Monday, 30 December 2013

Wish They All Could Be Strong Female Characters

Last week I went and saw the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, with my family. After my previous post here, I found I'd correctly guessed the endpoint of this second movie, but I was impressed (not favorably) with how Peter Jackson has managed to make a movie that's boring even when stuff's happening on screen.

Partly that's a result of really uneven pacing - as an example, the scene in the dwarves' treasure room, where they're being chased around by Smaug, just went on and on, without adding anything to the story. But Jackson also crammed a bunch of stuff in to pad the movie out to three hours: for example, Gandalf rides out to the Necromancer's fortress in Dol Guldur, an event that's mentioned in the book, but doesn't actually appear on-page. And he added a love triangle.

Tolkien's two best-known works were pretty low on romantic subplots and, frankly, women in general, which is why Peter Jackson expanded Arwen's role a bit for his movies. The Hobbit, being a children's book, has even less romance (and ladies), so Jackson added a new Elvish character, Tauriel, to be badass and cute and play the romantic foil for Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Kili, one of the dwarves.

Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilly, who just looks right as an elf, just as much as Liv Tyler did when she played Arwen a decade ago. As one of the wood elves, Tauriel is also pretty expert with a bow and with a knife, and spends the movie hopping around the trees and looking out for her menfolk.

When she first appeared onscreen, I was excited - she was fighting, and it was awesome! She was a strong female character, clearly. And then I stopped and found myself wondering why she had to be strong on the same terms as the male characters around her.

As this article from the New Statesman puts it, all the princesses know kung fu these days. I guess it's kind of a prerequisite for summer (or Christmas) action movies - if all your main characters are superheroes who are beating up aliens, then I guess you can't have a character who slows down the plot to talk about feelings and crap like that. But it's still kind of a gesture toward equality, without the screen time or plot importance actually being equal.

This is an area where I feel George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is due some recognition. As problematic as some of it is (I remember reading a comment from someone who gave up on the book version of Game of Thrones because of all the rapes), he actually does a good job of showing strong female characters who don't wield swords or kill people. The character I'm thinking of specifically here is Catelyn, who demonstrates agency by effectively kicking off the war between the Lannisters and the Starks. If I recall correctly, she wields a knife as a weapon exactly once; but she's one of the more interesting characters, precisely because she makes mistakes and bad decisions, just the same as the other POV characters.

That's not to say that I don't like female warriors in fantasy fiction. If they make sense within the story, then they should be there - which is just as applicable to male characters. But I agree with Chuck Wendig, as quoted in the Sophia McDougall above, that "strong" shouldn't have to equate with physical strength, but with being strongly written. McDougall notes that many writers and readers are probably not thinking in those terms, and she's right - but I'm sure she'd agree that it's an idea worth disseminating.

After all, what made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a strong female character was that she was a strongly written character who happened to be female. And happened to be surrounded by other strongly written female characters.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Hobbit: English fantasy vs. epic fantasy

In preparation for the second part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, I'm currently rereading JRR Tolkien's original book. I've been wanting to get back up to speed with it, and as I did with the Lord of the Rings movies ten or so years ago, I'm rereading it to try and get an idea how this new movie will look - after all, Jackson's sent the Nerd World into an uproar by trying to expand a slim book (my edition, which comes with a few illustrations by Tolkien himself, tops out at 280 pages) into three movies running at around three hours each.

But what's struck me on this re-read is how much it reads like a fairytale. This shouldn't be surprising, as legend holds that Tolkien used to read it to his own children, and more reliable history says that Stanley Unwin only published it on receiving a favorable review from his ten-year-old son. Not only that, but the whole narrative reflects folklore from across northern Europe, from England to Scandinavia. This is, I think, what China Mieville had in mind when he listed the things he likes about Tolkien's work, and referred to the "knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales".

The other thing that got me thinking about this was Neil Gaiman and his work. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, I was impressed to see a foreword by Gaiman, and his associated blurb calling it the "best work of English fantasy of the last 70 years". Note the expression "English fantasy", as opposed to the epic fantasy that we usually see dominating the shelves at the back of the bookstore.

I don't have my copy of Strange & Norrell in front of me, so I can't refer back, but I remember Gaiman being at pains to stress what he meant by English fantasy. Given what else I've read of his body of work, my understanding is that it's much wilder than the epic stuff, less formalized, and more influenced by the fairytales and folklore of the past few thousand years. In another essay, written for the  World Fantasy Convention's commemorative book, he talks about the genesis of his own book, Stardust, which he intended as a fairytale for adults, and refers also to Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist.

The secondary world elements in these books are much less pronounced - Strange & Norrell takes place mostly in an England adjacent to the Faerie realm, while Lud-in-the-Mist is set in a fictional world that pretty closely resembles Britain (from my understanding, not having read the book yet).

Thinking about all of this, it seems kind of a shame that what fantasy fiction has taken from Tolkien is the epic trappings of The Lord of the Rings, rather than the folkloric elements of The Hobbit. The latter is joyous and magical and scary, but most of all singular. The former, on the other hand, has given rise to a sort of kabuki, where the work is judged on how slavishly it follows the original template, while trying at the same time to do away with as many of the "tropes" as possible.

In some ways, I think this has caused the book to be unfairly maligned, although I can't really disagree with much of what Mieville said in his review of the first of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies. But we're looking at it through around 60 years of inferior copies, for instance Terry Brooks's Shannara books. So many of these copies missed the point that of course subsequent works have felt the need to distance themselves from LOTR by making the wizard untrustworthy, or having the dark lord win, or something like that. As someone pointed out, trope-avoidance has become a trope in itself.

Just to add a disclaimer, I think a lot of these criticisms could be leveled at my own novel attempts. My reading group constantly pointed out bits of my first attempt that read too slavishly like the final battle in Return of the King. I don't think it means epic fantasy isn't worth writing, though - it's just important to know the full range of what you're taking from, to go to the source, and to try and tease out the original meaning.

And if you do that, you might even turn up something truly original, rather than a fresh spin on old material. That's the work that gets remembered, like Tolkien's, for the greater part of a century.

Friday, 6 December 2013

RIP Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away on the 5th of December, at the grand age of 95. I'm posting the below picture because it's the quote I feel best conveys Mandela's message - not just in helping to unify South Africa after his release from prison, but in the way he helped set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped white and black South Africans to discuss the darker moments of their shared history, so that both sides could move forward.

My thoughts are with his family, but also with the people of South Africa, both at home and abroad.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

What I'll Miss About London

If you've seen my Twitter or Facebook accounts, you may have noticed that I complain about London to a fair degree. I make no apology for this - there are so many things about the city, its people and their collective attitude that I find maddening, and if I didn't vent from time to time, I'd probably explode, or set a Tube station on fire or something.

But on this occasion, I feel it's worth mentioning a few of the things that I'll miss about the city, when I leave in three weeks. I've been here so long that I've fallen into a routine that's generally pretty pleasant (otherwise I wouldn't have fallen into it!), and transitioning back to life in Palo Alto, with the added dimension of regular work and trying to be a grownup, is likely to present some challenges. So here are the things I'd like to single out for praise before I go:


I know this pisses off a couple of my British friends when they hear talk like this, but I really like how easy it is to get to the rest of Europe from here. For various reasons (primarily lack of money), I haven't been able to take as much advantage of it as I'd have liked, but at the same time I don't think I've done too badly. My job, in particular, has been great for helping me travel - this year alone I got out to Barcelona, Amsterdam and Portugal for work, and it never took much more than a couple of hours.

I expect there to be some travel for work when I move back to the US, and apart from that I want to explore more of the rest of the country, but it won't be the same as hopping on a plane (or a train, because I love the Eurostar) for a few hours and finding myself someplace where they speak a totally different language.


Perhaps it took me a while to appreciate this, but now that I'm getting ready to leave I'm really seeing the function that pubs serve in this country. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it's winter now, and sunset is at around 4.30pm (and getting earlier!), but there's something congenial about stepping into a quiet, warm pub, grabbing a beer, and sitting down to chat for an hour or so. It may seem weird to apply the term to British pubs, but the best word I can think of to describe the atmosphere is the German word Gem├╝tlichkeit, which is generally translated as "comfortable", but also has overtones (to me) of homeliness and warmth.

Possibly the most "gem├╝tlich" pub I've encountered in a while was the Red Lion in Mayfair, which was paradoxically also where my sister and I had our accents mocked by a couple whom we'd just expressly notified could have our seats (cf above: people, maddening). But that aside, it was a really nice place - when we stepped in on a Saturday night it was full but not a madhouse, and didn't have music or fruit machines or sports blaring. There are no similar places in Palo Alto - or, I suspect, in all of the US, where you can just stop in for a quiet drink on your way to somewhere else.

