Martin Skidmore

14
Mar 09

SF Writers: Samuel Delany

The Brown Wedge6 comments • 334 views

It’s hard to know where to start with Delany. He’s not really been much within SF for a long time, and my favourite novel by him (and probably by anyone), while published as SF, mostly isn’t. Still, he started in the field, writing extraordinary works blending poetry, space opera and philosophy in a way that is very representative of the transitions the new wave brought about in the ’60s. If I had to choose the cleverest person ever to write SF, he’d be my nomination.

A good example of the early SF might be Babel-17 (1966), a novel where the threat from alien invaders is not in any sense physical: it’s their language. It changes the minds of anyone that it touches. We get spacecrafts and their crews, but these are not at all military or heroic in style – the characters are outsiders and poets and the like. The effect of the language embodies the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics, that language affects our perception and interpretation of the world, and a reaction against Chomsky’s ideas (much the more favoured at this time) that language is functional and natural. This approach to SF was new.

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12
Mar 09

Crime Writers: Lawrence Block

The Brown Wedge2 comments • 270 views

I like a good series character in my crime fiction, and no one has offered us more of these than Block, and they cover a range of styles.

Matthew Scudder (16 novels) is a private eye in NYC, whose best friend is a hardened criminal. The novels vary in tone and story, some tough to the point of brutality, but morality is always complex, and Scudder being a recovering alcoholic plays a big part. These are worth reading in order, mostly, because the character does develop (including getting married, eventually).

Bernie Rhodenbarr (10 novels) is a professional burglar who also runs a bookshop.

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9
Mar 09

SF Writers: Theodore Sturgeon

The Brown Wedge1 comment • 206 views

I happened to just now read one of his, The Cosmic Rape, which prompted me to write about him next. This short 1958 novel is about a hivemind entity making first contact with humanity. It has taken over two galaxies and is working its way through its third, and all of the intelligences it has encountered are collective. It concludes that humanity has split apart as a defensive measure at first contact with this alien mind, so its first task, before taking it over, is to put it back together.

There are two points to make about this. Firstly, unlike almost any other writer before the New wave, Sturgeon’s interest is in mind, in how we think, rather than in futuristic tech and aliens and so on – this is what made him a key figure to the New Wave, why we get a blurb on the back cover by Samuel Delany saying his work “is the single most important body of science fiction by an American to date”.

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6
Mar 09

Crime Writers: Ed McBain

The Brown Wedge3 comments • 250 views

McBain, writing under that name and Evan Hunter (which he changed his name to in 1952, from Salvatore Lombino), is the only writer by whom I have read over a hundred books, and that is likely to remain true for a long time, maybe permanently. And I’ve not read any by five of his other pseudonyms, nor any of his poetry, plays, autobiographies, children’s books or screenplays (I have seen a few, notably The Birds). He was crazily productive: 25 books and some stories from 1956-1959 was his peak.

He’s best known for his 87th Precinct stories, 57 books spanning almost 50 years, though Detective Steve Carella and his fellow detectives in an analogue of NYC don’t age at that pace. These defined the police procedural, and are the model for most modern police TV shows, to one degree or another. They are short on heroics and car chases and genius detectives, long on professional cops doing their jobs, interviewing and following up leads. They are elevated well above the routine by his superb use of and descriptions of weather, and crackling and convincing dialogue, vital in the long interviews. He also reproduces documentation regularly.

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9
Feb 09

More rubbish science

FT3 comments • 172 views

I just read on the BBC’s site that there really are intelligent aliens. This article may represent the research accurately, but that just tells us that the ‘research’ is a bunch of people making up shit and feeding it into a computer and acting like the results mean anything. A few problems with assigning numbers to any of these things:

1. Almost all of the planets so far discovered around other stars are gas giants, though they are sure they have detected signs of a few rocky planets very recently. Applying Earth models for the appearance of life and evolution is meaningless in these totally different environments.

2. We don’t understand the origins of life anything like well enough to guess how typical our pace was – though complexity theory offers hugely promising models for this investigation.

3. We only have any comprehension of the pace of evolution on this planet. There is no reason whatsoever to think Earth is any sense typical or average of rocky planets – certainly the other three in this system are not at all similar.

4. We have almost no idea of how intelligence evolved, beyond the basic requirements for survival, as seen in many animals. This makes it pointless assigning figures to how likely it is to evolve.

As far as I can tell these people have taken guesses based on the tiniest sliver of evidence as to how common rocky planets are, and then said something that amounts to “if lots of them are like Earth, lots of them will be like Earth => hurrah, intelligent life abounds!”

