Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney

I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind.  So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.

Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.

The story of Sweeney was new to me.  In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission.  As a result  Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point.  And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.

The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end.  Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time.  It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong.  There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.

I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line.  I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar.  Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-

Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.

And this from the second movement:-

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’

The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive.  I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads.  The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.

David Power’s pipes surprised me.  I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character.  Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply.  Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet.  That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.

The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern.  I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem.  If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.

I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer.  If so, it’s well worth catching up with.  I hope they make a recording.



Follycon Follies

Ah, so the second Follycon has come and gone, thirty years after the first and what a magnificent folly the Majestic Hotel was!  What con-goer would not want to spend the weekend in the company of W. Anderson’s Grand Harrogate Hotel and its idiosyncratic crew?  What’s not to love about a place where the downstairs gents – dark wood panelling, acres of chequerboard tiles, a conference table and a six-seater banquette -exuded more grandeur than a pie, mash and liquor joint; a place begging for LARP campaigns and guerrilla tourism, since half the bedrooms remain out-of-bounds after a mysterious fire, several years ago; a place where every other space aped the throne room at King’s Landing (just don’t get stuck behind a pillar during panels); a place where the lounge bar’s coffee machine had demised and the tea was even more toxic than the insane levels of citra hops in most of the offerings from the real ale bar.  I do hope Eastercon returns to the Majestic soon!

Harrogate is an attractive town, on foot of its Regency/Victorian spa heyday.  Who could forget the sweeping staircases of the Wetherspoons, ensconced in the Winter Gardens, or Betty’s iconic tea rooms – all cast iron and olive brown sandstone.  The excellent Colin Fine guided a walk through the Valley Gardens and Pinewoods on the Friday morning – a welcome opportunity to get some pre-con fresh air and testament to the con’s ambition to offer new and different things.  If I was initially a little taken-aback by the glorified shopping mall that was RHS Harlow Carr; overflow car park no. three heaving with the great and good of God’s own county as we arrived, I did find much to enjoy in the less beaten tracks at the wilder extremities of the site and in the alpine house.  Heck, I even relaxed enough to buy some sweet cicely seeds in the shop.  They’ll tub up nicely – I can almost taste the tempura style fritters already.  Fantastical highlights of the place were the wicker Ferengi gardener and the steampunk bug-hotels.

An area of decline in recent years has been the amount of second-hand books available for sale in the Dealers’ Room.  One can no longer rely on a con for filling a gap or two in one’s collection.  In general, Follycon did nothing to reverse this trend though to be fair, I did snare a few of the original Man from UNCLE tie-ins I was missing.  I had considerably more luck in Harrogate’s excellent Books for All, up on Commercial Street.  Still, at least Follycon had a dealer selling tea – that was a plus.  I should also plug the small and pretty Imagined Things bookshop in the arcade, which hosted SF and Fantasy readings on the Saturday afternoon.  I attended the former and was delighted to meet Christopher Priest for the first time: one of my lifelong literary heroes.  He signed a copy of The Gradual for me.

Another highlight of the con for me was the poetry ‘open mic’ on Sunday lunchtime – I seldom have opportunities to read any of my poetry in public, so I leapt at the opportunity.  I chose The Shrill Carder Bee to read, as it is probably my only poem containing SF imagery.  It seemed to go down well.  And in fact the event was more of a general poetry thing, so I could have brought a few others to read: next time.  This was the only thing I did on the programme this Eastercon: all of the ideas for programme items that I had pitched to the organisers, fell on stony ground.  In general I didn’t mind, if there’s enough new blood coming into our hobby that I’m not needed, then great.  Nevertheless, on seeing how underused the Majestic’s fabulous billiard room was over the four days, it made me a little sad that my offer to run a fiction ‘open mic’ had been passed over.  The space, where passers-by could have dipped in and out as they liked, was tailor made for one.  A similar event I compered for Mancunicon a couple of years back was a runaway success, in far more difficult conditions.