I also suspect people in the US will be mocking my accent for a few years to come anyway. One of the curses of being so cosmopolitan, eh?


Now, don't get the wrong idea - the Bay Area has a lot of great culture, and I'm looking forward to going to concerts and museums and what-have-you when I'm there. But the difference is, when I'm in Palo Alto I'll have to drive for an hour to either San Francisco or San Jose to get it, whereas here I can just hop on the Tube and be standing in front of the British Museum or the Natural History Museum or the National Gallery in about half an hour.

The other important point here is that each of these museums is preeminent in its own field, so if I happen to be reading about Chinese or Indian history, it's nice to be able to drop by the British Museum on a whim after lunch, and browse its Chinese and Indian collections. There's a good museum in Golden Gate Park that showcases African, Pacific and Asian cultures (among others), the de Young, but it won't be the same (because of that drive, and because parking in Golden Gate Park is a bitch and a half).

Oh, and did I mention that all the big museums in London are free? Another big plus.


Kind of related to the point about culture is the fact that there are so many people in London (maddening as they are), that you can find just about every interest catered for. This has been my experience particularly in the last year, as I've started to get more involved in the SFF writing/fandom community. There are a lot of writers living here, as befits one of the two centers of the Anglophone publishing industry, and - at least in the SFF community - it feels really easy to meet them.

Just today, in fact, I was poking around Blackwell's, on Charing Cross Road, in anticipation of the Sarah Pinborough book launch taking place later this week, and noticed that the recommendations in the SF section were still signed by the former SF/F buyer, Den Patrick - who's now a full-time writer and whom I met in Brighton last month.

I'm reliably informed that the Bay Area is crawling with speculative fiction writers, so there may not be too much cause for alarm. But since the closure of Borders on University Avenue, we don't have any big bookstores left in Palo Alto, and even if we did, how likely would I be to randomly run into the likes of Paul Cornell there, if not for a signing? There may be a well-established community in San Francisco, but I'm gonna have to find it - here it's all around me.


I was going to end with community, but once I got to the part about the bookstores, I knew I had to add a final section about them. There's nothing I love more than hitting the Forbidden Planet and poking around the comics and novels, or getting lost among the shelves at Foyle's, or spending an afternoon reading something from each floor at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly.

As I said above, there are no big bookstores like my beloved Borders left in Palo Alto. There's Kepler's, in Menlo Park, which is nice and indie, but I'm deeply skeptical about their staff, given that they have no idea Thomas Pynchon's books are still in print. If I want another place similar to Borders, I have to drive all the way out to Redwood City to the Barnes and Noble there. At least there are some good options for used books, but even Know Knew Books is nothing compared to the gigantic collections at Big Waterstones or Foyle's.

Now, I don't want this to sound like I'm not looking forward to the big move. I've been working toward it for a good long while now, and I'm excited that it's finally coming to fruition. But I'd be lying if I said I won't miss anything from here. Fortunately for me, I'll have plenty of reasons to come back and experience these things again over the coming years.

And who knows? Maybe I'll end up moving back. Never say never.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Stuck Outside the TARDIS

It's interesting to me how, in the last few years, nerd culture has become a unified movement, out in the public eye and steering the immense cruise ship that is popular culture. As Chris Hardwick, one of the figureheads of the movement, puts it in his book, the Nerdist Way, "Nerds: once a tormented subrace of humans... Now, captains of industry!"

Just as interesting is the concurrent rise in popularity of Doctor Who. Hardwick himself has been important in popularizing the show, although I think that the show's moment would have come even without the Nerdist's relentless championing. The two main home-grown SF franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek, have been pretty much dormant for the last few years - there's a reason JJ Abrams decided to reboot Trek, rather than going for a new Next Generation. And despite good showings from Firefly and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, there haven't been many proper sci-fi shows that take place in space.

But I don't want to imply that Doctor Who's gotten popular just because there isn't anything else on. Some of my friends growing up loved the show long before Russell T Davies rebooted it - and in fact, I think that a lot of long-time fans have been kind of turned off by Steven Moffat's tenure (at least, this is what I can tell from reading comment threads).

I've never been a fan myself, though. Not sure why - I was a hell of an Anglophile growing up, so you'd think that a British SF show would have pushed my buttons. And I actually enjoyed reading about the history of the characters; there's something intriguing about the litany of planets and times and aliens that the Doctor and his companions have traveled to.

And I love the hell out of that theme, especially the original version from 1963. It's such a perfect example of electronic music, strange and otherworldly and beautiful, that I can't stop listening to it on YouTube. In fact, at work today I listened to the collection of all of the versions of the theme tune. Twice.

True story.

What this all boils down to is that I kind of feel left out with all the festivities going on, celebrating the Doctor's fiftieth anniversary. I was even tempted to go to the movies to catch the new adventure starring David Tennant (as the 10th Doctor), Matt Smith (as the 11th) and John Hurt (as... I dunno, but he looks promisingly awesome).

It doesn't help that I've hobnobbed in recent months with former Doctor Who writers and long-time fans, like my old flatmate Jay. Hearing their stories about the show's fandom in the 70s and 80s makes it sound like a club, much more than with my friends in the US who liked Star Wars or Star Trek. The experiences are very different, of course - in the US you had to go deep into the Nerd World to be into Doctor Who, whereas here in the UK it was on the BBC.

Even if it seems that Doctor Who hasn't permeated the cultural lexicon the same way as Han Solo or Captain Kirk have, you can make the case that it's a bigger part of British culture than the American franchises are back home. After all, there was never a special Christmas episode of Star Trek every year, to be watched after the Queen's Speech. Star Wars tried the Christmas thing, of course, but that went so badly that it's almost impossible to find even now.

Maybe that's the difference. Even if you aren't British, as a Whovian you're part of this bigger thing that's been going on for 50 years now, that's so charmingly ramshackle that you're forced to focus on the stories and the relationships between the Doctor and his companions. The American experience is so varied that there are few points of contact, whereas the British experience is much more uniform (even if the Brits do like creating barriers between themselves and their neighbors).

In any case, perhaps I'm doomed never to quite get into Doctor Who. But at least, as my Whovian friends celebrate the 50th anniversary, I can congratulate them on their hero's longevity. And I look forward to continuing to be mystified by the arguments and theories on all the nerdy message boards and comment threads I frequent.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Gravity: SF or not SF?

As I've mentioned recently on Twitter, back at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton I had a conversation with SF author Mitch Benn about the new movie Gravity. I'm not sure how we got onto the topic, but he asked the question of whether Gravity was science fiction or not.

Now, I haven't seen it myself, and I don't know if he had, so any discussion here will naturally be a little limited by that. But I think it's a worthwhile topic here, since we've gotten to a point in our culture where a lot of things we take for granted could be considered science fictional.

If I recall correctly, my initial position was that Gravity was, in fact, science fiction, while Mitch was arguing that it isn't. Just being set in space, he suggested, isn't enough to turn it into speculative fiction, and I've come around to that position - unless there's something else involved in the movie, then it's simply an adventure movie set in space, and is speculative only to the extent that all fiction is speculative.

It wouldn't always have been, of course. If it had come out in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been purely speculative, simply because nobody had gone into space before. But by now, space travel is pretty commonplace, if not as universal as we would have expected back then. If you count Gravity as SF, then you would probably have to count Apollo 13 as SF, too, except for one thing: Apollo 13 really happened.

On the other hand, when I brought this up on Twitter, somebody suggested we were getting into Margaret Atwood territory (ie, "I don't write sci-fi, because sci-fi is talking squids and lasers"). I don't think this is strictly true, because I'm not trying to distance myself from the genre, or to pigeonhole the movie into any specific box. But it's an interesting comment, because it plays up just how difficult SF is to define.

Some definitions suggest that it has to have an element of "prophetic extrapolation from the known"; others state that it requires a "human problem, with a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content".

The former works better for me, although I'm not 100% convinced by the term "prophetic", as something like Predator isn't actually prophetic, given that it takes place in the present day, but has an alien. The latter definition is much more problematic, because we come back to the problem of whether or not Apollo 13 would be SF; if you want to get really obnoxious, that second definition implies that, say, Jane Austen wrote SF, because even if unbeknownst to her, science underlies every experience she wrote about, down to the photons hitting Elizabeth Bennet's eyes when she gazes on Mr Darcy.

