A Review of Planetfall

I first became aware of Emma Newman at the Olympus convention a few years back; I was attending a panel she was on and she seemed to be talking more sense than all the rest up there with her put together; made me sit up and take notice and I’ve ‘followed’ her since.

A highlight so far was last year’s Octocon, where I got to sit in on a live Tea and Jeopardy and where she was interviewed and talked a lot about her upcoming Planetfall.  Now there’s a thing about me and new authors – considering starting on someone new, I’m like a hobo deciding where to invest his last nickel.  I’m picky, I know what I like and it takes a lot of time, a lot of critical mass for me to take the plunge.  Anyhow, Planetfall was that plunge moment for me.

I often read books concurrently and at the time Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise was the bedtime doorwedge and slim, compact Planetfall became the travelling volume.  Both have a major character called Mack – which caused me no end of confusion. Don’t think I’ve ever had that happen to me before.

Anyhow, to Planetfall.  It’s an effortless read, beautifully written.  Some writers’ prose you just fly through (I always finish Christopher Priest’s books in two or three days) and this was right there with them.

The basic premise of the book is 2001 with plants instead of monoliths, leading to an expedition to colonise another world.  A succession of bad things happen in the early days of the colony; some colonists are lost and abandoned, presumed dead during the initial planetfall, then the leader of the expedition vanishes.  Cover ups for both of these events occur and then the colony gets on with the business of existing, next door to a strange organic ‘city.’

It’s a slow burner of a book that kicks into overdrive for the last quarter as the colony is simultaneously visited with a savage retribution and narrator Ren gets her transcendent David Bowman moment.  Ren is a brilliantly drawn character – part of the colony management and their 3D printing guru – she has an OCD that requires her to hoard stuff; the ultimate sin in a place where everything is 3D printed and waste needs to be assiduously recycled to feed the printers.  Emma Newman’s greatest coup in the book is to find the perfect McGuffin to fit; just what is lurking beneath the tons of hoarded junk that stuffs Ren’s home to the gills?

Planetfall has flaws, chief of which is that the other characters never really get to come out of Ren’s shadow.  One never really comprehends, for example, how Suh-mi was so charismatic as to attract people to follow her and to back and man the expedition in the first place.  Then the chief antagonist in the book, the returned wanderer Sung-soo, apart from being mind-bogglingly, relentlessly irritating, is such a clear existential threat to the colony that you really wonder why the previously ruthless Mack hasn’t printed a gun and shot him dead by chapter 20.  Is Mack trying to atone for past deeds or has he just gone soft; it’s never really clear.

The size of the colony is never really clear either; the events at the end of the book made it seem much larger than it had been, to me in my head up until that point.  It’s rather sketchily drawn too – I wondered about the apparent absence of young children to the point where I thought it might have plot importance; similarly there appears to be no functioning police force in a place that definitely needed one.

Planetfall is very much worth reading despite these flaws.  Ren is one of the great modern characters of SF and probably counts as one of the best OCD studies in all fiction, done with honesty and not a little humour.  The exploration of the scope and scale of 3D printing in this sort of expedition is bang up to date and right on the button.  The last quarter of the book, with the themes of retribution and transcendence really works too.

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Jimgrim – the Palestine Years

Talbot Mundy (1879 – 1940) has long been one of my favourite writers and I suppose at this stage I must have read well over half his works.  What I’ve just finished, several years after starting, is the first part of his Jimgrim cycle, set in post-WWI Palestine and comprising the following stories:-

  • The Adventure at El-Kerak
  • Under the Dome of the Rock
  • The ‘Iblis’ at Ludd
  • The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil
  • The Lion of Petra
  • The Woman Ayisha
  • The Lost Trooper
  • The King in Check

The first two were later revised and collected as Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace, the second two were collected as Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd, while the last is also known by the title The Affair in Araby.  All were serialised in the pulps in 1921-22 and reprinted in book form in the early 1930’s.

