sawyl: (A self portrait)
From Sarah Gailey's excellent and insightful essay on Dolores Umbridge over on

We trust, often, that those in positions of power will use their power more for good than for evil. We trust in our systems: that those who do use power for evil will be removed, punished, pushed out by a common desire for good.

But then, we forget, don’t we? We forget that not everyone agrees on the definition of "good." We might think of "good" as "everyone equal, everyone friends" while others think of "good" as "those people gone."

The whole thing is well worth reading...

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Via the 2015 BSFA shortlist, I discovered Jeff VanderMeer's From Annihilation to Acceptance in The Atlantic, which turns out to be every bit as delightfully paranoid and slippery as the Southern Reach Trilogy itself:

Sometimes, you have to change your coffee shop, too. At the end of one increasingly jittery week of writing, the barista asks me, "Feel any different?" "In what way?" I ask. "I dunno," she replies, "I’ve been adding more espresso shots to your coffee, gradual, to see what would happen."

Truly fascinating stuff...

sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'm glad to see both Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor on this year's Hugo novel slate and I'm also pleased to see Emma and Peter Newman picking up another fancast nomination for Tea and Jeopardy. Much of the rest of the list, however, looks a little... uninspiring?

ETA: A handy voting guide with details of how to avoid voting for anything nominated en bloc. It's not ideal but given the very clear attempt to game things at the opening stage — and with the same writer nominated three times, it obviously an attempt to force others out of the running rather than the push through an individual work — I don't think any other response is possible...

ETA2: [ profile] kevin_standlee's guide to how the Hugo IRV system works and how and where No Award comes into play.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
A new friend arrived in the post today and my initial impressions are that they're every bit as smart on the inside as on the outside:

Karen Memory

For the curious — and because I'm one of those people who's obsessively interested in bookshelves in the backgrounds of photos — the barely visible books on the shelves are, from l-to-r on the upper shelf: Bear's Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of Sky; Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End; Ken Macleod's Night Sessions, Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, and Engine City; William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties; and, squeezing off to the right, China Miéville's The Scar.

The lower shelf contains: Peter F Hamilton's The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and the Evolutionary Void, with PFH's first two Commonwealth novels hidden by the desk on the left; these are followed by Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns, Terminal World, and, on the very edge of the frame, Blue Remembered Earth.

And in case anyone doubts my commitment to load-testing the building's joists, I ought to point out that the shelves are actually stacked two layers deep and the books in the photo are only the facade...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Quote of the week via Rachel Manija Brown's piece on self-publishing over on Charlie Stross' blog:

A number of writers are doing quite well selling short erotic stories for between 99 cents and $2.99. The latter may seem outrageous if you think of it as the price of a short story. It's less so if you think of it as the price of an orgasm.

The whole article is a really interesting read, not least because it explains the subtle dance authors have to carry out when putting up their self-published porn in order to ensure that interested readers can find something that matches their precise tastes without using any forbidden terms on the cover material:

Marketing on Amazon is done largely by inputting keywords when uploading your book. Keywords and phrases are search terms readers use. For instance, "gay young adult novel" or "strong female characters" or "zombie steampunk." In erotica, you can use the real terms in keywords even if they're banned from blurbs. So if you go to Amazon and type in the banned word "orgy," you'll get books that used that as a keyword but have discreet titles like The Arrangement. (Or less discreet titles that at least don't include "orgy.")

Amazon is aware of this, of course. It seems that they're less interested in outright banning all erotica than in banning certain types and in keeping a virtual brown paper wrapper over graphic language visible in the storefront.

Call me as out of touch as a high court judge, but I had no idea dinosaur erotica was a thing until I read about it in a Guardian books post and now I know, I'm not sure whether it is something I wish my wife or my servants to read or not...

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Sitting down to read the first couple of pages of Samantha Shannon's The Mime Order, I realised my grasp of the events of its predecessor, The Bone Season, was sketchy at best and a re-read was probably called for if I was to make any sense of the sequel. Re-reading, I was struck by the unevenness of the opening, the pacing problems, and the frequent and dense info-dumps. On finishing, I checked to see whether I'd written it up after my first reading and discovered that I'd already picked up on the same problems which suggests that whether I'm right or wrong in my opinions, I am at least, starting to show a bit of consistency...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
After finishing the fantastical The Goblin Emperor, I opted for some from the opposite end of the SFF spectrum in the form of Neal Asher's Dark Intelligence. A return to the Polity universe after a short gap, the book focuses on a resurrected military scientist and a crime boss who both find themselves caught up in a plot devised by a crazed artificial intelligence called Penny Royal — who, I think, first appeared, in The Technician back in 2010.