Sorry - I know that's taking things a little too far. To bring it back to a reasonable level, that second definition immediately turns all medical dramas into SF, which probably comes as a surprise to the creators of House. And, frankly, the Wikipedia page I just linked to contains so many definitions and explanations that cancel each other out, while also all being correct, that I'm tempted to just give up and go home.

As a final point, I'll just mention the suggestion that science fiction is a "mode", rather than a genre, as genre implies a certain amount of formula. This may be a problematic definition, too, as crime fiction encompasses a number of subgenres that each contain different tropes; but it shows that, as with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on obscenity in 1964, you can't define SF, but you know it when you see it.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

And the Bad: What WFC Could Have Done Better

So, last week I wrote about how much I enjoyed World Fantasy Con in Brighton, but today I want to go over some of the things that I didn't like, or thought they could have done better. And the big one - the elephant in the room, as the cliche goes - is female participation on panels.

Because I'm a nerd, and obsessive, I just went through the whole list of panels that took place, counting how many had at least gender parity compared with how many featured more men than women. What I came up with is, over half of the panels were majority or exclusively male (although there were very few that didn't have any women, whether as panelists or moderators). The only panel that had no men participating was the one entitled "Broads with Swords", which looked at books with female protagonists donning chain mail and kicking ass.

WFC has no policy in place to ensure gender parity; they say that they try to "match the best people available to us to the most appropriate panel topics". In fairness, you can't always get who you want, and for certain topics - like the 1950s SF magazines - it's probably difficult to get that many women to make the trip anyway (age, illness and money would be factors; Robert Silverberg was due to attend, but had to cancel because of a heart attack just a couple days before, although luckily he survived and was able to fly back to the US after a few days).

But in practice, it led, at least in the panels I attended, to a bunch of male authors talking while the lone female author was stranded out on the end, kind of hard to hear (although that was because of the bad acoustics more than anything else). It happened in the comics panel, and in the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel, talking about whether fantasy is still relevant. It even happened in the panel about literary agents - apart from the moderator, Meg Davis, the only female participant was Juliet Mushens, although I was pleased to note that she was seated right in the middle, and offered her fair share of comments.

However, I was still a little surprised that they couldn't find just one more female agent for that panel, or that they couldn't get Robin Hobb (for instance) to sit on "Elvish Has Left the Building". Because frankly, the makeup of the con was pretty gender-balanced, and I think it would have been appropriate for the programming to reflect this better.

That leads into the other point that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, namely harassment. I didn't see any incidents of it myself, apart from a drunk lady (who wasn't participating in the con) who behaved toward me in a manner that would have been roundly frowned upon had our genders been reversed, and who later made an even more inappropriate advance toward someone else that I know. However, I did see something on Twitter on the Sunday morning about "WFC and the hotel" investigating an incident the previous night, and later some comments from one of the people who had seen it. And yet, the last morning the update at the hotel said specifically, "And nobody's been harassed!"

I don't know if this was a particularly good or bad con for harassment, but that statement seemed either really clueless or really disingenuous. Given how much the issue has been discussed, particularly this year, I'm hoping it was simple cluelessness, because it's not something to sweep under the rug.

And finally, as far as the redcoats, who were herding people in and out of panels, setting up, making sure things started and ended on time, and generally being helpful, I have the sense that they were run a little ragged by the organizers - I've heard stuff about them not being able to take breaks, which is a shame. I hope that they weren't being exploited as volunteers, because the possibility of it happening has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Turning to less serious issues, though, I thought there was one key thing missing from the programming, which is foreign-language fantasy being translated into English. John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, was on a few panels, and Adrian Stone, a Dutch fantasy writer, also sat in on the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel. But given the recent popularity of authors like Markus Heitz (The Dwarves series) and Andrzej Sapkowski (the Witcher series), it would have been interesting to have more perspectives outside of the Anglo-American ones we usually get - whenever I visit a bookstore in Italy, for example, I find a lot of fiction, both Italian and foreign, that never gets translated into English. Seeing how the convention is usually in North America, this would have been the perfect opportunity to shine some light on the rest of Europe.

Monday, 4 November 2013

My First Con: World Fantasy Con 2013 in Brighton

This weekend, like a great many SF/F fans and writers (both aspiring and inspiring, if that doesn't sound corny), I made my way down to Brighton for the World Fantasy Convention. Given that I've newly discovered fandom, and that it's usually held in North America, I knew I couldn't miss it. This was doubly true given that I'm moving back to the Bay Area at the end of the year, and wanted to meet a few more British-based writers before my departure.

On that score, I wasn't disappointed - and even better, I discovered a super-nice community of writers, agents, editors and fans. Frankly, after four days of being around people who are pretty roundly interested in the same things as me, it's been kind of a disappointment going back to work and my normal life.

In any case, it was held over four days in the Hilton Metropole, right on Brighton's seafront. The nice thing about the event being in Brighton was the fact that the town's pretty compact, and it's easy to orient yourself - the sea's down, the train station's up, and the pier's a useful landmark for getting around. On the downside, Brighton's also a party town, hosting regular stag and hen parties and a couple of universities, so walking home at night was always kind of an adventure.

Brighton Pier: acid-throwing thugs luckily thin on the ground.

Inside the hotel, of course, it was a different world - there were panels going on pretty much all day from Thursday afternoon to Sunday, and publisher parties just about every night, but even if you weren't attending one of the events, there was always someone in the bar to chat to.

That said, at the very start I was a little intimidated, because I was there on my own and because I'm naturally something of a shy and retiring individual. So a person I'd like to thank is Paul Cornell, who I've chatted to a few times at BSFA events, and was kind enough to introduce me to pretty much everybody. And in repayment, I took a picture of him with my friend Paul Carnell, a meeting I've been hoping to engineer since about June.

Both doing the eyebrow thing (yes, I asked them to).

Silliness aside, I think that helped me to come out of my shell a little bit later on, and just go and introduce myself to people. Scary as it was to actually meet some of my heroes, whom I've been reading for years and years now, I realized this was my chance to meet folks, so I made sure to say hi to as many of them as I could find. In addition to folks like Pat Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie, I introduced myself to literary agent Juliet Mushens and author Lou Morgan (who was also one of the redcoats, or staff members helping to facilitate events and herd the authors and fans in and out of panels, among many other duties; big thanks to all of them, btw!).

It may sound a little dorky, but "Hi, I follow you on Twitter and wanted to say hi" seems to be enough of an ice-breaker at these events. And it was gratifyingly common to have them reply, "Oh, right! Nice to meet you too!"

Of course, in case I'm giving off the impression of having been completely unfazed by all of the writers around me, I should relate what happened at my first interaction with Neil Gaiman. He'd just finished a panel on comics, and was desperately trying to get to his next commitment, while also trying to be nice to fans (like me) who wanted to take pictures or get his autograph or whatever. I managed to get his autograph in my notebook, but also wanted to thank him for having retweeted my post about his reading of Fortunately the Milk.

So I ended up scurrying after him as he tried to exit, calling out, "Thanks for Fortunately the Milk!" while he hurried out of the room. I spent the next 24 hours mortified, and trying to persuade myself that this is just what happens when you meet the person who, effectively, inspired you to write. The story has a happy ending, in that the next night I ran into him again at the Gollancz party and apologized for having chased him out of the comics panel; he graciously forgave me, and bore my thanks for the retweet with excellent humor.

And the take-away of that story is, I can keep my cool to varying degrees around most of the best and brightest of fantasy literature, but my fanboy-threshold is Neil Gaiman. This is a useful thing to know.

The rest of my interactions went much better, apart from when I got locked into a conversational death spiral with Joe Abercrombie and James Barclay about my umbrella; and yet even they were nothing but friendly to me for the rest of the con. I even made friends with a few folks I met in the bar on the Friday, and joined them for dinner at an American diner not too far from the Metropole; one was an artist specializing in steampunk, Vincent Shaw-Morton, whose work was on display in the art room upstairs, while the others, Kit Cox and Jonathan Green, are authors. All of them super-nice, and I hung out a bit with them again at points on the Saturday and the Sunday.

The Dealers' Room

Another nice feature of the con was the so-called Kaffeeklatsches and Book Clubs. I signed up for the Kaffeeklatsch with Tad Williams, where the conversation (there were about 20 of us chatting with him) ranged from his books to the future of communications and the physical book. My one Book Club experience was with Robin Hobb, to discuss Assassin's Apprentice, the first in her Farseer series. I think I earned everybody's annoyance by having only read that book, which meant they couldn't talk about the sequels (thereby becoming That Guy when it came to spoilers), but it was still fascinating to hear how she came up with the series, and how it evolved in the writing.

