Sunday, 24 August 2008

The Future of Science Fiction?

My last post seems to have caused a bit of a fuss, with responses, agreements and commentary appearing in a surprisingly huge number of different places. At last count, it was about 22 separate blogs and sites. It was the Great August Bank Holiday Blog Storm.

I was amused by the various "facts" about me which appeared in some of the comment threads. I'm apparently a kid, who has read none of the classics. I'm also a published author, who is trying to promote his own books, or is jealous of classic writers' success.

For the record, I've been reading science fiction for about 30 years (so not a kid, then), and that includes most of the classics. I didn't write Don't Look Back in Awe to boost sales of my own book or short stories. That would be difficult because I've not been published yet - although I do have an agent, John Jarrold, and I have sold some short fiction.

You know what they say about assumptions: they make you look like a complete idiot.

Ah well. Debate is good. Or so I'm told.

I think my favourite comment from the whole affair was the incredulous bleat of some fan who couldn't understand why Foundation was out-of-date as it's set 20,000 years in the future...

Here, however, is a topic which follows on quite nicely from the aforementioned infamous post: what do I actually want science fiction to be?

I want it to be... a toolbox.

I want science fiction to be seen as a set of tools that writers - of whatever stripe - can use to tell a story. Action-adventure, "literary fiction", thriller, satire, romance... it doesn't matter. Sf is called a genre, but it's characterised by its furniture. Thrillers aren't. Romances aren't. They have their conventions, yes; but their setting doesn't actually define them.

I'm not saying we should throw away the label "science fiction", or remove the marketing category and hide all the sf books in amongst the general fiction. Nor am I saying we should stop thinking of ourselves as sf readers or fans.

But as writers and commentators, I would like to see the tools of science fiction be recognised as tools of writing. Good science fiction, after all, still has to be good fiction. Too many people seem to forget that. They focus on the idea as paramount. Foregrounding the idea is not an excuse for bad writing.

Science fiction should be good writing using the tools of the genre. It should be judged as writing which happens to use the tools of the genre. It gets no special dispensation because it's science fiction, because it has this great big flashing idea going bang in your face.

If you look at a lot of modern sf, then you can sort of see this approach in action. Not just the military action-adventure of David Weber and Jack Campbell, fighting various historical wars with spaceships. But also in excellent novels such as Richard Morgan's Black Man, which uses the tools of science fiction to hoist a near-future thriller into a position where it can ask the sort of questions, and make the kind of commentary, we demand of good science fiction. And that we often can't get, in fact, from other genres.

I'm going to leave this here for now. I suspect it needs more thought - if only to determine whether or not I'm reinventing some kind of wheel. Or pointing out something that's bleeding obvious.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Don't Look Back in Awe

Here we go again. I've complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that's not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE 'Doc' Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it's out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author - such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on.

I can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb.

And so I say again: holding up Foundation or Second Stage Lensman as good introductions to sf will no longer wash. They're historical documents. In those days, science fiction was a different place; they did things differently. And many "classics" of those days do not fare well when compared to modern works.

I recently reread 'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov, in the anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus. 'Nightfall' was first published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Stories. In the story, the world of Lagash has six suns, and only ever experiences darkness once every 2,049 years. A group of astronomers have calculated that a "night" is imminent, and realised it's the cause of their cyclical history.

I vaguely recall first reading the story when I was around eleven or twelve. I've long been aware of its status as a "classic", of its reputation as one of Asimov's best stories. So I was surprised on my recent reread to discover that it's, well, it's pretty bad. Asimov's prose was clunky at best, and it's not his best in 'Nightfall'. The world-building is lacklustre and slipshod - characters have names like Sheerin 501 and Beenay 25, and that's it. In all other respects, it could be set in 1940s USA. The ending - the darkness and resulting panic - is given away on the first page. Much of the "idea" is explained in conversation by the cast. The narration even pulls out of the story at one point, destroying the compact with the reader (ignore the bad grammar, a sentence fragment wodged onto a sentence with a semi-colon):

"Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster."

By all criteria, 'Nightfall' fails as a good short story. And yet it's still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it's a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It's built around a single, not very interesting idea - a world has never seen darkness... and then it gets dark. Wow. There's a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it's pretty much thrown away. Asimov uses it in much more detail some ten years later in Foundation, anyway.

In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. 'Nightfall' contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story's faults. Which should not be the case. A story should be considered a classic for a number of reasons - continuing relevance, good writing, originality (in ideas and/or deployment), rigour (of world-building, of story), meaning, impact upon the genre, impact upon the reader...

Shining the spotlight upon idea leaves all else in darkness (seems an appropriate metaphor for a piece citing 'Nightfall'). In fact, the more an idea or trope is used, the more polished it becomes, and so the higher its albedo.

