed.  It's also nerve wracking because there's always the fear that you'll find some last-minute mistake that requires a massive rewrite (Wait a minute, Carstairs was in Hong Kong.  He couldn't be in Surrey by lunchtime).

Proof reading can be a miserable chore or a tolerable job depending on how you approach it.  One of the simplest ways of making things easier is by taking proper care during the writing.  Having a solid knowledge of spelling, grammar, and punctuation means fewer mistakes made and fewer to correct.  Also, having a good style guide on hand can be a great help.  One of the most frustrating parts of proofreading is that sometimes there's more than one way to spell a word or use a punctuation mark, so consistency can be a real headache.  A good style guide can go a long way toward avoiding a lot of backtracking and correction later on.

By the same token, having reference works such as dictionaries and thesauruses close at hand can be a great help.  Thanks to the Internet, these don't even have to be books, but rather gadgets or apps that you can use at a seconds notice.  These can even include translator applications to help with those occasional foreign phrases that you want to make sure you're using correctly.

Sadly, the digital age has made my favourite editing tool, the blue pencil, obsolete, but there are others to replace it.  Today, the tool to help with proofreading has to be a good word processing programme such as Word or Open Office Writer.  What you need is one with a Track Changes function as well as tools such as Insert Comment, Spell Check, Grammar Check, and Find/Replace.  If your processor has a split screen function so that you can look at one part of the document while working on another, so much the better.  With these, you can automate a lot of the tasks of proofreading and make corrections throughout the document with the click of a mouse instead of laboriously doing them yourself.  Bear in mind, however, that these tools are just that; tools.  They won't catch a word that is properly spelled, but still the wrong word, nor will they tell you if a sentence makes sense.  For that you still need the Mark I Eyeball and a brain.

Perhaps the best advice for proofreading is to remember that it requires a great deal of concentration.  You need to not only read every word, but be aware of what you are reading.  This requires a lot of effort and a person cannot maintain that level of focus for very long, so remember to budget as much time as you can afford for proofing.  Ideally, you shouldn't try to proofread for more than a couple of hours before taking a break and recognise that you may only get so many pages done in one day.  Trying to rush the job just means missing mistakes and having to start all over again, so the best thing to do is to take it slow and keep your mind fresh and your eye sharp.

Here's a list of essential references for starting out:

  • AP Style
    •  The standard guide to journalism writing and, when you understand its limitations, an excellent work to have at hand.
  • Chicago Manual of Style
    •  The proofreader's friend.  A great tool, if a bit daunting the first time you dip into the print version.
  • The King's English
    •  Hard-hitting work on English usage that clears up many ambiguities and because it was written before the days of Political Correctness, it puts language before party orthodoxy.
  • Strunk and White's Elements of Style
    •  The classic, concise work on how to write clearly.
  • Merriam Webster Dictionary
    • Standard collegiate dictionary of Amreican English.  A bit easier to use that the Oxford English, which remains the heavy artillery.
  • Thesaurus
    • The big guns are in Roget's (get a print edition is you can).  If you're in a hurry, the more accessible thesaurus at Merriam Webster online edition will do.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Quote of the day

At fifty everyone has the face he deserves.
George Orwell

Review: Derai

Derai by E C Tubb

Earl Dumarest on his quest to find his home planet Earth takes on the job of escorting home a runaway noble girl who seems to be insane.  For Dumarest, this seems to be an easy, lucrative job that will bring him one step closer to his goal, but things don't turn out as neat as expected.  The girl Derai's instability covers a dangerous secret–one which places her at the centre of plots and intrigues of galactic proportions and which throws Dumarest up against his enemy the Cyclans, the human computers bent on universal domination. 

Derai is an interesting book because its not only a marvelous page-turner that highlights Tubb's ability to create exotic, barbarous and dangerous worlds, but it is also pivotal to the emerging formula of the  Dumarest Saga.  The second book in the 33 volume series, Derai is where Tubb starts to develop the main characteristics of the story. Until now, Dumarest's wanderings have been voluntary and he's always had the option of stopping and settling down–provided he can find a safe planet to do so.  Put in Derai. Dumarest is given both a powerful emotional shove from his tragic love affair with the title character and by coming into direct conflict with the Cyclan in a way that changes Dumarest's dislike for them into hatred and soon turning the Cyclan into an enemy that makes Dumarest as much a fugitive as a seeker.

It's a tidy book filled with action and intrigue that does not disappoint as well as Tubb's ability to play with ideas of life and death that are surprisingly subtle and disturbing.   It's not only of interest to the casual reader who wants an easy read on a wet afternoon, but also for the writer wanting to learn how to craft a formula and keep it fresh over nearly three dozen iterations.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Quote of the day

I wonder sometimes if manufacturers of foolproof items keep a fool or two on their payroll to test things.
Alan Coren

Alan Coren interview

A lot of politics, but a nice intro to Mr Coren's wit.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Quote of the day

Children accept many things adults will not accept, since the world of a child is a constant revelation without any need for knowledge of cause and effect.
August Derleth

Review: Nameless Cults

Nameless Cults by Robert E Howard, edited by Robert M Price (2001)

Robert E Howard is best known today for creating the sword-wielding barbarian Conan, but what many people forget is that he was a close friend of H P Lovecraft and a major influence on the development of the latter's Cthulhu Mythos. It must have been an odd friendship that bared they effete, Goreyesque Lovecraft with the rawboned Texan Howard, but their correspondence was filled with a common fascination with weird fiction and critiques of one another's stories.  Nameless Cults shows how much the two had in common.  If you've ever wondered what it would have been like if Howard tried to write like Lovecraft, you don't need to.  He did and he also contributed many ideas that found their way back into Lovecraft's work.

Both an examination and an anthology, Nameless Cults is a collection of all of Howard's "Cthulho Mythos fiction", though the editor Robert M Price uses a fairly broad definition that includes stories where the connection is little more than the villain's name.  As with most anthologies, the best stories are in the front with the classic "The Black Stone", practically a pastiche of Lovecraft, leading the pack.  Other stories include a series beginning with "The Worms of the Earth", which examines Howards take on leprechauns, an adventure story that would have credited Talbot Munday, and Howard's own spin on Fu Manchu.  Unfortunately, the collection also includes several "posthumous" collaborations where later authors spun stories around fragments left behind after his suicide in 1936 at the age of 30.

Though Howard was dabbling in Lovecraft territory, there is rarely anything of Lovecraft's wilting heros here.  We are talking about the creator of Conan.  Instead of ending up gibbering in a madhouse, Howard's protagonists are more likely to confront the Thing From Beyond with a broadsword and a snarl.  This may sound paradoxical, but remember that Howard's Conan stories are actually pretty dark affairs about how civilisation is just a quick breath before the world descends back into its natural order of barbarism.  It isn't a far step from there to Lovecraft's idea of an indifferent universe ready to corrupt and destroy mankind on a passing whim.

The one thing that stood out in Nameless Cults is how it showcases Howard's poetic streak.  For a series of horror stories laced with blood and thunder, it's a slow read because of the incredible richness that Howard brings to his prose.  The images he produces are so dense and vivid that reading slows down to a crawl in order to take it all in.  He also creates a world that operates by its own rules–some of which, such as his views on race, are pretty strong meat by any standard, but I suspect that the more tame and effeminate readership of the 21st century may find even his basic take on manhood distasteful.

But then, Howard would probably have found that readership distasteful, too.