Sunday, March 14, 2010

Once more the culture vulture

Springtime for Glaswegians
If it's March in Glasgow it must be Aye Write!- Glasgow's Book Festival, now in its fifth year. Aye Write! had made little impression on me in previous years, despite my seeing the ads and the programmes in my local library each time. This was frustrating, so- determined to do better in 2010, I grabbed a programme as soon as I saw one and started looking for events. The first one which did more than just catch my eye was:
The Early Days of a Better Future?
Presiding: Andrew J. Wilson of Writers' Bloc, Edinburgh

As if the due appearance of SF luminaries Ken MacLeod and Richard Morgan wasn't enough, this event was an instant choice for yours truly because the panel included Hal Duncan and Mike Cobley. Mike and Hal are old pals of mine from the Glasgow SF Writers' Circle, which featured in the first series of posts here @RD/KA!. It was this circle which drew me to Glasgow back in 1989, when I nourished active dreams of being an SF writer myself.

Sadly missed
Unfortunately events intervened at the last moment so that Ken MacLeod and Deborah J. Miller both had to drop out. I'd been looking forward to another chance to chat with Ken- whom I'd not met since the Glasgow Circle's precon party at Interaction, the 2005 Worldcon held in Glasgow, but it just couldn't be helped. Fortunately another of British SF's names who just happens to live in Scotland- Charles Stross, was able to fill in at notice that I can only imagine was little short of immediate.

Situation somewhat surreal?
The event took place last Sunday in the Jeffrey Room, situated under the dome of the Mitchell Library: the largest public reference library in Europe and one of the most striking of Glasgow's many monuments to a bygone imperial grandeur. Steampunk might be a popular subgenre of SF and speculative fiction these days, but I couldn't help but observe a measure of irony in the fact that an event thematically oriented towards the future was taking place in a venue so redolent not only of the past, but of a past the received version of which I can in all confidence state that the entire panel would simply be unwilling to take at face value.

The Mitchell: at the top of the stairs under the dome

The Mitchell: hallowed portals?

Readings from here and there
The event began with readings by the authors on the panel. Alphabetical order was observed.

Mike Cobley, Charles Stross, Andrew J. Wilson, Richard Morgan, Hal Duncan

Mike Cobley
Mike read an extract from 'The Maker's Mark'- a short story which will appear in the Conflicts anthology to be released on April 2nd. The reading was good though I have to say that it wasn't up to the standard of Mike's rendition of his 'The Intrigue of the Battered Box': the standout performance at the 2005 Interaction launch party of the Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction anthology in which 'The Intrigue...' saw its original publication. Then again, 'The Maker's Mark' didn't give Mike the same selection of strong character voices to play with as does 'The Intrigue...'.

That said, 'The Maker's Mark' struck me as one of Mike's most intriguing pieces of writing since the pyrotechnic days of his infamous Shark Tactics cyberpunk fanzine back in the late 80s. Verbally experimental techno-speak that didn't descend into technobabble, and with a certain breathless Doctor Who vibe, this was strong stuff. I was sold on the story and intend to invest in the anthology just as soon as I can. It's also worth noting that I still haven't read Seeds of Earth- Mike's latest novel, which only recently went to mass market (check out the rave review from my pals at EMOTIONALLY FOURTEEN). So maybe I've just missed earlier exercises in this vein?

Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan was the star turn on the panel that night. He read his 500-word, single sentence short story 'Last Drink Bird Head' from from the anthology Last Drink Bird Head, published by Wyrm Publishing and edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Published in aid of a pro-literacy charity, Last Drink Bird Head invited authors to give their interpretation of the title (four words randomly selected I imagine). Hal's take was the story of a summer day's carousing that turned ineluctably into an all night party at the end of which our protagonist finished one last drink then staggered out into the dawn of the new day.

What was so good about Hal's reading then? His performance in the first place. Five hundred words took a surprisingly long time to read and each and every one was delivered unfalteringly, with perfect intonation and pacing; so much so that it seemed as if Hal did the whole thing in one long breath: an effect essential to the success of the reading given its form. This piece was clearly well rehearsed.