I had high hopes for the Pointless quiz on Saturday evening. Regrettably, Witless, it might better have been called, or Toothpull.  I like the Pointless format on TV but the creators of this panel never satisfactorily solved how to adapt the format to accommodate the live audience participation which they sought.  To be fair, some of the questions were engaging and fun (I particularly enjoyed the ‘fictional religions’ and ‘third books of series’) but the hour could neither overcome the shortcomings of the format devised nor recover from the creaky start, the unconvincing score-keeping and the fact that the man bringing the buckets of saline containing the contestants’ brains, only showed up around half-time.  Still it’s one worth persevering with for the future, if the format can be better adapted to the requirements of a con.

Lastly, am I the only person to wonder if Follycon’s most egregious folly was to allot programme space for TAFF (Trans-atlantic Fan Fund) fundraising?  Our hobby has made great strides in recent years to, for example, provide a safe and welcoming space to people of all genders and sexual orientations, embrace diversity and to be helpful and accommodating to those with disabilities of all kinds.  Why the Hell are we continuing to raise money to subsidise travel to/from a country that seeks to ban the entry of ordinary citizens from several countries on account of their religion?  The least we could do in solidarity, is to freeze all TAFF activities until such time as the US ditches its Fascist policies and returns to being the open democracy we once knew and loved.

Postscript 04/04/2018

A friend of mine has commented to me that there were significant accessibility issues at the hotel.  Indeed, she knew of two attendees who had to leave the con early because of it.  This is not good at all, given how inclusive our hobby strives to be and rather makes me doubt my fulsome affection for the hotel.  If I was oblivious to it all, it was because I was heeding the signage to keep the lifts free for those who needed them and use the stairs; thus I built up no picture in my own head over the weekend as to how accessible (or not) the various zones were.  My friend related the story that accessible access to the Dealers’ Room required a golf-buggy ride right around the hotel’s vast bulk that might take twenty or thirty minutes, if one included the time needed to locate an insured driver from the hotel staff.  Not great at all; though it would be remiss of me not to mention that a programme of renovations/improvements  is underway at the Majestic, so hopefully this wouldn’t happen again.

Science Music

I’m the least musical person I know.  I don’t play an instrument, I can’t read a note of it and when I overhear somewhere that the most scientific form of music is the fugue, I have no idea why.  If I were to investigate further I would discover that fugues are celebrated for their mathematical intricacies, so yes, maths and science – brothers in arms – I can relate to that.  Then the importance of the perfect fifth to Pythagorean tuning rears its ugly head and I’m cast adrift on an open boat once more.

Music plays a significant role in SF&F, as a particular kind of theme music, of course and also as a plot device.  As far as the former is concerned, whenever a tune pops up on Lyric FM we usually know immediately if it’s from an SF&F movie, even if we can’t place which one.  They almost all seem to draw from the same pool of tells that Dmitri Shostakovich first began to tap in the 1950’s  (well apart from Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes (1968) soundtrack, which is a class apart; the absolute acme).

As an example of a plot device, I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Jocelyn’s keyboard recruiting technique in Hubbard’s brilliant To the Stars (aka Return to Tomorrow).  It seems I’m not the only one: Chick Corea created a highly regarded jazz fusion album inspired by the book and with the same title.

Original musical works of science fiction that draw on no other artistic source, are few and far between.  There’s Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World, of course, Stockhausen’s stunning Sirius and one of my personal favourites, The Intergalactic Touring Band.  The latter features such classics as Arthur Brown’s Universal Zoo, Annie Haslam’s Reaching Out (‘…our guidance control lies aloof and dismembered, our ship has forgotten but we have remembered…’) and last but not least, my occasional karaoke staple Space Commando by the incomparable Mister Snips (from where I suspect Dredd’s catchphrase ‘I Am the Law’ was adapted).

But what about science music: music about science?  Composer Michael Nyman wrote an opera based on Oliver Sacks’s neurological treatise The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  As an opera though, it narrates its source material rather than celebrating science for itself.  For me, as creators of science music, one group stand alone, Ireland’s post-hardcore math rockers BATS.  I picked up a copy of their first EP, Cruel Sea Scientist from Bell, Book & Candle in Galway about ten years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.  Their first album, Red in Tooth and Claw had one absolute standout track, Andrew Wiles, penned to celebrate the man who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

BATS last album The Sleep of Reason, is a tremendous thing however; to my mind the best rock album to come out of Ireland ever, bar none.  A veritable tidal wave of astonishing science music; tracks like Stem Cells, Heat Death, The Sleep of Reason and Creatures Collecting.  There’s no weak link.  For anyone who cares about science music, it’s a must listen.


