Category: Uncategorized

Books I Read In January 2013

January 2013

Hunter’s Moon – David Devereux
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s a secret branch of the UK intelligence services devoted to defending the realm against supernatural threats. Where this particular novels differs from it’s brethren is in it’s central character – usually in these things the hero is something of a geek, but here the nameless protagonist is a cynical hard-man. The occult-espionage genre could possibly benefit from an injection of testosterone, and there’s certainly mileage in the idea of someone tackling occult threats with bluntly mundane means, but this is not the book to do it. The protagonist is highly skilled in both magic and the traditional action man skillset, in fact he seems to be highly skilled in pretty much everything. He’s a great spy, and a lethal fighter, and he’s good at magic, and women find him irresistible, and also he’s great at playing blues guitar – basically the fantasy figure of an adolescent boy of limited imagination. Which wouldn’t be an insurmountable flaw if it was at least done entertainingly, but aside from the odd spark it’s at best workmanlike and frequently tedious. There’s also an unpleasant strain of misogyny running through the whole thing, from a plot revolving around ‘feminist’ witches to the way all the female characters are primarily described in terms of how fuckable they are. If it’s not offensive, it’s because the whole thing is too stupid to take seriously. At one point he accidentally interrogates a woman to death whilst trying to get information out of her using a combination of drugs and bondage. Which sounds absolutely horrific, except on the page it’s just plain stupid1. The whole thing is just dispiriting, made even worse by the fact that the sub-Andy McNab protagonist is clearly intended to be seen as totally awesome. Tedious rubbish seemingly aimed at people who complain about ‘political correctness’.

Fast Machine – Elizabeth Ellen
Collection of short stories, most of them short, some of them very short, and a couple on the longish side. By and large they deal with women and girls on the hardscrabble edges of society, either trying to change their lives or just get on top of the ones they have. By and large it’s the shorter pieces that work best, giving you a brief snapshot with just enough detail to show the life outside the frame. I wouldn’t say there are any standout moments here, on the other hand I don’t think there are any noticeable failures either, just a high standard throughout. I did think that perhaps the effect is dulled a little by reading them all one after the other, the stories might work better as individual moments rather than parts of a larger mass but I suppose that’s unavoidable with a collection like this.

The Ironclad Prophecy – Pat Kelleher
The follow-up to The Black Hand Gang, which I enjoyed a few months back. The Pennine Fusilliers are still stranded in the midst of an alien world, fortifying their transplanted stretch of Somme as they await the armies of the insectoid Chatt. This book is centred around their strongest weapon, the tank Ivanhoe, whose armour and firepower are aided by the fact that the locals believe it to be the avatar of the god of the underworld. Of course, petrol is in short supply, and has been replaced with alcohol distilled from some of the local flora – a concoction which, as witnessed in the first book, has powerful psychotropic/entheogenic properties . . . Ivanhoe’s crew, already a secretive, eccentric group, start acting like acolytes in a cult, while their leader starts thinking like a priest king rather than a lieutenant in the British army. I greatly enjoyed this book, it sort of reminds me of the ‘planetary romance’ pulp stories, broadly drawn characters adventuring their way across a vividly drawn world. It’s got abandoned insect cities, tentacled monsters fallen from the stars, and a WWI tank crewed by men going psychic from inhaling the engine fumes – what more can you ask?

Epic Fail – Mark O’Connell
A ‘Kindle Single’, basically an extended essay, taking in the phenomenon of the ‘epic fail’ – when a work of art proves to be such a tremendous failure that it attracts a particular fanbase precisely because of it’s failure. Starting with early examples, such as the legendarily bad poet William McGonnigal and uniquely terrible novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros, the author first demonstrates that the ‘epic fail’ is not a modern phenomenon, before moving on to more recent failures like Rebecca Black and The Room. There are basically two main arguments here; firstly, that what really delineates an ‘epic fail’ from the the ordinarily terrible is the attitude of the creator – they have to genuinely think that what they are doing is worthwhile, if not outright genius, regardless of how other people react; and secondly, that there is a definite element of cruelty in the way people flock to make fun of such things. I’m broadly in agreement with both of these arguments, though I do have some reservations. For starters, it seems difficult to square Rebecca Black with the first proviso since as far as I know she always basically treated Friday as what it actually is; a glorified Karaoke session that got loose on the internet, and while many of the people attending screenings of The Room are clearly trying to humiliate it’s maker, at least as many seem to genuinely enjoy the film. The threads could do with further untangling, and in some ways it’s a shame this is so short – it seems like the topic could well support a longer work. Also, I suppose this reflects poorly on me, but the author’s story of his own encounter with a terrible gangsta rapper from Galway did make me wonder what the dude actually sounded like.

Cyclonopedia – Reza Negarestani
A weird one this – a work of ‘theory-fiction’, purportedly an overview of a renegade Iranian archeologist. There’s also a framing story involving a woman finding a manuscript in a hotel room, though it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere after the first chapters. The majority of the book is made up of bizarre theories about the metaphysical dynamics of the Middle East, oil/war economies, occultural politics, demons, and the interpenetration of human consciousness by the Outside. All of this is told with a blizzard of references to pre-Islamic mythology, ancient history, video games, and HP Lovecraft. There’s a definite resemblance to Lovecraft’s work, not to his stories but to the tomes of sanity-wracking occult knowledge2 that appear in them, reading this book is rather like being lectured by a brilliant but mad scholar. It’s hard to know how much, if any, of this is meant to be taken seriously, some of it seems like it could be a political metaphor but I honestly couldn’t say. My knowledge of that part of the world being shamefully poor, I also don’t know how many of the references to history and theology are real and how many are invented. I was reminded of the magnificent House of Leaves, the only book to have genuinely frightened me3, which is no bad thing at all. It’s obviously a very niche work, but if you’re up for just letting the madness flow through you it’s definitely worth a look. I’m certainly glad I read it, even if my copy sadly didn’t seem to have any spells scrawled in the margins.

