Thursday, September 15, 2016

The cult band as hivemind: The Blue Nile

Despite my actual knowledge of The Blue Nile being limited to one brief listen a long time ago to the university library copy of Hats, look what I picked up the other day.

 

I bought Nileism - which is a cut above the usual music biography, by the way - more for the legend of The Blue Nile than anything else: twenty years existing in Glaswegian shadow, punctuated by only four albums and minimal touring.

With minimal participation from the three core band members Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and P J Moore, Brown struggles to shed much light on their notoriously hermetic and glacially slow musical processes. So inevitably the book does talk a lot about the recordings themselves.

Yet in spite of this - and this is very much a tribute to the author's skill - what Nileism does deliver on is in providing a near-textbook example of the tricksy nature of creativity and the interdependency of method and results. The partnership of Buchanan, Bell and Moore, plus studio owner and engineer Calum Malcolm as enabler and facilitator, seem to have achieved painstakingly slow but successful results over the first two albums. 

They formed what Brown describes, speculatively but science-fictionally, as a hivemind: a joint approach rooted in what he suggests was an uncommonly close working relationship, a sympathetic recording studio, a strong sense of place in the city of Glasgow and a record deal which firewalled them from the demands of the mainstream music industry.

When after album two these conditions gradually changed, Brown reckons, everything slowly expired: the musical results, the friendships and finally the band itself.

Of course it didn't help that none of The Blue Nile seemingly talked out their problems, but the point of this nearly-but-not-quite-a-review is to stress how important understanding your creative eco-system is for your art. Change any one factor and you risk disturbing the foundations of what you've built.

Change nothing, of course, and you risk stagnation. But that's a whole different story.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fit For The Planet Part 2 - Lichfield 10K

Having ran 5K at Chasewater earlier this year, I'd set my sights on levelling up to 10K. So last Sunday I ran the Lichfield 10K with a couple of friends.

I completed the course in 1 hour and 27 seconds. This was by default a new personal best, in as much as I'd never ran 10K before, but was also more or less what I was aiming for. 

This is me sprinting to the line, discovering I did have something left in the tank after all.


As with the 5K, I used it as a opportunity to raise a little pin money for a charity close to my heart - Friend of the Earth - and was gratified to get donations in the order of £145 + Gift Aid from friends, family and work colleagues.

That means so far this year, together we've raised upwards of £400 for environmental campaigning. Not bad for a side-project!

Once again, a big thank you to everyone who supported me. I really appreciated the back-up and it did make me feel that I had to do it. Once I get running, I enjoy it - it's getting me to do it in the first place that needs a little incentivisation. :)

Thanks also to running buddies Ben and Nick, all the marshalls and race organisers, as well as all the Lichfield people who stood outside their houses to clap and cheer everyone on.

And extra-special thanks to @rae102011 - who sold me on the idea of running in the first place and took home a happy but exhausted Tim at the end of the race.

If you'd like to make a post-run donation, you can do so here.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Bowie, eroded

As seen on the streets of Belfast.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Group Klaxon!

Just a quick note to record the fact that I am very much enjoying the Lichfield SF And Fantasy Book Group we've started.


A spin off from Lichfield Gamers, for the past two months a few of us have gotten together in the Duke Of York to talk about a book we've chosen (as well as anything else the book reminds us of or makes us think about)

So far, we've read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick and John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. We're now part-way through Houshun Takami's notorious Battle Royale. Coming up after that, it's Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic and John Scalzi's Redshirts.

Even if I don't review every book, I can report I've enjoyed all of them so far. And hearing other people's perspectives and opinions makes me look at what I've read in a new light. 

Now we've gotten proof of concept, with the first few months of meetings under our belts, we'll be doing a little gentle promotion and letting the world know we're out there, so that other like-minded readers can find us.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Science-fiction predicts Trump's wall (sort of)

Science-fiction generally does a fairly poor job of literally predicting the future, Arthur C Clarke aside. However, as a literature of ideas, it throws out so many possibilities that eventually some of them wind up coming true in unexpected ways.

Take Donald Trump's proposed wall across the US/Mexico border: yep, SF got there first in 1973.


John Sladek's intention in his short story The Great Wall of Mexico (included in the anthology pictured above) is clearly satirical. The only reason this fictional President approves the proposed wall is to placate a General with no sense of humour. The story itself is a bureaucratic farce encased in a dystopian future gift-wrapped in Lewis Carroll non-sense, which having read the whole collection may well be Sladek's default mode.

