Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Summit Fever

John Meaney and I on the summit of Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain, June 2017.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Locus award for Revenger

Over the weekend I was delighted to hear that Revenger had won the Locus award for best YA novel. I'm extremely grateful to all who voted for it. This is my second Locus award (after last year's one for Slow Bullets) and it means an awful lot.

Because I had shortlisted entrants in a number of categories, it was suggested that I provide some words to be read out on the night. I've edited them slightly to reflect the eventual outcome, but this should be close to what transpired:

Thank you for this award - it means a huge amount to me. Twenty-odd years ago, when I'd barely
had anything published outside of Interzone, Locus was one of the first places to show any interest
in my work beyond the UK, and that validation had an enormous effect on my confidence as a writer,
encouraging me to keep going, and keep trying. I'm still going, and I'm still trying! Thank you all who
voted for Revenger and may I wish you all many more hours of good reading in the
years ahead, and enjoy the rest of the evening. I wish I could be there with you! 

Best wishes from Deepest Wales - Al.

Earlier in the year I had a long and enjoyable conversation with Liza from Locus about the exact category of Revenger, be it YA or otherwise. Liza felt it was YA, whereas (and I'm well aware this will sound like tedious hair-splitting) I'm more inclined to consider it an otherwise standard novel by me that just happened to be a little more YA-approachable, in that I hoped it might be a book that I could have read in my early/mid teens, exactly at the point when I was getting into Niven, Delany, James White, A Bertram Chandler and so on. But at the same time, at least when I was writing it, the book felt as challenging from a compositional point of view as any of my other novels. Where I did want it to mark a modest departure was in terms of concision and pace, in that I wanted to get into the thick of the action quickly and maintain a hectic momentum from that point onward. I also hoped to write a book that was somewhat shorter than its predecessors, drawing on the energy I felt I'd managed to tap into during the writing of the Doctor Who novel. Even so, it still managed to end up being 140,000 words long, which would have been considered a thick novel forty years ago. That wasn't just a one-off experiment for the purposes of Revenger, though, in that I also carried the same process through to the new Prefect novel, which - by the standards of the other book in the Revelation Space universe - is a relatively modest 160,000 words.

Anyway, I mention all this not to quibble with Locus for their award, which is deeply appreciated, but to indicate that I'm not inclined to be too dogmatic about novel categories. If you enjoyed Revenger, I hope that you enjoyed it on its own terms, and if you haven't been persuaded to pick it up because the YA association is off-putting, you might want to give it a go nonetheless.

Friday, 23 June 2017

One OK record

It's mildly astonishing that this record is now twenty years old. I bought it, if not on the day it came out, then certainly at the first immediate opportunity, on CD, from a record shop in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, which no longer exists. I think I played it about six times that day. I still think it's remarkably good. What I find surprising is not the length of time that has passed since its release, because - really - quite a lot of things have happened in those two decades - but how fresh and modern it still sounds, how engaged and forward-looking. How bright and exciting and adult. It's been said before but with this record Radiohead threw down a gauntlet which was never really picked up, at least not by any acts of similar commercial reach.

There was a lot of buzz around this record before it came out, a sense of keen anticipation. I think people instinctively knew that it was going to move the boundaries, and it did. I'd heard one track on a compilation CD some months previously, enough to whet the appetite - either Lucky or The Tourist, I can't remember which - but more than that I'd become a fan of the band via the first two albums, which I'd been exposed to via a home-made tape done for me by a friend. Yes, "tapes", they were a thing back then.

Music critics sometimes speak of bands and artists having "imperial phases" - a relatively brief window in a longer career in which they're simply untouchable on all levels. You could debate the inclusion of The Bends (it's very, very good) but for me this is the album that opened Radiohead's imperial phase, and it continued with Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which I regard as phenomenal, peerless records that define and bracket a particular moment in time around the millennium. Then came Hail to the Thief which I remember waiting for which great anticipation, and then not being quite so blown away as I'd hoped. After that came In Rainbows, which I greatly admired, and then The King of Limbs, which again I didn't rate quite so highly. Then, last year, they released A Moon Shaped Pool, which I think is fabulous. I mention these ups and downs not to belittle Radiohead, or suggest that they're past their best, but to reflect on their longevity and willingness to experiment, which I continue to find admirable and exciting. I must have written a great many thousands of words to their music over the last twenty years, so thanks, Thom, Johnny, Colin, Ed and Philip - and long may you run.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two records

