Thursday, 30 June 2011

Writer's Block III

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Inside the New York Times

From the Youtube description:
In the tradition of great fly-on-the-wall documentaries, the film deftly gains unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom and the inner workings of the Media Desk.
Translation:  This is a love letter to the Grey Lady.  If you're looking at anything about NYT bias or plagarism scandals, it'll probably be pretty thin on the ground with this one.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Review: 1975: And the Changes to Come

1975: And the Changes to Come by Arnold B Barach & the Kiplinger Washington Editors. (1962)

 Predicting the future is a tricky business and more than one profit has ended up with egg on his face instead of laurels on his brow. That's one of the things that makes it fun and it's also one of the reasons why looking back at old predictions is a valuable historical tool.  A correct prediction is dull and tells us very little, but an incorrect prediction is like a machine that breaks down; what went wrong tells you much more than what went right.  In the prediction stakes, 1975 is remarkable for being one of the more sober looks ahead.  Inspired by a 1960 article in Kiplinger magazine, 1975 is author Arnold B Barach and the Kiplinger editors attempt to take a serious look at the world of the near future.  The reason?  To give the public

They do a credible job.  Not only do we have the gee-whiz technology stuff illustrated with many rare photos of mock ups and prototypes, but the chapters delve into questions of population statistics, demography, education, consumerism, suburbanisation, transportation, atomic power, and space flight.  There's even a chapter on the best investments for the next decade.  Much of the analysis is sober and matter of fact and shows that the concerns of the 21st century had their precursors in the 1960s and that fears of big government were just as great then as they are now.  The only thing that's changed is the scale of the threat, which is something of a blessing when you think about it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Review: The Nine Billion Names of God

"The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C Clarke (1953)

Chuck and George are computer technicians on an unusual assignment.  They've been flown 12,000 miles to a remote lamasery in Tibet to supervise a Mark V computer that the monks leased from their company for a unique task; to calculate and print out all the nine billion possible names of God.  This is a bit odd as computing science goes, but the monks' money is good, so what's the difference?

The difference is when Chuck and George discover what the monks expect to happen when the last name is printed and the technicians decide that it would be healthier to be elsewhere when it doesn't. 

"The Nine Billion Names of God" is a tidy little short story with one of the most exquisite last lines of science fiction.  It's also unusual because it's one of the few examples of pure fantasy that Clarke wrote, though the inclusion of a computer invariably gets the story pigeon holed as sci fi.  Clarke's writing is neat, charming and sets up the gag and the payoff in such a way that the end isn't the frighting moment that it could have been, but almost serene in its finality.  It's also sobering that when this story was written in 1953, the computer had to be a massive, barely transportable machine that requires two men, a diesel generator, and a lot hard-wired programming to work.  Today, anyone who knows a bit of coding and has a dull afternoon can do what the Mark V did and you can see the results on the Internet from your smartphone.

But please let me know if you plan to run the programme to its conclusion.  I have a book I'd like to finish beforehand.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Review: Glide Path

Glide Path by Arthur C Clarke (1963)

It's the depths of the Second World War Flying Officer Alan Bishop, a fledgling radar technician, is assigned to a new top-secret project Ground Controlled Descent (GCD); a new application of radar that allows ground controllers to safely talk down aircraft even in zero visibility.  Working with an eccentric team of British and American servicemen, scientists, and technicians as they struggle to maintain and perfect their cranky prototype apparatus, Bishop is not only introduced to a new world of challenge and knowledge, he does a great deal of growing up in a very short time.

Sir Arthur C Clarke is best known for such science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama. With Glide Path, Clarke ventures into unfamiliar territory with his only mainstream fiction novel.  In fact, it's more of fiction mixed with a strong dose of autobiography as Clarke calls upon his own wartime experiences for material.  It's still a Clarke story with his usual love of technology and, as usual, there are no villains unless you count the Germans who are so far off stage that they might as well be on Mars.  However, it's very unusual for a Clarke novel in that it has fully fleshed out characters and the plot is largely character driven. Clarke had many real-life models for the men and women of RAF St Erryn and he made good use of them.  Indeed, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of Clarke's writing and I would judge this as being one of his best works.   The plotting is chronological and episodic, but in a book that reflects the format of the war memoir this is a strength rather than a failing. 