Rodinsky’s Room – Rachel Lichtenstein & Iain Sinclair
During the early 1980’s a room was discovered above a Whitechapel synagogue, the contents undisturbed since the occupant, David Rodinsky, disappeared over a decade previously. The mystery of who Rodinksy was, and what happened to him, naturally attracted the attention of London’s outsider scholars and soon Rodinsky was part of the city’s occult mythology. The book is made up of alternating chapters, with Rachel Lichtenstein narrating her own obsession with Rodinsky and her investigation into both him and her own heritage, whilst Sinclair provides context on the world of East End Jewry. It’s interesting, but maybe not quite so interesting to me as it was to the the authors. Lichtenstein’s interest in Rodinsky’s story is entwined with her own attempts to uncover her family history, which kind of distracts from Rodinsky himself. There’s a conscious effort to avoid mythologising the man, to present him as a real person rather than an archetype or mythical figure, which is the right thing to do but which does perhaps make the story less compelling. Sinclair’s sections are sometimes fascinating, and he’s pretty much always worth reading, but they don’t always feel like they’re directly connected to the story as a whole. Basically this is a good book, but I just didn’t feel the same sense of connection to the story as the authors clearly do.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Oscar Wao is a Dominican-American geek living in New Jersey and struggling with his weight, his propensity for falling head-over-heels in unrequited love, and his general incapacity for survival in the real world. His mother and sister have problems of their own, and it seems like the tragic history of the Dominican Republic has infected the Wao family. This really is a wonderful novel of family history, magical history, and a righteously savage attack on the Trujillo regime, all told in a blend of ghetto slang and 80s/90s geek culture. It sounds like it couldn’t possibly work, but once you start reading it you can’t imagine it being told any other way. I found myself identifying strongly with Oscar4, he seems like the perfect encapsulation of the geek personality – his willingness to spend huge amountsof time on things of no earthly use and almost none on the business of actually living, his polarising desire to be both like everyone else and to be different, his worldview built out of comic books and role-playing games and pulp sci-fi . . . Also the way he is both unjustly abused by others and the architect of many of his own disasters. The real success of the book is that Oscar and his family are shown both sympathetically and honestly, their flaws and failings are shown with brutal clarity but so are the reasons behind them. There’s just a real feeling of heart in this novel, it really is quite fantastic.

The White-Luck Warrior – R Scott Bakker
In my opinion, R Scott Bakker’s excellent fantasy novels don’t seem to be getting the recognition they deserve – perhaps they’re overshadowed by George R R Martin’s work? There are certainly some similarities, in that both series’ represent a take on epic fantasy that is either ‘darker’ or ‘more realistic’ depending upon your worldview. Bakker’s novels however feel like more of a deliberate deconstruction of the genre, an attempt to take the genre’s tropes through to their logical conclusion5. The other thing that stands out about them is the philosophical element to them, the question of what it means to be human and to have free will being of paramount importance. This volume is the second book in the second trilogy, continuing the chronicle of the Great Ordeal as the inhumanly capable Anasurimbor Kellhus leads it ever further Northwards. The Prince of Nothing sequence, the first trilogy, portrayed Kellhus’ rise from utter obscurity to the absolute ruler of human civilisation as an analogue of the Crusades; the current trilogy, the Aspect-Emperor series, takes it’s cues from Tolkein. The Great Ordeal, an enormous army of many nations and kings fighting it’s way towards the stronghold of the incomprehensibly malevolent Consult, is obviously a take on the War of the Ring, whilst Achamian’s quest for the secrets hidden in the legendary Coffers involves elements from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Tolkien’s works however, these quests are not noble adventures but complex enterprises involving a great deal of politics, confusion, and sheer, savage violence. A strong Old Testament feel runs through all of the books, a sense of blood and thunder in the air, of a fundamentally pre-Modern morality. There’s very little nobility to be found here, but on the other hand I wouldn’t call the books cynical; they don’t fall prey to the cheap nihilism that infects a lot of ‘dark fantasy’. I get the impression that Bakker is genuinely interested in the quandries he puts forward, he doesn’t exempt himself from the criticisms and questions he levels at human nature. An excellent installment in an excellent series, absolutely recommended to fantasy fans.


1 I’m not an expert on ‘enhanced interrogation’ by any means, but I feel sure it should not involve getting the subject to call you Daddy.
2 CyclonopediaEnglish, by Reza Negarestani, published 2008; SAN Loss 1/1D3; Cthulhu Mythos +2%; Average 6 weeks to comprehend.
3 In the form of a sudden attack of agoraphobia.
4 I feel like that’s somehow wrong of me, but it is true nonetheless.
5 Also, there seems like an excellent chance that we’ll actually find out how Bakker’s story ends.


Seek and Ye Shall Find

Let’s see what search results brought people to this blog over the last twelve months:

wax duel
edwardian weapons
fake guns fake bullets
short film – airship destroyer
porn edwardian era
edwardian era porn
edwardean era porn

The first few make sense, being directly related to posts I’ve made on ‘bloodless duelling’ and The Airship Destroyer. As to the others, I’m not sure. Is hundred-year-old porn so rare that people are just turning up at any site with ‘Edwardian’ on it somewhere?

brookside rape storyline diana
brookside siege steve murray
brookside mick johnson stalker
death of sue sullivan, brookside
brookside – when was nikki shadwick raped

Obviously attracted by the ‘distilled Brookside’ post I did. I feel like the search terms only further my original point.

original motion picture soundtrack pilotpriest torrent
pilotpriest music from 1990 – 2000 A.D.

Both excellent albums, I highly recommend them both to anyone with an interest in cinematic synth music. Forget the torrents though, why pirate it when you can get them for around 99p from the man himself?

corvette guerrico battle damage
According to the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Grytviken, British small arms fire and Carl Gustav shells “killed one seaman and injured five others, damaging electrical cables, the 40 mm gun, one Exocet launcher and the 100 mm mounting”.

soundtrack for the voices in my head vol. 2
Only got Part 1 of this album, it’s good though, I should probably pick up Part 2.

bands that don’t exist
Here are (aren’t?) five to get you started.

books to read in 2012
Bit late for that, I’m afraid.


indie movie comedy cthulu
Presumably it’s The Last Lovecraft they want. Great little film.

record store memories
These are mine.

steam pressure
Following the Steam winter sale, these figures are now of course out of date. Why don’t I play them!? Half the time I’m bored out of my mind anyway!
Possibly the only 100% accurate result here. I guess they found me.

