April 30th, 2009

#I've been to Birmingham, but I've never licked a pig#

The subject of swine flu came up at work, as you would expect, and as you would also expect the subject turned to that of licking pigs. Somehow the above ear-worm based on the fine song 'Never been to me' by Charlene which can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMDKDAfnNFs
Not for nothing was this voted one of the top 5 worst hits of all time.

There is, of course, also her duet with Stevie Wonder, 'Used To Be'. The lyrics can be found here (on an image so not copyable)
http://www.steviewonder.org.uk/SongsOfWonder/JustGoodFriends/used_to_be.htm

"Superman was killed in Dallas
There's no love left in the palace
Someone shot the Beatles' lead guitar..."

This was also voted one of the top 5 hits of all time.

Books

As usual by this time of year I have got fed up listing books, however we will soldier on...

5. Toast by Charles Stross.
Early Stross short stories. I rather liked this. I wonder if any SF author destroys the world / universe / life on Earth in as high a proportion of their stories?

6. Other Worlds, Better Lives by Howard Waldrop.
One of the many perceptive points in Breakfast In The Ruins by Malzberg is identifying the 'famous person story' as a distinct subgenre. Waldrop is, of course, the main exponent of the famous person story. However... my feeling is that the FPS is something that has to be finely balanced or it veers off into the irksome, a key rule is 'mentioning people by their real names and or their earlier married surnames or other pseudonyms is not a substitute for plot'. There are a number of stories in this book that just didn't work for me, there is a tendency for nothing much to happen in his stories and I can forgive that where the chrome matches up with my obsessions, but in quite a few stories in this book it doesn't, particularly. The short story collection that came out last year was much more engaging in my opinion.

7. Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow
A novella in structure (if possibly not length), this has a straight forward plot. The high concept is that the Americans were working on a plan to breed giant fire-breathing lizards to unleash on Japanese cities in parallel with the Manhattan Project. To show the Japanese the terror weapon to encourage their surrender without loss of life, the idea is to show some senior Japanese officials a smaller lizard destroying a model city. Unfortunately the smaller lizards are quite tame, so a horror B-movie actor has to wear a costume to play the part of the smaller lizard. Quite amusing, but there's not really that much more to it.

8. Dead to Me by Anton Strout
9. Dead Again by Anton Strout
I came across Strout because he was blacklisted during the ludicrous apocalyptic fannish race-shitstorm. I wouldn't say I bought the first book BECAUSE he was on the black-list, just that it brought him to my attention. The hero has the psychic power of reading the history of objects, he used this as a minor criminal but turned over a new leaf and joined New York's Department of Paranormal Affairs (or something, I forget the exact name). One of the reviews describes it as part Ghostbusters, part Men-In-Black which I think is a good description. I believe this is known as 'urban fantasy'. They are written with quite a light touch and do not outstay their welcome. (Hmm, they are better than this might suggest, I am not damning with faint praise, honest).
As you know, professor, I am great believer that modern fantasy needs a certain lightness and pace to distract the reader from the fundamental implausibilities, Strout has that. The first book is better than the second which perhaps suffers slightly from flaw 2 of modern fantasy, reading a bit like a write-up of the author's RPG scenario.

10. Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs
They are what they are. Holiday reading. Rather better than the last few I thought.

11. Doors Open by Ian Rankin
This is his most recent novel, there is an oblique reference to Rebus having retired, and whilst set in Edinburgh it has another detective. It is written from the view-point of multiple characters including some of the villains. This was, I thought, a return to the form of the earlier Rebus novels, i.e. better than they have been for a while. It is grittier than the more recent ones too, we are to a certain extent in Brookmyre territory thematically (art theft) and stylistically (quite hard-boiled). Better than the more recent Brookmyres for that matter.

12. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
I am sure that on some level this is well written but it bored me silly.

13. The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
I am still ploughing my way through this from time to time, but have rather stalled. A book about Herman Kahn, the RAND corporation and its war games, simulations etc. It appears to be well regarded but for some reason is not engaging me. It has some wonderful photos in it.

# Let's all meet up in the year 5000 #

OK... thought experiment...
Consider the generation starship. Clearly the generation starship is viewed as being part of the toolbox of SF, therefore if a published / publishable author submitted a generation starship novel no-one would say 'that's Bernal's idea (name taken from Wikipedia, may not be true obviously), you can't use it' because the trope has been grandfathered in on some level. Suppose, then, that a published / publishable author submitted a novel / idea for a novel with some of the aspects of Anathem would this be accepted or is there a cut off date for ideas sinking into the genre's meme pool?
The sort of aspects I am thinking of are, of course, the ones I particularly liked e.g.
1. The math / concent idea, i.e. a sort of secular monastery with the idea that they are responsible for maintaining knowledge over long periods of time.
2. The 'deep time' aspect, with the idea of a metastable society which rises and falls within certain levels but is on some level sustainable - I think in Anathem we are supposed to infer that various of the grandfathered in plants / technologies mean that resources are essentially sustainable on the sort of time-scales the book addresses. Implicit in this is that the Singularity has, for whatever reason, not happened by the time the novel is set.
For me, those were the powerful images of Anathem, and just as multiple authors have had a go at generation starships, I would like to see others have a go at this.

Footnote: I think by now according to ISO standard 10666 I am allowed to say that I assumed that the Singularity would be a major theme of Anathem, though I suppose it can be argued that on some level it is implicitly, you can't avoid the turd in the punch-bowl.

I submit for your interest if you haven't seen it, a page containing Stephenson's sketches for the clock of the long now which shows the genesis of some of the ideas in Anathem http://www.longnow.org/projects/clock/others/