And the story itself? A lyrical flight of the imagination distilling into a rollercoaster ride of carefully unfolded dazzling wordplay the essence of those epic youthful days that'll be familiar to many of my readers: days that dissolve through drinks and smokes into times that live long in the memory as flashes of incident bathed in a warm glow of delicious hours of pleasure and dissipation.

The poetic power of Hal's words evoked these memories and in so doing, catapulted his listeners into the world of his story; with the result that you were out there in that dawn, snapping into that peculiar instant lucidity accessible only after the largesse of excess. I loved it, and it made me realise that I'd put off for far too long reading Vellum- Hal's first novel, whose launch party I also attended at Interaction back in 2005. Another to add to the ever-growing readpile!

Richard Morgan
Richard read an extract from his first published novel- the best-selling Altered Carbon; an autographed copy of which I already own. (I reviewed Richard's comic Black Widow: Homecoming here @RD/KA! back in 2007.) The reading was not great to be honest. Sufficeth to say that I was left with the impression that Richard doesn't like reading his work in public. I'd still happily recommend both the book and the comic to my readers: they're rattling good reads.

Charles Stross
Charles read an extract from a work in progress titled Gangster 2.0. An interesting conceit this: a business letter from one criminal syndicate gone corporate to another. Unfortunately the reading fell flat for me because of a language/voice thematic mismatch.

As readers will be well aware, businessmen and their spokespeople adopt a variant of bureaucratese which comes complete with its own glib tone of voice, more or less lofty according to the rank, wealth and/or power of the speaker. Charles had the language down well but the unmodulated snide 'wide-boy' tone he maintained throughout simply drowned out the words, which was a shame. Even Richard Morgan's flat tone worked better, because you could at least construe it as aiming at the emotional identities of his alienated characters.

Highlights from the floor
The panel's readings were complemented as the evening proceeded by more from invited guests in the audience. Jane McKee read her poem about Mars- 'Beyond the Moon', published in the chapbook The Shantytown Anomaly. This was a nice piece in a conventional contemporary idiom.

These readings saw the second standout performance of the night: Gavin Inglis (also of Writers' Bloc) reading 'Ethernet', a short short from his collection Crap Ghosts- second apparition, published by Skeleton Press. The story was a smart and amusing take on the theme of the internet ghost; with witty and intelligent use of l33tsp33k- difficult to do without coming across all wrong; and one hell of a punchline. Gavin delivered his story with verve and a strong sense of comedic timing. I guffawed- often; not bad for a piece covering 3 pages of A5 in its printed form.

Omnivorously opinionated?
The rest of the evening saw a discussion among the panel members of a range of subjects thrown into the mix by Andrew Wilson. A systematic account of the discussion would be sociopolitical treatise diverting into economic analysis, complete with critique and detailed rebuttal- something which goes way beyond my brief here @RD/KA!, so I'm just going to pick out a few personal highlights from what the panelists had to say.

The talk ranged across four subjects, all more or less about the quality of the future:
  • Can things only get better in the next 50 years?
  • F&SF or speculative fiction: what do we call the genre(s)?
  • Where is the genre going?
  • What is the future of publishing?
Always stimulating; occasionally infuriating; the panelists gave a good account of themselves as they got wired into their subjects with a liveliness which kept Andrew Wilson on his moderator's toes as subjects were batted back and forth across the platform.

Maturation of a metagenre
To single out one and only one subject to highlight from out of all this is difficult but I plump for the topic of naming the genre(s) because it struck to the heart of what this geek loves about how his childhood interests are flowering into something new in this 21st century. Hal- who stated his preference for the tag 'strange fiction', argued convincingly by reference to Kafka that there are no objective definitions of what qualfies as fantasy, SF, or what have you. For Hal, what all the different subgenres have in common is their use of the fantastic 'what ifs' to reflect upon what is.

My avid agreement with Hal was immediately challenged by Mike's rejoinder: taking the deus ex machina denouement to the epic Battlestar Galactica as his example, he argued strongly that there is a clear difference between rationalist speculation on the one hand, and irrational quasi-religious fantasies on the other.