My First BristolCon

I’ve been aware of BristolCon for some years; the word-of-mouth that it’s a small, happy, friendly convention having reached even the Atlantic shores of Munster.  Having been unable to attend Belfast’s TitanCon earlier this year, a slot in my annual con-going roster had opened up and I was able to break my BristolCon duck as a result.  I’m very glad I did.

It’s nominally a one-day event but a BristolCon Fringe open mic the evening before pleasantly extended the con vibe, even if attendees at that were a little sparse because the local Waterstones had arranged a competing event, offering free beer.  Nevertheless, I was able to read the scene from A Coarse and Violent Gesture, in which the King of the Fairies gets an unwelcome visit from the local paramilitary commander.  It’s one of the stories in my Irish Tales collection, due out next year and seemed to go down well.

One of the best things about BristolCon happened well in advance of the event itself.  A great long list of possible panel topics was sent to attendees, who then voted on the ones they wanted to see at the con.  Whoever came up with this, deserves a medal.  It’s become the norm in recent years, for cons to solicit volunteers for panellists on-line, which has too often resulted in platforms being given to the worst kinds of egregious self-publicists, axe-grinders and authoritarian bigots. Who has made it to the end of an EasterCon in recent years, for example, without wanting to slash their own wrists, having been assailed from all directions by three-and-a-half days of relentless, po-faced negativity?  Giving the members this sort of control over the panel topics is a great way to mitigate the worst excesses of this trend and to celebrate instead the very many positive aspects of our hobby.

The things I enjoyed most about my first BristolCon were the following:-

  • Some actual second-hand books in the dealers’ room (yay!);
  • The brick-out room – a throwback to the old ‘fan room’ which used to be a staple of every con but which has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years.  This one had lego and free coffee.  How about adding an MC next year, to orchestrate impromptu stuff?
  • The free book swap table – every con should have one;
  • Making some great new acquaintances.  This is one of the best reasons to move outside of your regular fandom orbits and go to a new place;
  • The wild west panel, which covered loads of ground but still managed to leave a lot uncovered – ample evidence of the richness of the topic – thereby engendering much discussion in the bar later.  I can feel a blog post coming on to recap some of this, plus to air some of the angles the panel didn’t have time to cover.  On thing I was mulling over was whether there was any (near) contemporary wild west writing containing fantasy, horror or SF elements.  The opening yarn in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) came to mind and also some Verne, notably The Mysterious Island (1874), which opens with an American Civil War balloon-hijack prison break and The Golden Volcano (1905), set during the Klondike gold rush.

Did BristolCon live up to its friendly brand image?  Most certainly.  Would I recommend it to anyone else?  Absolutely.  Will I go again?  Definitely; indeed next year.  Apart from anything else it was significantly cheaper for me than attending Octocon, due in no small part to the cost of accommodation in Bristol being around 50% of that for a comparable room in Dublin.

Returning to the wild west theme, here’s a quiz question for you: which SF writer, whom I have previously featured in my blog posts, died from wounds received during the American Civil War?

Liege-killer: 30 Years on, Still the Greatest ever SF Debut?

Liege-killer is the title of Christopher Hinz’s stupendous 1987 SF debut, set amongst the orbital colonies of the inner solar system that house the remains of humanity.  It tells the story of Nick and Gillian, special agents of dubious provenance (a sort of SF equivalent to Vizzini & Fezzik), who are thawed out after two centuries of peace, following the re-emergence of a paratwa (a binary gestalt killer); a grave existential threat to civilisation as we know it.

As atrocity piles on atrocity, Nick and Gillian pursue the cohe-wand (as iconic as any lightsabre) wielding paratwa, the eponymous Reemul, across the colonies.  It develops into one of the great SF rollercoaster rides.