All told, they form a single narrative of some 1200 pages, in which Jimgrim and his crew (American adventurer Jeff Ramsden (the story’s narrator), Sikh policeman Narayan Singh and later ANZAC trooper Jeremy Ross) foil various plots by third parties (Zionists, the French etc.) to destabilise the region by pitting Arab against Jew or Arab contra Arab, with the backdrop of the slow reveal of Jimgrim’s overarching plan of trying to lay the groundwork for Feisul to become the king of a single Arab state encompassing Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The story concludes with Jimgrim and his crew captured following the French assault (mustard gas and all) on Feisul in Damascus. They get packed off on boat out of Beirut and fetch up in Egypt where, while recuperating, they are made a proposition by multi-millionaire Meldrum Strange, as a result of which they quit the armed forces and become a sort of 1920’s A-Team.

The last part occurs at the beginning of the next volume, Jimgrim and a Secret Society, the first book of the second half of the cycle, that sees the gang battle ever more fantastical foes all across Egypt, India, Tibet and last but not least, in supervillain Dorje’s secret hideout in the Gobi Desert.

But that’s a story for another day.  Let’s return to Palestine and ask, just who is Jimgrim?  James Schuyler Grim is an American secret-service agent in the employ of the British armed forces in Palestine as a fixer.  Just how this arrangement came about is unclear but Mundy claims to have met the real ‘Jimgrim,’ on whom he based the character during his own time in Palestine, editing the English language Jerusalem News, as president of the Anglo-American Society of America.  Some modern blurb writers have characterised Jimgrim as a mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and The Shadow.

Jimgrim is unquestionably one of the principal pulp-heroes of the 1920’s and it seems extraordinary that the character has never been the subject of any movies or TV series. Of course the Palestine setting of the early works may be deemed a little sensitive, especially given Mundy’s pro-Arab position but the historic background in the books seems impressively accurate, especially in setting out the duplicity towards Feisul on the part of the British and the French, following his support versus the Turks in WWI.

Mundy actually met Feisul during his time in Palestine and secured his permission to use him as a character in The King in Check.  The Jimgrim Palestine stories were widely read when first published and undoubtedly served to educate the reading public on the situation there.  More than that, there is still much for a modern reader to gain from them, in terms of understanding the root causes of what we still see unfolding in the Middle East today.

 

Follycon Redux

One of the nicest things to come out of Mancunicon was the news that Follycon has been revived, thirty years after the original and will be the 2018 Eastercon in Harrogate.

The first Follycon was held in 1988 at the Britannia Adelphi hotel in Liverpool, a relic of empire, much given to trumpeting that its fine ballroom was modelled on the one on the Titanic.

It was a particularly memorable event for me as I was fortunate enough to be one of the team of four (along with Suzanna Raymond, Bill Longley and Darren Newbury) tasked with shooting the con video.  I don’t recall how I got onto this cushy number; maybe it was something to do with the fact that I had, for a few years by then, been a tech assistant to Andy Morris, doing the 16mm projection, which was still a large and important part of con programming at the time.

Anyhow, with Suzanna on camera (brilliant!), me directing and the other two forming a game for anything props/special effects department, we came up with the theme of the con being visited by a small, impressionable alien named H.G. Tripod, played with upright poise by, well by our camera tripod actually.  We filmed establishing shots such as H.G. arriving at the train station, and in various fan situations, such as returning to his (her?) room drunk, canoodling with a fellow fan (played with great aplomb by Linda-Clare Toal) and parading in the masquerade (as a Martian war machine, thanks to a wee mag-lite torch and some gaffer tape).  The last caused quite a stir, as a humourless git involved in running the masquerade felt that H.G.’s entry lacked the required gravitas and initially refused it.  I believe the con committee had to intervene to get this reversed.

Still this paled into insignificance besides the spectacle of an eminent conflict-zone reporter of the time, going nuclear in reception because the hotel had no room available.  I put on my best war reporters’ safari jacket and raced with the team to reception in order to buttonhole her for an exclusive interview but alas we were just too late.