Because it was Halloween, and the 150th anniversary of Arthur Machen's birth, there was a lot of programming around those two themes. Machen, in particular, was the subject of a stream of panels, but the con organizers also had a performance of two short stories by MR James on the Saturday night. One of the rooms was decked out like an Edwardian antiquarian's sitting room, and Robert Lloyd Parry played the part of MR James himself, recounting and partially acting out the stories "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad".

Lit only by a few candles, both stories were wonderfully creepy - MR James was known for reading his stories to his circle every Christmas, so it was nice to pretend we were listening in on one of those long-ago nights.

There were, of course, other parties, and readings, and conversations in the bar, but there's not really time to relate all of them. But it was great meeting a bunch of people I know only through their books, or through Twitter, or who I didn't know at all until I met them there. It makes me a little sad that I won't be able to see them at the next British con, but it also makes me even more determined to get to more of these events in the Bay Area.

After all, it's not always that you find yourself so well in your element. More than anything else, that's what I'll take away from the weekend - no matter where they came from, or how many books they've sold, or even if they haven't sold a single short story, the folks who came to the event were mostly into the same things as me, and it felt great to finally be with my tribe.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Laser vs Blunderbuss: Blogging on One Theme or Many

Well, that was interesting.

When last week's blog on Fortunately the Milk was retweeted Neil Gaiman, that led to a gigantic storm of page views that took a couple of days to subside. From a distance, my graph of page views looks like I haven't been doing anything since last Sunday (which I haven't, of course, as I write this blog only weekly), whereas if last week had had the normal amount of hits the graph would look a little more respectable now.

But, you say, isn't it good that a whole bunch of people came to read my post? Sure, but it'd be nice if they'd come back this week, too. Which I don't think they will. Although I think that's okay, too.

When I started this blog in 2012, it was all part of my social media/online strategy to promote my writing, and was designed to work in tandem with my Twitter account to drive a perfect storm of potential fans to hang upon my every word, and hopefully make anything I created a massive success.

However, as I've continued writing it - generally once a week, but sometimes more frequently than that - I've had a look at what other bloggers are up to, and tried to determine what makes them so successful (to the point where they make money off their blogs and don't have to work full-time). What I've come up with so far is focus.

Taking a look at what I've written on here, there's no focus. I write about politics, sports, writing and that one time I met Chris Hardwick. I've tried my hand at book and movie reviews, but that didn't feel right, to be honest (and it means I have to avoid getting into any conversations with Alan K Baker when I'm at World Fantasy Con next week, because I don't want him to ask how I liked The Feaster from the Stars). If there's an overarching theme to what I write about, it's something I've come up with after the fact to try and tie the various types of posts together.

On the other hand, you've got blogs like Doctor Nerdlove, or the Wertzone, or Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, or Killer HipHop. Pat and Adam, at the Wertzone, have built up their sites by focusing on fantasy and science fiction news and reviews; Adam, in particular, has turned into a good clearing house of SFF news, reporting on things like the progress of the new Star Wars movie (not great, apparently). Doctor Nerdlove, by the same token, writes on a lot of topics centering around the same theme: helping geeks get the girl (or guy, because he has a lot of female readers).

And it's the same with Seb at Killer HipHop. I met him once, because he's a friend of a friend, and I hear about his progress all the time. Seb exemplifies the other key factor in these guys making successful blogs, which is hard work: when he still worked 9-5 he'd get home and work on the blog for five or six hours and then go to bed.

Not to say that I don't work hard - but because I don't have the single theme to focus on here there's not much point in working on the blog every day. And besides, I'd never get any fiction done, which is what I'm really interested in getting off the ground.

On the other hand, there's SFF writer John Scalzi's blog, Whatever. As the title implies, he writes about whatever he's thinking about. There's naturally a big slant toward SFF books and what's going on with his own projects, but there also seems to be a lot of talk about whatever he's interested in at the moment. While I don't read Whatever regularly, I'll admit that I use the concept as a template, rather than casting about for an overarching theme that wouldn't really fit me that well.

That's the point, in the end - if I haven't settled on one thing to write about here, it's because there are too many things bouncing around in my brain. I could blog about Serie A or fantasy novels I've read, but I don't want to limit myself to either of those topics (at least, not yet).

So for the moment, I'll continue jumping from thought to thought until I settle on something, even if it means sticking with 20-30 hits per blog. It'd be nice to get retweeted by Neil Gaiman all the time, but he's a busy guy, and frankly, I'm happy to have earned my 20-30 hits myself.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Reading of Neil Gaiman's Fortunately the Milk

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event in Westminster, where Neil Gaiman read his new book for children, Fortunately the Milk. But it was more than just a book reading - there was comedy, music and the book's illustrator, Chris Riddell, drew pictures from the story as Neil told it. After he finished, he answered a few questions from Twitter, compered by Lenny Henry, and as a coda to the evening Neil's wife Amanda Palmer came out and sang a song on ukulele for us.


I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman for more than half my life at this point, and of Good Omens, the book he cowrote with Terry Pratchett. Soon after ending the Sandman he moved into prose fiction, where I followed his career for years without actually reading much - although when I finally picked up American Gods a few years ago, it felt like catching up with an old friend you haven't seen in years. So when I saw that Neil was doing this reading in London, as the tail end of what he's described as his last-ever signing tour, I knew I had to catch it.

The first thing to say is that the story has a particularly British feeling of coziness to it. It's the tale of a dad who goes out to the store to get some milk for his children's breakfast (and his own tea), and takes a while. When questioned about why he took so long to come back, he tells them a story about being kidnapped by aliens, traveling through time, sailing with pirates, and rescuing the universe in the company of dinosaurs.

Throughout the story we have the voice of the narrator, which is of course Neil Gaiman's voice, taking us from event to event without ever getting rattled by all the outlandish things that are happening around him. For example, in his encounter with the pirates he guides them through the process of making him walk the plank, pointing out that it's the done thing in these circumstances.

The best part of course, is that he's never talking down to the kids - whether the fictional ones or the readers. I remember reading a quote years ago, which I really hope is by Neil but I can't seem to find it on the internet, where it's said that the very best children's books can be about anything at all, but not about being children's books. As an example, this is why episodes 4-6 of Star Wars are classics, but episodes 1-3 are among the most hated movies in existence.

And I guess that's the secret of why Neil Gaiman's so successful as a storyteller. His stories are always singular, dreamlike, and different from just about everything else; there's always a hint - or more than a hint - of another, more exciting and dangerous world beyond the one we live in. But you can tell in each case that he's pursuing the types of story he wants to tell, without worrying about whether he's fitting in with superhero stories, or fantasy, or horror, or whatever. This is, of course, why his books for children are so successful - children's literature seems to be a lot more willing to mix genres for the sake of a good story.

So I'm glad I caught this reading, and I hope to catch more if he ever comes to San Francisco. And in the meantime, I want to learn more about how he does what he does - because one day I'd like to be onstage reading my own work, and would love to have a cameo appearance from him.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

In Defense of James Franco

So James Franco has a new book out, and a new movie, and is running around doing all the James Franco things that we've come to not expect from him. But the article from Slate that I've just linked to asks an interesting question: why does everybody get annoyed with him whenever he writes a book, or directs an art film, or one of the millions of non-actorly things he seems to do all the time?

As I point out to everybody I've ever met (seriously, even to the lady who sold me a ticket to Pineapple Express), I went to school with the guy, although it's also fair to say that I didn't know him then. I exchanged words with him maybe once, when we were in middle school. So when I discuss the topic, it's not coming from the perspective of a person who knows his innermost thoughts or anything like that.

But what I do feel qualified in mentioning is that we had a lot of similar classes and teachers growing up, so he clearly got interested in a lot of different things during his education. Obviously people are going to do different things with those formative experiences - the Donnas, who also went to my high school, haven't made waves with weird avant-garde stuff, and neither have I - but it seems clear that he took something from his education and wanted to do more than just acting in romantic comedies and Planet of the Apes remakes.

As the Slate article suggests, the projects that piss people off and prompt the AV Club to tease him are the projects that could look boring and/or pretentious. But why should that be? He's not making headlines by crashing his car or beating people up or anything like that. He's not really even making headlines, but just comes up every once in a while as the subject of articles taking an undertone of "What's he doing now?".

A less extreme example would be George Clooney. There are two strands to his career, too - the devilishly charming leading man who headlines movies like Ocean's Eleven, and the politically engaged actor who made Syriana and Goodnight and Good Luck. The simple economics of moviemaking mean that you can't have Syriana without Ocean's Eleven, but I think it's legitimate that Clooney might want to make movies more pertinent to his own interests. And I guess that's what James Franco's doing, too.

