A Rare Unsigned Giveaway

29 08 2015

Cover art by Tom Godfrey

By way of being something vaguely resembling a public service announcement, I’ll say the following:

I’m currently running a Goodreads giveaway for five paperback copies of my first collection Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables. The giveaway runs until 10th September (for a given value of ’10th September’ depending on, I think, US timezones), it’s open to anyone in Australia, NZ, UK, USA, and Canada, and the recipients are selected randomly by some robot at Goodreads central (or something like that). If you feel the need for a mixture of puns, pop-culture references, black humour and hard science fiction, or you happen to have a kitchen table with one leg 15.235 mm shorter than the other three, it might be just what you’re looking for.

On the need to be dead, the onset of fame, fifty years, and a hole in the ground

24 08 2015

(I’ll just say at the outset that this is not leading where you think it’s going to lead. Bear with me on that.)

When does fame start?

I’m not asking for myself; I’m asking on behalf of … well, I’ll get to that. But why might I be asking such a question?

The rules to get a crater named after you on Mercury, according to the International Astronomical Union – and I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe this to be an accurate representation of their guidelines – is that (1) you need to have been dead for at least three years, (2) you need to have been an artist, author, musician, dancer or other creative type, and (3) you need to have been famous for at least fifty years. Now point (1) is easily met, eventually, if rather depressing to contemplate on a personal level, and point (2) is not necessarily a great hurdle nowadays, with the proliferation of self-publishing and what-have-you. But (3), famous for fifty years: that’s a somewhat taller order altogether. That’s an actual requirement.

It’s my contention, if you’ll indulge me, that a pre-eminent candidate for commemoration via Mercurian craterhood is none other than electric guitarist John Cipollina, who joined his first (and probably best-known) band about fifty years ago in San Francisco, in the very first flowering of what was to be the psychedelic rock scene that took root in California, and elsewhere, as the Sixties progressed. We’ll get to the identity of that band in a little while – they were certainly in existence in 1965, they may have been formed as early as 1964. The biographies that I’ve investigated tend to be unreliable as to exact dates … but then, it was the Sixties.

Cipollina has the unique distinction, so far as I know, that although he’s never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, his amp stack has. His sound, too, was unique, almost instantly recognisable. His one experience at leading a band, Copperhead, did not fare well; their manager fell under suspicion of involvement with drugs, the label pulled all support for their album, and they received minimal airplay. Copperhead’s first, eponymous album, released in 1973, went nowhere much, but it’s a classic: the album’s closing track, ‘They’re Making A Monster’ (Youtube link provided for your convenience), gives an excellent illustration of Cipollina’s guitar skills, once the slightly sludgy opening gets out of the way. There’s a second album too, apparently, that’s been sitting in the Columbia vaults for the past forty-odd years, unreleased: as I said, the label pulled all support.

While there are many other instances I could offer of Cipollina’s exquisite musicianship, from his time with Terry and the Pirates, or the Dinosaurs, or with a dozen other bay-area bands, I’ll offer just one example, recorded live in 1986, three years before his death. Here he plays guitar on a Sixties standard, performing ‘Hey Joe’ alongside Billy Roberts. (One of Cipollina’s erstwhile bandmates – Dino Valenti aka Chet Powers – had claimed, in the sixties, to have written ‘Hey Joe’. Tim Rose, another sixties singer-songwriter, also claimed to have written it, and later plagiarised it under a different title. Billy Roberts was the song’s true composer.)

As you may be able to detect from the above, Cipollina is quite possibly my favourite guitarist. He was arguably not as technically proficient as certain others of the same era – Hendrix, the early Jeff Beck, Peter Green – but his sound was utterly unmistakeable, wonderfully distinctive, and to my ears at least, a thing of beauty. His involvement could create a magical soundscape as well as, at times, redeem a song which didn’t actually merit redemption.

But … what does all this have to do with Mercury?

