Sunday, 30 December 2018

2018: Things Fall Apart

2018 was a rubbish year.  I guess you probably don't need me to tell you that.  I don't know anyone here in the UK who's had a brilliant time of it over the last twelve months.  I mean, wherever you stand on the Brexit debate, in practice it's been a life-sucking, debilitating mess that's dominated the news like a black hole, while every other of the multitude of problems the country's facing has been shoved aside.  Spiraling food bank dependence?  A dysfunctional transport network?  A disintegrating health service?  Horrifying levels of child homelessness and poverty?  Mate, who cares, we're trying to Brexit here!

And yeah, I know this blog is supposed to be about my writing, but my Gran died a few months ago.  It wasn't unexpected; she was very old and no one lives forever.  But she was a tremendously independent woman and I'd always hoped that was the way she'd be able to go out.  Instead, thanks to a misdiagnosis by first paramedics and then hospital staff that led to her being sent home the night she'd had a severe stroke, she died miserable and confused.   And, you know, I don't blame the paramedics or the hospital staff, not really: I blame the cuts that placed them under such impossible pressure, I blame the politicians that imposed those cuts, and to a lesser extent I blame the folks who refuse to listen to these sorts of stories and keep pretending that all's well.  At any rate, her death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have cast a long shadow over the year.

Though, let's face it, the writing side of things has been fairly dreadful too.  I was supposed to have two books released in 2018, and as you might have noticed, that hasn't happened.  Judging by Amazon figures, the one I did get out, The Bad Neighbour, appears not to have done at all well.  Its main misfortune seems to have been being something of a square peg in a round hole as far as Flame Tree's launch line-up went, and so not getting near the readership I'd intended.  Meanwhile, the third Black River book, Eye of the Observer, has run into ... well, I suppose "problems" is the word, though it seems a small one under the circumstances.  The book's finished and I'm really happy with it, but whether there'll be another as was once planned, whether it'll come out in its present form, or when it'll come out at all, are questions for the publisher to determine rather than me, and at time of posting they're yet to do so.  I mean, I'm sure it will be released, and I absolutely promise it won't come out in a form that doesn't do its predecessors justice, but beyond that I can't say.  And months of not knowing whether you'll get to finish the series you've been putting your heart and soul into for three years?  That's not been much fun either.

All of which together means I probably won't be writing full time for the bulk of 2019, or maybe at all in any significant way.  At time of posting, I'm effectively out of contract, with the Brexit cliff edge and all that entails less than three months away.  Frankly, I could really do with an income.  And as much as this is what I want to do and all I've ever wanted to do, I guess I could stand a break.  You can only bash your head against the same wall for so long without wanting a breather.  Likewise, you can only send so many unanswered e-mails and chase so many late payments and watch so many opportunities fall apart due to the indifference of others before you wonder what the hell it is you're doing.  I love writing, but everything that surrounds it has been a horrible slog for rather too long now.

Anyway, sorry to be so bleak!  Let's finish up with some good stuff, eh?  I ran the Swaledale marathon for the first time in two decades, that was pretty cool.  I'm finally getting round to my long-term goal of learning Japanese.  I got the platinum achievement on Bloodborne, which really was quite difficult and life-consuming, but also a ton of fun.  I've seen some truly great movies and more nineties anime than any human being could ever possibly need.  I got short fiction into a couple more of those gorgeous Flame Tree anthologies and sold a story to The Dark, which people apparently liked a lot, something I didn't altogether expect because it was tremendously weird and personal.  And more than anything, 2018 has reminded me that I have some wonderful family and friends.  Though even there, a couple of them I'll be seeing a hell of a lot less of thanks to - you guessed it - Brexit!

So yeah, I'm all out of positivism.  Go away, 2018, and think about what you've done.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Writing Ramble: On Writing What You Know

I've come to think most traditional writing advice is terrible.  This is one of the weirder lessons you learn as you go on: it's largely nonsense spread by liars.  Case in point, that most idiotic adage, which endless authors of countless tiresome, basically autobiographical novels have followed: "Write what you know."