Dark Intelligence features many of of Asher's trademarks: plenty of visceral body-shock horror, weird biological creations and bizarre eco-systems, and, as ever, he excels in creating convincing if unlikeable post-humans. But the principal focus on the book, in keeping with the series title, is that of transformations: Faustian pacts that turn people into killing machines; alien monsters who find themselves gradually becoming human; people whose personalities and memories have been transformed, changing them into something new; and damaged artificial intelligences who want to escape their past conditioning and become something new.

While it's obviously not a good point to dive in to the series — a casual familiarity with the events of the Cormac and Spatterjay novels is assumed at many points — it's an excellent and enjoyable addition to the canon.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
One way and another, the last week has left me on the verge of exhaustion and barely able to string two words together so, in lieu of anything coherent, a handful of random thoughts:
  • I've spent a fair part of the last week powering through Gareth L. Powell's Macaque novels. They're a total blast — as might be expected with a foul-mouthed, hyper-violent, hard-drinking monkey in the lead role — and surprisingly subtle, with a well drawn cast of characters and some clever world-building that allows each book to move into new territory without invalidating what has gone before
  • I also adored Powell's The Recollection, a impressive space opera that stands alongside the likes of Banks, Reynolds and Macleod, and which links up with the plot of Macaque Attack, the latest of the monkey series. I liked it so much I wolfed the whole thing in one sitting
  • Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor really is as luminous and wonderful as everyone says it is. Not a great surprise, given that Katherine Addison is a nom de plume of the excellent Sarah Monette
  • Having caught up with Francesca Haig's appearance on Tea and Jeopardy, I'm looking forward to reading The Fire Sermon when it comes out. It's Wyndhamesque, dystopian, and features separated at birth twins each of whom can only live as long as the other survives. Sounds just my sort of thing
  • I'm looking forward to Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory with a fiery passion, counting off the days until I can get my hands on a copy...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Having averaged a book a week during 2014, it's time for a few concluding thoughts. My favourite new books of this year, in no particular order, have been:

  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. Smaller scale than her first book, but every bit as good.
  • Steles of Sky by Elizabeth Bear. A triumphant ending to a really first-class fantasy trilogy. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to get my copy signed by Bear at Loncon — a definite highlight of my year!
  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. An unsettling baroque fantasy that explores questions of colonialism and oppression
  • The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher. A haunted house story pretending to be a space opera.
  • The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. An epic scale fantasy with parallel worlds at war with one another

I've also made some fantastic discoveries, including:

  • Jasper Fforde; his novels are so exactly my thing, I can't quite understand why I hadn't read them already
  • Emma Newman's Split World series; a really good urban fantasy series with a strong line in feminism and a superb lead character
  • Tea and Jeopardy; Emma and Peter Newman's podcast which combines a great interview with enjoyable silliness. I like it so much I was reduced to fanboy incoherence when I met Peter at Bristolcon!
  • Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels; R recommended these on the strength of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and I promptly woolfed down the whole series. Bradley does a wonderful job of writing his absurdly precocious narrator, adding just enough to make you wonder how reliable she actually is!
  • Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series. Another series I've been meaning to read for a while and couldn't quite believe how good it was

Reading other peoples' best of 2014 lists, I've realised I've got one very serious omission: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor. Given that Addison is a pen name for Sarah Monette, one of my favourite writers, I can't quite understand why I haven't got round to reading it. It's definitely a mistake I need to correct before the Hugo nominations close...

sawyl: (A self portrait)
A gentle end to the year, with my day spent reading and lazing around.

The parents took themselves off to a matinee performance of The Imitation Game which they liked a lot — although pater said they it seemed to make out that Turing had done absolutely everything at Bletchley, whereas there were actually something 10,000 people there during the war.

Somewhat inevitably mater told me that Turing reminded her of me, but when we unpacked things it transpired that she only meant that he was portrayed as somewhat pedantic. (I suspect that this false resemblance owes more to Benedict Cumberbatch than Alan Turing: I've also been told that Cumberbatch's Sherlock reminds people of me; because there's nothing like being told that you resemble a high-functioning sociopath to make you feel good about yourself)

On their return the parents whipped up a few curries from Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Nation, including an excellent cold starter involving chickpeas and pomegranate seeds. JF came for New Year's Eve supper, on condition that she didn't have to stay until midnight, and we had an extremely civilised evening talking about books and trekking.

