Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Something I find endlessly fascinating are the differences between cultures and countries on this fair planet of ours; the varieties in aesthetics, practices and outlooks is a great reminder to take nothing for granted. However, sometimes you're left boggled by decisions made in parts of the world.

Germany have now introduced a law that prohibits ebooks aimed at adults to be sold before 10 PM and after 6 AM, local time. The German Publishers & Booksellers Association has been told by the Youth Protection Authority that all ebooks are now subject to the same controls that have existed for print media since 2002, which limits the sale of hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines, and graphic novels to minors when those material are clearly aimed at adults. From now on all publishing houses and self-publishers will need to fill in a new field in the metadata calling out if the content is for an adult audience.

The oddness of this decision is mitigated by the fact that it may not in fact be enforced; Germany have a number of rules around what can and can't be sold or shown but these aren't always followed. With the fine being €500,000 for breaking the law though it will be surprising if new adult sections don't start popping up in online book stores across Germany.

From my time in the DVD world, I know that similar rules exist for rated 18 and up movies and TV, to the point where even buying them abroad can result in them being confiscated by customs until you prove your age (though it's a rare occurrence). But books are an odd medium to put these kind of age limits on; reading isn't as easy as sitting back and watching a movie, or playing a video game. Britain doesn't currently (and hopefully never will) have an age rating on books. Graphic novels are also not rated, though there may be an argument for that given they're much more of a visual medium then books. I'm not sure where I stand on this; I read a lot of non-age appropriate books and comics growing up, but then again my mum bought those for me after checking them... 

Is it okay to sell a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to an eight-year-old, without a guardian present? Do we control the distribution of books by a person's age? And why does the idea of  that make a shiver go down my spine? Worth puzzling over, but I suspect there are no easy answers; and in the meantime each culture will do what works (or seems to) for them. See, I told you cultural variety is interesting.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Tanith Lee - Strange, Magical and Irreplaceable

It was a shock to hear that Tanith Lee died Sunday 24th May at the age of 67. To say she's influenced my reading and writing habits would be a massive understatement. It was her book, The Birthgrave, that was the very first fantasy novel I ever read that was intended for adults. I was eleven and in desperate need of MORE STORIES, particularly anything with a girl as the main character and having magical adventures. There weren't a lot of those kind of books when I was a kid in the early Nineties so my mum gave me a book with a semi-naked woman on the cover:

Written entirely in first-person, it tells the story of a woman who wakes up in a cavern under a volcano that is erupting. Barely escaping with her life she's rescued by some locals, who worship her as a god. Oh, and did I mention she takes one look at herself in some water and is confronted with a hideous deformed visage, so she covers her face for the rest of the book? That happens too. I adored the story, the characters and the epic yet personal themes. I read my way through it and the two follow ups in a matter of weeks. Then promptly read them again. From that point on I became a firm fantasy and science-fiction fan for life.

Lee's books are a wonderful mixture of high-fantasy, urban fantasy, horror and magic; with a large dose of weirdness. And through all of her stories was the ever present female point of view. Her stories were genuinely unique, beautifully written but so strange at times they could be hard to get into. With more than 90 books to her name I haven't come close to reading them all but to honour this great writer, who was sadly much under appreciated in her lifetime, I've listed below some of her works I have read and would highly recommend for all speculative fiction fans. Her high-fantasy books always reminded me of the Conan worlds, but with women as the focus, and there's a strong current of horror running through most of her stories. Her science fiction stories by comparison brought unusual takes on sci-fi tropes to create truly unique stories that I haven't yet found from other writers.

Black Unicorn
Silver Metal Lover

When the Lights Go Out
The Castle of Dark

I'm genuinely saddened that there will be no new Tanith Lee stories ever again, so will be making the effort to read those books of hers I haven't got to yet. For a personal and touching post about the loss of this great writer to the world, I highly recommend this post from her editor and friend.

And in the words of Tanith Lee herself: 

"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told -- on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others -- there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change -- passing on the fire like a torch -- forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all."

Thursday, 23 April 2015


This is not going to be one of those "Gee, I sure haven't written a post in a while" posts. The ones where the writer apologises to the masses of disappointed and frustrated readers, ravenously waiting for their next hit of amateur blogging. Even if those masses are mainly made up of their mum and their cat. No, I'm not going to do that. But I am going to talk about the not writing, and how it's an odd reflection of my state of mind.

For a long time now I haven't wanted to write anything. Actually let me rephrase that; I have wanted to have written, to see my words on the page and even to have been paid for those words. But the actual process of writing, the sitting down and typing those words - that I haven't wanted. So I didn't do it. If the last year has taught me anything it's to not be too hard on yourself and to recognise when you just have to stop. So I stopped. I've been reading lots of books (reviews coming soon), watching TV and lots of movies. I haven't been playing games so much because, like writing, I just can't find the energy to actually do it. I have been wanting passive pastimes, rather than active ones. Even the gym took a bit of a backseat, with my regular three visits a week dropping to one, maybe two if I could be arsed.