Are you an astronaut?  A ninja?  A rogue brain surgeon who's a secret agent by night?  A super-intelligent orangutan pirate?  Or any combination of the above?  No?  Then don't write what you know.  Most people's lives are boring to other people, which is the precise reason most dinner parties are awful and we had to invent books in the first place.  Even interesting people don't spend the majority of their time doing interesting things interestingly.  The point of fiction is not that we can describe our adventures in doing the washing up and taking the kids to school and that time we got our head stuck in the railings and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.  One of the purposes of fiction is to transcend and so make a modicum of sense of the messy, tangled, nonsensical matter of human existence.

But that's not really my point.  My actual point is, "Write what you know" is dreadful advice, but it doesn't take a lot of tweaking to be make it excellent.  This also took me a while to figure out.  The correct advice, obviously, should be "Use what you know to make stuff up better."  Which is to say, tear your life up mercilessly, since it's your job as a writer is to use every available resource in the service of creating good fiction.  Go at your memories with the sharpest scissors you have, pluck them apart, squash them like plasticine, burn out the ones that don't work with a soldering iron.  Wait, no, maybe not that last bit.  But the rest definitely.

Yet again, it took me rather too long to work this out.  Looking back at some of my earliest work, there are definite absences and vagaries that could have done with a bit of an injection of personal experience.  But I think that's true of most writers, and at least I reckon I'm getting it down now.

Case in point #1: My story The Only Way Out Lies Farther In*, recently published to a surprising (for me anyway) degree of acclaim in top horror market The Dark.  An awful lot of personal experiences went into that one: the maze and country house setting that open it were drawn from a recent holiday, the overriding theme of believing a childhood rupture has left you adrift in a broken reality pulls on a nasty bit of trauma from after my parents' divorce, and there's plenty more in there as well.  But getting it to work as narrative, and a narrative I personally could tell without my brain exploding, meant mashing a lot of elements together from all across my life, then mixing in a good deal of fiction, and most importantly, taking it all out of my own head and stuffing it into that of someone I'd made up.  It sounds simple put like that, and actually it sort of was.  Sometimes things make a certain intuitive sense, even when they don't make much actual sense.

Case in point #2: I've said in various places that my just-out novel The Bad Neighbour contains a lot of autobiographical components, and that's true, but it's also a lot less based directly on my own life than people have occasionally assumed.  There are bits and pieces aplenty, but crucially they're mostly not the bits and pieces anyone would assume.**  There are, I think, only two elements that are drawn unedited from personal experience: one is a catalogue of house-hunting horrors, all of which are described exactly as they happened, and the other is a fairly minor detail that was the genesis for the whole book.  Spiraling out from those ingredients, everything is a mishmash of my experiences and those of friends and those of friends of friends and total fabrication, in no clear order.  It's all grist for the mill, as they say.

I guess I should finish up by admitting that I'm not being entirely serious.  Obviously we'll always need writers who can make the mundane fascinating, who can conjure up the minute and intimate in a way that makes us feel understood.  That's yet another of the amazing things fiction is capable of, and sometimes that means sticking awfully close to personal experience.  But on the whole, for most people writing most kinds of fiction, I do think my version's better: those personal experiences are great material, but they're only a fraction of what's out there for you to draw on.

* Another bit of awesome writing advice no-one ever gives you: making up absurd titles is weirdly therapeutic.

** Interestingly, most of what the one or two more negative reviews found implausible was basically true.  It turns out that people with not a lot of money to spend really do buy houses they know have problems.  Who'd have thought it!

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 43

I suppose it was inevitable that, the more I try to swear off themed posts, the more I end up coming up with ideas for them - and the sillier those themes get.  This time was largely accidental, I swear, as I got three quarters of the way through and realised that everything I'd reviewed had one notable feature in common.