This doesn't mean everything he does is to my taste. His short story collection Palo Alto was not the kind of thing I enjoy reading, but the reviews I read when it came out focused more on the fact that it was written by him, and not on the quality of the prose (a one-line review that particularly made me laugh was something dismissing it as rich Palo Alto kids drinking and screwing).

I know I'm like King Canute, trying to command the tide to stop coming in, but I think it's worth pointing out: we should be celebrating the fact that a Hollywood actor is interested in literature and art, not deriding them for it. But the news cycle goes on, and if we can't report on public meltdowns, then we turn an actor's exploration of non-mainstream art into a public meltdown too.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Evil is Not Always Banal

I've been reading a lot of history books lately, and one of the most interesting was Andrew Marr's A History of the World, in which he attempts to condense all of human history into a single volume. There are naturally things that he misses or glosses over, but it's fascinating to see a book that, for example, draws a connection between the development of the Roman Empire with China's Han dynasty, and points out where and why they diverged.

A little closer to our time, he also discusses Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's campaign to liberate India from British rule. Even here Marr connects what's going on in the rest of the world, by also discussing how Gandhi and Adolf Hitler saw one another. Gandhi, says Marr, completely misunderstood just how dangerous Hitler truly was, and even wrote this letter to him on the eve of war. Hitler, on the other hand, is said to have been unable to understand why the British didn't just have Gandhi shot; he figured it would have nipped Gandhi's resistance and Quit India movement right in the bud.

In telling this story, Marr suggests that Gandhi fell into the same trap as Neville Chamberlain and the rest of Europe's leaders, in underestimating Hitler's willingness to carry out his plans as outlined in Mein Kampf. Nobody wanted to believe they were dealing with a madman - and it wasn't until the last possible moment that they realized he truly was going to start a war, no matter how many concessions he received. Even then, the scope of Hitler's evil, and of the Final Solution, wouldn't be fully known until a few years later when the Allies started liberating the death camps.

Since the war's end historians have gone over the events of 1933-1945, and after, in great detail. In writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial in the 1960s, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil", which I believe has become the dominant paradigm in talking about the Holocaust, as well as how and why the German people stood by or even helped the Nazis carry out their plan.

The problem is that the way we view this phrase now, of the banality of evil, blinds us to the fact that not all evil can be explained away by people just sitting by and letting bad things happen, or being so divorced from the effects of what they're doing that they simply rubber stamp the deaths of millions by sending off a memo.

Like a fire, evil on the scale of the Holocaust, or Stalin's purges, or Mao's Great Leap Forward needs a spark to start it off, and then the right conditions to let it get out of hand. Arendt's view of Eichmann was that he was non-ideological - and not particularly intelligent - but this implies to me that without Hitler, Eichmann would never have committed his crimes. Hitler was the spark that led to a greater conflagration.

I sometimes feel that we, as a culture, forget these points, and can become uncomfortable with them. I base this observation on how we treat evil in art - in fantasy circles these days, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings comes in for a lot of criticism from the likes of China Mieville and Richard Morgan for being very black-versus-white in its treatment of the noble hobbits and elves and what-have-you against the wicked orcs and their master Sauron.

Now, I can't deny that the portrayal of the orcs as totally and irredeemably wicked makes for uncomfortable reading, especially when entire orc armies are slaughtered without mercy by victorious Gondorians or Ents or whoever. Tolkien himself would probably have replied by noting that the orcs were just as bent on genocide as the good guys, but the way he describes the men of Umbar and Harad veers off into racism more than once.

But I don't believe this violates his broader point. Tolkien may have famously disliked allegory, but his story says that there is evil out there, and that it has to be stopped. Trying to co-opt its weapons or use its own knowledge against it will serve only to corrupt the good; if not inspired by the Second World War, I think you can definitely draw parallels with it.

I'm not saying we should go back to cartoonish portrayals of bad guys in our books and movies and comics, or that we should immediately treat all our enemies as the devil incarnate. But we need to remember that there are people out there who truly are evil, and not willing to follow the same rules we obey - and we need to be able to recognize them for what they are. As evidenced by the example of Hitler and Gandhi above, non-violent resistance only works if your enemy is uncomfortable with the thought of shooting you.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Putting in the Hours

I'm not saying anything radical when I suggest that the American mindset seems to be "more = better". This is why we've gotten so fat and unhealthy, why we keep buying too much crap that we don't need, and, maybe, why we spend too much time at work or at school.

Now, to put things into perspective, I'm told that in Asia they work even harder than Americans do, so we'll have to put this all into perspective for a moment, and try not to fall into cultural selection bias traps. But the principle remains the same - we have this idea that time spent at our desks means we're working hard.

You could suggest I've been reading too much Tim Ferriss lately, and you'd be right, but that doesn't invalidate the point. A Bank of America intern recently worked himself to death here in London, which has prompted a lot of hand-wringing about "presentee culture" and requirements for interns, but it seems like something that'll blow over soon and the financial industry will be back to business as usual (no pun intended).

The reason for that, of course, comes down to game theory and the prisoner's dilemma: no matter how many programs Bank of America puts in place to send people home at a reasonable hour, there'll always be some grasping asshole who reasons that staying at his desk an extra hour will get him favorable reviews from his bosses, and some asshole supervisor who'll reward him for it.

Don't get me wrong, I understand when you actually work in a high-pressure environment there's sometimes the need to stay at work late and get things done. But this becomes an arms race where even people in regular jobs get coerced somehow into putting in late hours, even if all they end up doing is playing solitaire or updating their Facebook profile. This isn't just a money-saving or productivity issue, though - it becomes a health issue when the company's presentee culture leads to stress-related illnesses and burnout.

I've been reading about this stuff in an e-book I picked up recently, called Brain Rules. It's by a developmental molecular biologist called John Medina, and among his chapters he talks about how stress affects the brain and learning. He makes a couple of good points about getting more efficiency out of employees by moving away from the straight-jacket schedule of 9-5 (or, for financial folks, 7am-10pm), and helping them manage stress at home to avoid burning out at work.

One of the points where I think it falls down, though, is when it comes to education. He suggests a different repetition-based model, where a concept is introduced at the beginning of the school day and repeated at different points throughout the day (this is a gross simplification). So far, so good. But then he suggests that this means the school year should be lengthened.

To be honest, we're already lengthening it, and I don't believe that's a good idea. As part of President Obama's Race to the Top program in education, not only are we effectively doubling down on teaching to standardized tests (another delightful holdover from President Bush), but we're also starting the school year earlier, ending it later and keeping students behind desks for more time.

There's apparently good research behind this, explaining that the longer kids stay out of school over the summer, the more they forget what they learned the previous year. But given that we stubbornly remain at the bottom of the rankings for math, science and whatever, compared to other industrialized nations, I don't know if this solution of increasing the workload and the time commitment is really the answer.

So it seems to me like Dr Medina's suggestion is to do away with even more summer time, to make learning more efficient. I can't argue with him on scientific grounds, but surely we could do what they do in Europe instead, and assign kids homework to do over the summer? This is, naturally, something I would have rebelled against when I was in school (and to be honest the idea is still pretty unappealing), but it seems a lot less onerous than forcing kids to sit in school for even more of their lives.

Because it comes down to a cultural issue, too - free time is when we're free to be who we really are, or want to be. This is why I believe that employees need to have more vacation time, and more time outside of work in the evenings. I'm lucky enough to work someplace where they don't mind that I leave every night at 5.30 on the dot, because they see that I get my work done - but I think a lot of my colleagues could do with organizing themselves better, so that they don't have to stay late either.

Unless they want to, of course. To each their own.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Frad Lab World Tour Continues: Close to the Natural World in Queensland

So the other spot that I've been feeling a bit nostalgic for from last year's trip is, of course, Cairns, which was the third leg of my trip. Where the previous two legs had been essentially city breaks, now I was heading into less built-up areas, and most of my activities would revolve around the amazing array of natural landscapes they have up in Far North Queensland.

Landing was the first shock, because I'd just flown for three hours from Sydney, over a gigantic expanse of brown, but as we came in to Cairns Airport, everything turned green, hilly and lush. And when I say everything, I really mean everything - it wasn't clear there was an airfield until we were pretty much there. It might as well have been Jurassic Park.

Far North Queensland

I don't use that comparison lightly, by the way. The original movie was filmed in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, where for a few summers we took our family vacations instead of going to Italy. Even though those trips were about twenty years ago, I remember a lot of Kauai clearly, and was struck several times by how similar Cairns and its environs were to it.

