Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
1950
Paperback, 2013 edition

Ray Bradbury is one of the old guard of Science Fiction that I had never got around to reading. Deciding to remedy this situation I thought I'd give The Martian Chronicles a go, as it is consistently mentioned as a must-read of the science fiction genre. I was expecting an old fashioned science fiction story, considering it's from 1950. It turns out I massively underestimated how incredibly old fashioned it would be.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Remembrance

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. I haven't been following the news about it too closely, I'm ashamed to say, but I am planning on making a trip to the Tower of London to see the art installation there, where they are filling the moat with ceramic poppies. Part of the reason I'm not paying too much attention to all this is likely due to how it's making me feel about events at the moment. While the media flit from one disaster to the next, or attempt to terrify us with the threat of Ebola from Africa (thereby exploiting two of their favourite stereotypes, the deadly dark continent and a pandemic) I'm left still wondering about things they've moved on from. Specifically, the events in Ukraine. It feels as though the true lessons of WWI and WWII have still not been learnt.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

I can't be the only one feeling like the remembrance of WWI is poignantly timed, considering what's happening in Eastern Europe and the Middle East right now. And while Israel will no doubt continue to shell schools, markets and whatever else it pleases in Gaza; while Hamas will no doubt continue to break ceasefires by killing Israeli soldiers and throwing rockets into civilian areas in Israel; there is something stirring in Ukraine that could swamp us all. It mimics too closely events prior to the first and second world wars. And it's made me realise that the Cold War never ended; it was just in a frozen state and is now beginning to thaw.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.
The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

The truth of war is far worse than hell itself. The lives destroyed goes further than just those who die on or off the battlefield; it stabs into the hearts of the communities and families left behind. It scars the land and the psyche of people for generations. Nothing brought that home to me more than when I visited Stonehaven, Scotland last year. There is a memorial to the WWI and WWII dead on a hilltop there and it's a heartbreaking site. Stonehaven is a small fishing town, and was probably very similar to Irvine, the small seaside town my family are from in Scotland. Everyone would have known each other. And the list of dead in Stonehaven, particularly from WWI, is a long one. This site has the full list, along with those from WWII, and it's clear whole families were decimated. The inscription on the inside of the memorial reads: 

ONE BY ONE DEATH - CHALLENGED THEM - ONE BY ONE THEY - SMILED IN HIS - GRIM VISAGE - AND REFUSED - TO BE DISMAYED

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

There doesn't seem any simple solution to the problems in the Middle East or in Ukraine, but there is surely a better path than one of conflict. Diplomacy, long term perspectives and negotiation with true resilience needs to be the driving force, rather than short-term gain. And for that it's going to take people, all people, to reject hatred, violence and blame. Some think that's a naive position, one built on hope and not reality. But South Africa showed how even the most divided nation can move on from atrocity. Even Ireland, despite the viciousness and long lasting hatred that had built up, is moving on. Because people rejected violence and condemned those who committed it, no matter whose side they were on, no matter in whose name they did it. They forgave, or at best learnt to live with their pain, and moved on. I truly hope all of us, including myself, can learn those lessons.

View from The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Friends, Romans, Countrymen and Some Flash Fiction

Slowly but surely I'm getting back into the swing of things after my holiday. I always end up a bit off balance when I return from being away, especially when I really, really enjoyed myself and can only think about going back again. In this case I went to Rome, which was one of my "must-see-before-I-die" places. And it did not disappoint in the slightest. I got to see almost all of the cool ancient Roman stuff, and squeezed in the Vatican, the river Tiber and the Castel Sant'Angelo (I didn't know what it was either, apart from it being in Assassin's Creed games). There was even a top floor on my hotel to sunbathe on with a pool. Absolute heaven.

Rather than do a big old travelogue post I thought I'd write a short story inspired by that beautiful city and its crazy, wonderful inhabitants and the huge amount of history it has.