I did do some other things at the first Follycon.  Participation in an excellent writers’ workshop, hosted by Ian Watson, persuaded me to put away my pens for a very long time.  I think I also gave a talk on something, though I’m no longer 100% sure – I still have the Follycon Souvenir book but not the programme book.  It seems as though cons back then used to programme a lot more one person items than they do now.  I’ve always loved holding an audience in the palm of my hand for an hour all by myself but now if you get to do anything at all at a con, it’s almost invariably as part of a panel.  And these days you have to volunteer.  Back then, you never had to volunteer for anything – you’d just get asked.

On the Sunday evening of that Follycon the team did an all-nighter, crash editing the final cut of the video and adding titles, using two tape machines and it received a triumphant reception when shown on the Monday.  The precious tapes were later given over to Darren for safe keeping and I still have the title cards.  I don’t believe the tape ever surfaced for repeat viewing at any future Eastercon but I’ve missed a fair few between then and now so I could be wrong.  Wouldn’t it be great though, if someone reading this (Darren where are you?) joined up the dots and rediscovered those tapes in time for Follycon 2018!

Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: James Stephens (1880 (or 82) – 1950)

The heart of James Stephens’ speculative fiction lies in five works, written over a dozen years, during the most turbulent period of Ireland’s history.

Two distinct strands run through them: Irish mythology and folklore in Irish Fairy Tales (1920),  Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924) and the interactions of gods and men in The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914).

Stephens, a colossus in his heyday, is almost forgotten today outside of our airports, where The Crock of Gold lurks, waiting to be snapped up by those kinds of tourist who cherish video-footage of their spouses taken at the leprechaun crossing around the back of Torc Mountain.

This encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of The Crock of Gold, came to be seen, a la Darby O’Gill, as an insult to a would-be modern, forward-looking independent state.

In reality of course, The Crock of Gold is nothing of the sort; it represents a truly magnificent attempt to write the ultimate fantasy tale of the passing of the old order to the new; of the magic going away.  Ultimately it fails, just as the faerie instauration fails, because even today people still cannot see beyond the leprechauns.  But it is an heroic failure of the highest order.

The Demi-Gods revisits this territory; the eponymous threesome descending to Earth to visit a tinker and his daughter[1].

On the Irish mythology and folklore side, Stephens was a considerable scholar and it is his total command of his subject that sets works like Deirdre and In the Land of Youth a country mile apart from all the other volumes of “retellings” that every republican mover and shaker around that time felt it necessary to have on his or her CV.  Well that and the fact that he was a very fine writer indeed.  Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise):-

They stopped perforce, with that feeling of tremendous discouragement wherein passion sinks back upon itself, where desire ceases and nothing is instant but weariness.  His hand yet held her, but it gripped no longer: it lay on her arm a dead weight: she had only to move an inch and it would fall away: she had but to turn and he would not follow her even with his eyes; but the energy which had drained from him flooded into her in one whirling stream, and when his hand fell away hers took up the duty it relinquished.

To my mind, it’s the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time.

As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other staunch republican Protestants, Stephens was marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath.   It is no wonder that in questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens threw in the towel and decamped to England in 1925.  After a decade-long struggle to earn a living lecturing he later compounded his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy[2]’.

Postscript: Bitches Have Nothing To Do With It, Mr. Gaiman

Before finishing with Stephens, its worth commenting on a parallel with a current fantasy controversy.

When James Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake he made a deal with Stephens (Joyce had just read Deirdre and was hugely impressed by it) to complete it for him, if he (Joyce) should die before finishing it.  I don’t believe Joyce was thinking about his readers: all he cared about was safeguarding his literary legacy.  Of course the readers get a finished book out of it but that’s nothing to do with the reason why Joyce made the arrangement with Stephens in the first place.

Fast forward ninety years or so to George R.R. Martin; the ‘American Tolkien,’ one of Time‘s top 100 persons a couple of years back and the man more than any other who put the gritty realism and grey ambiguity into fantasy.  It’s an entirely legitimate question, therefore, to ask one of such stature what he is doing to plan for the completion of A Song of Ice and Fire if he should die first, thereby safeguarding his literary legacy.