Anyway, there's probably no talking my way out of this one.  So here for your delectation, as demanded by nobody ever, is the Drowning in Nineties Anime Sexploitation Special.  Yes!  We have gratuitous fan service!  We have lecherous detectives!  We have actual hentai!  And more!  All in Agent Aika: Final Battle, City Hunter: The Motion Picture, Rei Rei, and Kite...

Agent Aika: Final Battle, 1998, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

The most damning criticism I have of Agent Aika: Final Battle - which coincidentally may be the most damning criticism I've had of anything ever - is that it makes the first volume, Agent Aika: Naked Missions, seem a good deal better than it was.  And this is frustrating because in a number of significant ways it does precisely what I'd have wanted from a sequel to that most notorious of fan-service-heavy shows: it tones down the panty-flashing and partial nudity, ups the animation quality considerably, and shifts the emphasis marginally more in the direction of narrative and character.

Which would be wonderful, except the narrative isn't very good and the characters feel wrong in small but noticeable ways and the one new addition is appalling, a teenage boy who communicates solely through the soft toy he carries everywhere, though no-one feels the need to comment on the fact, much less wonder where the hell he came from.  And the story, though appealingly meta on the face of things, just flat-out doesn't work: bringing back the army of sexy girl minions from the first volume as antagonists in their own right speaks to a misunderstanding of one of the better jokes from Naked Missions, which was that they were pretty much just doing their jobs and couldn't have cared less about world-threatening plots.  It feels awfully desperate as a sequel hook, and the show never invests in it very deeply, or seems to know what it wants to be.  In fact, it's startling how much of the original setup gets dumped: the setting now basically appears to be the present day, our heroes are salvagers in name only, and most damningly, Aika doesn't even have her sentient liquid metal underwear!  I mean, what's Agent Aika without sentient liquid metal underwear?  When that signature garment reappears in the last of the three episodes, along with most of the cast of the first volume, it seems more like a frantic Hail Mary pass than a legitimate return to form.

If we're being absolutely honest, it turns out that watering down Agent Aika was not the way to go.  In retrospect, its absurdity and crassness were an integral part of what campy charms it had.  There may not be that much competition for the title of best soft porn Moonraker remake but, by damn, Naked Missions certainly earned it.  Final Battle is still silly, but forcedly so, trying to wring laughs from a plot that doesn't earn them and scenarios that bend the characters too far out of shape.  And I find myself forced into the awkward position of realising that, terrible as it was, I kind of enjoyed the first volume and feel a touch sad that this was all the sequel it got.  Clearly I need to go away and meditate under a waterfall or something, or maybe sit through a Studio Ghibli marathon to remind myself of what a noble and dignified medium anime can be.  In the meantime, my ever-so-slight fondness for Agent Aika remains untarnished, and this isn't the Agent Aika I know.

City Hunter: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Kenji Kodama

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that City Hunter: The Motion Picture is in no way "the motion picture" at all, and that this is merely another in a long line of titling con jobs, this one an attempt by ADV to disguise that what they were shilling was another of those TV specials that I've been quite critical of around these parts, one with the actual title of Goodbye My Sweetheart.  And the second important thing you need to know is that you can safely ignore the first thing.  Shockingly, to all intents and purposes, this really might as well be the City Hunter movie, in a manner that sets it totally apart from its shabby predecessors.  This is precisely what I'd have wanted from a film-length entry to the franchise, if we ignore the fact that until now what I wanted was that it would crawl into a hole and die.

Point being: The Motion Picture is a huge step up in every meaningful way from the likes of .357 Magnum.  It certainly looks a damn sight better, with realistic designs that evoke more what a studio of serious intentions like Production I.G. would do with this material than the show's traditional aesthetic, and some genuinely nice character work, both of which combine to make the abstracted drifts into comedy that bit more effective.  The animation, while not quite up to cinema standards, is exceptionally solid, especially during the action-packed finale, where that extra quality really pays dividends.  The music brings plenty of style to the table, adding to the overall sense that this was intended to be a good deal more prestigious than those knocked-out TV movies.  Coming a year after the mediocre Secret Service, the difference is startling, as is the degree to which Kodama upped his directorial game.