The howling is becoming deafening now, so I'll finish by saying I don't think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they're historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn't need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Mud & Metal

I spent last weekend in a field in Derbyshire with several thousand other people. We were all there for one reason.


The Bloodstock Open Air music festival takes place at Catton Hall in Derbyshire each year. It's considerably smaller than European ones such as Germany's Wacken or France's Hellfest. I don't know what the actual attendance at Bloodstock Open Air 2008 was, but I'd guess around 8,000 - 10,000 people. It was certainly higher than last year.

Much as I'd enjoyed Bloodstock Open Air 2007, I'd only planned to attend in 2008 if bands I liked were playing. So when Opeth signed up, it was hard to resist. Add in Swallow the Sun and Akercocke, and resistance was futile. I also quite fancied seeing the likes of Eluveitie, Týr, Moonsorrow, Soilwork (again), Napalm Death and At the Gates. The headlining acts on the Saturday and Sunday night - Dimmu Borgir and Nightwish - I was not so keen on.

Calin also wanted to do Bloodstock again. And this year, we were joined by Craig, another work colleague. So the three of us bought tickets, booked the days off work, and made our plans...

Friday 15 August at 10:30 a.m., and Craig turned up in his car. We headed off to pick up Calin (and his camping gear). The plan was to arrive at Catton Hall around midday - in time to get the tent pitched before the first performance.

Except this year, Bloodstock actually started at 10:00 a.m., not 4:00 p.m. Still, the first band I really wanted to see, Akercocke, weren't on until 2:55 p.m., so there was plenty of time...

Once Calin and his gear was aboard, we stopped off at Asda for beer, water, baby wipes and assorted other items. And then onto the M1.

Which is where it all started to go horribly wrong.

Craig had googled for Bloodstock's venue, and taken the postcode from Catton Hall's website to use in his GPS. The route it gave him struck us as odd, but it was the right distance so we didn't question it too much. We should have done. There are apparently two Catton Halls. One in Derbyshire - the location of Bloodstock. And one in Cheshire. Which is where we ended up.

So we didn't arrive at the Bloodstock until much later than planned. After Akercocke's set, in fact. Damn.

It didn't get better. There were a few other changes instituted this year. Such as, no parking the car near the tents. All vehicles had to stay in the designated car park, which was allegedly a "short distance" from the camping field. Lies. It was a good ten minute walk. Another new rule was a limit of one case of beer per person in the camping area over the entire weekend.

We arrived, carried the gear through two fields until we found somewhere to pitch the tent, put it up, had a can of beer, and then made our way to the arena. The increase in size was immediately obvious. Not only were there more clothing stalls and more food vendors, but also a funfair, with bumper cars and a couple of rides - the ones that are guaranteed to make you lose your lunch. Especially when you're drunk. There were also lots more people.

And lots more security. They were checking the bags and pockets of everyone entering the arena. Not for weapons. For beer. No cans or bottles were allowed in the arena. Fair enough - that could be a safety issue. But when the bouncers were turning back people who were carrying paper cups of beer purchased inside the arena earlier, it was clear it was really about forcing festival-goers to buy their drinks from the arena bars.

At £3.50 a pint.

And there was a 10p surcharge on the paper cups. But you could get this back at another stall. I thought this was quite a good idea - less litter, more environmentally friendly. Until I discovered the surcharge only applied to alcoholic drinks. There was no 10p refund on cups which had held soft drinks. Which made the whole thing mostly pointless.

Still, music festivals are about the, well, the music. We were there to see bands perform. I didn't get to see everyone but - with the exception of Akercocke and Týr (who had actually been on before Akercocke) - I did get to see everyone I had wanted to:

Friday. I caught the opening of Soulfly's set, but I'm not a fan so I left after a couple of songs. Helloween none of us bothered with. Power metal. Ugh. But, of course, we were back in front of the stage for Opeth. They're a favourite band, but that night they were disappointing. I've seen them twice before and both times they were excellent. However, the sound wasn't good at Bloodstock, and the set was too laid back.

Saturday. Eluveitie were entertaining. It's not every day you see a metal band with a member who plays a hurdy gurdy. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people carrying around flags at the festival, and they often got in the way and blocked the view of the stage. Swallow the Sun, who followed Eluveitie, were good. The sound could have been better, but I plan to buy their new album (released later this month). I saw the start of Napalm Death's set, but they're a bit too frantic for me - I prefer some music with my noise. Craig and Calin stayed; and said afterwards that the set had been very good. With lots of insane moshing. I watched bits of Soilwork, and they sounded pretty much as they had done when I saw them at Rock City late last year. I was in the arena when Dimmu Borgir played, but I avoided the stage. I couldn't hear them, but I saw all the pyrotechnics. That suited me fine: I'd seen them the year before at Rock City - well, I'd caught one song of theirs there. It was enough to tell me I didn't like them. The audience looked to be the biggest yet, though. But then, they were one of the headliners. I also managed to catch a couple of bands in the Scuzz tent. One or two of them weren't bad.