eirik gumeny
He writes absurdist fiction. I like it. Unfortunately the dude’s pretty sick with Cystic Fibrosis, why not make a donation if you’ve a few quid spare?

forge world primarch
Currently the only Space Marine Primarch available from Forge World is Angron, I expect they’ll do the others in time.

gynocracy women jailers punishments
Not really sure I want to know about this one . . . I guess ‘Gynocracy’ got them here thanks to my mentioning it in conjunction with Kameron Hurley’s (excellent) novels?

lovecraft hemplow
Philip Hemplow is the author of Cthulhu-mythos novellas The Innsmouth Syndrome and Sarcophagus, both of which I would recommend to Lovecraft fans.

hard times in babylon song meaning eliza gilkyson
I’m not sure, I think it’s about someone who died, maybe committed suicide?

college “teenage color” cover
Looks like this.

what came first shield helicarrier or spectrum cloudbase
I question I posed myself a few months back. I looked it up and it turns out the Helicarrier predates Cloudbase by two years, having first appeared in Strange Tales #135 in 1965, whereas Captain Scarlet first aired in 1967.

Books I Read In December 2012

December 2012

The Ten Thousand – Paul Kearney
For some reason ancient history doesn’t seem to get much play in fantasy fiction, with the exception of the Romans. Otherwise, apart from occasional appearances from Greece and Egypt it’s medieval Western Europe more or less all the way; where are the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Akkadians? Anyway this novel revolves around the Macht, an island society of independent city-states known for their philosophers, democracy, and most of all their disciplined phalanxes of citizen-soldiers. A prince of Assuria, the enormous empire that rules over all the mainland, recruits a force of ten thousand Macht mercenaries to form the core of the army he is leading against his elder brother, the Great King. As you can tell from the title this book is a fantasy retelling of the Ancient Greek story of The Ten Thousand, with the Macht taking the place of the Greeks and the Assurians replacing the Persians. Everything seems, to my ignorant eyes at least, to be almost identical to the original Greek story; there are some fantasy elements such as the non-human Assurians, the magic black armour worn by Macht officers, and there’s an encounter with some Yeti-type things, but there’s no sign that the plot would have been any different if they’d been replaced with their mundane counterparts. Still, the original tale is a good one which is probably why it’s been adapted so many times before, if this version doesn’t diverge much that doesn’t stop it being compelling and atmospheric. The main thing that struck me was the way it portrays the battles; obviously there’s vast quantities of violence in fantasy fiction, but it’s almost always shown as an individual thing. Even if it takes place in a massive battle, combat is often shown in terms of individual heroes either duelling with each other or tearing through masses of lesser foes. Here it’s almost entirely from the perspective of men within the phalanxes, fighting mechanically whilst locked in formation with the men around them. It really gives a vivid impression of what it must have been like to fight in that kind of battle, where it’s not so much strength and individual courage that count but rather the discipline to hold together no matter what, to keep advancing slowly in formation knowing that some of you will die before ever reaching the enemy.

A Thousand Sons – Graham McNeill
Once more we descend into an age of betray, heresy, and tragedy in another instalment of the Horus Heresy sequence. This time round it’s the mighty sorcerers of the Thousand Sons who take centre stage in a tale of hubris, secrets, and inevitable doom. The way they fall from grace is interesting, they don’t turn away from the Emperor out of ambition or greed but rather they fall unwillingly, victims of their own hubris and the manipulations of enemies they don’t even perceive. This fits in with the epic, classical style of the Horus Heresy, with the legion who pride themselves on knowing everything being undone because they’ve been ignorant of the most fundamental knowledge of themselves. Knowing the ending isn’t really a problem, in fact in some ways it helps the story because it adds to the sense of tragic inevitability, and in any case plenty of interesting details are filled in along the way. In a more ‘meta’ way this novel is also the first to show what the Emperor was planning for humanity, though of course we only find out what it was after it’s been irreparably ruined. One of the highlights of an excellent series1.

Killing is Harmless – Brendan Keogh
Bit of an unusual one this – it’s a critical analysis of Spec Ops: The Line, which I played a couple of months ago and was blown away by. Spec Ops was a moderately successful, mid-budget series of generic tactical shooters from about a decade ago; last years reboot/unrelated sequel was a brilliantly atmospheric deconstruction of modern shooters, tackling the consequences of violence, the morality of interventionism, post-traumatic stress, and generally portraying the horror and madness of war in a way you wouldn’t expect from a 3rd-person Call of Duty rip-off. The book takes the form of a ‘close-reading’ of the game, with Keogh essentially playing through the game and detailing his take on what’s happening in detail, sometimes digressing from events to provide external context. I don’t totally agree with everything he says, I think partly because his definition of ‘madness’ differs slightly from mine, but I do basically agree with his argument. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing, obviously games that could profitably be analysed in this way are fairly few but they aren’t non-existent. I definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in the more critical/analytical side of videogames, though if you’re likely to play the game at some point you should probably do that first.

The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach – Steven Erikson
I’ve read the first four of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and I’ve occasionally meant to return to the series but the prospect of six brick-sized, densely-written novels is enough to quail even me. This volume is rather more manageable, consisting of three novellas/longer short stories following the exploits of a pair of morally-flexible necromancers and their staggeringly unlucky manservant. I’m guessing that these stories were written as a deliberate contrast to the main stories; rather than sprawling epics with huge casts of characters and world-changing consequences, they’re small, comedic tales of handfuls of eccentrics in out-of-the-way places. To be honest I’m not sure Erikson is playing to his strengths here, these stories aren’t bad but aside from the second one I wasn’t particularly taken with them. The comedy element didn’t really work for me, it jarred with what I knew of the setting and most of it just didn’t seem that funny, like a barely-adequate Discworld pastiche. Still, they passed the time I guess and they did make me think about maybe reading the main series again so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
Not totally sure what to call this, sort of a fourth-wall breaking memoir? Eggers’ parents both died when he was in his early twenties, leaving him to bring up his teenage brother; the narrative starts here and follows the two of them as they freewheel around California, with the author becoming involved in the then-cutting edge ‘Generation X’ subculture. The book plays around a lot with the idea of ‘truth’ in autobiographies, there are numerous occasions when people break the fourth wall and start to talk about the fact that they are characters in a book, often in a way that comments on the author’s motives. There’s also an appendix and numerous footnotes which serve to highlight things which have been changed, which of course serves only to throw even less light on the subjects. I think I wanted to like this book more than I really did, it’s beautifully written in places and parts of it I found genuinely moving, but something about the tone put me off. The ‘meta’ elements don’t bother me, but I found the constantly self-criticising authorial voice seriously grating. There’s a constant circle of ‘I’m flawed, but I know I’m flawed, but I know that acknowledging my flaws doesn’t make up for them, but I know that saying this is a way of showing off my self-awareness, don’t hold it against me’. I feel like all it does is make him seem arrogant, like he’s criticising himself in order to show-off how humble and self-aware he is. Honestly I’m not really sure what my problem is with this book, objectively it’s good but subjectively I just plain didn’t like it. Perhaps it’s just me.