Seafront Cairns

I was there to stay with my friend Kyle and his family, as after several years of listening to his stories about the place I'd decided it was time to go see it for myself. Their house was a bit north of Cairns proper, in a woody area called Clifton Beach, and was just a ten minute walk from the beach. The house itself was lovely, rambling and spacious, with fruit trees in the back yard and wild birds of all kinds hanging out every night. Kyle's mom lives there, and his brother Lee (whom I knew from our trip to Phuket a couple years earlier) also spent a few nights there each week. But in addition, Kyle's other two brothers, Hew and Simon, had come up to stay for a week or two, so it was a pretty full house.

In a lot of ways, the Queensland part of the trip was a look at Australia's range of diversity, much more than Sydney. Kyle took me out to see Kuranda, in the Atherton Tablelands, the rainforests of the Daintree National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, and we even went for a road trip south to Mackay, to visit his best friend Glenn (who I also knew from Phuket). That drive down to Mackay gave me a glimpse of what a lot of people must imagine when they think of Australia - flat, dusty, scrublands enlivened by the occasional town or gum tree. It actually reminded me in some ways of driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley, although I'll admit we have a little less kangaroo roadkill on the I-5.

Roadkill aside, there was a lot of nature on show in that corner of Queensland. The first full day I was there, we drove up to Kuranda to see the town and the jungle surrounding it. There was a zoo of venomous animals, which pretty well satisfied my curiosity about Australia's fauna in all its toothy diversity. In the main hall were glass cases for the snakes and spiders, each containing dire warnings not to lean on or over the cases, and upstairs, by the entrance, the zoo's employees were giving lectures on the various types of spiders, centipedes and lizards they kept up here.

Kyle makes a friend

They even brought a couple out and let us pet or hold the lizard, which wasn't actually poisonous; I chose not to be disappointed by that. Interestingly, they also said how the centipede they had here on show had venom that the Aborigines had used traditionally for its anti-inflammatory properties. Hearing that certainly put my previous discomfort around spiders in London in perspective; this state of affairs that lasted for just a few weeks, when, back home, I opened a packet of salad, drenched it in dressing and promptly found a not particularly pleased looking spider in among the leaves.

Coming down from Kuranda was the most spectacular part, though, because you can get back down to the area around Cairns via cable car (there's also a train that goes up and down the mountain, so I'll have to give that a try next time). I caught it pretty much at the end of the day, so I didn't dawdle too much at each stop, where they let you out to have a look at various displays of local plants and animals. But traveling over the treetops was spectacular, and when it began its descent, after the third stop, I got an amazing view of the entire plain heading out to the sea. Touristy as Kuranda itself is, no one should miss out on the Skyrail.

Two views from the Skyrail

The next day was Daintree, which involved a pretty long drive through increasingly jungly terrain. We even crossed the Daintree River on a cable ferry, which is the only way up to Cape Tribulation (so named because Captain Cook had a pretty terrible time there) by road. Kyle, with the jaunty confidence of so many Australians when talking about their native animals, informed me that the Daintree River was absolutely chock-full of crocodiles, so I naturally spent the five-minute crossing with my face pressed to the window for a glimpse, but ended up disappointed.

In fact, every body of water we passed during that week held them, according to him, but I never saw a single one. To compound my disappointment, the day before at Kuranda, we'd stopped for lunch at a German-style sausage place, which advertised exotic meats like crocodile or kangaroo. I duly ordered up a croc sausage, but was balked when they told me it'd take twenty minutes to prepare. I presumed this meant they had to go out and catch one, slaughter it and prepare it, so I forebore, not wanting to put the owners in any further danger, but it's disappointing I didn't get to reassert to the crocodiles of Queensland just who's at the top of the food chain.

By the way, lest you think all Australians are like Crocodile Dundee when it comes to their deadly animals, I was interested to hear that one of the snakes on display at the Venom Zoo had once made its way into Kyle's living room.

"What did you guys do?" I asked, expecting some frontier story about getting a long stick and extracting the snake that way.

"We called animal services and stayed the hell out of there until it was gone," he said, which is kind of reassuring, if you think about it. It typically means pranks won't involve you finding, say, a bird-eating spider in your sheets at the end of the day.

Anyway, the Daintree was impressive too, just as much as Kuranda. For one thing, according to Bill Bryson, a lot of it is pretty much unchanged from the times of the dinosaurs. We didn't see any T-rexes, which is probably for the best, but we did see something even less common (as it were): the cassowary, a large, blue flightless bird that only lives in the forests of Queensland. Not only that, we saw two of them! Even Kyle and his brothers were impressed, because cassowaries are very shy and retiring. This made up for the lack of crocs. And frankly, cassowaries are a little less interested in sampling how you taste, so this is fine with me.

Forest in the Daintree

This is running a little long, so I'll have to gloss over the Great Barrier Reef, except to say that I gave scuba diving a try and found it amazing down there. Even if you only ever snorkel, though, a visit to Far North Queensland should include taking a boat out to the reef, because its diversity is stunning.

The point, though, is that for all the tourism and backpacking that comes to Cairns, and frankly renders parts of it not particularly charming (Kyle told me of a nightclub called Troppo's, which locals had re-christened Sloppo's), it struck me as a part of the world where the man-made and natural worlds live even closer together than in most other places. It's a good thing to keep in mind, because it means the locals are duly wary but not freaked out by having so many dangerous animals around all the time. For instance, I'd timed my visit to avoid the start of stinger season, when box jellyfish make Queensland's waters unapproachable; during stinger season, therefore, Queenslanders simply go to the pool.

I read another blog post once by a woman from Cairns, who said it was a place that wasn't really designed for humans to live in. I disagree - as long as you stay alert and don't do anything stupid, it's a very hospitable place indeed.

Just don't forget about the hurricanes, and don't eat the chiko-rolls.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Frad Lab World Tour: One Year On, Itchy Feet Set In

Here in the UK, summer's given way, rather abruptly, to fall (as in falling temperatures), and so my thoughts have naturally turned to warmer climes recently. Although in fairness, I've been haunting the travel sections of Big Waterstones and other bookstores since about August, possibly because September is when I've gone on my big, exciting trips to Asia/Australia.

About this time three years ago I was newly returned from Phuket, and this time last year I was still in Queensland in northern Australia, as part of my epic trip to Hong Kong, Sydney and Cairns (well, epic for me). I wrote about the Hong Kong portion of the trip when I got back, because I've long had pretensions of being the next Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, but I never got around to posting the bits about Sydney or Queensland.

I kind of regret that, of course - I think I had some mordantly witty insights about both places - but I figure I can use this week's post as an excuse to dig out some photos from that trip, and maybe indulge in the time-honored tradition of boring you, my interlocutors, with them. Also, since I took the pics myself I don't need to worry about getting yelled at by rights-holders (a remote possibility, it's true, but still one that concerns me in a vague way).

So, yeah, Sydney:
Nice thing to see on your morning commute, eh?

It's kind of a shame, but this was actually the sort of disappointing part of my trip. Not because there was anything wrong with Sydney - as you can see from the picture above, the weather was amazing and the city itself (at least around Circular Quay) is gorgeous.

But it was disappointing because I only had two days there, and I was on my own. My exploring time was also curtailed by the fact that I desperately had to do some laundry when I landed that first day, and by the fact that I was so worn out by jet lag and overnight flights that I slept until 11am my second, and only full, day there.

But in compensation, I was amazingly excited by being there. On my flight in from Hong Kong, I essentially spent the approach, which goes over the harbor, with my face pressed to the window. And when I finally got into the city, I was struck by Bill Bryson's point in In a Sunburned Country (which the Brits rather unimaginatively style Down Under) that one of the most exciting things about Australia is that it's there.

The obligatory Opera House shot.

He says that after traveling so far and so long, you expect at the very least to find yourself someplace where they ride camels and stuff. And it's true! Ignoring the fact that the Australian interior is apparently the only remaining place that dromedaries, the one-humped camels, live in the wild, it's kind of odd to pass over a profusion of names you've never heard in the Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia, and end up somewhere that looks like a mixture of New York, LA, and London. In fact, when I was in Sydney I was probably closer to their Newcastle than I usually am to the original when I'm here in London.

The other thing that strikes me now, a year after I went and in the midst of a re-read of In a Sunburned Country (told you I was nostalgic) is how enjoyable it is to read Bryson's description of Circular Quay and realize that I recognized it perfectly, even about 12 or 14 years later. The Harbor Bridge is on your left, the Opera House on your right, and before you is a dazzling expanse of water, bounded on three sides by a concourse filled with shops and street entertainers and people going about their day, just like I would in London but on the complete wrong side of the planet.