I think the answer is a synthesis of the two positions. That is to say: Mike put the case for what is one end of a spectrum the other pole of which is openly mystical and religious fantastic fiction. Each end of this spectrum is clearly distinguished from the other, but they stand separated by a range of shades merging into each other so that you can at no point see the joins.

Meanwhile, the continued- and socially pressing, prevalence of fundamentalist religious, anti-science mystical, and otherwise debilitating superstitious beliefs in today's world; this real situation means that the irrational is an utterly essential topic for a literature priding itself on its attempts rationally to speculate on the potentialities of the ever more dynamic present moment. In this light, Hal's outlook can be seen as a strong case for the fact that the breaking down of subgenre boundaries is boon that opens up to writers a wider range of technique with which to approach their subjects.

Best lines and last words
The best lines on the night belonged to Richard Morgan and Charles Stross:
  • "If you guys don't get it together, these people will be coming to see you."
  1. Richard: referring to the authoritarian possibilities if progressive values continue to retreat; a retreat he blames fairly and squarely on the "shit left".
  • "It's nearly old enough to vote."
  1. Charles: referring to the website he's been running for some 16 years now.
The last words came- appropriately enough, in response to a question from the floor: "What's going to screw up next?"
  • Mike: "The NHS."
  • Charles: The death of print newspapers will undermine investigative journalism and so the democratic process.
  • Richard: Genetic technology; eg. the imminent ability to design chromosomes conferring specific immunities, which can be switched on and off at will.
  • Hal: "Me!"
How we laughed!

This was a very enjoyable event indeed, comparing very favourably to the Adrian Mitchell commemoration I'd attended only the previous evening: some of the poetry at that event was very good, but our SF gathering was more intellectually challenging. The format was good although I have to say that something must be done to ensure that there is more time available in future for questions from the floor: with just 10 minutes at the end, we had time for only 3 questions. Perhaps at least one session of floor questions could be inserted into the middle of the running order; eg. before the moderator-led debate kicks off?

I also have to say that I think the event really suffered from both its venue and its place on the Aye Write! programme. I think that all present would've benefited from the more intimate atmosphere that'd've been created if the event had taken place in one of the smaller rooms in the Mitchell Theatre. And while it is all well and good to see an event of this ilk on the Aye Write! programme, the local geek fraternity shouldn't rely on simply being in that programme to publicise the event and generate attendance. Our own networks should be used to build for forays- of our Culture, into prestigious 'mainstream' settings like this; eg. a fB fanpage or two could keep people in touch with developments all year round.

These small criticisms aside, I was pleased to join everyone at 'The Early Days of a Better Future?'. I'd like to extend my personal vote of thanks to the organisers and to all those who took part, whether on the platform or from the floor. Twas a good'un!

An extra special thank you goes to Paul F. Cockburn, Mike and Hal for participating in my small photoshoot: for a competition staged by the Purple Pawn gaming newsblog as part of 'Read an RPG Book in Public Week'. Links to the photos can be found below (they're in my fB 'Friends' photo album, so you can click through from the first to the others; but I've posted all 3 links here for the sake of completeness):
The entry deadline is today so I'll know soon enough if I won. Fingers crossed I guess.

Events of this ilk being of this ilk, a pub was repaired to after the inevitable signage (Mike's Seeds of Earth and Gavin Inglis' Crap Ghosts for yours truly): the Bon Accord, Glasgow's most famous real ale pub. There I caught up with more old friends and acquaintances; made new acquaintances who I hope might become friends; and found myself dropped into a perfect storm of networking. I enjoyed myself immensely. A perfect end to an already matchless evening.

Hello there y'all! I hope we meet again soon. That's all she wrote. ;)

- Wed 17th. Purple Pawn results in...


P.D.S. said...

Awesome post, J. Makes me wish I'd been there.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Thank you for your kind words PD. And there's always next year y'know. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I was there and JMcL63 writing captures the evening perfectly

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Hello anonymous, thank you for your kind words. Is this anonymity of yours something you wish to maintain? Or might you give us the big reveal? :-)

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

The result is in for Purple Pawn's competition for Read an RPG Book in Public Week. I lost. Boo hoo, etc. I really enjoyed staging my entry though, so that's good. And there's another such week in July, so who knows? :)