I would unreservedly call Liege-killer the greatest SF debut novel of all time.  My reasoning here is that it stands stratospherically higher than anything else that Hinz ever produced.  Its two sequels; Ash Ock and The Paratwa are poor (more on that anon) and his only other work, the stand-alone Anachronisms, is instantly forgettable (or at least, I’ve read it and I don’t remember a thing about it).

So what makes Liege-killer so mind-bogglingly good?  First of all, it has all the basic ingredients in place; fabulous worldbuilding, a pair of compelling leads and a villain to die for. The existential threat of Reemul; a potential catalyst for regression into the debilitating wars that preceded a fragile two-hundred year peace, is beautifully wrought.  On top of this, Hinz manages to get into the heads of the one mind, two bodies monster and really works out how this sort of binary killer could optimise its assets, giving the set-piece killing sprees a ferocious verisimilitude.

The master stroke of the story, however is the Promethean nature of Reemul.  This is a monster that mankind has visited upon itself and it is this which gives the tale its real punch and resonance.

So what happened to the promise, and to Hinz?  I can only speculate.  I imagine him crafting his first novel for years in some freezing garret, getting it pitch perfect and wowing the first commissioning editor that saw it into drooling submission.  Perhaps a three book deal followed and Hinz faltered, the delays ultimately trying his paymasters’ patience.  Ash Ock was the result – half a novel that ends nowhere, like as not, rushed out to meet a contractual deadline.  It’s a mess.  While this book and The Paratwa do conclude the story after a fashion, Hinz threw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding that it was aliens all along, totally undermining the power of the first book.

I imagine that after Anachronisms, Hinz decided that writing SF novels wasn’t for him and gave up, though he did do some comics work including Helix’s Gemini Blood series in the 1990’s.  There’s a happy coda to the story.  In 2013 the graphic-novel version of Liege-killer, called Binary, was released, penned again by Hinz and drawn by Jon Proctor.  If nothing else it shows that you can’t stop the cream rising to the top.  What the world really needs, though, is a Liege-killer movie.  I hope we get one soon but with one caveat, if it does well and becomes a franchise, get someone to write some fresh stories for the sequels and leave Hinz’s other two books in the dustbin.  Everyone should experience Liege-killer – just resist the temptation to touch the rest.

Postscript, 21/10/2017

It seems that Hinz returned to SF novels in 2012 with the well received Spartan X and also wrote a new paratwa novel in 2016, Binary Storm.  It’s the prequel to Liege-Killer, set in the 21st century and presumably dealing with the events that culminated in Nick and Gillian being frozen.  Someone should update his Wikipedia page, which says none of this 🙂

And I for one will be delighted if he’s exorcised the novel writing demons after an hiatus of twenty years or so and is coming back big time.  If he can re-discover his Liege-killer mojo on a regular basis there could be great things to look forward to.


The Replicant in the Room: a Few Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is marvellous to look at, does fantastic work in the scenes imagining people’s struggle to survive amidst the environmental wreckage of our planet but is ultimately undone by a totally ludicrous plot.

Everything that’s wrong with this movie is encapsulated in the opening act.  Blade Runner K shows up to retire Sapper, an old Nexus-8 replicant, doing his best to keep his head down as a protein farmer.  In 2049 the Earth’s a basket case – no wildlife, no trees, freak weather, vast industrial graveyards, a ten-day blackout that destroyed most records and data, sky-high radiation pockets – and this guy’s doing sterling work as an upstanding citizen, feeding people and he gets retired?  Yeah right.

The film never recovers because it’s quite impossible to make any suspension of disbelief concerning the plot that’s supposed to be driving it.  Yes, one can believe that thirty years before, Deckard would have had to go into hiding to escape being hunted down but the notion that the need for Blade Runners endured across the next thirty years of environmental and technological reverses just doesn’t hold water.

In 2049, despite a feeble and futile attempt to drum up an ‘old replicant coming rebellion’ subplot, the old replicants clearly represent no kind of existential threat (why? See thirty years of environmental and technological reverses that have brought our planet to its knees).  The main old replicants that we meet are either retired in the more usual sense; Deckard, or else are good people; Sapper and the Pris-a-like hooker.