But, even more astonishingly, it's the narrative that really impresses.  It struck me while watching that these nineties anime mega-franchises were very much complex machines prone to backfiring at the smallest slip.  Relying as they do on a series of interlocking gimmicks, they really need every part to be just so to function at their best, at least unless they go down the Beautiful Dreamer route and chuck out the rules entirely.  City Hunter: The Motion Picture opts for the first option, deploying its bag of genre tricks with meticulous precision.  Ryo's characteristic lechery is kept in check enough that he never seems like a total jerk; the humour is deployed sparingly and knowingly; the action scenes are staged with attention to detail rather than being lumped in for the sake of it.  And all of that's at the service of a genuinely good thriller plot.  The worst you can say is that it massively rips off Speed, released three years earlier, and yet "Speed but on a train and with the cast of City Hunter" turns out to be no bad thing at all.  In short, this was good enough to turn me around on a show I basically hated.  City Hunter fan or no, it definitely warrants a look, as that rarest of beasts that is the franchise movie per excellence.

Rei Rei, 1993, dir: Yoshiko Yamamoto

So look, I know I said a while back that I definitely wasn't going to start reviewing hentai here.  And I meant it, I did.  But then I saw a release from Kiseki Films, the short-lived and deeply weird and tacky distributor behind some of my very favourite - and also most hated! - releases, and I couldn't resist.  Er, plus it was cheap.  But this is it, I promise!  I probably won't even review the other release on the disk, the imaginatively named Gigolo*, since it looks mind-bogglingly awful.  This here is the beginning and end of this blog's dalliance with anime pornography, there's no doubt about it.

Except that if it's all as good as Rei Rei then ... I dunno, maybe I shouldn't be making promises I'm not willing to keep?  These two episodes were a ton of fun, and made me laugh more than plenty of anime that set out to do merely that.  For that matter, the animation was a good bit better than I was expecting, with a notable lack of shortcuts and some subtle attention to character detail.  And look, I really don't want to get bogged down in this aspect too much, but the sex stuff was perfectly fine too.  No more explicit that the average episode of Game of Thrones, not remotely nasty or exploitative, and commendably varied for what amounts to a handful of scenes over less than an hour: I counted girl on boy, girl on girl, boy on boy, boy on goddess, girl on goddess, boy on weird troll guy, and goddess on tentacle-monster action, in so much as I was counting at all.  Because yes, in a no doubt unfair reinforcement of my prejudices, there were tentacles.  But it's actually a fun scene, and Kaguya certainly didn't seem to be complaining, so I guess we're okay.

And, of right, I haven't even covered the plot!  Kaguya, you see, is the goddess of love, and in order to keep the Moon orbiting the Earth or some nonsense, she interferes in the affairs of unfulfilled mortals with the aid of her assistant Pipi.  In the first episode, she strives to help a teenage boy win the girl of his dreams and extricate her from a relationship with a murderous female doctor - I was dreading the sort of gay panic that's the punchline to way too much nineties anime, but Rei Rei goes in a much different and vastly more entertaining direction.  Part two, in which another nerdy boy is failing to seal the deal with his longterm girlfriend, is equally silly and weird: as with the first one, the premise goes into far odder places than you might expect.  (Put it this way, that's where the tentacles show up.)  Kaguya is a rather wonderful protagonist, clearly interfering in mortal affairs for the fun of it despite her philosophical ramblings about lunar physics and moral responsibility.  Another review I came across refers to her as a less inhibited Urd from Oh! My Goddess, and that's pretty much spot on.  I could cheerfully have watched more of her adventures, I've no regrets about the three pounds I splashed out on them, and if you should happen to see the DVD for approximately the same price, you could certainly do worse.