On one level, not much. But Cipollina has been dead a quarter century. And since he joined his first band fifty years ago, in 1965 (which peaked with their first two albums, both recorded in 1968), he arguably meets the ‘fifty years of fame’ criterion – if not right this minute, then at the next time that the IAU calls for nominations for Mercury crater names. And that first band, owing in large part to the confluence of bithdates of its founding members, two of whom (including Cipollina) had August 24th as a birthday, was named Quicksilver Messenger Service. Please don’t make me spell out the Mercury references in that name …

So. A crater for John Cipollina on Mercury. I rest my case.

To the Hugo, the spoils

24 08 2015

The 2015 Hugo awards have come and gone, and I’m at peace with the results. Hearty congratulations to Lightspeed, who took out the semiprozine category (well ahead of ASIM, according to the detailed breakdown of voting). The commemorative award to Jay Lake was truly moving; it was terrific to see Galactic Suburbia, Julie Dillon, and Journey Planet (for example) get their awards; and this must, surely, be the first time in the Hugos’ history when the only pro-fiction authors awarded have been non-Anglophone (Cixin Liu for Best Novel and Thomas Olde Heuvelt for Best Novelette).

Obviously, there’s still a lot of vitriol in certain quarters. No-awarding in five categories will have that effect on some people. But at the End of the Day, it’s time we moved on, yeah? The Hugos have emerged with dignity intact, and the fans have spoken.

Message ends.

A book review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

12 07 2015


Mark Watney is the mechanical engineer aboard the Ares 3 mission, one of six mission specialists on a sixty-day stay on the Martian surface. But on day six, disaster strikes, as a dust storm that exceeds their habitat’s design specifications hits unexpectedly, knocking out comms to Earth and threatening to destroy their ride home. The mission commander, Lewis, decides they must abort the mission while they can still leave the planet, but on the walk from the hab to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), Watney is struck by a large piece of windblown debris, his suit breached, his body visibly bleeding profusely, and he tumbles down a slope. His lifesigns quickly fade to black. With only a couple of minutes at most before the MAV topples irretrievably, there is no time to retrieve Watney’s body: Lewis, mindful for the safety of the remaining crew members, insists that the mission abort must proceed. The MAV launches, with only five of the six crew aboard; it makes orbit, then achieves rendezvous with the booster Hermes, and begins the long 200-day crawl back to Earth.

But Mark Watney is not dead. His lost blood, freezing, has sealed his damaged suit, which has automatically recharged his air supply from its emergency reservoir before sounding its internal alarm to revive him to eventual consciousness. He’s stranded on Mars, utterly alone, with no means of communication, with only enough food supplies for a year, and with absolutely no prospect of rescue within that time, but he’s not dead. Yet.

The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, self-published in 2011 before a ‘big publisher’ re-release in 2014. It’s received favourable and well-judged comparisons to Robinson Crusoe and to Gravity, and it’s slated to get a cinematic treatment of its own, with the news that Ridley Scott is to direct a film adaptation of the book. (Spoiler alert: aficionados of the chestbursting sequence from Alien are likely to be disappointed, unless the movie is excessively unfaithful to the original; but those who appreciate a tight, wry, and repeatedly desperate struggle against the constraints of isolation, calorific finality, and sheer environmental brutality should find much to their liking.)

Weir’s never been to Mars (so far as I know), but he writes with such an easy familiarity of the Salmon-Coloured Planet, of the mechanics and thermodynamics of getting there and back, and of the politics and personalities of mission oversight, that it’s quite tempting to be fooled into believing he just might have. Scientific rigour is one of the book’s virtues (although it must be conceded that there are a few lapses — I think Weir’s excursions into in-habitat combustion chemistry are, in one or two places, audacious to say the very least). The characterisation of Mark Watney, the chief protagonist, is another virtue — it is to Watney’s credit that he treats every setback, and there are many, with self-deprecation, grim determination, and potty-mouthed irreverence, whether this be directed at the planet that threatens to kill him, the machinery that struggles to keep him alive, or his erstwhile commander’s taste in recorded music. It also says much for Weir’s skill as a writer that, although the first three chapters of this 400-page book occur entirely within the viewpoint of Watney’s skull, with no other characters coming into the field of view (and, it begins to seem, no prospect of other characters for the entire span of the text), this constricted narrative is not claustrophobic. It helps, from this perspective, that Watney is the bastard child of Julius Sumner Miller, Rube Goldberg, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure: if we must spend the entire book in one person’s head, it’s best if it’s an interesting head. (I should add, however, that (a), several other actual characters of appropriate different stripes are introduced, as Weir fills us in on the backstory, and on the Earthside developments; and (b), some of the dialogue, not to say the machinations, between these characters is delightful: another virtue.)

