I won’t be able to get all of the retro-Hugo material read before the closing date for voting (I’ve had health problems which mean my ability to concentrate has been diminished, and which also mean that I sadly won’t be able to vote for the Campbells, which I consider more important than the retro-Hugos) but I thought I’d at least get the short fiction done. I’ll review the novelettes tomorrow.
As always, these are ranked from best to worst.
Who Goes There? by John Campbell (writing as Don A Stuart) — this has to win, of course. It’s incredibly flawed as a piece of writing, between the lengthy passages of scientific exposition and the attempts at writing like Lovecraft (a clear influence on the story) with lines like “Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around this frozen desolation twenty million years ago.” And the ending is a massive cop-out.
But still… this is a great story. It’s lost a lot of its power through imitation, but here in this story of a thing from outer space frozen in the Antarctic, thawed out millions of years later, and taking over the bodies of the scientists at the base in such a way that none know who is human and who is alien, we have the basis not only of the three films that have been directly based on it (The Thing From Another World, the 1980s film The Thing and the 2011 film The Thing), but also much of Philip K Dick’s work, almost every Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story… even as recently as 2011 I voted for Peter Watts’ short story The Things in the Hugos, and that was just a (wonderful) inversion of this story.
Much like, say, Frankenstein, this is a story that has lost a lot of its power because the things it did first have been done better since, but one that still works well enough to show just how impressive it must have been seventy-five years ago.
A Matter Of Form by Horace L Gold — this reads like a story from the fifties, not the thirties. This is unsurprising — Gold was one of two editors (Fred Pohl was the other) who moved SF on in the fifties from John Campbell’s 1940s hard SF into something more literary. Which isn’t to say that this is itself literature — it’s full of stock characters talking in ways that no human would in order either to impart information to the reader or to cause otherwise improbable plot events — but there’s a slickness and readability here that’s lacking from most 30s SF.
The Time Trap by Henry Kuttner — Kuttner was a very good writer! But not this early in his career! This is a good old-fashioned pulp yarn! Clearly influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs! With plenty of exclamation marks and Barsoomisms! He would get much better! Once he started collaborating with his wife! In a year or two’s time!
Sleepers Of Mars by John Wyndham — normally I wouldn’t rank this, as I haven’t been able to track down a copy, and while I did read it when I was a child (when I read everything Wyndham ever wrote) I don’t remember it particularly fondly. However, I wanted to make sure I could vote something else last.
Anthem by Ayn Rand — this is filth. It’s better written than some of the other storiess here, but all the more reason to rank it the lowest of the low. Rand’s “philosophy” is codified sociopathy, and everything she ever wrote was intended to turn people into sociopaths. In all too many cases, she succeeded. Filth.
(Sorry if this review’s a little disjointed — I’m not particularly well today).
This review will, to an extent, be a matter of comparing the book to my own work, and there’s very little I can do about that — simply put, had I known this book, which came out last month, was being written I probably never would have Kickstarted my own California Dreaming book. Not that it’s actually much like my book, but because it fills the same niche my book was designed for.
I’ve been saying for years that someone should write the whole story of the LA music scene in the 1960s, and Harvey Kubernik has done just that, taking forty years’ worth of interviews, and condensing them into a coffee-table book full of Henry Diltz photographs that manages to cover, at least lightly, the whole vista of LA music in a sixteen year period. Kubernik has got interviews here with pretty much anyone who was involved at all in the music business in LA during the years it was the most vital town in the world.
The book’s strength is also its weakness. It tries (and to a large extent successfully) to cover everything. This means that it covers a lot of music that I’m ashamed to say won’t be in my book on LA music, particularly a lot of music by black and Latino musicians, who dominated the late 50s LA scene — by choosing 1956 as his starting point, he can talk about a lot of musicians like Johnny Otis, the Coasters, and Richie Valens — hugely important figures who my own book, concentrating as it does on 1960 to 1970 and a fairly small number of individuals, simply can’t deal with. (And this does make me question my own book somewhat, because I haven’t really dealt with the way the surf scene and the music that followed it — the music I’m writing about — essentially involved a load of white boys dominating a town that had previously been dominated by black music. This is something I *need* to think about when revising the book for print.)
The downside, though, is that Kubernik can’t really do justice to any of the people he talks about. Not only does he deal with pretty much every major figure to come from or be based in LA, he deals with every major figure from elsewhere who had a connection with LA. So we get longish sections on Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones… anyone who recorded in LA at all.
This means that no one act can get dealt with in any real depth, and the book is full of anecdote with very little through-line, but the anecdotes are marvellous. Kubernik has managed to get interviews with *everyone* — scenesters like Kim Fowley and Nik Venet, pop stars like Roger McGuinn and Brian Wilson, session musicians, record company executives, DJs, songwriters… anyone who had anything to do with the record industry during that sixteen-year period at least gets to tell a couple of their best stories. Everyone from Carol Connors (who sang with The Teddy Bears, Phil Spector’s first group, before later writing hot-rod songs like Hey Little Cobra) to Dan Kessel (the son of Barney Kessel, the Wrecking Crew guitarist) gets interviewed, by way of Lou Adler and Bones Howe.
