Monday, 31 October 2011

Eat the strawberries

It certainly isn’t an overstatement to say I’m melodramatic. If I read something in a book that I find particularly inspiring, I’m likely to respond to it in quite a spectacular way. Say, for example, wanting it tattooed upon my person (by which I mean myself, of course, I don’t actually own a person just so I have somewhere to put inspirational quotes).

Bearing in mind my tendency for melodrama, there have been two particular passages in two wonderful books that changed me.

The first is in American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I have always been a careful person, sometimes at the expense of trying new things. I still firmly hold the belief that I would find the one corner that existed in the Trebor Softmints universe and, with the dexterity of a wardrobe trying to cartwheel down a flight of stairs, proceed to bounce off it using only my eyeball. However, there is a part in American Gods where the main character, Shadow, seizes the moment, with no thought for the future and because he can, and because he should. He recalls a fable and suddenly the meaning of this tale clicks with him. Something clicked in me too, and I had an instant of clarity where I realized that not every little thing in life requires a thorough worrying over, or even needs to have more meaning beyond the act itself. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about impaling myself while walking down the street, but I do, just occasionally, stop to eat the strawberries (though I might wash them first).

Still, there was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below.
What should he do? went the question. And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.

My response to the next passage was, if possible, even more self-indulgent. I was going through a breakup. It was tragic. The universe became gaping void. Diet Coke lost its taste. It was, in short, pretty bad. Then I ordered the latest Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It was White Night. I booked the day off work. I wandered into a café. It sucked. I felt too raw to sit in the sunshine reading. I went inside. I read to distract myself from myself, and as joylessly and painfully as possible. I thought that Butcher would be a frivolous tonic. And then I read this.

We still hadn't learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.

Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind - graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.

And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth, which at the same time cannot possibly last - and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don't feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it's a big part, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, it's a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you're alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.’

That’s right, Butcher and Gaiman? They’re all about me.

Monday, 17 October 2011

TV review: The Fades

At the risk of hyperbole, BBC 3’s new supernatural drama The Fades is just about the most amazing piece of British television I’ve ever seen.

Quite an assertion, I think my reader will agree.

Here’s my supporting statement:


When awkward teen, 17-year-old Paul (Iain de Caestecker) stumbles across a zombie-like creature attacking two humans in an abandoned shopping centre, he soon realises that the survivor, Neil (Johnny Harris), holds the answers to the apocalyptic dreams he’s been having. Neil tells Paul he’s an Angelic like him: a person who can see the fades, i.e., dead people. Paul’s apocalyptic dreams were visions of the future. Angelic Sarah (Natalie Dormer) also experienced them before she was killed by the Angelic Killer, a corpse-like fade. Sarah now haunts her husband, Mark (Tom Ellis), because she, like so many others, was unable to ‘Ascend’ to death (which, like life, isn’t easy). The mysterious blockage to ascension that began nearly 100 years ago has left countless angry fades trapped on earth. The dead continue to grow old and rot, unable to open doors, or interact with their loved ones without intense pain. However, the Angelic Killer has found a way to take on physical form once more and reverse the rot by first drinking human blood, and then chowing down on human flesh. The fade is determined to wreak revenge on the Angelics, and the human race in general. He starts by recruiting an undead army, taking his first steps towards creating the ash-filled wasteland in Paul’s dreams.

Finding out he’s an Angelic is only the start of Paul’s problems. His ability to heal people, which causes moths to crawl from his mouth, makes the tiny band of Angelics believe he is the only one who can save the world. There’s also the inconvenient thing that happens to him when he ejaculates. After confiding with his best friend, the pop culture referencing Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), much to Neil’s irritation Paul becomes determined to live a normal teenager’s life. Particularly because, despite risking the wrath of his caustic non-identical twin, Anna (Lilly Loveless), he has found illicit love in the shape of the elfin Jay (Sophie Wu), his sister’s best friend.

Here’s why you could love it too:

It’s slick, funny, powerful, disgusting, true, heart wrenching, heart-warming, at times terrifying, unique and even beautiful stuff. The script is sharp, and neat, and tight.

With Loveless, Kaluuya and, in later episodes (spoilers), Joe Dempsie, The Fades is a bit of a Skins fest. But that’s because the producers know how to mine the best young talent (and possibly, regarding Skins, the only talent).

Here’s why you should really love it:

Iain de Caestecker’s performance as Paul is a nuanced phenomenon. You really believe his struggle to stay sane against the odds, and to understand his place in the world. But what’s more incredible, is the relationship between Paul and Mac. Kaluuya shone as Tealeaf in Psychoville, and in The Fades he positively gleams. His Mac is a heartbreaking bundle of idiosyncrasies, fragility and fierce loyalty for his best friend. His tendency to reel off trivia in the face of danger masks deeper emotions, like love and grief, which brim to the surface in all the right places. His ability to wrench your heart is as flawless as his comic timing. Together, the pair are a beautiful thing to watch.