Proserpina

  Hurrying through the cobbled, narrow streets my eyes watch my feet, determined not to trip once again.
  Tourists wander past, their gazes drawn to the surrounding walls. All I feel is a sense of confinement, a desperation to escape these towering structures, their facades seeming to crumble before my eyes.
 Reaching the top of the Spanish Steps, a groan escapes my drawn lips. The crowds are thick and oblivious to others, soaking up the sun so the passage through is small and ever-shifting. Taking a deep breath of the hot air, the stench of humanity thick in it, I steel myself and dive into their depths, asking for forgiveness rather than permission as I hurry past them. Most barely notice me, but a few, mainly children, turn and stare as my thick skirts swish past them. Others do a double take, smiling before turning to their fellows to mention me. By the time they turn back I will be gone.
  The sun is high in the sky but I don't have much time. I have to reach the fountain before the sun starts to dip. Cars screech and honk when I run across the road, but no more than they always do in this loud, cacophonous place.
  Finally I reach the piazza, with the lone fountain spurting forth life itself. I slow my pace, a sudden reluctance making my feet drag. Here I am, in the bright light of day, about to give it all up again. But it is the price I must pay. That I will always pay.
  I step over the slack chain that lines the fountain edge and step into the blessedly cool water, glittering topaz and green. There suddenly seems to be few people around as I reach out with my left hand, the ring on my third finger glinting darkly, even in the bright of day. As always, I hesitate, wondering if there is a way. A way to not got back. The exact same thought I have every year before I come here and when I leave. But I know I could never give up that other place entirely, whatever my mother may tell herself; no matter what she tells me when I'm within earshot. Just as I know I can never entirely give up this place either, or the maternal figure always waiting for me.
  My fingers brush the carving of Romulus and Remus suckling on their mother's teats, her wolf's head staring deep into me. Another strong mother figure. Is there ever a way to fully escape them?
  A whirling of light and water surround me, almost drowning me and suddenly I am no longer in the daylight. There is no heat upon my shoulders, no smell of cars, sweat and dreams. Instead there is only blessed coolness, the scent of just fallen rain and the shadows.
  "My love, you have returned at last. I feared you would change your mind."
  The same words. The same words every year and yet my heart beats that little bit faster, and I close my eyes in anticipation as I turn around and open them to look upon my husband.
  "I will always return to you my dark one. Not even my mother can keep us apart forever."
  With the ritual words out of the way he embraces me, his hands cold against my back but his eyes glowing with a fire I could never resist. The same fire that made me leave with him all those many moons ago.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Can Art Be Separated From A Flawed Creator?

Trigger warning: This post features links to accounts of sexual abuse and rape, though details in the actual post are minimal.

Here in Britain we're currently going through seemingly never ending discoveries of sexual abuse at the hands of people in powerful positions. Rolf Harris, the much loved presenter of Rolf's Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital, was convicted on twelve counts of indecent assault and sentenced to five years and nine months. Prior to that Max Clifford, was sentenced to eight years for a string of indecent assaults and it's common knowledge now what Jimmy Saville was up to, though without a trial his accusations will remain forever unproven.

Gathering less attention, but certainly something that seems fatefully timed, has been the revelations about the science fiction and fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. There had been conjecture about her, and even certainty that she'd covered up her husband's crimes of rape and abuse of boys.  She admitted as much in her deposition in 1998, with the transcript leaving no room for doubt. But far more shocking, to me at least, is the heart wrenching account from her own daughter, Moira Greyland, revealing that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself was committing sexual assault, among other types of abuse, towards her throughout her childhood. And that there may be others. It isn't easy reading and I felt physically ill reading Greyland's poem, "Mother's Hands", but Greyland's words are incredibly moving and brave and deserve to be read.

So far I've never read any of Bradley's works. Interestingly she was never a writer my mum rated much, and as I experienced Science Fiction and Fantasy through my mum's collection it meant I wasn't really all that aware of her. There was a copy of Mists of Avalon on mum's shelf but I never got round to it. I have it on my wish list but I'm in no hurry to read it. I'm not in favour of blacklisting artwork even if it's created by a monster though. Sometimes even the most evil of people can create something of worth or meaning to others. I can't imagine what these revelations will do to those who loved Bradley's writing, who got started on the writing path because of reading her work or submitting stories to her anthologies. One has pledged to give all of her profits from the stories she got published that way to RAINN, America's largest anti-sexual violence charity. It's a wonderful way to handle the dichotomy of being proud of work you've done, even though it's connected to someone who has done such terrible things.