The fact that we can’t ask this question to him, is because it is now inextricably linked with the issue of reader gratification, thanks to an ill-thought-out intervention by respected commentator Neil Gaiman.

The question is nothing to do with bitches, Mr. Gaiman; Martin should be planning for this for the same reason Joyce did and no other – to safeguard his literary legacy.  That the fans get their fix too is nothing more than happenstance.

[1] It achieved notoriety more obliquely, being one of the subject panels of Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window, one of Ireland’s greatest works of art, in any medium and of any era, which was notoriously disowned by the State and now resides in a private collection in Florida.

[2] The late Terry Wogan spoke of receiving the same vilification almost thirty years later.

Time for Some E.R. Eddison

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that in a time of big screen Tolkien and Narnia adaptations and quality fantasy all over our TVs, the third corner of England’s big ‘between-the-wars’ trinity should remain so unexplored.

One can understand why E.R. Eddison’s books have had a limited readership over the years; some readers find his faux-archaic prose difficult, others fall asleep within seconds of Doctor Vandermast opening his mouth to deliver another philosophical treatise, still more have a job getting their head around characters that seem to morph into each other.  Well, it seems to me that these are all reasons for adapting his stories for the screen rather than the opposite.  Coupled of course with the fact that they’re amongst the finest fantasies ever written.

The opening of The Worm Ouroboros is famously lame.  A narrator dreams his way to Venus and is quickly forgotten.  Thereafter it is fantasy gold,  describing a glorious war between the witches and the demons, with an ending to die for, all delivered in flawless cod-Elizabethan; a device which after the first fifty or sixty pages, you’d think you’d been reading your whole life.  Don’t believe me?  Try it!

If Worm is Eddison’s masterpiece, then the later Zimiamvian trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) is the most heroic of failures.  A book is hardly the best medium with which to pull off what Eddison is attempting but he almost manages it; maybe if he had lived to complete the third volume, he would have done so.  The plot is simple enough – an early twentieth century English industrialist escapes the tragedy of his own life to live out a second life as an adventurer in a fantasy world that intersects with ours.

The masterful trick that Eddison pulls off is that he makes Lessingham (same name as the narrator of Worm but maybe not the same guy; Zimiamvia is mentioned in Worm as being visible in the distance from the high mountains of Impland but those two links are as far as the connection with the trilogy goes), the hero we’re clearly to root for, into the brilliant, incorruptible and courageous right hand man of one of the principal villains.  For Lessingham to triumph, the good guys have to lose and Eddison finds a classic bittersweet way of resolving this.

What makes the trilogy complicated is that the principal heroes and heroines are archetypes who can become inhabited by the gods.  Thus when Lessingham  notices the similarities between Mary and Fiorinda, he is seeing the common characteristics of the goddess who inhabits them both.  When he sees himself through Barganax’s eyes he is seeing what the god, who can inhabit both of them, is seeing.  It’s a difficult philosophical trick to pull off through the written word – it aches to be filmed.

The Zimiamvian trilogy has a wonderful ready made tag-line – Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey – that alone ought to be enough to get it made.  The Three Kingdoms of Zimiamvia pre-date the seven of Westeros by fifty years as the original low-magic, high political intrigue fantasy world.  Boy-king Derxis of Akkama makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Peter Pan and the Vicar of Rerek could out-Tywin Tywin with one hand tied behind his back.  As for Vandermast, just think Pycelle on acid, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nubile lycanthropes in vintage underwear.

Eddison relates the Zimiamvia story backwards, so a good ploy might be to tell it in straightforward chronological order instead.   And of course any adaptation would have a lot of work to do fleshing out the big parts of the third book that only exist as Eddison’s outlines.  And as for those difficult characters who blur identities with each other from time to time – well just ask David Lynch to direct.  Problem solved.