Kite, 1998, dir: Yasuomi Umetsu

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Kite, a title I'd purposefully skipped over in the past and then forgotten existed and finally decided to check out from the spirit of completeness that's dragging these posts ever closer to the half century mark.  In so much as it's remembered today, it's as the title that featured gross sex scenes with an underage girl (and in the least cut and largely banned version, also an extremely underage girl) or else as the title that was heavily censored for its initial US release.  Dig deeper and the waters get muddier, in that there are those who claim Umetsu was leaned on to include the explicit sex scenes to get funding, meaning that the five minute shorter version is actually more faithful to his original vision.  But even with them excised, there are plenty who'll find Umetsu's tale of a teenage girl forced to mete out vigilante justice by a crooked, pedophile cop and his even viler partner less than savoury.

Those people are quite right: Kite's a nasty piece of work.  Its subject matter is gravely unpleasant, it has no likable characters, or even characters who aren't one shade or another of monster, and that some of them are very evidently man-made monsters makes the whole work that bit more depressing, as does a general mood of cynicism and cruelty that carries through all the way until the bitter end.  Add in some staggeringly gory action scenes, which get much bloody mileage from the notion of time-delayed explosive bullets, and what little sexual content that remains - quite enough, by the way, to convey the necessary narrative points - and the result is forty-five minutes of difficult watching.

I'm tempted to go down the shallowest route and say that what saves Kite, or at least shifts it from being vile misery-porn to legitimate entertainment, is Umetsu's extraordinary sense of style, coupled with smooth, detailed animation that's as near as damn it to feature film quality as you're likely to see in an OVA, not to mention a jazzy score that sounds like it's wandered in from a Jean-Pierre Melville flick.  And there's some truth to that, if you the right sort of viewer: Umetsu's undeniable talents make a piece that could be merely nasty into one that balances its thrills and more low-key elements expertly.  Beyond a generally high level of ingeniousness - the central set piece is a minor masterpiece of action choreography - Umetsu gets excellent mileage from protagonist Sawa's vulnerability, pitting her against men who physically dwarf her and so rely on their size and weight, unable to see her as other than a victim.  Schoolgirl assassins are ten a penny in anime, of course, but Kite is up there with the excellent Gunslinger Girl for capitalizing on that asymmetry and using it to actually say something meaningful.

Indeed, what elevates those action sequences saves the rest of the material too: we're not allowed to forget at any point that Sawa remains a child, both physically and mentally.  As much as she has an adult's world-weary cynicism and as much as she's forced frequently into adult situations of one shade or another, we're allowed glimpses of another aspect: not innocence so much as incompleteness, as though her experiences have left hollows that won't ever be filled.  It's a grim notion, as most of Kite is grim, but it at least avoids the sin that would have made the material unwatchable, which is treating abuse lightly or naively.  At its core, it's a study of that Stockholm Syndrome-esque phenomenon that turns victims into the sort of not-quite-victims that are awfully hard to fit on any kind of straightforward moral spectrum.  With that in mind, it's safe to say that Kite is absolutely not for everyone, even in its cut version.  But those stunning action scenes, the terrific animation, and a degree of complexity that elevates it from being mere exploitation are enough to make me hesitantly recommend it.  At any rate, it's certainly one that's going to stay with me.


Perhaps the most disturbing thing here is that not only did I decide to put together a sexploitation special, I gave nearly everything a glowing review, even Rei Rei, which I think it's safe to assume no-one has ever given a glowing review to before now.  Worse yet, my major complaint about the second volume of Agent Aika was that it wasn't as good as the first volume of Agent Aika, one of the most notoriously disreputable bits of nineties anime there ever has been.

Obviously this blog series is in need of major course correction, I probably could do with a quiet lie down in a darkened room, and I'll have to come up with something appropriately serious and clean-minded for next time.  Maybe that Gundam special I'm working on.  There's no sex in Gundam, right?  Giant robot sex totally doesn't count.

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

* It really, really was.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Short Story News November 2018

I was grumbling back in June about what a dreadful year this was turning out to be for short fiction sales, and as I was planning this post I was concerned the point would be that things really haven't picked up at all.  But what do you know?  Thankfully a last-minute twist has pushed the back end of 2018 from okay to actually pretty good!