There might be some negatives, but they’re minor. Paul isn’t always on the ball when it comes to asking the important questions, such as ‘How do the moths get into my throat, and why are they crawling out of it?’ However, this is probably something to do with the mystery that writer and creator Jack Thorne clearly loves frustrating his viewers with. And, let’s face it, it’s what keeps us coming back for more.

BBC iPlayer currently has it on series catch up. The rest of us (adults and teens alike) are on episode 5 of 6 this Wednesday at 10 pm on BBC 3. And if you’re not yet fully convinced, it references, of all things, this. What’s not to love?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The digital convert

I am currently suffering from an escalating problem. On bowing shelves, under the bed, beside the bed, at the foot of the bed, in my wardrobe, under my shoes, above my clothes, beneath my clothes, in my drawers, between my DVDs, my book collection is growing. It has gotten to the point where when I finish a book I chuck it over my shoulder into to cascading pile of my latest reads that lines the back of my bed like an abandoned game of dominos. As a hoarder by nature I live in genuine fear that I am one day going to be one of those old ladies who builds secondary corridors out of old reading material. I will be forced to spend a large portion of my day navigating the expanding maze of epic fantasy just to reach my settee in time to shout at Noel Edmond’s Deal or No Deal (somebody has to).

In my darkest moments, I think of the multiplying collection of cats I’ll have lost amongst the stacks who have given up all hope of rescue and have taken to building their homes out of my collection of ‘90s James Herberts, which they’re slowly but surely teaching themselves to read. It’ll be like The Rats, but with cats. The Cats. I’m going to be found with my arm gnawed off, buried beneath a pile of Robin Hobbs, my only legacy the army of felines that have evolved enough to survive nuclear apocalypse.

The real issue is that I can’t throw books away. It would be like throwing your first child away, just because you’ve had another. It just isn’t done.

My other problem is that I know the solution, and it isn’t one I am particularly happy with. I should convert to digital. Buy an eReader. Get over the printed word.

If I put so much value in the physical copy, if I really class myself as a lover of beautiful covers, clever designs, the tactile reading experience, the smell of a page, then why is my ever-growing collection living rough in its haphazard piles?

I’m either going to have to give up and buy a cat now so I can practice losing it, or suck it up and become a digital convert. It's me or the books.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Write what you love

Since finishing my dissertation I have been wondering what to do with this blog. Admittedly one thought I had was ‘abandon it to the ether and run wildly into the night’, but after a brief, dizzy bout of freedom in which I drank enough Diet Coke to dissolve an elephant, I’ve come back to my senses and my laptop.

I asked for some advice from a much-respected source about how to make the switch from semi-serious dissertation blog to mostly personal, while still staying fairly close to all things books and SFF. His advice was simple yet perfect. Thus: ‘Whatever you write about you have to love it and be genuinely interested because that will seep through into whatever you write’.

This might sound particularly dumb but I was so blinded by other things that I didn’t actually consider ‘write what you love’. So that made me pause. What did I love? SFF books, Jim Butcher and Diet Coke, obviously. But is that enough? Time will tell.

So, welcome, gentle reader. If you journey beyond this post, you will find my dissertation ramblings about Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing and marketing ploys. If you journey forth with me, I can promise slightly broader ramblings, and considerably less talk about dissertations. However, I can’t promise I will refrain from mentioning My Love for Jim Butcher or Diet Coke.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Raise your Diet Coke for a toast to the Big D: I'm finally done.

Well the Big D, and the Publishing MA, is officially over. Celebrations have been had. Diet Coke has been drunk. It’s definitely been an experience, as well as an education. The first thing I did when I finished was buy three books. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, because I used his views on stigma in my dissertation. Simon Morden’s Equations of life, because he said I had more front than Blackpool (it is ace, by the way, Equations that is, although Blackpool has its charm). Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind, because it was the subject of my most beguiling dissertation statistic: that 80 percent of RPG gamers cite it as their favourite book.

Because of this dissertation (aka the Big D) I’ve interviewed some of the most inspiring people in science fiction and fantasy publishing, I’ve done work experience with Voyager and Orbit and I’ve embarrassed myself at the London Book Fair (it was worth it).

This blog was started in order to force myself to do research for the Big D on a regular basis. Any news article, blog post/ tweet/ passing comment that vaguely related to my topic – the alleged stigma about science fiction and fantasy publishing - was collected and even occasionally commented on. It was a giddy ride, and at least one of you even got to journey with me on the Dissertation Express. Well this is the last stop on the whistle stop tour, and it’s time to have a coffee, maybe even a Diet Coke, and perhaps a scone, and Reflect on What I Have Learned. I think that my reader will agree that we’ve both learned so much, been occasionally moved, and even grown a little as a result of my dissertation. Oh, and if you’re wondering but you can’t face going back over the 59 painstakingly written posts on the topic: yes, there is a stigma. At least, that’s what my two markers get to find out after 21,987 words on the subject. They will simply love me.

So, without further ado, I have learned (apart from how to make the perfect toast, peanut butter, honey and banana combination):

That if you accidentally use the top image that comes up if you Google ‘Misfits series 2’, you force 649 people to read your lame-arse review.

That people who play RPGs (in one shop, on one occasion) don’t take too kindly to being called geeks.