Embassytown – China Mieville
It depends on how you look at it, but I’m pretty sure this is China Mieville’s first ‘straight’ science fiction novel, or at least as straight as he ever gets. His fascination with languages and wordplay is brought to the fore, with the philosophy of linguistics being central to the plot. The other main theme is that of colonialism and imperialism, in the real senses of the words rather than the usual sci-fi ‘space colony rebels because space colonies always rebel’2. All that and a variation on the zombie apocalypse too, in this case one affecting an alien race and caused by the effects of semantic innovation. This is an absolutely fantastic book, it’s as rich in ideas as all his other works though perhaps handled in a more measured, thoughtful way. It feels like a very confident book, like the author knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t think it’s my favourite book of his3, but it’s probably his best.

Dare Me – Megan Abbott
Addy is a high school cheerleader in a small, blandly anonymous Mid-Western town. She’s spent pretty much her whole life as sidekick and second-in-command to Beth, the cruel and manipulative Squad Captain. But then they get a new coach who turns the squad around and starts making changes, until everything starts to spin out of control. I’ve not read any of Megan Abbott’s other novels4, but apparently she’s known for hard-edged noir centred around female characters; this book is a (very successful) attempt to transplant that noir sensibility into a high school environment. The plot is essentially a love triangle, with Addy being torn between Coach and Beth, all the while beginning to realise her own influence. Beth is an incredible character, the ‘mean head cheerleader’ is hardly an original concept but she doesn’t seem like a cliché at all, she seems genuinely unpredictable and threatening. The contempt she has for other people is palpable, and the way she manipulates them with sly whispers and text messages makes her far more like a femme fatale than a mean girl. Everything in this book feels empty; the town is so generic and boring it’s barely there at all, several major events happen in an almost-empty apartment building, and the main characters all seem to have a hollowness to them. They’re desperately trying to fill the emptiness inside but they don’t know how so they end up hurting themselves and the people around them. There’s a kind of hard, shiny clarity to the writing, things feel sharp and brittle. I was absolutely blown away by this book, it’s so very intense and utterly merciless, it might look on the surface like some silly teen girl thing but nothing could be further from the truth. Very highly recommended.


1 Though it still doesn’t answer my question of what the singular term is for a member of the legion; a Thousand Son? That doesn’t sound right.
2 There often seems to be the unstated assumption in science fiction that the colonisation of space will be the same as it was with America, only with laser guns.
3 Probably either The Scar or The City & The City
4 But based on this, I’m going to.

Music I Bought In The 4th Quarter Of 2012


Tonight We’ll Rewind the Tape With Pencil – Olivaw
Gesture Is – Gangi
Cobra Juicy – Black Moth Super Rainbow
S – Chaos Chaos
Sleepwalk – In Dreams
Hotline Miami – Jasper Byrne
The Light Before The Day – A Blurred City Sight
Route 375 – Cosmic Sand
194 – Ogre
Impulse Prime
The World Circuit
Identity Sequence – Zircon
Slowdrifter – Datahowler
Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
The Hawk Is Howling – Mogwai
Brand New Eyes – Paramore
Story of the Running Wolf – Story of the Running Wolf
The 80’s Dream Compilation Tape – Various

The big news this time around is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first release in a decade, the only album this year that I deliberately sought out in physical form1. I was a little concerned that after all this time it would prove disappointing, but I needn’t have worried; it’s not their absolute best work but easily on a par with the rest. They’ve obviously come back because they have something to say, there’s no sign that it’s motivated by commerce or publicity or any of that. Keeping in the post-rock vein I finally got round to buying some Mogwai after meaning to do so for years. Plenty of Kickstarter2 related stuff again this time – the highlight is Cobra Juicy, which is absolutely fantastic. I can’t really describe what it sounds like exactly, psychadelic electronic? Listening to it is like melting. Sci-fi influenced Slowdrifter is also a touch on the weird electronic side though in this case it sounds sharp and staticy rather than amorphous and alive. Gesture Is is sample/found sounds dreamlike weirdness3, heavy on the echo and rather good it is too. The Light Before The Day is alright, it’s decent enough but I keep getting the feeling that it’s just slightly too slow. A couple of older releases from Zircon as well as his latest; Impulse Prime sounds rather like early Crystal Method, it’s good but gets a bit samey towards the end, World Circuit features some interesting stuff taken from a wide variety of world music, and Identity Sequence, the new one, is excellent. Obviously highly influenced by the Ghost in the Shell soundtracks, both Kenji Kawaii’s film work and Yoko Kanno’s TV music, all sweeping synths and soaring vocals, cyberpunk music in my favourite way. 194 is similarly influenced by classic cyberpunk, in this case by Vangelis’ epic Blade Runner soundtrack. Ogre’s work is darker in tone, conjuring up a brutalist-future world of concrete, neon, and rain. Keeping with the soundtrack theme, Jasper Byrne’s tracks from woozy 8-bit ultraviolence simulator Hotline Miami are excellent and really capture the weird, hypnotic feeling of playing the game. More retro ’80s vibes from Story of the Running Wolf, a duo with some wonderful electro/glam sounds; I was constantly playing the song Punk Rock Died for at least a week after I got it. And to close out the year, The 80’s Dream Compilation Tape which is pretty representative of 2012 for me and features some great tracks, particularly the ones from Arcade High and Let ‘Em Riot.


1 In the sense that I actively though ‘I want to get that album as a CD’, rather than something I happened to see in a shop.
2 I can stop whenever I want.
3 Spotted the emerging theme yet?