Australian councils are working to remove all Rolf Harris artwork from their buildings and in the local areas, and the price of his art has plummeted since his conviction. Likewise, I imagine less SF and Fantasy fans will be interested in reading Bradley's works. But I don't think what someone does in their life, no matter how horrendous, means their creations should be destroyed. If that were the case we wouldn't have a lot of the classical music, paintings or stories we have today. Then there's the question of the value you can get from art created by undesirables. My mum's response when I told her about all this was that she'd always felt there was something a bit "off" in Bradley's works, even though she fit the feminist, female, science fiction writer mould that my mum prefers. She couldn't put her finger on it, but said she wasn't entirely surprised by the revelations about Bradley.

It's often claimed that art can reveal far more of the artist than they intend, and for that reason alone I won't write off the chances of me reading a Bradley book one day. My interpretation of her works will be heavily influenced by what I know, just as reading Mein Kampf or looking at one of Hitler's paintings is impossible to separate from what he was responsible for. It's also a lot easier when the perpetrator is deceased; because no matter what you think of their art, at least you know they aren't benefiting from your purchase. At the same time though I can completely understand people never wanting material near them that was created by someone who committed terrible crimes or atrocities. Because even though art can exist on its own merits, it is always, inevitably, entwined with the person who created it.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Book Review: Frozen In Time

Frozen In Time
Ali Sparkes
2013
Kindle Edition

Every now and again I buy a book simply because of the description, without reading a sample. Something about it makes my eyebrow meet my hairline and I'm intrigued enough to make that knee-jerk purchase. Frozen in Time is one of the few that's done this, and it did not disappoint me.

Very much based on the Enid Blyton mysteries, Frozen in Time is set in modern times, with siblings Ben and Rachel condemned to a dull, wet summer in their countryside house. Their parents are away and all they're left with is a broken TV, no internet and their erratic Uncle, who is more interested in his latest experiment than entertaining two pre-teens. As soon as the weather clears up, they make their escape into the woods. But the storms have revealed something; a hatch leading into an underground vault, where two children have been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s. Suddenly Ben and Rachel's summer isn't so boring.

I really wish I could have read this book when I was ten. Seriously, it would have been one of my favourite books of all time. It has mystery, science fiction, conspiracies and just enough tension to keep you turning the pages. There is also a lot to enjoy as an adult, in particular the references to 1950s mores, especially with the shift in gender-dynamics since then. The language changes are also played with and the teasing of Enid Blyton type exclamations are, well; just super. The story is great, and would be a wonderful way to introduce younger readers to the Cold War in a fictional setting.

Highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind reading books for younger readers and especially for younger readers themselves. With no swearing or inappropriate violence or sexual imagery it's a safe book to buy for the kid in your life just hungering for some time bending adventure.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The New Job Begins

Like a lot of folks, I've never really known what I want to do with my life. It always seemed to change day to day, depending upon what cool film or book I'd recently read. This used to worry me a lot, especially in the education years, when apparently everyone was planning their career path with military like precision. Or at least that's what the career planners would have you believe; what I saw was a bunch of kids just as confused as me, with a few of them genuinely knowing what they wanted to do, and the rest just doing whatever their parents wanted them.

I think the key problem I've always had is that I'm interested in too many things, like a magpie is interested in the shiny. Some would say "fickle" - I would say versatile. The idea of only doing one thing for the rest of my days makes me hyperventilate in terror. This inevitably means I've tended to accidentally end up in jobs, just so I have money coming in but with the hope I may be able to make something of it and possibly, if the wind blows the right way, even enjoy it.

This is how I became a manager for a Catalogue team for LOVEFiLM way back in 2007, after nearly three years in the customer services section. Catalogue work mainly involves trying to keep up with the latest DVD/Blu-ray release schedules so that people can add them to a rental list, and we can send that title to them after they send the last one back. If you don't know how online DVD rental works by now you likely never will, as it seems to have had its heyday and is inevitably being superseded by streaming. I've had the same four discs sitting in my living room for… two weeks? Three? A while anyway. And I continually forget to send them back. [Note to self: put those discs in an envelope and in your bag!] I still get to watch cool stuff via online rental though, so will keep it up as long as it's on offer. And as long as I get my staff discount…

Even without the dawning of a new age I've been wanting to move on to do something else for a while now. I don't want much from my day job, but the bear minimum is to be intellectually challenged and busy. Neither of these things have been happening with any regularity for years now. Finally though, after many job applications and many disappointments, I have got another role to move into, starting today. And I don't even have to change building as I got a position with the Merchandising team for Amazon Instant Video. Yep, that's right; I work for the megalith, big bad/last great hope, saviour of books/destroyer of books, Amazon. My desire to be self-published and a successful novelist came first but it has crossed my mind that it won't hurt being one floor below the Kindle team.

