Hugo Blogging: “Best” Short Story

All the stories in this year’s Hugo nominations for the Best Short Story award are there because they were on one or both of two overlapping slates. Not only do I believe that slates are wrong in themselves in an award like this, as they distort the voting process, but the two slates themselves were put together for reasons I cannot agree with. The more prominent slate, the “Sad Puppies”, which had less effect, was put together by someone who is merely extremely unpleasant, to promote a point of view, both aesthetic and political, with which I strongly disagree. The other slate, the “Rabid Puppies”, which had more effect, was put together by a vile shitsmear whose expressed political and social views are so evil as to resist caricature, and who put it together with the aim of personal gain.

As a result, I do not believe a single story on the ballot is on there legitimately, and so I will be ranking No Award at the top of the list.

I would perhaps have some ethical qualms about this, were any of the nominated stories any good. However, happily, they range from merely not-very-good to outright abysmal. I shall rank the stories below No Award as follows:

Totaled by Kary English. This story is not in any way bad. It’s also, however, not in any way *good*, either. Were it in an anthology I read, I’d read through the story and forget it immediately, maybe remembering “the brain-in-a-jar one” if prodded enough. Perfectly competently put together, but with no new ideas, no interesting characters, and no real reason for existing. Certainly not Hugo-worthy.

A Single Samurai by Steve Diamond is included in The Baen Big Book of Monsters, which Baen, following their normal policy, have provided in its entirety. This utterly mediocre story is done no favours at all by its proximity to stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Bloch, and Henry Kuttner. A mixture of macho nonsense like “Pain is nothing. It is simply a feeling, like hunger, or worry. It can be tolerated and banished with proper discipline. There are demons that live off that pain, that thrive off their victims succumbing to it. So I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with.” combined with the Japan-fetishism that seems endemic in US geek circles. I suppose of its type it’s not utterly terrible, but its type is stories about manly men being manly.

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C Wright is one of several entries published by Castalia House, the vanity project run by “Vox Day”, the human shitstain mentioned above. Mr. Wright clearly *desperately* wants to be C.S. Lewis, and equally clearly is about as far from Lewis in talent and basic moral thought as one can get. This is meant to be a fable, so has no real characterisation, and is written competently enough, but in a cliched pseudo-Aesop style without any inventiveness to it. Any impact the story might have is dependent on accepting Mr Wright’s rather horrible version of fundamentalist Christianity as literally true. As I don’t accept it, the effect of the story is simply boredom.

On The Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli may be, on the pure sentence level, the single worst-written story by an apparent professional I’ve ever read. Every sentence is a simple declarative sentence, such as “Joe made a gesture of helplessness.”
Note that Mr Antonelli does not describe what gesture this may be. “A gesture of helplessness” is apparently enough. Not only that, but the story is appallingly copy-edited, with lines like “Was Joe McDonald the first human die [sic] on Ymilas?”, and with numerals used instead of numbers written as words.
The plot itself is the bog-standard “human priest unsure about his own faith goes to alien world where tenets of his faith are provable” nonsense that the Puppies like so much.

And Turncoat by Steve Rzasa is from an anthology edited and published by “Day”, and is a sequel to a novel “Day” co-wrote with Rzasa. It is full of literally unreadable things like “Targets, plural. To be precise, there are four of them, Hermes-class corvettes, two hundred meters, bristling with sensors and loaded with 400 torpedoes between them. The Ascendancy has
manufactured eight hundred ninety six of them over the last 103 years and 648 are still in service. There will be 644 presently.”

That kind of info-dumping continues throughout the whole thing. Just look at the lack of craft in there. The way it switches between numerals and numbers written as words, with no apparent reason for the change except laziness, is a particularly nice touch. As for the plot, well, it’s a bunch of anti-transhumanism from a reactionary Christian perspective dressed up as a story, with a “twist” that implies that people in a far-distant posthuman future will still hold the same opinions about historical figures who are only known or cared about in the USA that modern-day USians currently hold. Wretched.

On Writing Head Of State, Part 1

Sorry for my absence for a few days. This has been an incredibly busy and stressful few weeks — since the election I’ve had a severe illness in my family, spent a couple of evenings with a friend over from California, and had various other bits that needed doing.

