Thursday, 24 March 2016

My Eastercon 2016 Schedule... short but sweet.  I'm on the one panel early on Friday afternoon, which is nice because it bunches the work stuff right at the start and leaves me the rest of the weekend to chill out.  Also, that panel is on a subject particularly dear to my heart these days, as I increasingly come to discover just what neat tricks and surprises you can pull off when you really plan your story through from the start.

Anyway, here it is.  If you're at Mancunicon this weekend then please do come along and listen to me inadvertently spoiler books I haven't even finished yet!

Twisting the Story
Friday 14:30 - 16:00, Room 8 & 9
 Intrigue! Betrayal! Revelation! All these options and more are available to the writer looking to take their story up a notch. But what is the key to making a good twist work, and work as SF or fantasy? Is it primarily a question of making the reader care about a character? Is it about managing and playing with the reader's expectations, particularly in those stories which draw on established structures, such as a heist or a procedural? Is it about the logical but unexpected implication of the speculative setting? Or is it something else entirely?
With: Gillian Redfearn, Susan Bartholomew, Charles Stross and Chris Wooding.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Writing Ramble: Is Writing Fun?

Recently I had an interesting discussion with a couple of author friends, Andy Knighton and Charlotte Courtney-Bond, that began from my admitting I don't find writing to be all that fun.

When Andy and Charlotte very sensibly asked why I'd do it,  I explained that there are plenty of things I do get out of writing.  I love the constant challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the way no two projects are ever even slightly the same, and the fact that I'm always learning, be it real-world knowledge to enhance my work or just how to be better at what I do.  Writing is always interesting and sometimes thrilling, but that's a different thing entirely to being fun.

After consideration, Charlotte decided that she largely felt the same way; Andy wasn't convinced.

But is writing meant to be fun?  Perhaps when it's purely a hobby, and I certainly remember getting a certain enjoyment in the early days just from the sheer act of flinging words together in interesting and unlikely combinations.  Yet the minute you start doing something professionally, in however small a way, that inevitably changes.  Writing becomes a job, and though jobs can and probably should be fun, they also need to be other things: productive, profitable, demanding.  And even if you're not aiming to make money, most people write with the intention of producing something worthwhile, which implies a certain level of graft.

In fact, I'd suggest that it's dangerous even to expect that writing should be fun.  Because, as we hinted at in our discussion, the minute you bring those expectations, you put it up against many other fun things: playing games, watching TV, ten pin bowling, shark wrestling.  And writing is always going to struggle to compete, because when done seriously and well, it's bloody difficult.  (Admittedly, the same can be said for shark wrestling.)  If you expect writing to be stimulating and emotionally fulfilling then it will rarely let you down, but when you're asking it to be fun you're bound to be disappointed, because at its worst it's a process of beating your face against the keyboard until a load of stubborn words that would rather you sod off and die than come out finally agree to play ball.  In fact, at its very worst, writing can mean dredging through experiences you'd rather not imagine or relive, and then trying to transfer those shattering emotions onto a blank page.  Whatever the word for something like that is, it surely isn't fun.

Is that to say I don't enjoy writing?  Not at all, and I do, maybe more so now than ever.  My point is just that there are plenty of different ways in which to enjoy something.  To use a tenuous metaphor, for me it's been a bit like the development of a relationship.  At the start everything was crazy and exciting, every moment was precious and every slight crisis felt like the end of the world.  These days it's more like being comfortable in the company of a clever, knowledgeable, witty companion ... maybe me and writing don't hit the town so much, but that's not to say we don't get plenty out of our time together.

Of course, no amount of writing experience has weened me off my fondness of crap metaphors.

Anyway, I'd be intrigued to hear other writers' thoughts on this one.  Do you find writing fun?  If so, is it always fun?  Would you give it up if it wasn't?  And if not then do you get the same things out of it as I do or something altogether different?  Have I just been going about it wrong all this time?

Friday, 11 March 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 9

More nineties anime?  It must be a slow news week!  This time around we'll be looking at Patlabor 2Madox-01Zaion: I Wish You Were Here and Psycho Diver:

Patlabor 2, 1993, Mamoru Oshii

If the first Patlabor movie was the work of a director discovering what was to become his signature style, the second is that of an extraordinary talent who's worked out in the intervening four years just precisely what sorts of movies he wants to make and how he wants them to be made.  Both are unmistakably works from the same artist, but Patlabor 2 is just ... I guess the word is purer.  Which is not the same as saying better - I would argue that if we take the Patlabors and 1995's Ghost in the Shell to be Oshii's masterpieces then Patlabor 2 is marginally the weakest of the three.  Then again, that still leaves it as an extraordinary work that you should track down right this moment if you haven't seen it, so I'm hardly criticizing.