It's been a strange path, and I have been super sad to say goodbye to some amazing people who have moved onto new pastures these last few months. But I'll admit it; I'm pleased I get to stay at Amazon. It's going to be really odd to not know what I'm doing, after so long being able to sleepwalk my way through the day, but I couldn't be happier. I'm already seeing the shift it's caused in my extracurricular activities. There's nothing more destructive to creativity than being bored all day long (this is true for me at any rate) and the writing has definitely benefited from my brain being bamboozled during these last few weeks when I've been learning about the new job. I have no doubt there will be challenging days ahead* but I feel that not only have I moved in the right direction, but that I once again have a direction to move in. Not bad for someone who's still winging it.


*I can hear everyone I work with laughing and someone saying "You know nothing Jon Snow".

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Strange World of Guilty Pleasures

There's been a recent kerfuffle over whether adults should or should not be embarrassed about reading Young Adult books. The original article in Slate came in for some criticism which the author, Ruth Graham of the original piece, has responded to as best as a critic can, though it seemed to boil down to, "what I think is a worthy book is good, anything else is not". It got me thinking overall about the strange phenomena known as "guilty pleasures" and why exactly we should feel bad about liking something.

The only media I have ever felt that my tastes may be judged is music. This is what happens when you have an ex-folk singer for a Mum and a late-60s/early-70s rock connoisseur for a Dad. I admit it changed my listening habits growing up, so I refused to even listen to mainstream Pop (or did so secretly on the radio on my Walkman) and I was a huge Indie Rock fan in the 90s. As it happens I do generally prefer Rock and Alternative over other types of music. But I no longer bar Pop music from my iPod; I have a collection of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and even Ms. Spears (among many others) that I listen to when I want a bit of light relief. Some of it is "good" and some of it is not, if such subjective measurements can ever really be assigned to something as personal as music. But I like the songs, which is ultimately all that matters. And yes, I take great pleasure in telling my parents this and arguing with them that Lady Gaga is actually really rather good if you give her a try. They remain unconvinced. I remain unrepentant. We talk about other things.

My current read and to be read pile #5
So, which of these books am I meant to feel guilty about exactly?
Graham's assertions seem a bit odd to me and I've long wondered why one piece of art or media is more deserving than another. I've done my duty and read or tried to read the classics;

  • Great Expectations - dull, only ever get to the fourth or fifth chapter before I give up
  • Moby Dick - good, but massively racist and the language is so hard to read with this damned 21st century perspective.
  • War and Peace - just no.
  • Pride and Prejudice - love, love, love. I've reread it so many times I now have two versions; one well thumbed and one intact for future read-throughs.
  • The Odyssey - adore and again have re-read countless times.

The only thing the books I like have in common is that I like them. Yes, there's common features such as interesting female characters, magical or supernatural elements or explorations of far flung worlds and future times. But I'll give anything a go, especially in film and TV (takes less time to consume so even if I don't like it I won't have lost more than a few hours of my life) so the idea I should feel guilty for enjoying something just seems… odd. If I like a thing all it says is that I like it. Nothing more. It may mean a friend of mine likes it too, if we share the same tastes. Then again, maybe it won't. But no one needs to be embarrassed or feel guilty, regardless whether we both like a thing or don't.

A big part of this whole discussion over "guilty pleasures" or keeping your penchant for glittering vampires secret, is simply snobbery; some folks think they're better than others and they use a person's taste in entertainment to justify that view. I'll be perfectly honest here and say I have much the same problem but in reverse; I have no time for literary novels and watch very few (if any) art films or "serious" films. I generally find them boring and tedious, which inevitably makes me judge people who like these things with the assumption that they likely share these characteristics. It's wrong and unfair, but it is what it is. However I would never tell them they shouldn't watch or read in these genres. That's none of my business. I wonder how long it will be before the favour is returned the other way? In the meantime I'll continue to watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer on repeat, cheer away to Kaiju being hit in the face by giant robots and delve into the latest novel (YA or otherwise) that feature vampires, assassins, sorceresses, the undead, aliens, conspiracies or any combination of the above.