Sunday, 13 August 2017

Overheard at Griffith Observatory

At regular intervals at Griffith Observatory, in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, curators fire up the Tesla coil, that spark-emitting metal orb in a huge cage that featured in La La Land.  For a better film reference, think a cackling James Whale-era Frankenstein, Igor having just thrown the switch.

I was lucky enough to witness the 3.50pm showing a few days ago.  At the sight of hundreds of thousands of volts arcing a voice next to me said to his companion, "Is that real?"

I appreciate that this was more knee-jerk expression of awe than literal question, but it immediately got me thinking.  If he wasn't expressing some concern about his own ability to tell reality from fantasy, what could he mean?

You see, whilst there are many things that a Tesla coil can allude to - lightening in a bottle, the battles of the Norse gods, the formation of the stars themselves - there isn't really anything else that can suggest a Tesla coil itself.  It's its own special effect.  You can't fake it.  It's not like putting antelope horns on a hare to get a taxidermy jackalope.  Or getting an actor to play dead or play a zombie.  The easiest way to suggest a Tesla coil is, um, a Tesla coil.

Is it real?  The stranger answer would be 'no'.

So, if there's one thing more impressive than a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather, it's something that can imitate a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather.

Friday, 4 August 2017

I have seen the future and it looks like Wrexham Bus Station

Remember when your mother used to pull you across the road because somebody had a thousand yard stare and was talking to themselves?  If you grew up when the world was orange and brown, with endless summers, candy cigarettes, and ubiquitous casual racism, you'll know that talking to yourself could only mean 'nutter'.

Now it just means you're on the phone.  The world moves on, technology changes.

But we're only using one sense here.  What will the world look like, as it inevitably will, when we introduce corneal implant screens, or suchlike?

Well, the good burghers of Wrexham have given us a glimpse into what the future will look like when our sense of sight is distracted by the vastness of the digital universe rather than what we're about to bump into.

Image result for wrexham drug zombie photo

This guy?  Maybe free-fall parachuting or doing a really tough sudoko.

Image result for wrexham drug zombie photo

I think these two may be running a FTSE250 company as we watch.  I fancy the one in the planter to be head of audit.  What do you think?

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Red Email Day

Doesn't sound half as good as 'red letter day', does it?  And I thought the world was subject to the doctrine of marginal gains...  oh, hold on, it's Tour de France time again, I must be getting confused.

Buses.  There's another cliche.  All coming along at once.  Try this for size:

Yesterday - and I've kept my powder dry on this one, because I know how fickle you all are, and if I told you before you could lay your sticky mitts on it you'd just go back to YouTube or something - NewCon Press released their Best of British Science Fiction 2016 anthology.

And whose name do you see leading the pack?  Yes, mine.  Not Peter F Hamilton or Ian Whates, mine.  (Okay, so it's an exhaustive webpage list in alphabetical order, and I'm relegated on the cover to the 'and more...' category, but still...)  It's my story Shooting the Messenger, which orginally appeared in Geminid Press' Night Lights anthology.

I know you want to rush out and buy it.  Well, don't bother.  Stay in and click here instead.  Much quicker.

Buses.  Where do the buses come in?  Well, yesterday also, just before the postman handed me my copy of the NewCon anthology (as an item of mail, not in some bizarre prize-giving ceremony) I received an email form Joni Labaqui at the Writers of the Future Contest, and that afternoon, a call from her, to tell me I'm a finalist, shortlisted, last eight out of thousands.

The enormity of this is still sinking in.  I'm not sure the gravity of the first has fully registered.

Maybe nothing'll come of it; maybe I'll find myself in LA dressed as a penguin because of it, who knows?  But days like yesterday balance out the hundreds that bring rejection emails.

The moral?  Keep banging your head against the wall, because you never know how close to breaking out of the madhouse you are.  And, who knows, there may not be void and vacuum on the other side...

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I reject rejection

According to the Submissions Grinder, the score for 2017 at half-time is science fiction editors 97, me 2, with another twenty or so submissions still out there.  So please understand me when I say that rejection doesn't bother me, I just roll with the punches and find another market.

But, occasionally, my replicant goat is got.

We're not supposed to have favourites, I know.  But I do.  My favourite is a story I wrote possibly six years ago, called 'Faivish the Imbecile', which has been rejected some two dozen times so far.  It's set in a Jewish tailoring family in early 1970s New York City from the perspective of a teenage daughter, sewing suits by day, finishing bondage gear by night.  As a 40-plus atheist male with no needlecraft skills brought up in the penumbra between suburbia and the English countryside you may suspect this doesn't fall under the heading of 'write what you know'.