Circular Quay from the water

To be brutally honest as well, Sydney was a welcome relief from all the noodles with meat I kept having in Hong Kong. In my three days there, I had Western food exactly once: a kebab at the Big Buddha on Lantau, and the rest of the time I ate so many noodles I could have been training for a marathon. Which, come to think of it, I kind of was. So wandering around the streets between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, I was delighted to find prawn and chicken skewers and pizza and burgers aplenty.

I don't want to denigrate the fine food in Hong Kong, but I like a bit more variety, and it's a well-known point that in Asia, the Western-style food is usually not particularly good. I learned it in Phuket, and so I wasn't going to risk it in Hong Kong. Although that kebab sure hit the spot.

Anyway, one more picture from Sydney before I move on to Queensland:
Bondi Beach

Bondi turned out to be my big excursion for the second day, because, as I mentioned earlier, I woke up too late to really make the most of the day. I'd been assured at the hotel's front desk that there was a bus stop that went directly to Bondi, so I dutifully trooped up and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

It was Sunday, of course, so buses didn't run as often as normal. Eventually one did show up, and I settled in for what turned out to be a very long ride indeed through Sydney's suburbs. I think there were two complete exchanges of bus passengers in the time I was there.

In compensation, I gained a new perspective into exactly how similar suburban New South Wales is to the suburban Bay Area. Specifically, it looked exactly like Menlo Park or Mountain View or one of the leafier suburbs near where I grew up, right down to the road signs at each corner. The only things that suggested I wasn't back in the Peninsula were the pubs (in particular their Wild West-style gables, so characteristic of Australia, I was to learn) and the local birds, which are way more colorful than anything we get back in Northern California.

Another key difference I was going to mention was the very large Pacific Islander man who sat in front of me late on in the trip, but thinking about it, Pacific Islanders aren't that uncommon in California. So it just made me feel a little more at home.

Anyway, when I did eventually get to Bondi Beach - which in the event did involve a change of bus - I found it full of people enjoying their Sunday. The Aussie guy I'd walked around Hong Kong with that first day had suggested the Breakers for lunch, but in the end I opted for fish and chips at a sandy, loud place right on the beach. I'd seen a fish called barramundi on the menu the previous day, so I wanted to give it a try, although it turned out to be not that different from cod in an English chip shop.

Still, it was nice, and after lunch I walked around, before catching the bus back into the city, where I arrived too late to catch the Australian museum, so I went for a walk around Farm Cove instead and got a bunch more pictures of the water and the Opera House.

For dinner I fulfilled a promise I'd made to myself, to have something you could only get here in Australia, which turned out to be a local variant of surf and turf: kangaroo plus Moreton Bay bugs and other types of local crustaceans. I ate in a restaurant right on the water in Darling Harbour, which was very pretty indeed, although (like Bondi) would probably have been more fun with a traveling companion.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough, so I'll leave Cairns and Queensland for next week or something. But as a parting thought, I've decided I really need to do Sydney properly - my big idea is to rent an apartment there for a month, and use it as a base to explore the southeastern corner of the country. But I figure I'll have to save up, because Sydney was ridiculously expensive (odd to say after coming from Hong Kong, but there you go).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Where Have All the German-Speakers Gone?

As I may have hinted before on this blog, I spend a lot of time in the travel section at local bookstores (and lately I've been spending even more time there, as the Waterstones on Piccadilly recently turned its entire basement into a travel section, and even divided everything up by region, as I like it). A year or so ago, I started noticing books about Germany popping up on the shelves.

The first was called Springtime for Germany: or How I Learned to Love Lederhosen, by Ben Donald, and used the device of a fictional "travel therapist" (American, of course) to "re-introduce" Germany to British readers. I never picked it up, but based on the Amazon reviews, I'm pretty glad I skipped it - Donald seems unable to leave aside the German stereotypes, as one can tell from the title, which is a two-fer featuring Nazism and lederhosen.

One I did pick up was Germania, by Simon Winder, which is less a travel book than history. Winder did a good job of unpicking the rather complicated history of Germany from classical times to 1933, and did it without speaking a lick of German. So, emboldened, I ventured back into the history section and picked up The German Genius, by Peter Watson, which I'm still working my way through, and have leafed through a few other books here and there.

But the takeaway here is, I find it fascinating that the British are suddenly so into Germany again. In the beginning of his book, Watson talks about the British view of Germany, which is sometimes still distorted by the tabloids. But even talking to my own friends - people who don't read the Sun, and in fact have spent time living abroad - Germany's kind of a mystery. One friend admitted that the country's always been a mystery to him, in part because of stories he heard from his grandfather growing up.

(Another friend, oddly enough, got really annoyed at me when I used the phrase "re-introducing Germany to Britain", although I suspect that was more because he thought I was criticizing Britain.)

I'm not surprised, though, because when I moved here for the first time, in 2001, I was coming straight from Germany, and it seemed like nobody here knew anything about the place. Well, apart from football-related stuff - the fall of 2001 was when England handed Germany a 5-1 drubbing in Munich on the way to the 2002 World Cup. But that knowledge really only served to obscure the rest of the country - nobody seemed to know German, for example (which is why I keep getting jobs here).

In fact, the immediate spur to writing this post was a passage on travel website "The Man in Seat 61", where he directs us to a website but warns that it's all in German, so we should use Google Translate to get through the process. What I found strange about it was the assumption that nobody reading his site would speak German - it's a language spoken by around 95 million people around the world (and me!), so not too far off from Japanese and well ahead of French or Italian. If I pass on a link at work, I always say if it's in a language other than English, but that's just politeness - in fact, if I pass on a link about Germany my assumption is that at least some readers will know the language.

The point here is, Britain (and America, which almost as bad) should go ahead and learn some German. I'd like to find more books like Winder's Germania on the shelves in the travel or history sections of a bookstore, and less of the interminable books about World War II or the Nazis.

And when I say that, I don't mean to minimize the Holocaust in any way, I just mean that there's so much more to the country that's being obscured by the obsession with the years 1933-1945. It's time we resurrected that history.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Sponsorships, or Fox Guards Henhouse

One of the benefits of working for my company is that in August we get Friday afternoons off. It's a nice way to get a start on the weekend, whether by getting stuff done, leaving town or just visiting tourist spots that would be prohibitively crowded on weekends.

That was my plan this latest Friday, the last one of the month. I'd been reading David Toomey's Weird Life recently, and wanted to go check out the Natural History Museum and see if it had anything about that stuff. During the week, I also got talking to one of my colleagues, who'd been to an exhibition of pictures by Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer; she said it was amazing, so I duly bought my ticket and went to check it out.

Salgado's pictures are mostly concerned with natural life and with indigenous cultures, generally in extreme environments - some were of the San people of Africa, others of Antarctica and still others of the native tribes in the Amazon. With the pictures of tribal peoples, in particular, he conveyed the sense that they have been living the same way of life for thousands of years - at least, as much as you can convey that sense by taking pictures of them.

Still, it was beautiful and thought-provoking in the way it made me think of the fragility of these people's lives and social systems, and the poignancy of the gulf between their way of life and mine. I don't want to romanticize it too much, but the people he snapped in the jungles of South America and Papua gave the impression of not wanting much - they live in a place that appears to provide them all they need, as long as they remain within balance with it.

I'm probably imposing a lot of my own world view on them, but if nothing else, it's interesting to see that there are still societies living like that. Of course, their ways of life are generally under threat from development, mining and - let's be honest - enormous poverty. They are minorities in their own countries, and generally without a voice, because they don't interact much with the outside world.

In any case, these were my thoughts until I got to the end of the exhibition. That's when I saw the sponsor: Brazilian mining company Vale. I'll admit I'd never heard of Vale before that moment, but the wrongness hit me immediately, even despite their rhetoric about corporate social responsibility. Just for good measure, I had a quick look for them on my phone, and turned up this tidbit about them "winning" the Public Eye award for having the most "contempt for the environment and human rights in the world".

Frankly it's not important whether or not Public Eye's allegations are founded or not, though. It could be run by the nicest people in the world, but at the end of the day a mining company exists to rip valuable materials out of the ground, regardless of what's covering them. There is absolutely no way to square that activity with protecting fragile ecosystems or the territories of indigenous peoples. Not one.

So you can imagine that on making that discovery I was not incredibly impressed. To be honest, it's still bothering me twenty-four hours later (hence this blog post). What did intrigue me, though, was how the feedback sheets provided by the museum asked us specifically about the sponsor and whether we knew of it before (I took the opportunity to point out my displeasure at that selection); even more intriguing is the fact that the posters on the tube advertising the exhibition carry no mention at all of the sponsor.