Tomes of Prophecy


With a new year upon us, I thought I’d consult the wisdom of the ancients to try and get the drop on 2013. Since I don’t actually possess any inscrutable grimoires or pre-human codices I decided the best idea was to pull out all the sci-fi RPG manuals on my shelf and look up this year in the timelines.

With no earth-shattering events, 2013 is the calm before the storm in the newly-birthed Sixth World; in the aftermath of the VITAS epidemic, the arrival of metahuman children, and the collapse of governments around the globe, the oppressed Native Americans begin preparing for revolution. Mighty shaman Daniel Coleman, Howling Coyote, Prophet of the Great Ghost Dance, travels the country in secret, teaching his people the magic they will use to break out of the concentration camps and take back their lands from the white men’s corporations.

Cyberpunk 2020
The first true Artificial Intelligence will be born at a Microtech facility in California. Meanwhile a joint US/EuroTheatre treaty leads to the creation of Netwatch, a multinational organisation tasked with fighting cybercrime. With the Net shortly to be drastically reconfigured by the Ihara-Grubb Transformation/Visualisation Algorithms, they’ll have plenty to keep them busy.

Following the mysterious disappearance of reclusive scholar Dr Harrison Lovechild, his collection of antiquarian texts is donated to Miskatonic University. Amongst the collection is the only known copy of The Mysteries Within, an infamous work of non-Euclidean geometry and mathematics. In years to come it’s sanity-blasting contents will be instrumental in unlocking the secrets of advanced technology and poweful magics; for now it sleeps quietly in the library.

By now, the Church of Revelations has conquered and occupied most of Western Europe, with only the Nordic nations, Great Britain, and Ireland holding out against it’s First Army. On the other side of the Atlantic the Third Army of Revelations rapidly gains ground in South America, capturing Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uraguay, whilst launching air raids against cities within the United States.

One More Time

The other night this came on the radio whilst I was at work, and all of a sudden I found myself remembering the first time I ever heard it. I’ve always strongly associated music with my memories; being a teenager is doing my homework whilst listening to Kraftwerk and Vangelis on headphones, Led Zeppelin and The Clash were as much a part of my first time living on my own as sleeping ’til noon, and Daft Punk’s second album takes me right back to my semester at Ball State University every time.
This was different though, it was the memory of a specific event rather than the vague sense of a period of time, erupting out of nowhere in a sudden Proustian rush. I was in the living room at home on a Saturday afternoon, everyone else had gone out and I was listening to Paul Gamabaccini’s America’s Greatest Hits show on Radio 2 when he played this. It had only recently been released and hadn’t yet reached No. 1, so this would probably have been sometime in November or December 1998. I really could remember hearing it play whilst I was standing in that room, looking out the window, the clarity was uncanny.
Of course I’ve no way of knowing if it’s really an accurate recall of events, though the basics seem to check out; I used to listen to that show most weeks back then, and of course it was a hugely successful song, so it would make sense for me to have heard it first that way. The other details, like being the only person in the house and listening to it in the living room, are perfectly plausible but could equally be something my subconscious invented.
What really makes it seem weird, is why that song? I mean obviously it was an enormously successful song, and it was probably a major influence on the way pop music turned out in the early 2000’s, but I can’t say it ever had any real impact on me personally. I thought it was a good pop song, and that’s about it. Why it suddenly awoke that particular memory all these years later is beyond me; it’s one of those songs that is often used as shorthand for a particular time, so if I’d just felt nostalgic for being a teenager or whatever it would make sense, but that one, specific occasion? Strange.

Books I Read In November 2012

This Book Is Full Of Spiders – David Wong
I was greatly impressed with David Wong’s first book, John Dies At The End, which managed to combine absurd, profane humour and existential dread in a way that was simultaneously hilarious and depressing, so I was eagerly awaiting this sequel. To be honest, it’s not what I was expecting, to start with it’s definitely not as funny as it’s predecessor; not because of a decrease in quality, but because there are simply fewer jokes in this one, the balance between horror and comedy has definitely shifted in favour of the former. This time around, John, Dave, and Amy struggle to cope with an outbreak of alien spiders1 which burrow into peoples heads, take over their bodies, and eventually mutate them into terrifying monsters. Of course, since most people are unable to see the spiders, they assume that it’s a plague of zombies taking over their anonymous Mid-Western toilet, and react in ways that make everything even worse . . . The main thrust of the book is a thorough deconstruction of the zombie apocalypse genre, exploring the various assumptions in it and what it says about geek culture that they’ve become so prevalent. It’s cleverly done, and in parts it’s genuinely thought provoking. It’s also, as I said, more horrific than funny, although it is still funny. Like the first book, the horror is more about existential fears about the nature of life and humanity rather than sudden shocks or grotesque body horror, and that’s certainly been kicked up a notch in this one. Part of this I think is because for most of the book the three main characters are separated, unlike the first one where whenever Dave’s despair threatened to become overwhelming John would do something absurd and balance out the mood. At times the tone threatened to tip over into adolescent nihilism; it never quite does so, but there were a few times when I found myself wondering why the heroes bothered doing anything at all if it was that pointless. I don’t want to go overboard with this, I should probably emphasise that it is genuinely funny, it’s just that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. All in all, it’s a very good book, even if on balance I just about preferred the first one, and like the first book it’s far more intelligent than it might appear on the surface.

Judge Dredd Year One: City Fathers – Matthew Smith
There’s something odd happening in the black markets of Mega City One; addicts are suffering permanent freak-outs, a Justice Department peeper’s been savagely murdered, and none of the usual suspects seem to be responsible. The pressure is rising, and it’s up to rookie judge Joe Dredd to get the bottom of things before they explode. This is the first in a new series of novellas following the legendary Judge Dredd’s first year out of the academy, before he became known to everyone in the Big Meg as the unstoppable, iron-jawed avatar of the Law. The central idea is sound, since it lets the authors tell stories about Dredd fighting crime without having to worry about the extensive Dredd canon, but in this case at least the fact that Dredd is still green isn’t especially important. There are periodic references to him not being totally assured of himself, and occasionally the other characters give him stick for being young and unproven, but it’s mostly a case of being told, not shown. If it wasn’t for the author telling you these things outright you wouldn’t be able to tell, and the majority of the time Dredd acts the same as he does in his classic, veteran incarnation. I suppose the difficulty is that you can’t change the personality and nature of a straightforward character like Dredd that much without losing them completely. On the up side, it looks as though his relationship with his dubious brother Rico will probably get more play in the coming stories, which could prove fruitful. Anyway, when you get down to it, this is fast-moving, hard-hitting action that gives you pretty much everything you’d expect from Judge Dredd, even if it’s obviously closer to a standard one-off episode rather than part of the classic, epic arcs. He is the Law, and plenty of creeps and perps get brought to justice – nothing earth-shattering or original but entertaining and competently executed.