But there's something about the story that, for me, works.  And I've written enough bilge that doesn't to tell the difference.  At one point I wanted to evoke the 1950s and cited both The Blob with Steve McQueen and hula-hoops.  Only later did I find out that they hit the public consciousness virtually the same week.  Little things like that just make you feel like you've nailed it.

It also has one of my favourite lines, a put-down of a smug brother: "It's not like he invented the hat."  Maybe you need to read it in context, but I like it.

What makes it science fiction is that, in this world, Frankenstein existed, and Frankenstein's monsters are real, proto-domestic robots rather than brain-eating zombies.  The titular Faivish is one such creation, and the story is how the family learn from him, and he learns from them.  Hubris is avoided and the world is put right.

Now, I appreciate that there are no laser blasters defending the outer worlds of the Sadarog Empire against multi-dimensional beings.  It's not that kind of sci-fi.  Hence it's proved a difficult fit for many publications, witness its nomadic wandering in search of an editor who really wants a sci-if tale of 1970s New York Jewish tailors and their reanimated assistants, even if they don't know it.

But, as far as I'm concerned, it is sci-if.  I've blogged before about how science fiction is a broad church.  And whilst I find a lot of it, frankly, unreadable, I'll defend their right to nestle under that umbrella term.

To quote Analog's submissions guidelines: "We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley's Frankenstein without the science and you'll see what I mean. No story!"

They even use Frankenstein as an example.  In my case, remove Faivish and there's no story.  

So, when I see this rejection from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores: "Thanks for submitting your story, but it does not contain any significant science fiction element - that element could be removed and the story would be essentially unaffected.  So, unfortunately, we will not be commenting.  Please submit stories to the correct genre" I almost fall off my chair.

Not the wrong kind of science fiction.  Or simply not good enough.  I could live with that, frequently have.  (The problem with being a broad church is that you're rarely sure whether you've sat in the right pew.  Yes, I know the theory is to familiarise yourself with the publication, but editors also don't want you to repeat what they've just published.  Square that circle, amigo.)  No, it's not even science fiction at all.

Well, if it's not sci-if... what the hell is it?

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meditations on editorial correspondence (again)

Something unusual.  A posting with potential for a character arc and a moral.

You see, last time I posted a blog entry with this title, I said that what mattered to me was "independent verification by somebody who doesn't know me through anything other than my writing that [my story is] worth putting in print".


But an exchange back in the spring with an editor has made me question whether that's enough.


The editor in question is Ty Drago of Allegory.  Don't know the man at all, but from his goodreads.com reviews, he appears to produce a decent line in genre fiction himself.  It all started with this:


Robert -


Congratulations!


Your story, [title deleted as it's still up for grabs] has been accepted for publication in Volume 31 of ALLEGORY, due to hit the web on May 8, 2017.


Here's how it works:  In the next week or so I will send you out a contract, which will outline all of the details of our publication agreement, including compensation.  Please read it carefully, sign it, and then send it back to me.  I will also need you to please email me a brief biography.  The content may be anything you like. Optionally, you may send an author's photo to include with your bio.


Again, congratulations - and thank you!  This is a great story and I am proud to publish it.


- Ty Drago

- Publisher
- ALLEGORY



Which is nice.  I don't get enough of those sort of emails.  And it would make my third sale of the year.  Target met.

It was then that I thought I'd get a better handle on Allegory.  Now, at this point, you could legitimately argue that the time for due diligence is prior to submission.  And I did do what I consider reasonable from a writer's point of view: check their legitimacy on the watercooler, and so forth.  


But I guess what I didn't do (and don't do, and don't feel a great need to do, ever) was any due diligence from a reader's perspective.  And what I found was... well, read on:

Ty,


Many thanks for this, and my apologies for not responding sooner.

I have no issue with the terms of the contract, but since receiving it I have been trying, without success, to get a handle on Allegory's online presence.  Google 'Allegory ezine' (or similar) and I find, your own website apart, a number of calls for submissions, but little else.  I see nothing from readers and no reviews, anywhere - which, given you're on volume 30 (or is it 57?), I find bizarre.  I see your website cites 19,000 hits a month, but how many copies of the ezine do you sell?  You have a personal presence on Goodreads (and your own books are well received), but Allegory can't be found there.  Odd.

In short, I'm not sure how anybody who doesn't already know about Allegory would even stumble across it accidentally.  Given that I've moved on from simply seeking publishing credits and the warm glow brought by knowing that the pint in my hand can be attributed to the publication of a particular story, and view short story publications as a means of ultimately getting readers to my longer works, I'm not convinced Allegory would achieve that for me.  Grateful if you would correct my assumptions about the breadth of Allegory's readership if I'm way off the mark.