Even the discovery that two old replicants had a child doesn’t alter this dynamic.  In fact, the film undermines the motivations of Wallace, the new Tyrell, and his henchwoman Luv by having this discovery arise from the actions of a Blade Runner.  Their quest for this holy grail would have been more credible if they had learnt of the existence of this child from elsewhere – a pre-blackout data fragment from Tyrell for example.  Indeed this could have better driven the whole movie without there being any need for a Blade Runner at all.

There are other things I could gripe about; the ease with which Luv penetrates the inner sanctums of LAPD HQ at will, for example and the colossal misstep of Wallace trying to turn Deckard with the offer of a new Rachel.

I enjoyed the movie and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone else but everything I got out of it was in spite of the plot.  I’ll watch anything with Ryan Gosling and he’s great in this – especially the scene where he unwinds a little with his boss (played by Robin Wright).  The visualisation of what our planet is probably actually going to be like in the real 2049, or thereabouts, is phenomenal.  The long scene where K goes to the orphanage and the Mad Max like scene where K’s spinner is brought down in a wasteland, were probably my two favourites in the whole film because they focussed more on this aspect than the plot.  Oh and the music’s great.

There are shout outs to the original Blade Runner all the way through – the sort of reverse Voight-Kampff test that K has to periodically undergo – the clamouring neon ads (but Peugeot, really?!?!) – and, most originally, the opening overflight of the solar farms aping the one over the petroleum flares.  Overall 3.5 stars.


On Scientific Fiction

When Hugo Gernsback was first casting around for a pithy term for the new genre fiction he was featuring  in his pulps, he opted for the portmanteau ‘Scientifiction.’  It didn’t catch on and, rather reluctantly, he tried again, this time with ‘Science Fiction.’

The earliest of his magazines, with titles like Electrical Experimenter (founded 1913), featured both stories and science journalism.  By the time Amazing Stories – his first magazine solely dedicated to SF – arrived, in 1926, the genre had already settled down into the standard form for the Golden Age – stories set in the future, often on distant planets featuring extraterrestrials, speculating, more or less wildly, on how the technologies of the time might one day have advanced.

Tales which particularly closely adhered to the known laws of physics, became known as ‘Hard’ SF.  This sub-genre is exemplified by Hal Clement’s classic short Dust Rag (1956), in which a lunar explorer out on EVA, has to figure out how to clear away the statically-charged moon dust covering his visor, or die.  The story is both satisfyingly scientific and, by virtue of its future lunar setting, classic SF.

Which is all a roundabout way of broaching the question; is all scientific fiction, Science Fiction, or does there arrive a point where the science component of the story is so rooted in the known and the present that it becomes something different?

I recently read Those Who Seek, Daniil Granin’s 1954 novel about the lives and loves of staff at a Soviet electrical power transmission research institute.  It’s a thrilling and absorbing tale, in part because of the window it opens onto how (relatively) ordinary people lived their lives under the Soviet system, in part because of what the book has to say about that system itself (and it’s not in any way a propaganda piece) and in part because of the gorgeous translation by Robert Dalglish (mine is the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, edition), which brings the story alive and makes you care about the characters.

The overarching story focusses on new laboratory head, the aloof and unworldly Lobanov.  At work, he battles conflicting resource demands, Party politics and bureaucratic inertia, to try and get support for the development of his baby – an improved ‘locator’ for finding breaks in transmission lines.  Off duty, the reader follows the course of his unsatisfactory affair with the enigmatic Rita.

There are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in science and technology.  The heartbreaking one where engineer-turned-housewife Liza first attends, the flees her class reunion after suffering the disdainful disappointment of her former professor.  The joyous epiphany via which the fading Chief Engineer, Dmitri Alexeyevich first grasps and then decides to back Lobanov’s project.  And of course you want to slap Lobanov around the head a few times, when he rebuffs force-of-nature Nina’s interest in him at the annual Komsomol outing.

And there are some fabulous throwaway references, notably to the finest poetry on scientific themes being that written by the great Lomonosov.  Granin, the author, would doubtless have been very familiar with his works.  Now I despair of ever finding any in English translation, well apart from this one.