We indulged in a bit of fanishness over Scarlett Thomas, who we both love, and, while talking about writers whose books engage with literary matters, J mentioned that she knows Sarah Moss, whose novel Cold Earth I absolutely loved and which has stayed with me and continued to prod at me ever since I first read it.

Talking about some of the things I'd read this year, I said that I'd re-read Susanna Clarke's masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell ahead of the forthcoming TV adaptation (and, now that the Callander has flipped over, I suspect I'm going to read it again this year). It turned out this was an easy sell: although she hadn't read the book, J had read and liked Clarke's short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and as a specialist in 19th century literature, I thought she'd probably enjoy Clarke's (to my untrained ear) excellent pastiche of Austenian sensibilities.

After an extremely nice evening, J left for home and I dithered about whether to go to sleep or whether to see the new year in. In the end I got an early happy new year text from R and her snoring springer just as I was flossing my teeth and by the time I was done replying, I thought I might as well wait out the last few minutes of 2014.

Here's hoping 2015 is a good one!
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Gentle day spent pottering around and reading through Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels which, not unsurprisingly, I absolutely adore.

After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates emotion in their head, or the colours of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer's breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as they do for the writer — perhaps more.

When he said something similar at Bristolcon, someone in the audience said, "You can definitely come back next year..."

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Gentle day pottering around at home and reading and listening to Bach. I've finally found time to read Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, which may just be even better than Ancillary Justice and which has left me with a powerful urge to go back and re-read — and possibly even write up — the first book in series. But first I think I'm going to allow myself a couple of cosy crime novels, then, possibly, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

Today's Paul wasn't too demanding: I liked the wordplay in "Recording away from the studio — tedious? (7,9) while "Iffy novel about debasement ultimately, fiend from hell shackling female in vacuous story? (5,6,2,4)" made me laugh when I eventually worked it out...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I've finally had a good week which, given the weeks I have been having, feels like it's more than a bit overdue. Partly it's a consequence of my long weekend, spent recharging in Coventry with my family. But equally, I suspect it's the result of having some exciting new work to be getting on with; something that makes me realise the degree to which I haven't really stretched myself over the last couple of months.

I've got some interest new ideas to do with workload balancing — my area of expertise only in as much as everyone tries to avoid it! — and I've had some really good discussions about different methods of charging, about the problems of passing costs directly back to individuals, and the problems that occur when costs and payments replace social pressures and altruism — I'm pretty sure Michael Sandel talks about this somewhere in the contest of paying blood donors in the US. I don't think there's a perfect solution — ultimately it's going to be a combination of a politics, compromise, and personal taste — but I'm sure there are ways to improve and simplify the existing methods and still achieve the required goals.

I've also reached the point where this year's Manic Reading Project has reached last year's total, despite having two and a bit months of the year still to run. I doubt I'll beat 2012's total — a shocking 165 books — unless I switch to reading nothing but the very shortest of novels, but I'm still going to try and give it a serious run for its money.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
After deciding that the combination of heat and tiredness made climbing a bad prospect, I was left at a bit of a loose end. But after R talked me into bucking my ideas up, I decided to try and go swimming only to discover that the pool was closing early and I'd just missed the last entry cut-off time. Giving up I returned home and settled down with more of the Hugos works, so here are a few thoughts on some of the anthologies up for consideration for one award or another.

Speculative Fiction 2012 collects a set of online essays and criticism from a variety of different sources. I very much enjoyed the eclectic mix of topics and I was pleased to find myself re-encountering a number of pieces I'd enjoyed when I'd first encountered them — obviously the editors and I share similar tastes! I particularly liked Penny Schenk's piece China Miéville's Railsea and Lavie Tidhar on Embassaytown, while Liz Bourke's caustic review of Michael J Sullivan's Theft of Swords is as delightful a piece of schadenfreude as one might wish to find.

Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It, with its awesomely long title, does exactly what it says on the cover. The enthusiasm of the essays is infectious, even to someone who has become slightly jaundiced about the show of late, and each one undoubtedly celebrates the Dr Who, but the actual subjects are a bit mixed. Some of the pieces are critical analyses, pointing the gay subtext of a lot of Dr Who and how, in Classic Who, the Doctor's lack of overt sexuality challenged the hetronormativity of your standard TV hero. Many of the other pieces feature often rather sweet coming out stories — either as gay or as geek! — filtered through a love of Dr Who and the fan culture surrounding it.