And to be honest, even without that, a handful of really brilliant events had already gone a long way toward turning the year around.  If there was nothing else, I'd still be thrilled to have The Only Way Out Lies Farther In in top horror 'zine The Dark, a market I never thought I'd crack until I suddenly somehow did.  This one's a deeply personal story in which nothing is based directly on my life - which is to say that I poured a lot of me in there and every last drop got squeezed out of its original shape, leaving a tale that's at the same time almost entirely autobiographical and totally fictitious.  As such, it's personally one of the most frightening things I've written, which makes it tricky to guess what effect it's likely to have on others.  Fortunately, the one review I've seen suggests that it's quite capable of getting under somebody else's skin as well.

And speaking of recent horror fiction I feel really good about, Casualty of Peace, a ghost story that's actually more a meditation on the psychological traumas of the home front experience in the world wars - fun, right! - has been out for a second time in another of Flame Tree Publishing's utterly gorgeous anthologies, this one titled Lost Souls, which couldn't be more appropriate for that particular tale.  It also came to the notice of Best Horror of the Year anthologist Ellen Datlow, getting me another honourable mention, which was pretty cool in an "Ever the bridesmaid" sort of way.  At any rate, it's brilliant that a lot more people will be reading a piece I'm seriously proud of.

And here I am, still not having mentioned the absolutely best thing, or at any rate the one that's likely to stay with me when I'm old and grey and trying to make some sense of what this whole writing lark was about.  I've been a huge fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series ever since I picked up the first volume, thinking I was doing him a favour for kindly blurbing Giant Thief, and got helplessly hooked to the intricate, outlandish, original world he'd built.  So when Adrian asked if I wanted to play around there, the answer was self-evident.  And funnily enough, the tale I wanted to tell was too: there was a question that had been bugging me - er, pun genuinely not intended! - for a fair old while, and a character whose back story I was desperate to know, and I got to put the two together and craft a tiny chunk of actual Apt lore.  Seriously, there's a minor character in that series that now has a history created entirely by me, and that's about the single awesomest thing that's happened since I began this madness over a decade ago.  If you want to know who and what, or even if you don't, I highly recommend you grab a copy of the fourth and final Tales of the Apt short fiction anthology from NewCon Press, because it also contains sterling work from authors such as Pete Newman, Frances Hardinge, Justina Robson and - writing the best piece in the book, for my money - Keris McDonald.  That story, and the collection itself, are called The Scent of Tears, and you can find it here.

After that, anything's going to seem a bit anticlimactic, but I do have a handful of new sales to report.  Even better, two of them are for new fiction, a prospect that was starting to seem increasingly remote for a while.  They're both older pieces that I've faithfully been trying to home for many a year now, too, which makes it all the more satisfying.  Cat and Mouse, a sci-fi parable based on my experiences in London - though, weirdly, written before I ever actually went to London - will be appearing in the Bubble Off Plumb anthology from Feral Cat Publishers at some not too distant point in the future.  And Glamorous Corpses, a thoroughly mean-spirited bit of cyberpunk that I wrote at work, in a job I despised, about eight years ago, is already out in new UK magazine Write Ahead / The Future Looms.  Then there's the most recent one, which since it happened this week I probably oughtn't to talk about, but I guess I can safely say that it's a pro sale to one of my absolutely favourite markets.

Oh, I nearly forgot!  I accidentally discovered that the The Living Dead anthology - containing my story Stockholm Syndrome - is available in a whole multitude of languages ... I think it's at least Spanish, Korean, and Russian, which is a fairly random selection, all told!  Editor John Joseph Adams was kind enough to chuck me over a copy of the Spanish edition, which looks great and does a commendable job of mistranslating both the city where I got my degree and my actual name.  Which makes me kind of want to learn Spanish to find out what other wacky misunderstandings are in there!  Anyway, that means I've now had work out in a total of at least five languages that aren't English, and isn't that a nice note to end on?