A Few Thoughts on Gaelcon 2015

It’s a few years since I’ve been to Gaelcon, as the dates have either clashed with work assignments in the Balkans or else chess tournaments closer to home.  This year I decided to eschew the Limerick Open however (recent ICU micro-political infighting has made me thoroughly sick of the Irish chess scene) and I headed up to Ballsbridge for a long weekend of RPGs and boardgames.

The boardgames part was a bit disappointing.  Neither of the two I really really wanted to check out in detail were available from the Gaelcon library.  They do have the A Game of Thrones  boardgame apparently but it was unavailable as it was at someone’s house.  They didn’t have Lagoon: Land of Druids at all.  The genuinely-trying-to-be-helpful suggestion I was given, that one of the dealers might have them for sale rather misses the point; since what is access to a boardgames library, if not an opportunity to try before you buy.

Fortunately the RPGs more than made up for it.  I played in four; the Gilgamesh RPG, Dragon Age, Victoriana (Blood and Iron) and Supernatural.  The standard of GMing in all of them was good, the scenarios were satisfying and for the most part the groups of players thrown together gelled sufficiently to put the need to maintain a reasonably functioning party ahead of the personal quirks of their player characters, a certain bomb-making anarchist excepted.

I particularly enjoyed the Supernatural scenario involving skunk apes protecting a ruined Maroon camp in the Great Dismal.  The playing arc did one of those sudden flipflops half way through and from us all faffing around getting nowhere, everything suddenly clicked and in a trice the party were homing in on the crux of the story like a perfectly oiled machine.  Magic.

Like almost all RPG’s at cons, the game mechanics of the ones I played in tended to be pared down to the bare minimum.  You have to do this when you are bound to get players who are novices at a particular system.  I do wonder why a universal, low mechanics high storytelling scheme has still not supplanted all the number and stat heavy systems out there.  The Gilgamesh RPG was notable in this respect.  Since it has evolved from a LARP, the dice (or in this case cards) crunching really was kept to an absolute minimum but it conceded nothing in cohesion to the other three I played in  Also, there is really quite a good set of background material available online for it here.

I definitely want to use a Gilgamesh RPG type approach – free form story with minimal mechanics – for my Green Redoubt RPG which hopefully I’ll be launching at Gaelcon 2016.

Of course, there are a couple of grumbles I should mention. The first concerns timekeeping.  Three of the four RPG’s I was in started about half an hour late and two of these then over-ran a whole hour past the scheduled finish time.  Of course it can be difficult to avoid over-running but I really don’t understand why the starting was so chaotic.  The worst thing though was the level of ambient noise in the RPG rooms.  Typically you had three different RPGs running in the same not terribly large meeting room, each consisting of a GM and six players.  It was frequently difficult to hear what your GM and/or other players in your own group were saying because of the noise coming from the rest of the room.  This detracted from one’s overall enjoyment and really needs to be addressed.

Les Rois Maudits

I first encountered Maurice Druon’s ‘Accursed Kings’ series by accident, as is often the case with good things.  There I was browsing idly when up popped a copy of The Iron King (book one of the series), with a banner recommendation by no less than George R.R. Martin, calling it the ‘original Game of Thrones.’

As a dyed-in-the-wool Thronie, my curiosity went into overdrive and naturally I bought it.  A couple of years later I’ve finally navigated my way through all seven books.

With my own fantasy writing heavily grounded in an alternative Europe, for which I still have to research a lot of real history, I’ve long been of the conclusion that a good historical novel is a difficult thing to pull off.  There’s the research of course but also the issue that because the facts are (largely) known, one has to buy into the journey, which implies that the writing has to be especially good.

That wasn’t an issue for me with The Accursed Kings, since I knew nothing of the demise of the french Capet dynasty after the Templars have put a curse upon King Philip the Fair.  The plots alone make worthy novels and the writing, even in translation is very good.