Usually special exhibitions at London's museums are emblazoned with the sponsors' logos. BP is one that keeps appearing, for instance. This raises a question or two - does the Natural History Museum believe advertising the sponsorship by Vale would put people off, or just that nobody would recognize the name? Or, given that they point out how the original sponsors pulled out and Vale kindly stepped in at the last minute, are they even the slightest bit embarrassed by the connection?

It's a little too much to expect, frankly - but I hope they are.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Lost Continent

One of the many books I'm reading currently (by which I mean keep a bookmark in) is The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's first travel narrative and a description of his trip across the continental US soon after the death of his father. Like all debut books, I get the sense that it generally sank without a trace at its first publication, a fact he alludes to in his next book, Neither Here Nor There. In fact I believe both books were completely ignored by the British book-buying public until he came out with Notes from a Small Island, which just goes to show that nobody pays attention to you until you start talking about them.

In any case, ignored or not, I end up re-reading the Lost Continent every couple of years (along with In A Sunburned Country, which is published here as Down Under), because I'm fascinated by his take on America at the time, and because he has an amazing gift for metaphor. But in the midst of the current re-read I was struck by something odd: he devotes almost as much space in the book to Philadelphia as he does to New York City, and the state of Pennsylvania gets twice as many pages as all of New York State (yes, I just went back and counted).

Now, part of this is because of the vagaries of Bryson's itinerary. He had access to a car for the Pennsylvania section, but got to New York by bus. This, and his route up the coast toward New England, is why he doesn't have anything to say about upstate New York. But I still found it kind of odd, because Philadelphia, as far as I can tell, doesn't appear to be part of the cultural conversation in any way.

Obviously most foreigners think of New York City when they think of America, which is fair enough because it is, in many ways, the cultural epicenter of Anglophone civilization (some British patriots might say it's London, but London spends so much time trying to become New York that I think it's clear which is the more influential city). They're also familiar with Los Angeles, and in a more nebulous way with San Francisco, although charmingly they aren't aware that the two cities aren't right next to each other, as they appear on maps.

New Orleans and Chicago and Boston are well-known, as is Washington DC, all for obvious reasons. Baltimore is also on the cultural map, because of the Wire, but Philadelphia? It's rare that I hear anybody mention the place these days, except in the context of how they put up a statue to Rocky Balboa (in fairness, there's also the sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but that doesn't seem to be A Thing like the Wire was).

So this was why I was struck by Bryson's description of the place, with unknown treasures and even its own dialect of sorts (I was reminded by the book that Philadelphians call sidewalks "pavements"). I was even more struck by the fact that when he got to New York, he had to introduce key features of it, like Donald Trump or Times Square, and that he was constantly in fear of mugging and/or murder.

The latter can be explained by the fact that he was writing in 1989 or so, which puts it during the late Ed Koch's mayorship of the city. He was about four years off from the Giuliani years, so deep within New York City's dark period, something that I think New Yorkers haven't really recovered from, at least based on my mom's impression of Columbia, way up in the 120s (what she still calls Harlem), when I was going there.

Harder to conceive is the idea that anyone reading the Lost Continent might be unfamiliar with Times Square, or even Donald Trump. Because New York's emergence from the squalor of the 70s and 80s coincided with my awareness of the place, I find it hard to get away from its current glitzy image as a shopping mecca (incidentally, that's why I call it the Anglophone world's cultural capital, not because it's got better museums or art or publishing). Even when I moved here for the first time in 2001, people in London knew about Manhattan, Times Square, all of that stuff - shows like Sex and the City were even then working their way in the cultural consciousness.

But then, I guess that's what happens as time passes (I'm aware this is a subject I've been covering a lot recently on this blog, but please bear with me). We are now almost as distant from the publication of the Lost Continent as Bill Bryson himself was from the vacations he describes taking with his family in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the past three decades the world has grown more interconnected, so that a person in London (or Sao Paulo, or Mumbai, or wherever) actually is familiar with what life is like in New York - or at least life for certain socio-economic strata.

At the same time, though I think it's a shame that the world's image of America has narrowed onto primarily New York and LA. As I hinted in the previous paragraph, we may know about life in New York, but it's mainly from the perspective of rich white people who can afford to live there. Even the polarizing Lena Dunham show Girls depicts a certain class of people who are pretty divorced from life in the Outer Boroughs.

By being so interested in what shoes rich white socialites are wearing, we miss out on seeing what life is like for normal people in places like, say, Baltimore or New Orleans or Philadelphia. When I watch Friday Night Lights, which is set in small-town Texas, it's clear that you aren't seeing the same America that Carrie Bradshaw lives in.

I'd like to see more of it - so where are the dramas set in Philadelphia?

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Rate of Change

I'm currently reading The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes, as a result of an outpouring of enthusiasm on Twitter, along with Amazon UK pricing it at 99p a few weeks ago as part of a special promotion. It's not bad, but I have to admit I'm not loving it - I'm not much for thrillers in general, and the ones about serial killers have never appealed to me.

But something struck me while I was reading it, which I figured I'd try and discuss briefly here. The plot, without any major spoilers (because I'm only about halfway through anyway), revolves around a serial killer who travels through time, between the 1930s and the early 1990s, collecting victims in an order of his own choosing, rather than chronologically. At one point, reflecting on the House he uses to travel, he notes that his range of travel is limited to those years, with 1993 the latest he can go.

Having glanced through the table of contents, with chapters denoting the date in which they occur, I'd noticed that, and was wondering about it myself. My conclusion was that 1993 was probably the last year before the internet started to become widely known - it was certainly my first experience of it (and just as you'd expect from the early years of the web: reading snarky top ten lists about Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is important to the story, because one of the killer's victims survives an attack, and when she's recovered she goes looking for him by taking on an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. All of her research is analogue, involving microfiche and sifting through loads of boxes.

So what struck me was this: a possible reason why Lauren Beukes set her story during those decades is that the internet would have made the search for the killer much easier, and that those decades were a lot more similar to one another than the years since the internet spread throughout our culture.

I've written before about how I think the 80s had more in common with the 50s than with the 90s. I might be over-generalizing, but I do think it's correct to say that the rate of change in our culture has accelerated since the internet took over. As I stated in that previous post, my sisters' experiences growing up were pretty different from my own, and this was with just seven and ten years of age gap between us all. I grew up watching Sesame Street, Mr Rogers, and reruns of Star Trek and Hawaii 5-0 and old Western TV shows; they had Barney and cable TV.

This is why, whenever I read Bill Bryson's more autobiographical books - like The Lost Continent or Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - I can recognize certain aspects of my own childhood in his, despite the fact that he was born almost thirty years before I was. And going back even further, I can recognize some of what Bryson talks about in stories and sketches by, for instance, James Thurber, who died in 1961 and whose career spanned the 30s, 40s and 50s.

So when I think of the life I'd like to lead, if I ever marry and have children and all of that, my imagination uses my own childhood milieu as a template: suburban house, car, yard, dog and/or cat (I like both), family trips once or twice a year, and so on. On the other hand, this all might be unrealistic, for the simple reason that it's not sustainable anymore. If it ever was.

For one thing, house prices are way out of reach for most people, I'd say, particularly if they're single and not working in finance or tech. For another, every place is getting more and more crowded. It seems perverse to say this about California, when I live in London (which I sometimes find unbearably full; I kind of dread going to China as a result), but it's true - developments creep out farther and farther each year, and the freeways are crowded even at midday on weekdays.

So no house in the suburbs, which means no yard, probably no car (because they're a pain in the ass to have in the city), and probably no pets (not that I particularly want to clean up dog shit - this is one of those jobs that I could theoretically farm out to my notional children), because landlords are strict about that and apartments are no fun for animals that need space.

On the other hand, this life that I'd like, and that currently appears out of reach, is kind of a new development in and of itself, despite already being a relic. This concept of a suburban middle class, which a lot of us seem wedded to, has really only existed since the early 20th century, where before the middle classes (or mercantile classes, if you go back far enough) lived in the cities. Naturally, technology moved on between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, but not quite as fast as it did following the Industrial Revolution (and the rate of change sped up even more once we got flight and cars and electricity).

So I guess the whole convoluted point comes down to this: I'm kind of nostalgic for a way of life that seems to have been around for a long time, but actually wasn't. My grandmother - who was born in 1917, when flight was still new - probably saw the suburban way of life of the 50s and 60s and 70s as a new innovation, compared to her own upbringing.

The question, then, is what kind of life people just graduating from college now are envisioning for themselves. And further, will that gap between wishes and reality be even wider for them than it is for me?