One of those things, that’s occupied a big chunk of my spare time recently, is putting together the final edits for my novel Faction Paradox: Head of State, which will be out in the summer. So I thought I’d talk a little about it, without spoiling too much, because I think the process of writing it is of some interest.

It started, as a matter of fact, as a space opera. I was trying to come up with a Faction Paradox novel idea, because my friends Simon Bucher-Jones and Lawrence Burton, both of whom have written their own very good novels in the series, said I’d be good at it, and my original thought was to use a space opera idea I’d posted here, about first contact with a planet that was exactly like Earth in every way.

The idea was a good one, and I may well come back to it, but I hit a few snags. There were things I wanted to include, things that I had a hazy idea of, that just didn’t fit — I wanted to include a book that held some great significance, I wanted to talk about power, and I wanted to include a plot point hinted at in The Book of the War which I still think is one of the best ideas in the Faction Paradox series. And none of this really seemed to fit the space opera storyline.

Then, I had two other ideas. I can tell you precisely where I was — I was walking through Piccadilly train station, and I could show you the precise spot where I was when these ideas came to me, they were that vivid. The first idea was to have the Thousand and Second Night, as told by the decapitated head of Scheharazade. The second was a scene which comes right at the end of the book, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s set in 21st century America. But the thing is, I *knew* those two scenes, totally disconnected as they are, were part of the same book.

I also realised that the Thousand And Second Night could be the important book that I wanted to write about, so now all I had to do was connect the two images.

The first, obvious, thing was that Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer, was a translator of the Arabian Nights, and also appears as a character in The Book Of the War, so I decided to use him as a character, and model the version of the Nights in my book on his translation. Making the book the motivating factor behind a character in the last scene could tie the threads together.

But that’s still only five ideas (1002nd night, Richard Burton, ending, book, motivation). At a rough approximation, you can get about 1000 words out of an idea. So I needed seventy-something more ideas to write a novel. I’ll talk about how I pulled those together next time…

California Dreaming: Do It Again

The Beach Boys were rather desperate for a hit.

By May 1968 it had been almost two years since Good Vibrations had gone to number one, and their singles since then had been at best moderate successes. Friends, the title track from their most recent album, hadn’t even reached the top forty.

So for the first time, they decided to take a look back at their past.

In August 1967, the band (with Brian Wilson, and without Bruce Johnston, who had temporarily left the band) had travelled to Hawaii to perform two sets for a planned live album, Lei’d in Hawaii. Those shows consisted of performances of many of the band’s biggest hits, but rearranged in the stripped-down style of their recent Smiley Smile album, with plenty of vocal harmonies but minimal instrumentation apart from Brian Wilson’s Baldwin organ.

The album was deemed unreleasable, even after extensive studio work, but one thing jumped out. For the first time in several years, the band had performed a version of their very first single, Surfin’, and during the track Brian Wilson had started singing the melody to Underwater by the Frogmen, a surf instrumental that had been released on the same label (Candix) and in the same year (1961) as Surfin’. This melody, sung in wordless “ba ba ba” falsetto by Brian Wilson, stuck in the band’s minds as an idea to return to.

A few months later, Mike Love, who had been generally unimpressed with the band’s turn away from what he considered more relatable lyrical themes, went surfing with an old friend, Bill Jackson, and came back inspired — the band were going to write their first new song about surfing in four years.

Love’s lyrics centred around the themes that had done so well for the band a few years previously — suntanned bodies, surfing, beaches, and a quick namecheck of the earlier song California Girls — but with a sense of nostalgia. Those things were in the past now, and we need to “get together and do it again”.

Wilson added a rudimentary three-chord structure and the Frogmen’s melody to the verses, and a much more interesting, and quite beautiful, 22-bar middle section, which goes from an elegaic mention of the lonely sea (the title of another old Beach Boys song) in the relative fourth, into a triumphal guitar solo and chanted “hey now!” over the same changes as the verses, before leading back into a final verse.