The first four books of the series are particularly fine since they follow swiftly, one upon the other, and really make one long tale.  For whatever reason Druon then chooses to gloss over the five year’s of Philippe the Long’s reign, picking up the history again with the accession of Charles IV and the estrangement between Queen Isabella (his sister) and Edward II of England.  I found the fifth book, The She Wolf, a drag compared to the others, not only because of this gap but perhaps because it is largely either set in, or to do with England and therefore has a lot of new characters to get to know.

In real history of course, people do age and die inconveniently but Druon does manage to find unifying threads to run through most or all of the series, notably the relationship between the nobles and the Lombard bankers personified by the kind yet cunning Tolomei, the unfettered ambitions of the egregious Charles of Valois and last but not least the terrible feud over the possession of the county of Artois running between the larger than life Robert of Artois (who I always see in my head as Gerard Depardieu when reading) and his disgraceful aunt Mahaut.

The books do get bogged down in history from time to time, not least because in real life names of characters do not have to differ from each other so conveniently.  Thus in book six, The Lily and the Lion, one has to try and keep track of Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Lame’), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Widow’), Jeanne of Burgundy (wife of the Duke of Burgundy), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Evreux, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, Jeanne of Valois (Countess of Hainaut) and her brother Jean of Hainaut and Jeanne of Valois-Courtenay (Countess of Beaumont).  Ouch!

Within the series there are many memorable characters.  I most enjoyed the arc of Louis X ‘The Hutin’ going from petulant fool to competent ruler following his happy marriage to the beautiful and devout Clemence of Hungary.  The portrayals of Edward III of England and Cardinal Dueze (later to become Pope John XXII) were also exceptionally well done.

It has apparently been long widely known that George R.R. Martin cites Druon’s series as an inspiration for his own A Song of Ice and Fire series, though I hadn’t known this until I picked up The Iron King.  Martin even furnishes an introduction for the new editions of Druon’s books (The Iron King was written in the mid 1950’s) in which he outlines the general similarities between the two series (lust, intrigue, violent death and so forth).  It’s impossible to read both series without picking up on specific things too.  Of course I’m not saying Martin deliberately lifted them (after all Joffrey Baratheon is an almost perfect carbon copy of Derxis of Akkama but Martin has never cited E.R. Eddison as an inspiration) but they were no doubt lodged in his subconscious.

It’s maybe fun to mention a few that stand out.  Foremost is the device of swapping a royal baby with a common one to save the life of the former, which Martin calls out himself in his introduction.  Others include (i) the small circular prison cell of Edward II which has a deep dry well shaft in the middle which he fears to fall down to his death if he sleeps, which recalls the sky cells of the Eyrie in ASOIAF, (ii) Queen Isabella relating how Edward II would bring his lover Hugh the Younger to her bed to arouse him so that he could then perform with her, which recalls the Margaery, Renly, Loras proposition in ASOIAF and (iii) the references to the red keep of Kenilworth castle, foreshadowing Martin’s Red Keep.

Overall there is more than enough in the Accursed Kings series to satisfy a hardened fantasy fan.  Given the time it is set in there is plenty of room for the unexplained and the supernatural.  The Templar’s curse that sets it all off is a key example but there are enough other mystical visions, spells, potions, poisoned candles and acts of Satanism to maintain interest.  The standout fantastical character running through the series is the gorgeous femme fatale Beatrice d’Hirson, Mahaut’s Devil-worshipping consigliera.

A Date from Hell

On the face of it, the International Literature Festival (ILF) Dublin’s Date With An Agent event, run by Writing.ie and The Inkwell Group, sounds like a good idea.  You pay a modest entry fee, send off 1500 words and a synopsis of your novel and the lucky winners then pay another fifty quid to attend a a whole day event on getting published with a ten minute ‘one-to-one’ with one of the agents attending thrown in.

I won a spot, along with 64 other lucky souls, but there were immediate alarm bells.  The ‘date’ I had been set up with, specialised in children’s and women’s literary fiction.  Mine was an urban fantasy novel for the adult market.  I queried this with the organisers, who assured me that my date ‘got’ fantasy and could potentially build a relationship with me or else, with luck (the organiser’s words) refer me on if my novel wasn’t for her.