I think I've seemed okay to others, and have largely felt "okay", but I know that I've been under a shadow for a while now. I only recognised this because it seems to be lifting, letting in some light that had been unknowingly missing. I still haven't gone back to games yet, but ideas for stories are being explored, as well as a lot of research into freelance writing opportunities. The gym is also being graced with my presence a bit more (though work hours conspire to make that as difficult as possible). Chores are (mostly) getting done rather than thought about, dismissed and finally done in a fit of "fine, if you won't clean/cook/wash yourself then I'll bloody well do it". It's odd how a return to normal patterns makes you realise how abnormal they've been.

I've also begun to feel a bit more confident. I think I do a good job most of the time of seeming pretty confident and sure of myself. The reality is I often am struck with impostor syndrome, feeling like I'm going to be found out at any moment. That sensation got a lot worse after Dad died, and coupled with the panic attacks I occasionally got on public transport, left me feeling like a shell made of sugar glass. That's also fading, though not entirely absent - I'm just getting better at telling myself to suck it up and see what happens, rather than worry what the outcome may or may not be.

The roller coaster ride is definitely not over, eight months in and counting, but I'm starting to learn how to deal with the dips and peaks better. It's just a pity I hate roller coasters... 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

How to Blow Your Mind in One Easy Step

I read a thing about artificial intelligence here and here. And I can't recommend enough for you all to do the same. It took me about 40 minutes to get through it all, mostly with this facial expression:

It's seriously terrifying shit. If you can't be arsed to read it all, it boils down to this:

1. Scientific advancement increases exponentially (the more you know, the easier it is to work shit out). So what we did in the whole of the 20th Century will probably take us, ooh, ten years to do now.

2. AI comes in three types: stupid, human level, and super. So far we only have the stupid kind, that can be really good at one thing and one thing only (think Siri, Google Cars, anything where computers do the thinking for you). But we are in the process of creating human level AI. But...

3. The rules of 'exponentiality' means that as soon as we do, that human AI is likely to turn into Super AI in about an hour, real-time.

4. Super AI is going to make us like ants looking at the Hadron Collider and being totally unable to comprehend what it is, let alone how it was built or what it does.

The smartest people on the planet seem to be in two camps; one side see super AI as the saviour of not just humanity but of the Universe. It will be able to manipulate matter at an atomic (or even sub-atomic) level. It will be able to solve all of the puzzles of physics and the universe, even the ones we don't know about yet. It will be able to make us immortal. And all this in less than fifty years from now (at optimistic estimates).

The other group of super smart people... well, they're not so happy-flappy and ready to welcome the computer deity we'd be creating. They point out that while humans have mushy things like feelings, empathy, morals, ethics, etc, a computer wouldn't. This could be the extinction event for humanity. Maybe all life on earth.

Now, while a part of me is all like "Oh, shit!" another, bigger bit of me is thinking of all the stories I could make out of this. Which probably says a lot about my tendency to retreat into fantasy rather than deal with reality, but is also a demonstration of something I think may be the key to stopping the AI destruction of the world. Make the thing love stories, particularly stories about people and then it will have a good reason to keep us around.

Unless we all end up having to reenact Game of Thrones for the computerised overlord's amusement...

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Pressuring Productivity

I can safely say I have just gone through one of the busiest (work-wise) January's I think I've ever had. Learning new skills, desperately trying to keep up with the tasks and events that come up; it's been a total mind-melt. You know, that feeling when you get home, like there's a sloshy sound in your skull, only relieved with crap TV and junk food. That.

This though is not a complaint. One of the reasons I was so dissatisfied in my previous job(s) was the feeling of not having much to do, and that what I was doing didn't really matter or get noticed much. In contrast everything I do now is under a microscope and does have an impact on how many people engage with the streaming service I work for. If I fuck up they won't know about the latest addition or those really cool shows we made (*cough* watch Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle *cough*). So job satisfaction is pretty high, even if stress levels aren't far behind.

The consequence has been not a lot of my own writing has been happening. Aside from getting home late more often than not, my inspiration energy points are pretty low even when I do get back at a decent time. This has also resulted in fewer tweets, Facebook posts or blog updates. And I really couldn't care less. Which is why I'm here, typing again.

I've realised I've been putting pressure on myself, and feeling obligated, to write. To be productive. With the knock on effect that it just seems like a huge mountain each time I take on any of these small acts of creation. So I procrastinated, put things off and then just never did them. But this last month I've purposely put my energy into my day-job, recognising that this would mean I have less to put into other things. And that that's okay.