Is Those Who Seek SF?  My heart says yes, my head says no, even given the MacGuffin of Lobanov’s ‘locator.’  I have another Granin in my ‘to read’ pile: Into The Storm about weather forecasting/control – let’s see how that turns out!

In western SF, the works of William Gibson are an interesting case.  Since his debut Neuromancer (1984) and its off-planet denouément – undeniably SF, he’s slowly been creeping back towards the present and reining-in the tech to the point where Spook Country (2007) is almost better labelled a techno-thriller.  Maybe that’s one way we reclassify fiction dealing with the known science of the present.

In Irish writing, John Banville’s biographical trilogy of works on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (Doctor Copernicus (1976) (which I read this year), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982)) is sometimes loosely referred to as science fiction.  The three books are, of course, first and foremost historical fiction about scientists but Banville infuses them with enough reflection on the nature of the cosmos, that treating  them as forward-looking speculative fiction is not unreasonable.

Scientific fiction is a without question a topic that grows in the telling.  I can see myself returning to it again in the not too distant future.

A Shout-out for George Antheil

Reading, earlier this evening, a piece on the upcoming Hedy Lamarr mini-series focussing on the invention of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, I was struck by the author’s use of the phrase ‘Lamarr and a friend invented…’

Evidently, this “friend” could only be the eminent avant-garde composer, George Antheil, co-holder of US Patent No. 2,292,387 (filed June 10th, 1941).  Yet the author of the piece had decided to bleach him out of the picture.  It’s just one more example of the growing practice of downplaying the male side of equal collaborations between men and women, in the interests of a good story.  No doubt some wag out there has already coined a term for this.  Femsplaining anyone?  X-punging?

Clearly any narrative where the so-called ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ demonstrates the intellect to succeed in military engineering, thereby overturning any number of the prejudices of her time, is compelling.  However, that Lamarr’s and Antheil’s work was a collaboration of equals, is beyond doubt.  It’s clear in Richard Rhodes’s 2011 book; it’s equally clear in Elyse Singer’s 2008 play – the last time that this episode in their lives was dramatised.

The pair of them were two loners trapped in the Hollywood system; she as an actress, he as a composer.  This drew them into friendship.  For their work, carried out in the context of a torpedo guidance system for the US Navy that would be immune to jamming, in anticipation of the US war effort, Antheil brought his machine synchronisation expertise to the table, Lamarr the weapons system knowledge acquired during her first marriage to an Austrian arms dealer.

What is particularly sad about the bleaching out of Antheil, is that in the 1920’s he had been as eminent in his field as Lamarr was in hers come the 1940’s – it’s not even as if he were some insignificant boffin.  The height of Antheil’s notoriety came at the US premier, in 1927, of his Ballet Mécanique, at the Carnegie Hall.  Contemporary reports allude to fist fights and riots.  The Carnegie’s own timeline entry for April 10th 1927 records:-

Composer George Antheil, the self-styled “bad boy of music,” presents the US premiere of his Ballet mécanique on April 10.  Conducted by Eugène Goossens, the performance featured xylophones, electric bells, anvils, airplane propellers, sirens, assorted percussion instruments, player pianos, and regular pianos, including one played by a 26-year-old Aaron Copland.  According to The New York Times, some members of the audience cheered, some hissed, and “one beleaguered man” even tied a white handkerchief to his cane, “hoisted it over his head and waved it from side to side in a token of surrender.”

Moreover, it was the synchronisation engineering challenges which Antheil had addressed during the realisation of this piece, that gave him the grounding needed for the later frequency hopping work with Lamarr.  Of course some of Antheil’s solutions for Ballet Mécanique had been crude and cumbersome and it was only in 1999, thanks to modern technology, that a revival of the work was for the first time performed exactly as the composer intended.

Lamarr and Antheil jointly received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.  By then, Antheil had been dead for almost forty years.  Lamarr was still around and was able to quite justifiably remark ‘it’s about time.’  It would be nice to imagine that Lamarr’s longevity is the principal reason why hers is the first name to be associated with the work today; certainly I’d be surprised if one in a thousand who are aware of what she achieved, could name her co-author.  Unfortunately I doubt it; I suspect that poor George just keeps getting X-punged in the interests of a good narrative.