Just about everything that can go wrong with Watney’s struggle for survival does go wrong. And yet Watney, as noted, is supremely resourceful. He has the laws of physics, an endlessly inventive and imaginative mind, a six-person habitat, a functional air- and water-recycling system, heating, a functional alimentary canal, duct tape, a rover or two, some spare parts, civilisation’s most powerful adhesive, and a dozen potatoes. What’s the worst that could happen?

I’ll reserve judgment on whether the story as presented could actually play out. As with Gravity, there are things that are just a bit hinky in places. And there are aspects of the ‘trek’ which forms the ultimate focus of Watney’s sojourn on Mars that seem, in the writing, a bit underwritten, a bit too hastily-sketched compared to so much of the detail that has gone before. But these, when all is said and done, are fairly minor criticisms. The Martian is a well-paced romp that blends scientific street cred with interplanetary brinksmanship, and how often can you say that of a book?

A book review: Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

26 06 2015


I purchased this book in the expectation that it might be a work of hard SF. As it transpires, in my judgment, it’s not (for reasons outlined below); but that didn’t dilute my enjoyment of it.

I’ve had only passing acquaintance with Nicola Griffith’s writing before this: so far as I know, the only story of hers that I have read is ‘It Takes Two’, from Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 3 anthology (reviewed here). Ammonite, her debut novel, published in 1992, won both the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Fiction and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for SF / Fantasy exploring gender issues. Griffith’s second (unrelated) novel, Slow River (1995), won the Nebula Award, and she’s achieved other notable success since then as well. To the best of my knowledge, there are no companion novels to Ammonite, though I surmise from its title that her first pro-sale short story, ‘Mirrors and Burnstone’ (which appeared in Interzone in 1988) is backstory to the events that occur in the novel.

Ammonite is an impressively-realised, well-rounded piece of SF speculation: the characterisation is crisp, the worldbuilding is detailed and the plotting is patient and precise. There are aspects of the writing that had me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and some of the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, in terms of the sheer immersiveness of the invoked environment; and yet Griffith’s voice is distinctive from any of these authors.

Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan) has elected to travel, as SEC representative, to ‘Jeep’ (the spoken contraction of ‘GP’, which is itself the abbreviation for Grenchstom’s Planet), a virus-ravaged, human-settled world. There have been no men alive on Jeep for centuries, only women, existing in small, isolated communities; the virus, dangerous and sometimes fatal for women, is invariably deadly towards human males. Marghe, a highly-trained anthropologist, has two tasks: one is to learn as much as she can about the sociology of this bizarre and only recently-rediscovered world (with an eye to judging how much of an opportunity, and how much of a threat, Jeep poses to the rest of human-occupied space), and the other is to act as guinea pig for an experimental and possibly-hazardous vaccine, FN-17, that may, and then again may not, successfully inoculate her against the possibly-deadly virus. Her mission is designed to last a maximum of six months, since this is the ‘best before’ date on the final booster dose of the vaccine. And, of course, these missions always go according to plan, don’t they? Always.

It will probably come as no surprise that, though Jeep hosts neither mice nor men, things gang agley, partly through Marghe’s own choices – she takes it into her head to set out north, into inhospitable territory, in the approaching winter, on what promises to be a wild goose chase for the previous SEC representative, missing and very possibly murdered – and partly due to circumstances beyond her control: natural hazards, human hostility, treachery, the weight of history. It is a quest on which she repeatedly risks death. Death, too, waits in the sky, or to be more pedantic, in orbit around the planet: unknown to most of Jeep’s unhabitants (save those of the marginalised military outpost of Port Central), a cruiser, the Kurst, stands ready to sterilise or seal off the world to prevent its hazardous viral freight from ever propagating further afield. Finally, to make matters worse, Marghe’s well-meant anthropological interventions across Jeep have unintended consequences. She may just have set in motion something disastrous …