Mollified, I paid my money and went along.  The morning panel of the five attending agents was really excellent and I got a lot of good advice.  The submission basics talk after that was boring, as I knew most of it but I can understand that it needed to be delivered for newcomers, so no issues there.  There were more alarm bells though in how the actual date was now being described – merely as a chance for the participants to get feedback from a real agent (gosh!).  This was definitely a watered down version of what I had understood up to that point based on the blurb for the event and the content of the emails I had received.

Anyhow, the moment of my date arrived.  I presented my lovingly crafted 90-second multimedia pitch and then had a chat with her.  The sum total of the discussion:-

1.  Given my background, she was sure that I understood the demands and publishing requirements of the adult fantasy genre far better than she did;

2.  She had no interest in adult fantasy and nobody else at her agency did either;

3.  A couple of my sentences were too long.

Based on this outcome, I’m now forced to conclude that a big aim of the format is just to ensure there are plenty of attendees at the event on the day.  If you have 60-odd writers and just five agents, it’s unlikely that there can be a fit for everyone. However to be fair to the organisers, at least one person at the event who I talked to, was asked to forward the rest of their manuscript to the agent they met, so that was a great match and a big success for them.  So what’s the truth of it?  I think basically the event is uneven – not everyone gets to play on a level field.  I could have written the best fantasy novel ever and the agent I was fixed up with would neither have asked me to send more of it to her nor have had any ideas for who else I could contact.  The organisers basically matched me with a date from Hell.

What I would say to anyone planning to entertain this event in the future is that if you win, do check the biography of your date (as I did) but if you don’t think you would ever make a submission to that person, don’t waste your time querying the match with the organisers (as I did, to be soothed with empty platitudes), just don’t bother signing up to attend on the day and move on to the next opportunity.

In Praise of Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights was Lionel Davidson’s last novel, a work of speculative fiction that, thanks to its uncommon setting and his choice of the thriller milieu through which to tell the tale, has much in common with many a classic Bond movie.

At its heart, it’s the tale of a conspiracy between three academics who bond whilst pissing up against a wall, at the fag end of a boozy Oxford conference.

Years later, the Russian member of the trio, Rogachev, who in the intervening years has accepted a one-way ticket to an ultra-secret institute in northeast Siberia as a means of coping with his wife’s untimely death, turns whistleblower and sends a series of coded messages to the second, tweedy Oxford don Lazenby aka ‘Goldilocks,’ exhorting him to persuade the third, Jean-Baptiste Porteur aka Johnny Porter or ‘Raven’ – an ethnography polymath of the native Canadian Gitksan tribe – to clandestinely infiltrate this same institute in order to reveal a great discovery to the world.

Other than a violent bosun whom Porter encounters early on whilst disguised as a Korean seaman, Kolymsky Heights is a tale without bad guys.  The adversary is really just a hangover of the Soviet system that dictates that secret work done in secret institutes shall remain secret because it’s, well, secret.  This being the case it’s to Lionel Davidson’s utmost credit that he still manages to craft such a mesmerising page turner.

Part of the reason for this rests with the utterly compelling central character of academic-turned-agent Johnny Porter, very probably the greatest spy creation in all of thriller fiction.  Part of the reason is the marvellously drawn characters of the two Siberian women Porter crosses paths with; blowsy shopgirl Lydia and Medical Officer Komarova.  The rest of it is down to the mind-boggling amount of research Davidson must have had to do to bring what for most of us is such an alien corner of the globe, replete with Evenks and Chuckchees, bobiks and kamas, so vividly to life.

Having used Siberia as a setting for some of my own fantasy stories, I can attest to the effort involved even today, when we have the Internet.  It must have been a thousand times more difficult when Davidson was embarked upon the writing of this, thirty or so years ago (when Kolymsky Heights was first published in 1994 it was Davidson’s first novel in sixteen years.  A Lionel Davidson tribute website, maintained by his son, says the book was completely rewritten three times).