At one point, a captain in the military is wheeled on stage to explain the rationale for the wall. He talks of immigrants 'stealing away American jobs', explaning 'that the Wall was a population barrier. While our own population was increasing at a reasonable rate, that of Mexico was completely out of control.'

He continues: "Poverty and its handmaidens, crime and vice, are spreading across the nation like cancer. They have one source: Spanish America!"

Let's be clear that Sladek's work is no exercise in precognition. And that noting similarities in and differences between fictional and actual rhetoric around the wall would be another post in its own right and an exercise I have no appetite for today. 

So I'll simply express both my wonder at the potential of science-fiction and my sorrow that yesterday's satire finds unexpected currency today.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The shortlist that never was

One of the interesting geeky things about the Hugo's is that after the awards have been announced they publish a load of voting statistics, including the top 15 nominations in every category, so you can see how close work that you liked got to being one of the shortlisted top 5.

For example, it's nice to know that other people (about 6-7% of nominators) joined me in putting forward The Just City by Jo Walton and Ken Liu's The Grace Of Kings, two very different books that I enjoyed a great deal.

This information is also particularly interesting this year since it means that you can reconstruct the shortlist that never was - who got left off because of block voting for the Rabid Puppies slate. For example:

- Becky Chambers (of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet fame) would probably have reached the final five for the John W Campbell Best New Writer award.

- Alyssa Wong's vampiric Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers and Ursula Vernon's modern-day fairy tale Wooden Feathers would have been on the ballot for Best Short Story.

- Eric Flint would have probably made it onto the shortlist for Best Fan Writer. Primarily a SF/fantasy author in his own right, he wrote some lucid and trenchant commentary on last year's Hugo controversy which was well worth reading.

And the thing is, it's hard to argue that all the work which leapfrogged them onto the Hugo shortlist thanks to the voting slate was demonstrably better. In some cases, it was quite the opposite. Vernon and Wong were kept off the final ballot for Best Short Story by a piece of space dinosaur erotica (not a phrase I thought I'd ever be typing) and a satirical poem in poor taste about the awards. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Anger is an energy - N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season

Edited to add: congratulations to The Fifth Season and N K Jemisin on their Hugo win in Best Novel!

To begin with, a prediction: one day soon N K Jemisin will write a great novel. 

The Fifth Season isn't quite it, but it's such a giant step forward from anything else I've read by her that it went from 'novel I was least looking forward to on the Hugo shortlist' to a very pleasant surprise. 


Everything I've read by Jemisin has always delivered conceptually, and The Fifth Season is no exception. Imagine a science-fantasy world of such tectonic instability that disaster - volcano, earthquake, tsunami, climate change, starvation - threatens on a regular basis. Where orogenes, those with the power to control the forces of the earth, are respected yet hated and feared, cossetted yet coerced into labouring for 'the greater good'. 

The Fifth Season tells tales of three orogene women at different stages of their career. In the main plotline, Essun is searching for her missing daughter and infanticidal husband against the backdrop of a civilisation-ending volcanic eruption. But the novel also flashes back to Damaya's experiences of training and Syenite's unpredictable field mission with Alabaster, a seismic wunderkind with all kinds of issues.

If that sounds grim - that's because it is. It's crapsack world time again, and this is one of those novels where a good deed rarely goes unpunished. Essun, our notional protagoist, is herself a mass-murderer out of anger and perceived necessity, while the implicit body-count from the eruption begins to rival Seveneves, another novel about the end of the world.

Yet The Fifth Season is no exercise in cheap nihilism. Jemisin sets up a world which is always waiting for the hammer of natural disaster to fall and therefore must function according to an iron code - part Darwinian calculus, part inherited wisdom - in which sentiment plays no part.

And while the reader is not asked to condone the actions of orogenes driven to revolt - despised and spat upon as they are - their root causes can be easily understood, even sympathised with. You'll be unsurprised to hear that both the orogenes' situation and their response function as a fertile metaphor for anger and oppression; correspondingly the novel makes signposting nods in the direction of race and gender. 
  
The Fifth Season doesn't offer simple parallels or didactic exercises though - these are themes not tablets of stone. It's a cracking story and a great exercise in world-building, regardless of political context. 

But anger is an energy, as John Lydon pointed out some time ago. And it's anger expelled in the form of concentrated story that gives this book an edge and a boldness that lifts it above anything N K Jemisin has done before.