The result is sometimes frustrating, simply because a tighter focus might have allowed for more detail, but at the same time there’s something to be said for a book which covers (to just take a handful of the people whose photos are shown in the endpaper) The Monkees, Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson, Brian Jones, and the Doors.
Everyone is guaranteed to discover some new interesting fact or story from this book, from almost every page. As an example I just chose a random page, and even though I have written books about the Beach Boys and the Monkees, I never knew that the Beach Boys’ song Breakaway was inspired by a Monkees song (presumably Someday Man, though Brian Wilson doesn’t say which one).
This is a coffee-table book, with all that that entails, but it’s a good one, and those of you who are more visually oriented than me will love the photos (about half of them by Henry Diltz, and many that I’ve not seen anywhere else).
It’s not quite an essential book, simply because the scope is so broad it will put off people who are only interested in some of these bands, but it’s a really, really good one, and it’s one that everyone who has a real interest in LA music from 1956 to 72 will appreciate.
Before the 2010 election, and for a couple of years afterward, I used to post here a lot on political topics. Since about 2012, though, I’ve barely talked about politics except in the most abstract manner (things like my Liberal Future series, which I do intend to continue).
The reason for this is simple. My political views are all about anger, and wanting to change the things that make me angry. I’m angry about poverty, about the treatment of minority groups and women, about the erosion of civil liberties, about the lack of democracy in this country, about the way London is an evil vampiric force sucking all the attention and power from the rest of the country, about generational inequalities, about rentier capitalism… basically, I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
This means that I am, occasionally, quite articulate when it comes to talking about bad things happening in politics. I’m a fairly decent attack dog, if occasionally so strident that I push people away, but I’ve found that I’ve managed to change quite a few people’s minds on a few important points.
What I’m no good at is talking about good stuff. My reaction to same-sex marriage finally being allowed is, simply, “good”. That’s it. That’s all I have to say about the subject. It’s a very obviously good thing, and I’m glad we finally did it.
This means I am no good at celebrating achievements, I’m only good at pushing for more.
Under normal circumstances this would be fine, but the Liberal Democrats, the party I think is, despite many obvious flaws, still the best vehicle in British politics for advancing towards the kind of society I want to live in, are the minor partner in a coalition government right now.
That government has done a few very good things (all brought in by the Liberal Democrats) and quite a few very bad things (mostly ideas from the Conservatives, some things that any government would do right now because they’re at the centre of the Overton window despite being ludicrous, and one or two bad ideas from the Liberal Democrats because nobody’s right all the time). To my mind, the current government is not much better — but certainly no worse — than any of the other governments of my lifetime, and so it makes me angry at about the same rate as the others have. However, this government is *extremely* unpopular, at least among people I know (who tend to be leftish).
This leaves me with three alternatives:
I could take a panglossian tone, accentuate the positive, and post constant reminders about how tractor production has increased 4%. This would be insulting to my readers and a waste of my time.
I could attack the current government. This would be counterproductive. Everyone reading this blog knows every bad thing the government is accused of doing (many of which are even real). You don’t need me to tell you about them, and me ranting and raving about the bad things the current government has done might well turn even more people away from the Liberal Democrats. Certainly Labour supporters could use anything I posted — “See? Even a Lib Dem thinks that X, Y, and Z were stupid” — while leaving out the fact that X was a Tory policy and Y and Z are both things Labour committed to as well. It would also give the impression that the constant attacks on the Liberal Democrats are justified, when for the most part they simply are not.
Or I could just talk about something else.
Now for the first couple of years of this government, I still had things to say, because lies were being told on a regular basis by the Labour party. I don’t mean differences of opinion, but many outright lies were being reported as fact in the Guardian, and so I could usefully turn my anger against them. But as the election has got closer and Labour have realised they might have to work with us next year, that’s mostly died off. Sadly, the effects are still lasting, and I still regularly get abuse, threats of violence, and even death threats, as do most people who dare to publicly admit to being Lib Dems and who aren’t completely sheltered from the general public.
But what I want to say is this: Don’t think that my lack of posts means that I care less about those issues. Rather, while we are in government, there are better methods to change things than shouting about it on my blog. When I get angry about something this government does, as I’m in a democratic party, there are avenues I can explore to try and fix it (sometimes it even works).
Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that I regularly froth at the mouth there. The difference is that my Twitter account is locked — it’s where I vent semi-privately, and only a relatively small number of people can see what I say there, and I trust those people, even when they’re not supporters of the same party, to be sensible enough to understand the difference between an angry tweet and an attack on the party itself.
But put simply, when other parties get it wrong, I scream publicly because I have no other recourse. When the Lib Dems get it wrong, I work within the party to make sure they get it right in future. And I don’t tend to write about when anyone gets it right.
One reason I’ll be finishing the Liberal Future series, though, is to say “these are the principles I do stand for, and this is why I think that the Liberal Democrats are still the best party to advance those principles”.
But as I said in 2010, I do not support the current government, but I *do* support the Liberal Democrats within the current government. That still stands…