Where the first Patlabor was largely a police procedural that just happened to sometimes bother itself with giant robots, this second is absolutely a political thriller, and concerns itself with giant robots even less, such that for long stretches it barely feels like a Patlabor movie at all.  That fact is only heightened by the fact that Oshii largely sidelines most of the regular cast of Special Vehicle Unit 2 to cameos and focuses instead on their two superior officers - who were admittedly always the best characters, but that doesn't stop it feeling a little cheeky.  In general, this has the vibe of a franchise movie where the director had already moved on from the franchise, which is somewhat hard to deal with as a Patlabor fan but basically a delight as an Oshii fan, since what he'd moved onto being, for ever so brief a period, was one of the greatest creative presences the medium has ever seen.

The thing is, Patlabor 2 is slow, meditative, relatively low on action, but what it loses by such traditional measures of anime it more than makes up for by being thrillingly original and unique: a work of obvious artistry which at the same time functions as a precisely constructed sci-fi thriller, ticking away like gorgeously constructed clockwork.  I prefer the first Patlabor because it's the more rounded of the two, I prefer Ghost in the Shell because it was my first encounter with Oshii and with smart anime in general.  But neither fact detracts from what excellent workmanship this represents.  Patlabor 2 was revolutionary when it was released, a challenge to the strictures of its medium and its genre that also functions as a bold, unconventional sci-fi thriller, and also manages to be a masterpiece of the animator's craft.  If Manga would have the decency to rerelease it in a less crummy edition, it would stand effortlessly against anything released in the last decade.

Madox-01, 1987, Shinji Aramaki

Another release from Manga Video's old and much maligned (by me, if no one else) budget range The Collection, my expectations for Madox-01 were muted, to say the least.  As such, I suppose it's high praise to say that I quite enjoyed it.

Its basic concept is utterly silly: a prototype robotic suit, the Madox-01 of the title, falls into the hands of a teenager, who promptly decides to use it to meet his girlfriend, despite the suit's designer and test pilot and a deranged military officer's best efforts to get in his way and recover or destroy the Madox.  You'd expect this to be played for broad comedy, so it's rather puzzling when instead it's presented mostly straight, with only a few stray gags acknowledging how basically wacky the whole endeavor is.  On the one hand, this keeps things moving briskly, the slim story never bogging down to think too much about its premise; on the other, it feels like a wasted opportunity, as the one thing that makes Madox-01 distinctive gets largely left by the wayside.

Still, it's enough to give the show a little character, and the animation is generally impressive, especially for the late eighties.  The mech design is sufficiently distinctive and the final battle is really pretty good.  At forty five or so minutes it feels precisely as long as it needs to without wearing out its welcome.  Even the dub isn't catastrophic in comparison with some of Manga's efforts from the time, though as usual there's hardly anyone who doesn't either overact or underact.  And this is some seriously faint praise, isn't?  I'm trying to be positive, I really am, but it's just not working.

Zaion: I Wish You Were Here, 2001, dir: Seiji Mizushima

Never one to worry about breaking my own rules, here's a four episode series from 2001, which I'm going to talk about anyway because I thought it was nineties anime when I bought it and because, hey, why not?

Plus, Zaion is a frustrating show, and I want to vent.  There are so many indications that this could, and should, have been something special - it was produced by Gonzo, who were practically churning out good anime at this point - and the fact that the end result is rather bland and kind of a mess is deeply unsatisfactory.

It doesn't help that Zaion found generally reliable distributor ADV in particularly mercenary mood; those four episodes are split, unconscionably, over two DVD releases.  However, to justify the decision ADV included some unusually lavish extras - the enclosed booklets are particularly lovely - that give away far more details about how things went wrong behind the scenes than they were probably meant to.  The impression they give is of a lot of at least moderately talented people pulling in no clear direction, led by a director working at odds to his own writer.  So the fact that the result was a schizophrenic mix of undercooked love story and half-baked sci-fi action, the former undone by lifeless characters and the latter by dubious animation, truly horrid CGI and bland designs, comes as little surprise.

Yet Zaion isn't awful.  It just spends too much time being merely functional, and, like I said, frustrating.  And at least one person was clear on what they wanted for the project, even if it was a fundamentally insane decision: ever-brilliant composer Kenji Kawai goes to great pains in the extras to explain how badly he wanted to write a prog rock score, and if it gels not at all with anything else that's happening here, it's at least great fun in its own right.  All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, while I quite enjoyed the experience of Zaion, I'd feel awfully bad about recommending it to anyone else.

Psycho Diver, 1995, dir: Mamoru Kanbe

Here's a question for you: you're making a film called Psycho Diver, about a world where skilled individuals use technology to enter the subconscious minds of others, acting as a particularly hands-on brand of therapist.  Do you a) play the concept for all its worth, indulging in the sort of trippy dreamscapes only animation could possibly allow or b) do your absolute best to ignore the concept in favour of an overstuffed plot full of entirely mundane fistfights and car chases?