I may have given the impression, in the above paragraphs, that Ammonite is a recounting of Marghe against the world; but this is not the case. There is a rich cast of fully-realised supporting characters, such as the Port Central military commander Danner, who feels compelled to rebel against her own ordained authority; a perspective contrasting with that of the barbarian leader-to-be Aoife, who appears almost totally constrained by the rules and strictures of her tribe; the hunter Leifin, whose rescue of Marghe masks a mysterious privacy and dark secrets; the malevolent and dangerous Uaithne; the wise and multitalented Thenike, a storyteller who encourages Marghe to discover deeper truths about herself and about the world; the lovers and soldiers Dogias and Lu Wai; and many, many more. Each player is distinct, each action and reaction nicely plausible. It holds together well.

I noted above that Ammonite appealed to me as a possible work of hard SF. I don’t believe that it does so qualify, not because its focus is principally upon the social sciences rather than the physical (although there is a lot of impressive medical and biological detail present), but because it makes recourse to mystical elements which, to my mind, are properly fantastical rather than based in scientific practice. This didn’t, as I say, diminish my appreciation of the story – it helps that the world of Jeep is exceptionally well realised (and populated by thoroughly believable characters) – and I would go so far as to suggest that people whose normal preference is for character-driven hard SF (say, for example, the work of C J Cherryh, Greg Egan, or Alastair Reynolds) would probably find Ammonite to their liking, provided that they’re not allergic to the occasional (fairly sparse) mention of concepts such as dowsing.

And what are we to make of Jeep’s most noteworthy characteristic – a world populated by women? Well, it’s a world populated by women. That, in essence, is pretty much it. If you’re looking for polemicism, you can look elsewhere than in this review, or in Griffith’s book, because (on my reading of it, at least) there really isn’t anything in Ammonite by way of overt gender diatribe. What is in the book is a detailed depiction, warts and all, of a microcosm of distinct all-female communities, not all of which interact positively with each other. It’s a compelling piece of visualisation, and it certainly helps that the story which connects them is propulsive and engrossing. Jeep is an enthralling world, and it’s detailed enough to be worth returning to.

Updatery, belated

26 06 2015

It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve been rather negligent of blogging of late, for which there are various reasons, chief among them a shortage of the timey-wimey stuff. But so as to prevent the site cobwebs from growing too large and complacent, here are a couple of pieces of now rather old (and, as it happens, both in their own way second-hand) news:


First, I’m thrilled, stunned, humbled and delighted that my poem ‘At the Dark Matter Zoo’ was selected to appear in The 2015 Rhysling Anthology, the annual compilation of the previous year’s best speculative poetry, as nominated by members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I don’t poem often (other than via the spam-poetry stylings of ‘Cynthia Mershark’, of course, though she’s been mercifully inactive of late), so it’s wonderful to see the one serious poem I wrote in 2013 do so well for itself. (Stories, take note.)


Second, I was as pleased as punch to discover, very belatedly, that a reprint submission I’d made back in 2013 had in fact borne fruit: ‘The Ballad of P’toresk’ has aired, in translation, as ‘La Balada de P’toresk‘ in La idea fija 15, an Argentinian speculative fiction webzine that publishes both original Spanish-language fiction and translated reprints. The issue in which ‘P’toresk’ appears was in fact released a year ago, and I only learnt of it this time around because Google alerted me when the subsequent issue was released. I’m indebted to the translator for what, to my entirely untrained eye, looks to be a flawless piece of translation.

There is newer news, as well, but I’ll save that until after a couple of reviews.

Visceral, gut-level, tautological fun

16 04 2015

I’ve had a couple of attempts at writing much longer, messier posts on this subject, but I think what I’m trying to get at, in witnessing and reacting to the Hugo-related maelstrom of the past (and doubtless coming) days, crystallises down to this: what is so wrong with wanting to embrace diversity — and, for that matter, tolerance — in science fiction?

SF should be colourblind, genderblind, all kinds of accepting. It is after all the literature, not of the past, but of the future. Let’s take it there.


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