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination is a fun anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, up for the best short form editor, dedicated to showing things from the other side of the superhero-supervillain divide. The essays are fun, although read shortly after Queers Dig Time Lords and pieces like Kate Eliot's essay The Omniscient Breasts, it's hard not to notice a certain familiar treatment of some of the characters in the stories. But that's a quibble; most of the pieces are fun — and the authors seem to enjoy the opportunity to cut loose — and it gave me the chance to read pieces by a few authors I hadn't read before.

Where the novel, short story etc categories are relatively easy to assess — at the least the forms are similar and the criteria relatively obvious — the related work is such a interesting and varied lot it's hard to make any sort of objective decision...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'm in the middle of reading Tropic of Serpents so this seems entirely apposite: a funny promo video featuring Marie Brennan and Mary Robinette Kowal on tour, in costume, accompanied by puppet theatre and dragon bones...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Bad start to the day: waking from a dream that I'd overslept, I got up only to discover that a muscle had settled in my right shoulder — the working one! — and wished to register a complaint about yesterday's treatment. Fortunately, after stretching and dosing up with anti-inflammatories, it settled down enough for everyday stuff, but I decided to skip my afternoon swim and to give serious consideration to skipping my weekend boulder.

I spent most the day listening to Bach and finishing the final novel in Elizabeth Bear's outstanding Eternal Sky trilogy. Having adored the first two books, I'm happy to say that Bear sticks the dismount: Steles of Sky is fitting conclusion to what is probably my favourite series of recent years. The world-building is cracking, drawing on the early modern cultures surrounding the Eurasian steppe, while the characters are fully rounded and beautifully drawn — even the non-human ones. Reading the trilogy felt like I'd finally come home; that this was the epic fantasy I'd been waiting for forever.

Sadly, the rest of the afternoon was written off to work, after a panicky phone call that asserted, without much in the way of evidence, that everything was broken. After making a futile attempt to talk someone through a few diagnostic — from the output, it was very clear they were garbling the commands I was giving them — I logged in, traced a locked GPFS thread, forced some fail-overs, waited out a couple of event timers, and everything promptly spring back into life.

Despite being worried that I was going to be late for F&JC's barbecue, I arrived just in time to see the flames take hold — they'd only just finished the extraction of a particularly tricky tree stump and were running behind schedule. We had a nice evening — although those who'd spent their day toiling the garden seemed to be suffering a range of aches and pains — and the weather held, although I noticed a definite spring chill in the air on my way home.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Having enjoyed Seanan McGuire's Half-Off Ragnarok, I've been slotting the rest of her Incrypid stories into gaps in my reading schedule. The stores are smaller and more character focused than the novels, but they pack a lot of punch for their size.

While I liked them all, I thought the series of connected stories about Frances and Jonathan Healy — Alex, Verity and Antimony's great-grandparents — were particularly special. The core relationship between Fran and Jonathan, with all its ups and downs and deadpan jokes, is very well drawn and feels delightfully authentic. Which is largely why The First Fall is almost unbearably painful: the idea that, having got to know and like the Healys as a wonderfully determined and resourceful couple, they might end up as broken as anyone else carries such a lot of emotional weight.

What makes the whole enterprise deeply satisfying is the way it fleshes out the existing universe, giving a context for the Aeslin mice — surely one of McGuire's most inspired creations! — and gives the impression of a whole world heavy with history happening between, below and behind the lines of the three present-day Incryptid novels.
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On the way to work this morning, I suddenly realised who Mr Norell reminded me of. With his old-fashioned wig, his pedantic manners, and his tendency towards prolixity and obscurity in his writings, and his extreme tediousness, he put me in mind of the standard caricature of Immanuel Kant. While this is horribly unfair to both Kant and Susanna Clarke, once the thought had a occurred to me, I was unable to get it out of my head.

All of which makes me wonder, if Norrell is Kant, which philosopher is best embodied by Jonathan Strange?
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Having committed myself to a re-read of Susanna Clarke's vast Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I'm pleased to find that it remains every bit as superb as when I last read it and for all its heft, it's a surprisingly quick read and very, very funny.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'll probably have more to say once I'm done, but one and a half books in I find that I absolutely love Emma Newman's Split Worlds novels. I particularly like the way she declines to pull her punches over Cathy's horrible forced marriage — the fact that her groom is, by his own standards, a particularly enlightened chauvinist in no way compensates for the fact that his attitudes are two centuries out of date — making the outcome, insofar as I've read at least, genuinely shocking.


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