The whole song was written around the piano by Love and Wilson in a matter of minutes, and a basic track recorded by the band at Wilson’s house — the band were once again playing their own backing tracks, rather than using outside musicians, and were recording in Wilson’s home studio due to a combination of laziness and a wish for spontaneity on Wilson’s part. Brian and Carl Wilson co-produced the track, but it only really came alive quite late in the day. After additional drum and saxophone overdubs by session players, engineer Steve Desper got to work on the intro. He came up with an effect for the snare drum sound, using two tape delay units (which had originally been bought to thicken the band’s live vocal sound by artificially double-tracking, live), but having the delay be in the region of ten milliseconds. The result was to effectively quadruple-track the snare on the intro, creating a buzzing, powerful, sound quite unlike anything else that had ever been heard.

While Do It Again was talked about as a return to the old sound at the time, in truth it sounds quite different, and it may be the Beach Boys’ first rock, as opposed to pop, track. It’s thicker, and heavier, sounding than anything they’d done before, and indeed than much of what they were to do subsequently. But while it definitely sounds more 1968 than 1963, the return to the old subject of surfing, and the references to older songs, were enough to gain the band some much-needed TV exposure, and what would turn out to be their last US top twenty hit for eight years, reaching number twenty.

In the rest of the world, Do It Again did even better, becoming their second (and last) UK number one, and their first in Australia.

By returning to their past, the Beach Boys had bought themselves a little bit of a future. But the band were running out of time — their contract with Capitol was nearly up, and looked unlikely to be renewed, and Brian Wilson was becoming less and less interested in making new music. The trick had worked once, but going back to old themes and namechecking old songs was no way to move forward. A few months earlier the band had been annoyed at Capitol promoting them as a surfing group, seeing it as condemning them to irrelevance in a time when there were more important things on people’s minds than fun in the sun, but now their one hope of getting people to listen to them was to sing about surfing once again.

The 60s were nearly over, and with them it seemed was the Beach Boys’ relevance. Could they reinvent themselves for the 1970s?

Do It Again

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: Mike Love (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitars), Al Jardine (vocals, bass), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards), John Guerin (drums), Ernie Small (saxophone), John E Lowe (woodwind).

(NB this is somewhat speculative. We know the identities of the session players who provided overdubs, and that the Beach Boys performed on the basic track themselves, but it’s not clear whether Carl Wilson or Al Jardine provided the bass — I’ve assigned this to Jardine as he played bass in the studio more often than not — and whether Johnston provided any instrumental parts).

Original release: Do It Again/Wake The World, The Beach Boys, Capitol 2239

Currently available on: 50 Big Ones, Universal CD

British Values

I am British. The things I value are mostly:
My wife
Beach Boys records
People not bothering me
Getting a double seat on the bus so I don’t have to sit next to anyone
Old episodes of Doctor Who with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton in
Peter Cook
Peter Sellers
P. G. Wodehouse
George Orwell
Inventive swearing
and big books full of hard mathematics.

I look forward to these all being legislated for in Mr Cameron’s push for “British values”

Brian Wilson and Friends DVD

Brian Wilson and Friends is the latest live DVD/Blu-Ray (both come in the same case) from Brian Wilson. Recorded late last year to promote his new album No Pier Pressure, it features the band he will be touring with for the next few months — his standard touring band (the best band I’ve ever seen live) plus Al and Matt Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — along with Brian “Ike” Eichenberger who was briefly in Brian’s band last year but is now a member of the touring “Beach Boys”.

A live DVD from this band is always welcome, of course, but there’s a credit which strikes fear into the hearts of many: “produced and directed by Joe Thomas”. But that fear is, surprisingly, misplaced. While I won’t say there’s no autotune on here for certain, what I will say is that at no point do we get the robo-voice effect that wrecks much of the last two studio albums and the Beach Boys fiftieth anniversary album.

The vocal mix is much wetter than I would prefer, and there’s clearly been some touching up done in the studio, but a *lot* of the vocals are definitely as live — with missed words, swallowed syllables, sloshed sibilants and all. Errors are hidden with strategic doubling and a lot of reverb, rather than by whacking so much autotune on that everyone sounds like a robot. Fundamentally, what this DVD sounds like is what you’d get if you saw this band when Brian was on a very good night but the sound engineer was a little too reverb-happy, rather than a clinical mess.