The House of the Dead – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It occurred to me reading this that of the few Russian novels I’ve read, a significant minority have been set in prisons. I hope this has not warped my perspective. This one is the reminiscences of a man condemned to a Siberian prison in the nineteenth century, I assume that it’s at least partly autobiographical but to be honest I don’t really know enough about Dostoyevsky to be sure. There’s not really a plot as such, just a series of observations on life in prison and on the men around him. The narrator is a nobleman, and he finds it difficult to get on with the common men who make up the majority of his fellow prisoners who resent his former privileges. The psychology of men in prison is probably the main focus of the book, on the ways they try to cope with their punishments. There’s a repeated emphasis on the fact that it’s the lack of liberty, being denied the freedom to control their own lives, that is the real suffering rather than the physical discomforts of the prison. This is something that I’ve always thought blindingly obvious, but over a hundred years down the line it still seems to need saying. One thing that did strike me as rather odd was that throughout the book the narrator is shown to be a sensitive man, who suffers from being in such primitive conditions with common criminals, with almost no thought given to the crime that put him there in the first place; he murdered his wife, which is hardly a minor offence or something that could be put down to misfortune. This could be related to the position of women in society at that time, where it seems like most people assumed that a man would beat his wife as a matter of course, or it could simply be because the author wasn’t really interested in the narrator’s story and just wanted a reason why he would be in prison for a long time. It’s not really a big deal, it just struck me as odd. One other thing that kind of sticks out is the lack of a real ending, it just sort of stops, which is probably inevitable with a book with as little plot as this. Still, that’s not really the point, it’s not the kind of book you read to find out what happens next. It’s heartfelt and beautifully written, as you’d probably expect considering it’s provenance.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms – Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan
I don’t actually read romance novels, but as a huge fan of the more disreputable end of the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum I feel like I have some sort of vague kinship with people who do. A brief examination of my Kindle reveals that if you only count full-length works of fiction, approximately 25% of it’s contents are works from the Black Library, so I’d hardly be in any position to criticise others for devouring Mills & Boon or whatever even if I so desired. After all, they’re both genres that tend to inspire fanatical loyalty amongst readers and contempt from outsiders, often relying on stock characters and plots, and aiming to entertain and distract rather than uplift or inspire. Which is why I follow Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the blog by the authors of this entertaining investigation into romance novels. I acquired this book in a slightly roundabout way – I noticed that it wasn’t available on Kindle, and thinking that I might like to read it sometime I sent the authors a message enquiring about a future release. Turns out it is on Kindle, but for some reason not in the UK, which apparently they were unaware of. Anyway they emailed me a copy, which was very good of them. It does feel rather like a blog that’s been expanded into a book, but not in a bad way; the main thread, a rough history of the genre from the 1970’s onwards, is interspersed with silly jokes, charts, etc. It could be called a defence of the genre, except that the point is that it doesn’t really need defending at all, most of the criticisms levelled at it are rooted in sexist stereotyping. It probably says something that romance fans fantasising about people falling in love is considered less respectable than my fantasising about people engaging in mass violence with axes and laser guns. The overall tone is one of affection for the genre, celebrating the strengths, revelling in the silly bits and acknowledging the flaws. The parts that talk about the community certainly sounded familiar, particularly the tendency for fans to turn on anyone who they see as betraying the community – I suppose that’s something endemic to small, closely-knit groups who feel threatened or disrespected. I can’t say I’ve been inspired to start reading romance novels, but I certainly enjoyed this and I’ll probably get the authors’ other book at some point. Also the choose-your-own-adventure section is hilarious.

Black Hand Gang – Pat Kelleher
The First World War is at it’s height with the battle of the Somme just beginning, when a regiment of Pennine Fusiliers suddenly find themselves catapulted into a place even more hostile than the Western Front. Just as they’re going over the top, a mysterious forces transports them to an alien planet, along with a few miles of trenches and no-man’s land. This action sci-fi moves along at a pretty pace, no sooner have they arrived on the verdant new world than they’re confronted in quick succession by the hostile wildlife, some very dangerous fauna, and a civilisation of intelligent insectoid creatures. Also, the diabolist responsible for their predicament2 is still lurking in the ranks and stirring up trouble in pursuit of his twisted god. I was impressed with this, for me the secret to pulp sci-fi is the balance between ideas and action and that’s done well here. The central conceit is a good one, and it’s well exploited, as the first in a new series it’s clearly more about introducing the setting and the characters than exploring any of them in depth. The characters themselves are mostly fairly familiar archetypes, but by and large they stay on the right side of cliché. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series, at the very least there should be plenty of ‘plucky Tommys versus insects’ battles and people getting eaten by killer trees.

Shotguns vs Cthulhu – Various
The writers of the stories in this anthology seem, broadly speaking, to have interpreted the title in two ways; stories which are more action-orientated than usual, and stories that are ‘traditional’ in form and which feature shotguns as plot points. By and large most of them feel like they belong in an anthology with this title, the only one which maybe seemed like a stretch was Ekaterina Sedia’s story and in any case it’s a good story so why quibble. The highlights are Adam Scott Glancy’s reworking of a certain horror classic in the Delta Green style, and Ken Hite’s ‘Infernal Device’, which is just brilliant. Cthulhu himslelf actually only crops up a few times, whereas Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young, appears in quite a few stories, not that that’s a bad thing3 of course. The overall standard is high, I liked some stories more than others but I don’t think any of the could be called poor.