It's a pity that Clarke didn't write more novels like this.  Even if mainstream fiction wasn't his metier, bringing some of the power of characterisation that marks Glide Path would have added a new dimension to Clarke's science fiction efforts.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Review: The Lost Machine

The illustrator misreads the description.
"The Lost Machine" by John B Harris (1932)

A strange machine like a metal coffin with spider legs and arms is found running about the countryside. Taken to the home of a local doctor, the machine destroys itself; leaving behind only a pool of mercury-like metal and a manuscript that the machine had written, telling its story.  The machine turns out to be a Martian robot stranded on Earth after its spacecraft explodes due to some unexplained accident.   Trapped on an impossibly alien planet, the machine tries to make sense of its surroundings, but things are so different that it can't tell what's artificial and what's not (rivers are badly made canals and buildings are rock outcroppings to it).  It's power to read minds doesn't help because all it picks up is the bewilderment and fear of the humans it encounters.  The final straw comes when the machine sees its first motor car up close and discovers that it's a dumb lump of iron rather than an artificial intelligence.  Faced with utter loneliness, the machine must now cope with emotions it was never designed to entertain.

 Many people believe that all robots in science fiction were rampaging Frankenstein's monsters until Isaac Asimov came along, but there were many earlier examples, such as in this 1932 story by John B Harris–better known today by his more famous pen name of John Wyndham.  "The Lost Machine" is a short story told in flashback. With an economy, Wyndham does an excellent job of conveying the plight of the machine and sets up the beginning/ending of the story beautifully.  Unfortunately, this is balanced by Wyndham still at the stage in his career when he's trying to find his personal style and his grasp of supporting characters is still poor to the point of cliche.  However, his ability to craft a tale of poignancy revolving around a robot demonstrates Wyndham's potential.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Freelance writing blogs

If you're an aspiring freelance writer and looking for blogs on the subject, Freelance Switch has an excellent compendium.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review: Rogue in Space

Rogue in Space (1957)

Crag is a criminal--a violent criminal. Come to that, he's a violent, misogynist criminall facing a choice between spending twenty years on a penal colony or having his mind wiped after being framed for drug running. The frame up turns out to be the first step by a power-hungry judge to use Crag to steal something for him on Mars that will allow the judge to lead a political revolution. But all is not as it seems and trust in Crag's world is a sure way to commit suicide.

Rogue in Space started as a pair of novellas written by Brown in 1949 and 1950.  The novel is essentially a stitching together of the earlier stories with a few very minor rewrites to match them up plus the addition of extra sex and sadism to spice things up for the hardcover market.  The seam is still there, however, and the stitching is very obvious with the plot revolving around Crag's part in the judge's plot suddenly shifting to Crag's adventures with a sentient asteroid.  The seam is also obvious in Crag himself. In the first half, he's a hard-bitten career criminal who has killed so many men he's lost count while in the second it's clear that his criminality is more a manifestation of Crag being the only man of integrity in a decadent, corrupt society.  It doesn't help that after a promising start the plot slows to a crawl until it reaches a dramatically unsatisfying ending. The story is also as grim and humourless as Crag himself and Crag is so one dimensional that as he struggles for meaning in his life you wonder why he doesn't get a hobby, collect stamps, or join a reading circle. 

Worst in all of this is that Brown, who justly made his name as a humour writer, shifts his gears into sci-fi noir, yet can't help but to throw in a running gag about Crag kicking in television sets.  Anthony Boucher called Rogue in Space "a thumping error in judgment," It would be hard to disagree.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

How to drink like Hemingway

Or Faulkner or Burroughs.

Personally, I prefer to drink like Waugh, who claimed that his favourite pastime was to sit in a chair and drink gin until he quietly fell over backwards

Monday, 13 June 2011

Amazing Stories No. 1

Today, a real treat: The first issue of the world's first magazine dedicated to science fiction.