(At least that’s my opinion after a handful of viewings. I don’t have the world’s greatest ears for studio effects, though. But if the 50th Anniversary Tour CD is a ten in over-autotuning, and No Pier Pressure is about a six, this would be at most a two or three).

The show opens with a gorgeous version of Our Prayer, mixed with every individual voice audible, and sounding lovely, before going straight into Heroes & Villains with the cantina section in place. Whoever’s singing the high harmony on the “dance Margarita” section does a wonderful camp vibrato on it, and the whole thing sounds great, although Brian swallows a couple of syllables. It’s amazing how adding Al Jardine to the harmony stack makes the band sound like the Beach Boys.

That’s even more true of Sloop John B, where Al and Brian duet (although Sloop is the first of a few songs where the video cuts to a long shot of Brian in a couple of places precisely when the timbre of his vocal changes and becomes more reverby, which makes the punch-ins rather obvious). But when you hear Al and Brian together, with no other voices, on “hoist up the John B sails”, for all that Brian’s voice has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, it still sounds like the Beach Boys.

Dance Dance Dance has never been a favourite of mine, but it does give Eichenberger a chance to shine on the choruses, and Probyn Gregory the first of several guitar solos.

Good Vibrations seems to be filmed to show the people who’ve made fun of Al for his guitar not being in the mix that he can play — lots of shots of his fingers as he plays the guitar motif in the verses. This sounds to me like it may have been edited from two performances — there’s a sudden change in the sound halfway through the first chorus that may just be a bit of sloppy mixing, but which may have been an edit. In general this seems to be one of the least “live” tracks, unless there really were multiple Al Jardines on stage at the same time. There’s also a bass voice doubling Brian on the chorus which doesn’t sound like anyone in the band. This shows up a few times, actually — normally Mike’s parts in the harmony stack have been taken by Scott Bennett in the shows I’ve seen, but it doesn’t sound like Scott (and he’s seen singing different parts). I don’t know if maybe Eichenberger (whose voice I don’t really know) can sing bass as well as falsetto, or if it’s someone else — possibly it could just be that whoever’s singing this part is raised in the mix compared to the normal vocal mixes for Brian’s shows, and I’m not used to hearing them sing bass.

This Beautiful Day from the new album features trumpeter Mark Isham, but also clearly has the studio vocal take, with multi-tracked autotuned Brians, used rather than a live one (the song’s really out of Brian’s current vocal range, so this is unsurprising). It’s a nice little song though.

Runaway Dancer, also from the new album, sounds more or less identical to the studio version, and again seems to have had a lot of tweaking. It features Sebu on lead vocals, as the studio version does. Not a highlight.

Sebu also takes lead on Don’t Worry Baby and does a very creditable job, although his style is a little melismatic for my personal taste. The track has also been very slightly rearranged, with a little keyboard figure I don’t think suits it, but it’s always a great song, and I can’t help but warm to Sebu when he does Mike Love-esque driving movements on the line “she makes me want to drive”.

At this point, the show becomes the early-70s Beach Boys, with Al Jardine (who had been absent from the stage for Sebu’s songs) returning and introducing Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, and longtime Beach Boys touring keyboardist Billy Hinsche.

We get a very good version of Marcella, although Brian’s still a little too polite a vocalist for this one, which might have been better sung by Chaplin, but the cascading, overlapping, vocal lines from the band are fantastic. Probyn also proves here that an often-made criticism of this band is false — people sometimes say that they’re a little too staid and can’t do rock. Probyn’s solo at the end shows that they *can* do loud rock solos (which is generally far, far, easier than the other stuff they pull off), they just know when it’s not appropriate.

Wild Honey features Chaplin on lead, and he forgets huge chunks of the lyric, just yelling random bits that he remembers along with non-lyrical mouth noises, while pulling eye-popping faces and looking like the even-more-raddled love-child of Keith Richards and Lou Reed. This makes it possibly the best thing on the DVD, and I’m looking forward hugely to seeing him touring with this band in September.