The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan
Brutal fantasy noir by the author of the excellent Takeshi Kovacs cyberpunk novels. This is definitely in a similar vein to those books, taking the fantasy genre and injecting it with a significant dose of sex, violence, and cynicism. Of course, there’s always been a lot of violence and a fair bit of sex, but it’s taken up a notch here; the violence is savage and bloody, with people being crippled and broken rather than just either being basically unaffected by wounds or instantly killed. The sex is also more graphic than usual, and also a little different in that Ringil, the character who gets most screen time, is that rare creature – a gay man in a fantasy story. Ringil is an interesting character, he’d be insufferable except that you can see exactly why he acts the way he does; in a society that’s viciously bigoted he’s able to survive only because of the half-hearted support of his family and his considerable prowess as a warrior and killer. The other two viewpoint characters, an exiled barbarian chief and the sole remaining member of a technologically advanced race which recently fled for another world, are both similarly outsiders who find themselves having to defend a society that is either uncaring or actively hostile to them. My only real complaint is that the cynicism does sometimes get a bit excessive, the flaws of the world are shown well enough that having the main character dwelling on them explicitly seems redundant. Anyway, recommended to people who like a little blood, sex, and misanthropy every now and then.

Cold Warriors – Rebecca Levene
A Russian oligarch is trafficking in potentially apocalyptic artefacts, and the Secret Intelligence Service’s newly reactivated Hermetic Division sends two officers to intercept them; one of them a new recruit whose colleagues tend to have remarkably poor life expectancies, and the other an officer who’s spent the last two decades in the grave. I’ve always liked the espionage/supernatural crossover genre, this one isn’t anything particularly great it but it passes the time well enough. It’s alright, and some of the ideas are pretty good, but it doesn’t really make the most of them and the action scenes aren’t that exciting. It’s not bad, just adequate.


1 An outbreak for which they are only partially responsible.
2 Or is he?
3 Like all Lovecraftian deities (possibly excepting Nyarlathotep) she/it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but simply exists.

The Sport of the Future, Yesterday

Are you bored with the hidebound traditions of regular polo? Is the Sport of Kings too rooted in the aristocratic Old World for you? Is the prospect of riding around on a horse simply too obsolete for words? If so, then may I present the short-lived early 20th century sport of Auto Polo.

It’s obviously pretty similar except that, as befitting the go-ahead world of the colonies, the players are mounted in customised automobiles rather than upon horseback. And frequently attempt to overturn competitors by ramming into them at speed, which I don’t think is allowed in regular polo. Not to worry though – apparently hardly anyone died, with one team manager stating that he “does not remember a death resulting from the game”1.

So that’s reassuring. It’s probably worth pointing out that given the nature of the photographic equipment then, most or all of the more spectacular pictures are almost certainly posed reconstructions, though it’s hard to imagine that the real thing would have been much different from the descriptions available. This is all clearly a natural partner to ‘bloodless duelling’, which I talked about previously, what with the post-apocalyptic style and the obvious possibilities for serious personal harm. Who knew Mad Max came from such a storied lineage?


1 The Southeast Missourian, Sep 21, 1922.

Books I Read In October 2012

Fallen Angels – Mike Lee
Eleventh novel in the Horus Heresy sequence and a direct sequel to Descent of Angels, further chronicling the travails of the Dark Angels. There’s essentially two separate plots here, told in alternating chapters; in the first the legion’s Primarch, Lion El’Jonson, leads a force of Dark Angels to hold a vital forge world against traitor forces, and the second follows the outbreak of civil war on Caliban, where Jonson’s former mentor Luther has been exiled. The secret behind the fall of the Dark Angels has been told a few times over the years, I think this version of events is the third variation and I assume it is now canon. The relationship between Lion El’Johnson and Luther is essentially the same as that between the Emperor and Horus, which ties things into the overarching narrative of the Horus Heresy rather well. Another successful instalment in a series that consistently maintains a high standard.

Shake Away These Constant Days – Ryan Werner
Another short story collection from Jersey Devil press, though this time the contents are far from the lunatic froth of Eirik Gumeny’s work. Each brief story is a snapshot of a more or less normal person, capturing a moment in their lives when things are about to change in some way. I believe the stories are inspired by song lyrics, though not in a particularly literal or direct way. They’re all well written and some of them are genuinely moving. Highly recommended.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
It’s 1851, and the infamous hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters are sent to track down a prospector in gold-rush California. Along the way they run into a bizarre selection of losers, cheaters, and crazies. Along the way Eli starts to become more and more unsure about why he does what he does, and whether he wants to continue. The writing is wonderful, it’s very sparse without a word wasted which contributes to the general sense of spartan emptiness of life on the frontier. I love the period language, it gives everything a slightly formal feeling that makes even the simplest conversations sound somehow fascinating1. I was surprised by what the brothers find when they actually catch up with their quarry, but it does fit in with the off-kilter, slightly dream-like logic of the story.

Osama – Lavie Tidhar
Down-at-heel private detective Joe finds his life turned upside down when he gets a client with an unusual job; she wants him to track down Mike Longshott, the author of a series of pulp action novels with a cult following. The books all follow the exploits of ‘Osama bin Laden: Vigilante’, tales of mass violence and secret wars of a kind that make no sense to Joe, who lives in an Asian-dominated world where terrorism seems to be non-existent. Excerpts of the stories are interspersed throughout the main narrative, each detailing something that happened in the real world. Joe runs into the traditional gumshoe troubles, it seems that he’s not the only one who wants to know what’s going on and where the books are coming from . . . This novella is less about plot and more about atmosphere and thinking about the relationship between violence and entertainment; terrorist atrocities from the real world form escapist entertainment in Joe’s world, whilst his fears and injuries are turned into detective pulp to entertain us. Towards the end the story more or less falls apart into a dream-like sequence, flowing from brief snapshots from the ordinary lives of people killed in the attacks detailed earlier, through the coalition assault on Afghanistan, to Joe’s inconclusive encounter with Longshott. I do have a few issues with this book; it’s obvious that the plot, such as it is, exists only to provide a framework for this deconstruction, which is fair enough but in that case I think it could have been pared back even further2. As it is there’s enough plot to make me frustrated that it feels incomplete; elements like the way the Osama novels are popular with the dispossessed underclasses appear but are not really investigated, and at times the deliberate employment of detective fiction tropes feels forced. The excerpts from the Osama novels also don’t really work for me, they’re supposedly pulp action novels but that snippets we see don’t read like that at all, they’re more like encyclopedia entries with brief, unemotional run-downs of events, timelines, and casualty figures. But anyway, going too far down this route would be missing the point, as an exercise in how we think about fiction this is well worth reading.