Speaking of flags, Calin bought a Romanian flag (since he is, after all, Romanian), and carried it around all Saturday. Later that morning, he was approached by a bloke who was also Romanian. He was at Bloodstock with a group from Scruffy Murphy's, a well-known rock pub in Birmingham. We spent much of the weekend in the company of Cornell and Semina, the two Romanians in the group. Unhappily, the flag was stolen from outside our tent while we were asleep on Saturday night.

Throughout the weekend I saw flags from a number of countries, among them Sweden, Finland, Norway, Russia, Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Australia... and one I couldn't identify. I asked and learned it was Slovenia. Oh, and lots of Union Jacks, of course.

Sunday. The three of us plus Cornell and Semina went for lunch at the White Swan in Walton on Trent, and very nice it was too. There were two bands on at 1:00 p.m. we wanted to see - Alestorm on the main stage, and Serotonal in the Scuzz tent. We managed to make it back, albeit ten minutes late. Serotonal were excellent. They finished before Alestorm, so I also caught the end of the pirate metallers' set. The five of us then hung around the arena for a bit until the next band appeared...

It was bad enough the fairground rides pumping out Tina Turner and Bon Jovi, and drowning out the stage in some areas of the arena; but there was also a DJ blasting out commercial metal to advertise Monster energy drink. They had a couple of armoured cars - no, I've no idea why; and a "Ball of Steel". This last was some twelve or fifteen feet in diameter, and at regular intervals three blokes on small motorcycles would do a Wheel of Death-type act inside. And every time they did it, the announcer's patter was identical. Even the "ad lib" joshing during which the DJ "persuaded" the announcer to stand inside the ball while the motorbikes whizzed around him was word-for-word the same.

Then it was time for Kataklysm. They're not a band I know, even though they play the sort of no-frills death metal I will happily listen to. I don't know what it was, but everything seemed to come together right for them. The sun shone, and the wind dropped. The sound was excellent. The crowd were in the right mood, too. Before the band appeared, a group of moshers had been entertaining us - one of whom was in a kilt, and happy to demonstrate exactly what he was wearing underneath. Or wasn't. These moshers had also tried human pyramids, but kept on falling down. Then they did high-speed Ring a Ring o'Roses, which resulted in most of them being flung at speed into the surrounding crowd like bowling balls...

Kataklysm definitely gave the set of the weekend. Nothing afterwards came close. We missed As I Lay Dying and Overkill. And had fun on the bumper cars while we waited for At the Gates to appear on stage (they were good, but I'm not a big fan). Last act of the night, and clearly the most popular of the festival, was Nightwish. Another band I don't particularly like. The pyrotechnics were impressive; the music less so.

Of course, no music festival in the UK is complete without a downpour. Bloodstock Open Air 2008 was no exception. Friday was glorious, but torrential rain had been forecast for the Saturday. In the event, it didn't rain until late that day, and it wasn't as heavy as promised. It rained for most of Sunday. The camp site turned into a quagmire - although happily not where our tent was pitched. A lot of our stuff got wet, however; and we still ended up muddy.

And, of course, no report on a music festival in the UK is complete without mention of the chemical toilets. I'd been suffering from a bad stomach the week before, which had me worried. The combination of that and portaloos did not bear contemplating. But on the Thursday, I discovered that the Bovril I'd been eating each day was from a contaminated batch. I stopped eating the Bovril, and my stomach immediately recovered. And yet, the toilets at Bloodstock... were actually better than the previous year. They smelled, yes; and when they filled up they were stomach-churning. But they stayed clean, and they were emptied regularly. Of course, there weren't enough. There never is.

Bloodstock Open Air 2008 was bigger and more commercial than 2007. That was both good and bad. I didn't see as many bands I liked as last year, but the selection was better. And some I watched proved to be good. There was also more of a festival atmosphere. But the beer was expensive and the security was intrusive. If they want people to buy beer in the arena and not sneak in cans, they should sell it at a reasonable price - like £2 a pint. Mind you, it's not as if music festivals are about music. They're about money. Hence the expensive beer, the expensive burgers (£5!), the expensive jacket potatoes (£4!), and the annoying Monster energy drink marketing. Ironically, the CDs on sale were mostly cheaper than on the high street.

Will I go in 2009? Probably. And almost certainly if the line-up is good. A festival is pretty much the only chance I get to see bands which don't tour the UK, such as Swallow the Sun or Eluveitie. There are certainly plenty I'd like to see, but haven't done so yet. And just as many I'd happily see again.