I made a few record purchases during a recent trip to London, and was struck by the similarity in sleeve design of these two albums, both of which I'd recommend:

Both records feature female vocalists, but other than that they're rather distinct. The record on the left is the fifth album by Swedish electronic group Little Dragon, while the record on the right is the debut album by London-based guitar group Pumarosa. The Little Dragon record contains no guitar parts at all, whereas the Pumarosa album is mostly guitar with the odd bit of sequencing or keyboard colour. I bought these albums in Fopp, near Covent Garden, and it was on a much earlier visit to the same shop that saw me buying Little Dragon's second album, Machine Dreams. I hadn't heard a note of the music, but the cover intrigued me and I've always found that to be a generally reliable guide to investigating and discovering worthwhile new music.

I adored Machine Dreams, and bought all the subsequent releases. I liked them so much that I even named a character in one of my stories after the singer, Yukimi. None of the subsequent albums have quite lit my fire as much as Machine Dreams, but there are many beautiful moments on all their records, and I admire Little Dragon for doing what they do, making music that sounds fresh and forward-looking, owing (other than the odd retro synth-sound) very little to the past. I've only given the new release, Season High, a single listen so far but I look forward to discovering its undoubted charms.

I came to the other record by more conventional means. I'd caught a performance by Pumarosa on BBC2's Jools Holland program and within a few bars knew instantly that they were going to be my new favorite thing. At that point I knew next to nothing about the group but I then spent a happy few years catching up with some of their songs on Youtube, and was pleased to discover than an album had just been released. Rather good it is too: exactly the kind of trancey, driving guitar rock that does it for me, alloyed to Isabel Munoz-Newsome's distinctive and swooningly theatrical singing approach, which won't be everyone's cup of tea, but works (in my view) very well in this musical setting. I've read comparisons between her voice and Siouxsie Sioux's, obviously no bad thing if you're of my generation, but that's only one point of reference. I also picked up a bassline that reminded me strongly of Simple Mind's Love Song, but then again, that's one of the most mesmerising basslines in the history of music, so again - no bad thing at all.

Here are the CDs themselves, by the way:

And I commend them both for your listening enjoyment.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Chris Cornell, 1964 - 2017

Scrolling through a small list of files, Sheng settled on some mid-period rock he’d copied over from Parry Boyce’s much larger music library. Some of the other miners mocked Parry’s tastes, but the way Sheng saw it, if you needed something to cut through the background drone of generators and pumps, there was not much out there to beat amped guitars, hammering drums and screaming vocals, no matter when it was recorded. It was driving music, for the ultimate drive.

‘Tommorow begat tomorrow…’ Sheng sang along, music filling his helmet like a derailing freight train. With the long cylinder of the lubricator nozzle unclipped, he pulled some mean guitar shapes like the secret ax hero he’d always imagined he could have been. He knew he looked ridiculous, making those moves in an ancient orange Orlan 19, bulked out with panniers, but his only audience was ancient alien machinery. Sheng considered it a reasonably safe bet that the ancient alien machinery had no particular opinion on the matter.

Sheng was not quite right in that assumption.

(from Pushing Ice)

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Kirk Drift

If you have a little time on your hands I commend this excellent Strange Horizons article by Erin Horakova on our changing (and inaccurate) perception of the character of Captain Kirk:

It struck a chord with me because I had a related, if parallel, set of thoughts after watching the entire run of the original series. The popular culture cliche is that William Shatner is/was a somewhat crude and mediocre actor with a peculiar sense of ... timing ... in the delivery of his dialogue, and I went into the re-watch to some extent pre-conditioned by this notion. Regardless of the quality of the individual episodes, though, I quickly found myself wondering when this legendary bad Shatner was going to turn up, because all I was seeing - right from the outset - was an efficient and convincing portrayal of a man in a complex, demanding position of authority. Shatner isn't just much better at playing Kirk than the popular myth would have it, but the character itself is also much more plausibly drawn than the supposed brash womaniser of the insidious meme.

Erin Horakova dismantles this false Kirk in expert fashion, while lobbing a few well-earned potshots at the reboot films.