By the way, if you don’t think the BBC article is dumb enough on its own, read the comments below it.

8
Feb 09

SF Writers: China Mieville

FT10 comments • 642 views

I haven’t read all that many new writers within this genre in recent years, and I’ve been impressed by even fewer, but China Mieville is exceptional. His first book is not great, but the next two, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, are magnificent. They’re set in the same world, an extraordinary creation teeming with fresh and striking ideas, written with prose that approaches that of an obvious inspiration of his, M. John Harrison (my vote for best SF prose ever, and one of the best living prose stylists), with whom he also shares that New Wave interest in the likes of social outsiders and artists.

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31
Jan 09

Final Crisis & spinoffs by Grant Morrison and others

FT2 comments • 475 views

I’ve just reread all of this, and I totally love it. It is difficult and demanding, and I wonder if the editors were tempted to provide annotations, footnotes or some such – but eventually I decided they weren’t needed. I’m not sure I have read stories featuring the Monitors before, and they are half of the key to this, and I have no clue what the fuck happened to New Genesis and Apokolips which is central to the other half, but I had no problems, given some concentration. The content is here, not reliant on outside knowledge. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t exploit the history, because it does, often brilliantly, with loving references to the past (Flash saying “Flash fact” twice – Grant and I always shared a love of the Silver Age Flash comics) and countless invocations of what makes me love superhero comics, right down to Superman saying “This looks like a job for Superman” and the line “Superman can,” which seems to sum up (in its context) as well as anything ever has what makes him the greatest. I can’t imagine anyone with a love of superhero comics being unaffected by such moments.

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26
Jan 09

Crime Writers: Andrew Vachss

The Brown Wedge8 comments • 318 views

Vachss is a unique writer. Most of his novels centre on a man named Burke, someone far enough beyond the underworld that they don’t know he exists. He makes a living ripping off child porn fans and wannabe mercenaries, and will take a PIish case if it grabs his interest: basically this means if it involves abuse of children. Vachss himself is a lawyer specialising in such cases, a recognised expert on the subject, and his all-encompassing hatred and understanding of abusers makes for often heavy going. He also understands the victims, the effects it has one them. He’s not remotely part of the legal establishment, with no interest in convicting people – he wouldn’t consider getting someone arrested instead of killing them. Obviously many crime writers hate their villains, but none of them despise them like Vachss does.

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20
Jan 09

SF Writers: Philip K. Dick

FT3 comments • 266 views

(The start of a parallel series to that recently started on crime writing. I’ll repeat something of what I said there: I mostly read literary fiction, so I’m mostly looking for the same kind of qualities I like there in SF. I know my science reasonably well, but I really don’t care whether the author does, or whether they use it much or at all.)

Dick’s a contender to be my favourite writer ever, the only one who has remained somewhere in there since my mid-teens. I found him mind-blowing then, and still do. Oddly, the closest comparison, for me, is with comic book great Jack Kirby: the two best examples of what I think of as the genius hack. Like Kirby, Dick was immensely productive, albeit for a far shorter time – for a while he was turning out four novels and lots of short stories a year. Their brilliance and concern for their own themes shines through even in many of their most routine works. In Dick’s case, these concerns centred around the nature of reality and humanity, the idea that the consensus was not reliable, not as simple as it seemed. I guess a man who lived for years next to Disneyland while taking tons of hallucinogenic drugs would end up with an interesting slant on reality.

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18
Jan 09

Crime Writers: James Lee Burke

The Brown Wedge2 comments • 253 views

(Introductory notes: my series Comics: A Beginner’s Guide seemed to go over quite well, as far as I can tell. It occurred to me that there were two other areas where I have sometimes been asked for guidance and recommendations – the other is SF writing, coming soon. My tastes are very much for tough American crime, and my interest is that of someone who mostly reads literary fiction, so I’m looking for the same sort of interest and stimulation and entertainment I get there, rather than clever mysteries – though some of the writers I’ll mention do provide that.)

If I were looking to recommend one contemporary crime writer to someone who was only interested in mainstream literary values, I’d go for James Lee Burke. His descriptive prose is of the highest order – especially on the swamplands around New Orleans, the plants and water and animals and weather. He leans rather towards the pathetic fallacy at times, but that’s fine with me. He’s also one of the most serious crime writers ever in thematic terms: lots of unflinching and honest examination of good and evil, race, sex, money, power, politics, crime, law and so on. His sense of evil is particularly powerful, virtually Biblical in conception at times – he reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy than any other writer. Indeed, McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men has much in common with Burke’s novels, not least for the scariness of the central villain.

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