Regards,

Robert


Is it just me?   Or do you find it odd as well?  An editor who is himself on goodreads.com, but hasn't made sure his longstanding publication is there?  Am I being paranoid?  This was Ty's understandably knarled reaction:

Robert -

This is a first, but okay.


Allegory was founded in 1998 as free online venue for SF, Fantasy, & Horror.  Since then, we've published hundreds of stories from all around the world.  We are not a business and never have been.  We don't sell copies.  Access to the site is completely free and every member of our staff, including myself as publisher, works strictly as a volunteer.


According to our visitor stats, we received close to 400,000 hits last year.  That's pretty typical.  Obviously traffic spikes in May and November, when new issues appear.


At nearly twenty years old, we've outlasted most online e-zines and, while we're not a major market like Asimov, Analog, or Space and Time, we've earned our chops.


Now a question for you: Why are you asking all this now?  You submitted a short story, which then went through our rather rigorous review vetting process, and are now occupying one of only twelve slots in the coming issue, having beat out more than 500 other writers.  If you have no faith in Allegory, why did you even bother?

Ty



I'm trying to be diplomatic here, but I'm left wondering how many of those 400,000 hits were by prospective writers rather than readers, given the only starting points to get to Allegory seem to be the Grinder, Duotrope and the like.  I probably account for a dozen or more hits - more if you count individual page views - and if everybody who submits (by implication 1000 a year) goes on to the site does the same, and then you have all the writers who decide Allegory isn't the right market for them, or mentally bookmark it for later.

And, all the time, Ty just has to say 'here's a link to a review of the last issue '....


Ty,

Thanks.


Similarly, it's the first time that I've found myself asking the question.  It's not an issue of 'no faith', more one of seeking reassurance that you have a readership.  It may be a product of having a name which doesn't lend itself to googling (other uses of  'allegory' flooding the results), but, as I said, the only hits I found for your Allegory, other than your own website, were aimed at writers rather than readers.  Which made me stop and think.  Perhaps if you could point me in the direction of a couple of online reviews  of the November 2016 issue?  I'd be happy to sign the contract with that assurance.  Indeed, it was because of your longevity that I was surprised not to find anything posted by readers; I'm sure that you as a volunteer editor, as much as me as a writer, want to know that Allegory is being read and enjoyed.


Robert


I don't think that's too Et tu Brute, stabby-in-the-back, is it?  But it brings forth this fairly quick response:

I have to tell you, I've had enough of this.  After twenty years I don't have anything to prove.  I'm a published novelist myself, and so I understand your interest in managing your brand, but I find the idea of you challenging the legitimacy of my publication insulting.

Let's forget the whole thing.



Which I was happy to do, with correspondence ending there.

A confusing tale, but, having straddled the divide between the creative and non-creative industries, illustrative of an attitude that isn't that rare.  And I am only posting this to illustrate; Ty is free to run his publication as he sees fit.  And, if it ever makes it onto goodreads.com or similar, I hope it garners good reviews.

The moral?  Well, here's two.  On a personal basis, I've learnt that just getting a sale, just getting a credit, is no longer enough.  The publication has to be creditworthy in its own way.  And, secondly, and we all know this anyway, there's an awful lot out there on the web that's written but not necessarily read.

I should know; I see the stats for this blog.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Like a picnic in the park prepared by supermodels

I appreciate that this is some 45 years late, but I would like to review Andrei Tarkovsky's cinematic adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.

Would like to, but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser.  It took me two evenings to get through it, and even then I fell asleep.  I jolted awake and found Kris Kelvin wandering around in his underwear.  I don't remember him undressing.  How much did I miss?  And did it explain the lingering close ups of a Bruegel landscape?  Or any of the other overlong and pointless scenes, almost too many to count?  Like the tedious elongated motorway scene, confusingly through a Japanese city?  I can only assume the editor was trussed up in the boot.

I suppose a starting point would be to regard this as Soyuz to, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey's Saturn 5.  America got a man to the moon and back.  Russia didn't.  America produced a film worth re-watching.  Russia didn't.  I don't want to make anything of the limited special effects, reflective of technology and budget then available.  But the vision, regardless of how it's realised?  Wood panelled libraries filled with books?  Big comfy swivel chairs?  Candelabra?  If there's one thing we all know about space it's that there ain't much space in space.  And, remember, this was made when the world was already familiar with what life in a spacecraft looked like.

My copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn't seem to have a problem with such issues, and credits it as a "sci-if masterpiece".  IMDB gives it 8.1/10.  They make it sound like a picnic in the park with supermodels.  A picnic prepared by supermodels, maybe: not much, spread too thin.  But this is what they say:

"A brilliant experience of duration and big ideas combined with ascetic production values, Solaris is an argument against the ambivalence of lived reality in favour of fantasy's all-inclusive satisfaction.  Through Kris's journey from indifferent outsider to being literally the centre of a world created just for him, we see the unmaking of a rational mind by sheer desire.  As such, Tarkovsky's film uses the widescreen frame and lengthy takes to organise truly beautiful imagery.  In this fashion, Solaris externalises interior states to embody the mood of its protagonist."

Even with a first degree in philosophy and a masters in philosophy and psychology, I'm not sure what this all adds up to.  Other than Emperor's new clothes.

You see, film is good for seeing and hearing things, but not good for emotions - I recall Clive Hopkins, who taught a screenwriting workshop I attended almost a quarter of a century ago, hammer home the point that a screenplay should have what you see and what you hear and nothing else.  When you get into the world of sights and sounds that supposedly signify emotions I think you need emotional gullibility as much emotional intelligence to buy completely in.  A film can't take you inside the head like a book can, despite claims otherwise.  You're always outside looking in.  It's the difference between being on an acid trip and being in the same room as someone on an acid trip.

But whenever you hold your hand up and say that you just don't get such semiotics, or Rothko or Miro or fauvism, or practically any poetry that doesn't scan or rhyme, you inevitably run the risk of being branded a philistine.  Poor you, brain so limited that it thinks post-structuralism is what holds fences up.  It's the peer pressure that stops you pointing and shouting 'arse' when all around you are declaring it art.

But this is arse.  It's clearly arse.  The book may be brilliant - it's been filmed three times, and the Soderbergh version is a taut 98 minutes - but the film is arse.

Didn't Goebbles argue that if you make the lie big enough then it will be believed?  It's the same with art.  Art or arse?  In the medium distance we can all spot buttocks wobbling.  But Leviathan arse?  So big we can't avoid having our faces pressed up close?  That chocolate starfish begins to resemble some exotic plant, all leathery leaves, folds and ridges.  Anal hairs get mistaken for antannae, listening for signs of alien life against the cosmic background radiation.  Blemishes can be mistaken for beauty.

But it's still arse.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Et in Cascadia ego

I think I may have missed a trick in my writing career (by the way, am I the only one for whom the word 'career', in whatever context, summons up images of cars crashing through Armco, exploding at the bottom of ravines?).

You see, I've always used my real name on my work.  I haven't really had a strategy on the subject, neither hiding behind a nom de plume or choosing a different byline for each genre I write in, nor shouting my name over and over and over on social media until it becomes ingrained in our psyche like Starbucks or the Zika virus.  It's not a sexy name, but it is solid, and - in today's world importantly - unusual enough to be searchable without being unnecessarily outrĂ© or bizarre.  (I wonder if the other Robert Bagnalls Google me?  I do them.)

What I didn't bargain on was it being unpronounceable.

One of my happy, go-to memories, alongside the time a colleague mangled the alternative spellings 'disc' and 'disk' and sent out an all-points email asking if anybody knew what her 'hard dick capacity' was (completely true - and hi, Jane, if you're reading this), is standing in Waterstones on Oxford Street when two women strode through, one saying to the other, "Of course, it's pronounced 'Trollope-aye'."

You could feel everybody else in the store clench and mutter "TRO-LUP" as one.

In the same way, I didn't think it was possible to mangle my dour Staffordshire surname - BAG, as in sack, NUL, as in 'and void' - but I'm indebted to JS Arquin of the Overcast for flagging up potential future problems with the brand by making a bit of a car crash (there's that image again) of it in the recording of my story The Trouble with Vacations as Overcast 54.  I was asked to provide advice on tricky to pronounce words, but I didn't think there was one so close to home.

Perhaps, like Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, I should consider changing my moniker to something a bit more monosyllabic.  Something easier on the brain.

But, in every other respect the podcast is an outstanding job, with exactly the right balance of pathos and absurdity that I could have wished for.  And, without wishing to pat myself on the back too much,  I've written enough bilge to recognise the story as being a half decent little tale.

But, of course, I'm far too close to the subject to judge.  So please, please head over to Overcast 54, settle back for twenty minutes or so, and leave a review.  It really does matter to grass roots publishers who are trying to provide a varied literary diet.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Doe

Or maybe VJ Smith.  How about Michael Carmichael?  'Cheddar' George Albertine?  Arthur C Clarke?  Oh, hold on, I think that one's taken...