One of the worst things for any creative endeavour is resenting the act of creating, feeling like you're being made to do it. With the constant mantras of having to write daily, or put 10,000 hours into your craft before you'll be any good, it's very easy to get bogged down. Well, I've discovered not giving a shit has made me more, not less, productive. I still think about my stories, making small notes about how I can work out plot or character points that aren't working. And I write a small amount whenever I can make the time. But I no longer feel guilty for blowing the writing off to play Dragon Age: Inquisition (love it), or reading the final book in the Wool trilogy (amazing) or watching yet another episode of Community (cool, cool, cool). The removal of that pressure has released me to enjoy it all again, and just do what I can. And knowing, one way or another, that it will be enough.*

They'd only end up covering you in pink and blue anyway.
*Not that this is a green-light to being a lazy git; if you truly want to be something in your life you can't just sit about and wait for the fairies to come along and grant your wish. You've got to do something - but that something doesn't have to crush you under its boot of demands. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

New Year Thoughts

Another year is approaching a new dawn, prompting many to look back at the last twelve months and forward to the future. In some ways my own year has been one of the worst of my life and yet I don't really feel that's entirely accurate. I'm writing this as a press conference is being held in Indonesia announcing that 162 families will never get to see their loved ones again. As awful as losing a parent is I don't think it really compares at all with what those people are going through.

This has got me thinking about how important it is to live your life as part of a society, as a cog in a greater machine. When my dad died I was overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers, friends and family alike. The strength they gave so generously got me through those first confusing and distressing weeks, so that four months on I feel like I'm processing and learning to live with the new reality. Without that support I genuinely don't think that would have been the case; thank you to everyone who was there for me, even if it was just a text message. You'll never know how appreciated it was.

So if I've learned anything from the last twelve months it's to be kind, even if you don't think it will make much difference. I've also learned to live well, and as happily as you can. Embrace the lessons life gives, even if it was unasked for. I learned what loss feels like. I also learned how amazing people can be. I learned how much I appreciate the people in my life.

So whatever you're doing for New Years, give someone you care about a hug, even if it's a virtual one. Raise a glass to those who you've left behind and to those you haven't met yet. And above all: Be excellent to each another.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Book Review: The Borgias

The Borgias
Christopher Hibbert
Kindle edition, 2011

I'm currently suffering from Fiction burn-out. For some reason my brain has decided it does not want fantasy lands full of warriors and goblins, nor wizards, witches, and Queens in disguise. It doesn't want far-flung worlds, with desperate attempts at survival against the odds. Instead it's been crying out for fact - or at the very least possible facts, depending on your point of view. So I've been reading history books, and just finished The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert.

I got interested in the Borgia family with the excellent TV show starring Jeremy Irons. If you've not seen it I highly recommend it. It's like Game of Thrones but real(ish). And without the White Walkers. Schemes aplenty and rumpy-pumpy at every opportunity. Sadly they didn't get the chance to finish the story of the Borgias as the show got cancelled in it's fourth season, and it ends before we see what ultimately happened to Pope Alexander and his adult children. So I picked up Hibbert's book, as it seemed to cover what I wanted to know.

If you have no knowledge at all of the Borgias this is an excellent place to start, as it covers everything, from the time of Alexander's ascension to the Papal throne, to the last days of his children. The Borgias are a big deal because of the scandals that surrounded them; Spanish by birth, they were never happily accepted into Rome, and Alexander was a man of extreme ambition. He was clearly someone who was willing to do almost anything to further the gains of him and his family, and he had great plans for all of his children. Sadly the family were to largely vanish from the wheels of power, but their lives have inspired countless fictional stories. Hibbert gives a good run down of the key events and attempts to cast some light on this intriguing family. I should mention that the book includes a lot of detail about clothing and materials at the time, which at first seems odd until he quotes from sources; they too talk a lot about what kind of dress a person was wearing, so it's no wonder Hibbert does too. And eventually I came to be grateful for it as it coloured in this historical time and made the characters within it all the more real.

The book is written in a style very reminiscent of a novel, albeit with regular quotes from chroniclers and messengers. Though the book moves swiftly through the events of the Borgia's reign in Rome, all the way up to the death of Lucrezia, the last of Pope Alexander's children to survive, it really brings the characters out in detail. Some are a bit more indistinct than others; Cesare is a difficult character to get across, because the man was so mysterious even in his own time. But I definitely came away knowing he was not as nice as he is portrayed in the TV show. Or as handsome, I imagine. In fact this book should be a must-read for anyone who has seen and loved the show, which inevitably changed a lot of the actual history to create drama. Here you can find the real drama and make your own judgements about this fascinating family.

One thing I really appreciated about Hibbert's book is that he takes time to ensure that motivations of sources is known to the reader. A lot was written about the Borgias and most would be considered slanderous by our standards. While some of the terrible stories may be true others are fabrications, and Hibbert makes the point of trying to point out one from another. Some may feel he is overly sympathetic to the Borgia family but I felt this was much needed, as so much is accepted as true about them that is nothing more than rumour (for example the whole Lucrezia having sex with her brother and her father thing - no evidence exists of this and yet it's often assumed to be true).

If you too are in need of a bit of edifying, or want to see what Rome was like during it's height, I can highly recommend Hibbert's book; fantastical, colourful, intriguing and inspiring.