If you voted b) then a slow hand-clap for you, because you were probably one of the production team behind Psycho Diver, a fifty minute OVA that does everything it can to avoid embracing the one element that might possibly make it something special.  What we get instead is a forcedly noir, needlessly violent show about a voice over-happy tough guy hired to sort out the incipient craziness of a pop star who can no longer sing.  (There are two of her songs on the soundtrack and they're both indescribably awful, which begs the question of why anyone would care.)

Psycho Diver is humourless and weirdly dense with plot and characters, but the one thing it isn't is interested in exploring its core concept, which could be all but jettisoned with barely the slightest effect on the plot.  In fact things would actually make more sense if the protagonist was simply a psychiatrist, and goodness knows we need more shows about gritty, hardboiled psychiatrists!  As failings go, it's flat out annoying, because the brief scenes that do play on the whole psycho diving notion are the most visually interesting, and director Mamoru Kanbe - who would go on to make the notorious Elfen Lied - was certainly capable of doing more with the notion than this.  Psycho Diver isn't actually bad as such; for what it is, it's fairly diverting for its short running time.  But by promising something genuinely interesting that it hasn't the faintest interest in delivering, the movie falls flatter than it needs to.

Ultimately, then, the best thing about Psycho Diver is that you don't have any reason to watch it, not when Satoshi Kon's magnificent Paprika exists and does all the things this should have done, a hundred times better than Psycho Diver ever would have.


Wow, that was another awful month, wasn't it?  I sure can pick 'em!  The strange thing is, practically everything on my to-watch shelf looks great, so I'm not sure what's going wrong here.  Then again, Zaion looked great, so perhaps it's time I accepted that looks can be deceiving when it comes to nineties (or even early two thousands) anime.  Still, I have faith!  There must be another classic or two out there I haven't found yet.  There must be!

I mean ... there must be, right?

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

Monday, 7 March 2016

Short Story News, March 2016

It's been a while since I recapped any news on the short story front, perhaps because I've been distracted by having an entire collection of the things out.  But while the release of The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories at the end of the last month - available from Amazon UK and Amazon US, amongst other places! - has certainly been the biggest thing happening, it's been by no means the only one.

There is, for example, the publication - as cover story, no less! - of my first and so far only stab at crime short fiction, Step Light, in the prestigious Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I remain completely gobsmacked that this ever happened, it seemed like a huge risk dipping my toes into a genre I had no experience of and it's hard to imagine how it could possibly have worked out any better.

(Though, if you should ever want to suck all the fun out of having a story published in a well-respected magazine for someone, do what some complete stranger did to me and message them to point out that it was full of mistakes.  For maximum fun-sucking, make sure to be as blunt as possible, and to not tell them what those mistakes actually were.)

Meanwhile, at the end of last year, A Killer of Dead Men marked my second appearance in the ever-wonderful Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and my second tale following the adventures of master-assassin Otranto Onsario: you can read it here or listen to it here, but I'd strongly recommend opting for the latter because it's a great rendition.  Still on the dark fantasy front, one of my personal favourites stories, The Magpie of Souls, got picked up by new market Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.  This is the tale of two archetypes, the evil sorcerer and the heroic warrior, coming face to face with each other and their own natures and discovering that perhaps they've turned out to be very different people to what they once intended.  It should be out by the time you read this, and though you'll need to subscribe, doing so will only set you back a modest $12 for this first year.  Meanwhile, another recently appeared market, Liminal Stories, picked up my incredibly odd science fiction story Team Invasion - seriously, this is the oddest thing I've written in years - and Golgotha, an historical horror story of sorts, is set to appear in the upcoming Mysterion anthology.

The bulk of my recent sales and publications, though, belong to Digital Fiction Publishing and its growing number of imprints.  In fact, given that Digital is also the home of The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, it's fair to say that they've now published far more of my short fiction than any other market, and there's more on the way.  Late last year, my The Painted City came out as a solo e-book, and has since been collected as part of the delightfully-named Infinity Cluster anthology - one that for once I've read in a timely fashion, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend.  In the meantime, I've sold a couple more reprint stories to Digital Science Fiction, Dancing in the Winter Rooms and Passive Resistance, while the Digital Fantasy Fiction imprint has picked up my Black Horticulture.

I remember saying the last time I discussed short fiction, back in October of last year, that the strong spell of sales and publications I was having couldn't possibly last; looking back now, I can only feel immensely grateful that it's gone on for at least a little longer.  I can't remember a time when so much work I was really proud of was being picked up and published at such a rate.  Sooner or later it's bound to dry up - who knows, perhaps it already has? - but in the meantime it's been a lot of fun.