Coda: The More You Dig (added 03/Oct/2017)

I’d made a short foray into Antheil’s music two or three years ago, finding nice recordings of the Ballet Mécanique and some of his avant garde piano music from the same period.  Revisiting him since penning the above, it’s pretty clear that my remarks regarding his stature in the musical world are an underestimation.  During his time in Hollywood, he wrote over thirty film scores and by the mid-1940’s, he was a symphonist of considerable repute, lauded in classical music circles as ‘The American Shostokovitch.’

I found also a few snippets of interest to SF&F fans.  In 1955, Antheil wrote the score for John Parker’s landmark horror fantasy movie Dementia, which anticipated the tone and style of David Lynch’s work by several decades.  It’s widely regarded as one of Antheil’s best scores, in significant part due to the eerie, wordless vocals performed by Marni Nixon.  In 1958, a recording of one of Antheil’s late works Two Odes of John Keats (1950) was made, a year before he died, with the composer himself on piano and Vincent Price as the narrator.

Animal Stories

I’ve been asked several times in recent months, why I never seem to pen anything about my own writing.  I suppose my reticence stems from being largely unpublished; what is the point, if nobody ‘out there’ is going to be in a position to read anything that I refer to, should they like the sound of it?

My Irish Tales ought to have been out later this summer.  Unfortunately, the editor I hired to help me, took my money, then promptly decamped to China and vanished, leaving work unfinished (I know, I know – I was stupid enough to pay upfront – what did I expect?) – so it’s going to be delayed until spring 2018.  Nevertheless, I’ve decided to stick to my original plan and say a little bit about the book now.  Keeping the momentum building for nine months or so is going to be interesting.

Surprisingly, Irish Tales will feature several examples of something I never thought I’d ever write – the story written from the animal’s (anthropomorphic) viewpoint.  Of course I’d read and enjoyed Jack London’s White Fang as a kid but, with the exception of William Kotzwinkle’s stunning Doctor Rat, I’d never sought out similar books as an adult.

The seeds of change were sown when I came to read Francis Stuart’s Pigeon Irish, as background for one of my Irish speculative fiction blogs.  I was surprised that this tale of an alternate Ireland allied with the US and UK, in a war against an unnamed, superior European foe (it was written in 1932), included a sub plot featuring three carrier pigeons: Conquistador, Daphnis and Buttercup.

Stuart never really seemed to know what to do with his birds; they start strong but fizzle out, the longer the book goes on; certainly, the definitive anthropomorphic carrier pigeon novel remains to be written.  However, when commemorations for 1916 started to loom large, I decided to write a short hommage to Stuart, positing ‘what if’ the Rising had occurred in this alternate Ireland, sixteen years before the events of Pigeon Irish.  The resulting short story, Castles in the Air, was told from the viewpoint of two pigeons observing the events around the Dublin GPO.  I submitted it to several publications doing special 1916 issues, for their consideration; I think it’s fair to say that none of them ‘got it.’  But I had broken my anthropomorphic duck.

Next up was my short story Lemon Cakes, in which a Jack Russell dog, Smut, falls foul of some broic sidhe (fairy badgers).  The titular cakes feature in how he manages to extricate himself from the fix.  Smut, incidentally, was the name of the first pet dog I ever owned, many moons ago, also a Jack Russell as it happens.  They say, write what you know!  Recently, I was delighted to discover that the name of Allan Quatermain’s pet dog was also Smut.  The reference can be found in H. Rider Haggard’s She and Allan.

Lemon Cakes spawned a longer and more ambitious sequel, The Limping Mink, told largely through the viewpoint of a mink Lochincha and concerning the adventures of he and his two brothers, Sangwiss and Kolokok in rural Ireland and in particular the horrors of being caught in a gin.  Smut and the broic sidhe also reappear in the tale. As mink are an invasive species from North America, I gave the three brothers a native American belief system, centred on Inktomi the spider-man, trickster god of the Lakota Sioux.  Mink feature prominently in several Lakota folktales.

So Castles in the Air, Lemon Cakes and The Limping Mink will all appear in Irish Tales when it comes out.  And having travelled this far, I can now see myself writing many more animal stories in the future!