If you follow Philip Pullman to the bathroom, he will act with dignity and aplomb and then pretend this never happened.

Orbit kicks digital-marketing ass.

China Miéville has a giant brain.

I idolise Kate Griffin.

I really love Jim Butcher (tag stats: ‘my love for Jim Butcher’: 10 times; ‘the Dresden Files’: 3 times; ‘Chris McGrath’ cover artist: 3 times).

People are strange.

Ben Aaronovitch ticks all my boxes.

Chloe Neill’s Some Girls Bite does not.

I am not great at laminating under pressure (sorry, HarperCollins).

Hobo symbols excite me.

And finally, people do read science fiction and fantasy. They just don't always know it.

Monday, 1 August 2011

This fantasy business. Dragons and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* With 10,000 words and three weeks to go (*reaches shakily for the Diet Coke*), I thought that this week I would treat you all to the results from my questionnaires about stigma and science fiction and fantasy publishing. While I acknowledge that it is good to provide a balanced result, I’ll happily admit that when I sent the surveys out what I ideally wanted someone to respond with was this:

‘I hate science fiction and fantasy with a passion, it’s just swords and sorcery and Tolkien/Twilight rip-offs anyways, right? I’m just grateful that it stays the hell away from our precious literary awards. My bookshelves heave with long-listed titles. If I see some middle-aged loser reading a trashy fantasy book on the tube, I move seats in case they try to invite me back to their parents’ house to play Dungeons and Dragons in their basement ‘apartment’ while their mum makes us sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Did I mention it was lowbrow?’

And repeat times 100 and I would have had full justification for writing 20,000 words on the damaging effect of stigma on the genre fiction market. HOWEVER, obviously that wasn’t going to be the case *tears up dissertation plan*, but that doesn’t mean that some of the results weren’t curious.

So, from 200 people and two different surveys, drum roll please (you'll be pleased to know I've used pie charts):


Here's the breakdown of who people view are the type of readers the market is aimed at:

And here's why people choose not to read science fiction and fantasy:
Wait for the curious part.

Prepare to squint in amazement. Here's what those same people say they've enjoyed reading:

Notice anything (apart from it being really, really small)?

That's right, eagle-eyed reader, they all contain science fiction and/or fantasy elements.

I'll leave you with my favourite response (from a good friend, I found out. Yes reader, I have a friend):

(In response to a question about which covers they prefer) ‘They all look the same – dragons and shit. I seriously wouldn’t read any of them.’

Can I put ‘shit’ in my dissertation?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* As I am now in the brain-melting throes of writing my dissertation (12,000 words and four weeks to go), these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.

Gollancz: have recently announced they’re making the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, ‘the definitive reference work in the field’, available free online. In another step towards helping more genre books reach wider audiences, and helping audiences to reach more books, Gollancz are launching the SF Gateway. It’s going to be the ‘world’s largest digital SF library, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks’ (so not an intergalactic gateway to other such gateways, but still pretty neat). Available to access this autumn, the project has been headed by Gollancz’s digital publisher, Darren Nash. This really is an amazing venture, and really utilises the digital form. In a further step towards digital domination, Gollancz are also teaming up with pulp website Good Show Sir, with the goal of making every cover linkable to the actual text by 2012 (this last part might be a lie, but they’re missing out on a trick – who wouldn’t want to read about Nazi gnomes?!).

Angry Robot Books: are back again this week because I’ve been writing the section in my dissertation (known henceforth as the ‘Big D’) about how negative perceptions of the fantasy genre are often linked to cheap, and badly written, swords and sorcery fiction from around the 1950s. This was otherwise known as ‘pulp’ fiction (so-called due to the cheap wood pulp paper that enabled the printing of several key fantasy and science fiction magazines around that time). The Big D points out that publishers have been trying to put their sordid, scantily-clad maidens past behind them. Commissioning editors who were interviewed for the Big D all agree wholeheartedly that negative perceptions are linked to the covers for these texts (please see Nazi gnomes cover for reference). Art Directors and the like have been working for years to rebrand SFF away from these ‘pulp’ covers, only returning to them in a retro, ironic fashion. I write all of this because this week, Angry Robot announced the signing of swords and sorcery author Paul S Kemp. Kemp is ‘unashamedly a fan of the classic ‘swords and sorcery’ fantasy’. His series of novels will be bringing ‘swords and sorcery right up to date’. But with a few key changes. It’s about thieves and treasure hunters, who are the new assassins (Douglas Hulick’s Tales of the Kin helped with that), and Angry Robot are keen to emphasise that it uses ‘very modern language’. I’ve done a few questionnaires for my essay, and people generally find the language and names used (see Tolkien’s works for detail) off-putting when it comes to reading fantasy, and so would rather not. Could more books of this ilk being published, with modern covers, modern language and trending themes, be part of the key of helping SFF to reach wider audiences, without the need for a HBO series?

I will leave you with a quote from H. P. Lovecraft on the matter of being published by pulp magazines (which he was): ‘the field is so repugnant to me that it’s about the last way I’d ever choose to gain shelter and clothing and nourishment.’ Beautiful.