At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
Metafictional, multilayered, impressionistic, I’m not really sure how to describe this. The narrator is a student, who between occasionally studying and constantly drinking is writing a novel. The subject of this novel is himself writing a novel, using his powers of creativity to enslave the characters in this novel-within-a-novel. Of course these characters are mostly taken from other books, westerns, crime novels, Irish mythology, etc. Then one of them begins to write his own book, using the opportunity to revenge himself upon his creator, who he subjects to a variety of torments. All the various strands swirl together with little rhyme or reason beyond the pleasure of creativity and language, a mad shaggy-dog story chasing it’s own tail. It’s a grand book, but it’s probably for the best it’s quite short – much longer and I think it could easily become tiresome. Also I must admit that I skimmed through the longer parodys of Irish mythological poems.

Radiant Dawn
Ravenous Dusk – Cody Goodfellow

I discovered this epic biohorror/technothriller when it was mentioned in the introduction to the reissue of Delta Green: Strange Authorities, and there are some definite similarities: late ’90s Cthulhu mythos, a tangle of conspiracies within and without the US government, and a suffocating feeling of impending doom. The Mission, a fanatical group of defected military personnel and defence scientists, are engaged in a fanatical war of extermination with Radiant Dawn, a mysterious organisation supposedly working to aid terminal cancer sufferers but actually dedicated to forcing humanity to evolve into a higher form. In this case, a ‘higher form’ consists of amalgams of sentient, polymorphic tumours, and there’s a great deal of gleefully imaginative and lovingly rendered body horror here, with the human form twisted and reformed like plasticine3. The setting is thick with paranoia, more or less every organisation is manipulated from the shadows, whilst the secret masters mistrust and plot against each other as much as their enemies. One thing I did like was the range of conspiracies involved; groups within the federal government, ‘classical’ secret societies, racialist fanatics, and mythos cultists. The Lovecraftian side is handled interestingly, in the first book4 there are almost no signs of the mythos and it could easily be an unrelated sci-fi/horror tale, but as the second book proceeds the truth is unveiled. Most Cthulhu stories tend to focus on the paranormal, supernatural side of things but here the emphasis is definitely on the science-fictional aspect of Lovecraft’s work, delving into the true origins of Earthly life and the implications for humanity. It’s possibly a little dated, with it’s ‘end of history’ vision of America as a superpower falling apart from within, paranoid anti-federal militia groups holed up in the desert, and ‘new religious movements’, but really I think that’s just another way of saying that it’s firmly rooted in a specific time and place. I was very impressed with this indeed, it doesn’t pull any punches at all but follows it’s premise through right to the end, soaked in blood and fear and alien biology.


1 Or at least it does to modern ears.
2 I’ve thought this about some of Tidhar’s previous works as well, that they should either be distilled down into short stories or expanded into novels.
3 It’s very ‘wet’ – blood and bile and other fluids. Also it features a sex scene that I can’t even begin to describe . . .
4 It’s a single lengthy plot told over two books, presumably because it’s too big to publish in a single volume; it’s easily the longest Lovecraftian story I’ve read.

Five CDs I’d Forgotten I Owned

Just the other day, I was seized by some unknown madness that made me think it would be a good idea to re-rip my CD collection onto my PC. I only ever listen to music in the house on my PC or my phone these days, and almost all of them were originally ripped years ago at 160kbs, which isn’t brilliant. So I decided to go through the lot and replace them with 320kbs versions. Almost immediately after starting I realised the gravity of my situation, but it was too late; once I’d started I had no choice but to continue, as stopping would only delay the inevitable and cause further hassle when I returned and had to remember which CDs had already been done. I started in the afternoon and finished just before midnight; by the end I was starting to crack up. The worst of it was that it only takes a very short time to rip a single CD, so I couldn’t start it then go off to do something else but instead had to be constantly hovering over the PC swapping discs and checking details. After all that, I’m fairly sure I can tell the difference. I think. Probably.
There was an unexpected upside though, along the way I found quite a few things I’d never gotten around to ripping, including some I’d more or less forgotten about.

The Fake Sound of Progress – Lostprophets

I’d actually been thinking about this album just prior to finding it, my brother happened to mention that ‘Shinobi vs Dragon Ninja’ is eleven years old now and I got to wondering if I still had the CD. Turns out I do. Their first album, back when they still sounded Welsh, holds up pretty well I think. I can’t be sure because it’s hard to accurately judge it through the fog of nostalgia.

Wanted A Girl – Stewboss

This is the first CD I ever bought over the internet, ordered from CD Baby in April 2001 after hearing Bob Harris play the fantastic Fill Station on his saturday night show. Still a great song, as is the title track. I remember looking for this a year or so ago but not being able to find it, must have overlooked it somehow.

Hard Times In Babylon – Eliza Gilkyson

There’s kind of a weird story behind this one; I heard one of the songs, Beauty Way, on the radio and a while later I found it was stuck in my head. I could remember the tune and some of the lyrics, but not what it was called or who it was by. This went on for a short while until I woke up in the early hours of the morning knowing the name of the song, the album, and the artist. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to write it down before I went back to sleep, if I’d forgotten it again lord knows what would have happened.

Spend The Night – The Donnas

I remember I picked this up on a whim in HMV, there’s a ‘behind the scenes’ DVD that’s set to Region 1 so it must have been a US import. Teenage garage-rock, all chugging power-riffs and songs about parties and sex, basically The Ramones with the gender swapped. It’s good although the songs do start to all sound pretty similar after a while.

False Smiles – Amy Studt

This one really was forgotten, it took a few moments to remember who she is and I’m still not really sure how or why I got it. As I recall she was half-heartedly pushed as a British version of Avril Lavigne about a decade ago but it never really happened. The video for the song Misfit doesn’t seem to be on Youtube, which seems kind of strange, I remember seeing it on one of the monitors whilst at Phoenix Bowl back in the Dark Ages. Weird the things that stick in your memory.