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

As soon as I heard that this new exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (running June 3rd – Sept 1st 2017) was being curated by Patrick Gyger, it became a ‘must attend’ for me. I’d met Patrick a few times during his decade-long tenure at the Maison d’Ailleurs, while I was still active in the space industry and every time been bowled over by his knowledge.  He provided me with useful and welcome advice while I was putting together the space strand of the Earthwake science in television forum, held in Strasbourg in 2007.

The first thing you notice about the main exhibition is the extraordinarily broad range of things it brings together – ample testament to Gyger’s pull.  There’s a strong emphasis on material on paper (books, pulp covers, collectors’ cards, Soviet-era publications, film & TV concept art), again consistent with what I know of Gyger’s interests and priorities.  Display cases show off key books on each of SF’s main themes.  As a book nut, this was a joy to me; I had my pencil and paper out, noting down titles that were new to me (eg; Alexander Beliaev’s The Amphibian, Plutonia by Vladimir Obruchev) and I started to play a game – two points for a book on my shelves at home, five for the exact same edition (I scored 201).  It was nice to see that the Barbican shop had made an effort to stock the titles on display, even if most of the lesser-known ones were absent.  However I did pick up a copy of Ayn Rand’s dazzling Anthem, and read it on the flight home.

As already mentioned, the breadth of exhibits was impressive.  Ray Harryhausen was very well represented with extensive concept art from a several movies (my favourite was the unrealised man-eating plant from The Mysterious Island) and a clutch of latex dinosaurs including Gwangi himself.  I saw the actual H.R. Giger Harkonnen capo chair created for Jodorowsky’s Dune.  There were several gorgeous, painstakingly accurate models of vehicles out of Jules Verne (I think lent by the Éspace Jules Verne of the Maison D’Ailleurs) including the Nautilus, the Albatros and the Lunar train.  There was the original Spindrift, which took me back to Saturday mornings as a kid and the submarine from Fantastic Voyage.  I could go on.

Modern movies were well represented.  There were props from Interstellar, Moon, Alien, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, various Godzilla’s, Star Wars, to name a few and, my favourite of all, the quite beautiful Horus and Anubis masks from Stargate.  To accompany the props, there were clips showing at various points ranging from iconic SF moments (Rover’s first appearance in The Prisoner), through early, historically important films (some fascinating Soviet stuff here), to quirky curios like the Turkish Star Wars (think space-suited actors in the foreground with a bootleg Star Wars space battle backdrop, the aspect ratio tweaked to make it look original – the rugby-ball-shaped Death Star is a hoot).

I had a number of gripes with the exhibition.  First off, the narrow, crescent shaped, high-ceilinged exhibition space being used was a disaster, for several reasons.  Some of the major movie props on view were too high-up to be easily studied and there were several points in the walk-through, where display cases were blocked by other attendees standing to watch film clips projected onto an adjacent wall.  I was there at a quiet time too; this issue would have been far worse had it been full.

Attendees were encouraged to take their own photos but the display of items was not photo-friendly, due to reflections and glare.  More attention could have been given to this aspect.  The catalogue (yes I bought one – £35.00) was both impressive and disappointing.  What it covered was great but it was very much slanted towards books, magazines and paintings.  There was sparse attention given to the movie and TV props on show in the exhibition.  I don’t know if this was due to a copyright conflict or what but the practical consequence of all this was that I had stopped taking photos, assuming the objects would be featured in the catalogue only to discover afterwards that they were not.  This annoyed me greatly – I would strongly recommend that anyone attending, intending to buy a catalogue does so (and looks through it) before walking around the exhibition.  That way you can ensure that you can photograph the things not featured in it, if you want a record of them.

There were a few satellite exhibits elsewhere in the Barbican.  I don’t think I located them all; the signposting was not great and in addition, part of the building was cordoned off for a ‘private event,’ which meant detours.  Standout of the rest was the half-hour movie In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind.  This was a none-too-subtle allegory on the Palestinian conflict, with a glorious central premise.  It came across to me as a Terry Pratchett-like idea, reflected through the philosophical prism of a Stanislaw Lem (think a female Ijon Tichy, dodging wackers in the world of Strata).