Thursday, 9 June 2011

More worst proposals

I crank out a lot of blog entries in a day and often on the fly, which means that I end up doing a lot of retroactive editing to weed out typos.  You can barely get away with this with something as ephemeral as the Internet, but in a proposal that can result in a quick trip to the circular file.  Look at these examples and make sure that it doesn't happen to YOU.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: The Children of the Atom

The Children of the Atom by Wilmar H Shiras (1953)

One of the joys of hunting down obscure books is sitting down of an evening to read some delight that I've stumbled across in a dusty secondhand book shop.  One of the disappointments is discovering that said delight is actually a thundering letdown.  Such is The Children of the Atom.

Child Psychiatrist Peter Welles examines Timothy Paul, a very normal though withdrawn 13-year old boy.  Welles quickly discovers that Timothy's normalcy is just a front and he is in fact a supergenius who makes Leonardo da Vinci look like Forrest Gump.   Investigating further, Welles discovers that there are more children like Timothy; all of them offspring of parents who died within a year of receiving a fatal dose of radiation in a nuclear accident.   Welles resolves to bring these "wonder children" together in a special school where they can develop away from the eyes of a misunderstanding public.

Normally, I'd put in a stinger sentence hinting at how the plot takes off from here, but it doesn't.  The entire book is nothing but one long ramble about how these genius kids are ever so lonely and misunderstood, how each copes with the burden of being so brilliant, and how happy they are to join Welles's school.  That's pretty much the entire plot.  Unlike Olaf Stapledon's Odd John, which also dealt with adolescent supermen, The Children of the Atom has no sense of anything at all.  The mutants in Stapledon's book are frightening even at their most benign because they are destined to displace mankind and they know it.  To them, even as teenagers,we're as unimportant as dogs.  God knows what they'll be like when their powers mature.  Shiras's mutants, on the other hand, just want to write novels and poems.  That's not a generalisation; to a mutant every one is an author.  Homo Scriptor, I suppose.  There is a subplot tacked on towards the end about some nutcase denouncing the kids, but it's handled so perfunctorily that it might as well not be there at all.  Indeed, one comes away with the impression that Mrs Shiras was so in love with her characters (watery as they are) that she made the writer's great mistake of protecting them from any hardship when her real job is to heap every misery in Creation on them.

Why such a wet slap of a tale didn't just slip beneath the literary waves isn't any surprise if one knows anything about science fiction fans–especially those of the 1940s and '50s.  It's the same reason that Van Vogt's Slan became a "classic" for all its lumbering plot and bog standard prose.  Think about it.  Your typical science fiction fan of the time picks up a story about a group of lonely teenagers who everyone thinks are either dead normal or a little weird?  Who write stories in secret that no one appreciates but would be if they could just get published?  Who are certainly destined for greatness when they grow up and can finally reveal themselves for what they are?  Who meantime can only take solace in one another's ethereal company?  Sound familiar?  It should.  Add a nagging sense of inadequacy and these Wonder Children are one mimeograph machine away from attending science fiction conventions.

Based on a trilogy of short stories that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction and  is allegedly the inspiration for the X-Men comic books. That explains a lot of things.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Heinlein Quiz

How much do you know about the life and works of Robert A Heinlein?  Find out over at Baen Books.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader by Allen Bennett (2007).

While dealing with unruly corgis, Queen Elizabeth II discovers a bookmobile parked by the kitchens at Buckingham Palace.  Feeling that it it impolite to leave without borrowing a book, Her Majesty selects one and, again feeling it her duty, reads it.  Soon, the aged sovereign develops a royal literary thirst as she devours tome after tome.  She is carrying a book everywhere and is driving her staff to distraction as she shows more interest in her latest line of literary inquiry than her monarchical duties. 

A short and gentle novella, The Uncommon Reader takes the unusual step of having a living monarch as the protagonist.  It's a two-pronged story about the isolated nature of being Monarch of one of the world's great powers and the nature of reading.  On the one hand, we have a queen who has always done her duty, was witness to the great events, and spoken to all the great, good and ghastly, but has never had the real opportunity to develop intellectually.  On the other, we have an examination of how reading both uplifts and isolates; of how it improves, but is only a step in a journey.

Charmingly written and with a neat little sting in the tale, The Uncommon Reader raises a smile instead of a laugh, but it is well worth tuck into the book bag.