The plot’s MacGuffin is brilliantly established in a gloriously cinematic[1] prologue but if the book has one slightly underwhelming aspect it is the rather ho-hum secret that somewhat cumbersomely evolves from the initial discovery. This, however is a very minor gripe amongst all that is masterfully wrought, as outlined above.  And the tale has a killer romantic payoff too!

[1] On which topic, I believe there was once mooted a film version, with Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Edward Norton as the three academics but it appears to have fallen through.

The Name of the Wind: When Formula Trumps Story

Ah, the holiday season, time to get stuck into that doorwedge you’ve been meaning to, for years like.  I had very high expectations of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, an extravagantly praised debut fantasy novel of some seven or eight years ago, that won awards.  A few days on and I’m a third of the way through and desperately disappointed.

Like anyone, I enjoy a good story but it would be remiss of me not to confess my ulterior motive – as the author of a similarly-sized debut fantasy and currently engaged on the Sisyphean task of finding a publisher, I was eager to dissect an example of what had worked; something that had got through all the hoops, to see what I could learn from it.

The first quickly becomes obvious; Rothfuss writes seemingly effortless, lovely prose.  On a technical level The Name of the Wind is a joy to read.  My own prose, by no means bad, is going to take a lot of years to reach that level – this alone makes the book awe-inspiring.  The plot is (so far – I’ve only read a third mind) utterly formulaic. To someone who has been reading a lot of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abecrombie this was somewhat of a disappointment – one becomes habituated towards looking for the twist that turns the norm on its head.  Nevertheless, formula done really well is a rare thing, to be cherished when you find it and for the first hundred pages or so, Rothfuss nails it.  Then it all falls apart.

After Kvothe’s family is murdered he ends up a beggar on the streets of Tarbean, where it takes him an age to learn the ropes of begging and how to cut purses, whilst he lives rough, loses treasured possessions and gets beaten up a lot.  This is supposedly the same, mega-bright Kvothe who has, over the preceding narrative picked up all manner of difficult skills in minutes or hours that should take mere mortals days or weeks.  Really though, this is just not the same character at all.  This nonsense goes on for fifty pages or more, by which time my sense of credibility has been buried up to its neck in the desert, doused with honey and sprinkled with army ants.  Rothfuss then starts to give us some half-hearted and totally unconvincing guff about Kvothe being traumatised by the murders and not of his normal mind.  Too little, too late mate.  I’m sorry but for me the story has already gone forever.  At this point it’s touch and go whether I’ll even finish it and I try to always complete a book, on principle.

Once upon a time that would have been that but my own baby steps down the writing path have maybe given me a bit of insight on what went wrong that I would never have had before.  It seems to me that in The Name of the Wind formula has been allowed to trump story.  What I mean by that is that formula tells us that our orphaned, would-be avenger is going to have to hit rock bottom before he starts to claw his way up again.  The story, as written up to that point, on the other hand, tells us that twelve year old Kvothe already has the resources to never ever hit rock bottom, no matter what situation he has been thrust into.  Rothfuss fatally warps the story so as to stick to the formula and loses me in the process.

For me the greatest thrill of writing, on my short path to date, has been those moments where the story dictates something different to your original idea.  Little details accrete unnoticed until they reach a critical mass, at which point your character must deviate from your grand plan in order to remain true to the story that has emerged, quite unbidden and outside of one’s (conscious) design.  As a systems analyst I might call these the emergent properties of the story. Other writers talk of their characters developing a life of their own.  Whatever you call them, I live for these moments.  In The Name of the Wind, for me at least, this would have required Kvothe to quickly make a go of thriving in Tarbean.  What was the editor thinking?  Beguiled by the breathtaking prose in all probability.

After formula has trumped the story like this other little things start to unravel too.  The random and mostly insipid place names, which one might otherwise have forgiven, start to grate.  You irrationally begin to wonder why Rothfuss called his spider monsters scraelings, which is what the Vinland vikings called native americans.  I could go on.  But like I said, it’s gone for me at the moment.  Should I stick or twist?