Sail On Sailor also features Chaplin on vocals, this time giving a much more restrained, quite beautiful, vocal performance. And with Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Billy Hinsche in the backing vocal stack, this sounds like the Beach Boys. This might be the best live version of Sail On Sailor I’ve heard.

Even Chaplin and Jardine can’t save the overblown yacht-rock that is Sail Away, though. This seems to be everyone else’s favourite song from the new album, but it does nothing for me.

Mark Isham then returns (and the other guests leave) for Half Moon Bay, the exotica-style instrumental from the new album, which allows the band to demonstrate their ability to play delicate, expressive, music beautifully. Something like this, which is all about the empty spaces, is much more difficult to get right than a stompy rock track like Marcella, but the band pull it off perfectly.

An instrumental take on Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) follows, with Isham playing the vocal melody on the trumpet. This sounds utterly lovely — Don’t Talk may be Brian’s very best melody as pure melody — but the song does rather miss something without its lyrics.

Nate Reuss comes on for Saturday Night, which sounds just like it does on the record (forgettable), before bringing Blondie and Ricky back on for a version of Hold On Dear Brother, their song from the Carl & The Passions (So Tough) album, which shows that Reuss can *really* sing — his performance is quite astonishing, as is Probyn Gregory’s. Probyn manages to reproduce Red Rhodes’ slide guitar solo from the record on a normal guitar, and the whole song is a lovely addition to the set, and must have been jaw-dropping live.

Reuss also sings lead on Darlin’, where he’s merely competent rather than astonishing. Following this, the DVD cuts away to two studio tracks with She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M Ward). On The Island is the track from the album but with a different lead vocal take, and with some but not all of the backing vocal parts stripped out, and works very well, but God Only Knows is a bit of a disaster — Deschanel sings it very nicely, and while Ward’s guitar is the only accompaniment it works well, but then a truly horrible clodhopping one-man-band style drum part comes in, and it wrecks it.

The DVD then returns to the live show for The Right Time. I still think the song itself is underwritten, but it works better as a live track than on the record, with the harmonies sounding lovely and Al Jardine sounding even better in his seventies than he did in his twenties, and the band sounding more organic than the sterile studio version.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice follows, with Al again on lead. He’s *either* double-tracked or being partially doubled by Matt Jardine (who sounds very similar to his dad) here, but sounds astonishing (Brian is *definitely* double-tracked on the middle eight). How Al Jardine can still sound so good at his age, I can’t imagine. And obviously the song itself is a masterpiece.

We then get a run-through of a few of the hits — Al singing lead again on Help Me Rhonda (performed in the studio arrangement, rather than the old touring band arrangement, which I think Brian’s band used to use, though maybe my memory’s playing tricks with me). Bob Lizik’s bass playing is particularly good here; very loose and springy-sounding, just right for this song.

All Summer Long follows, with Brian back on lead, and the show proper ends with an all-hands performance of Fun Fun Fun, with Brian sounding a little tired and missing a couple of words, but getting by on the energy of the track (and Al doubling him on the last couple of verses to keep him going). The studio version of Guess You Had To Be There plays over the credits, with an interview with Kacey Musgraves, and there are two bonus tracks (Pacific Coast Highway and Summer’s Gone) that really should have been included in the main feature.

Overall, this isn’t the best possible representation of this band — it’s a little too clean, a little too sterile, to get across just how good they really are — but it’s a lot better than we had any right to expect, both in choice of songs and in how (comparatively) little it’s been messed with in the studio. If you go and see this band live this summer, you’ll see something very like this (albeit without Reuss, Sebu, and Isham).

The band
Brian Wilson: Keyboards and vocals
Al Jardine: Guitar and vocals
Paul von Mertens: Saxophone, flute, harmonica, mandolin
Probyn Gregory: Guitar, tannerin, banjo, trumpet, and vocals
Scott Bennett: Guitar, keyboards, and vocals
Darian Sahanaja: Keyboards, percussion, and vocals
Nelson Bragg: Percussion and vocals
Bob Lizik: Bass
Mike D’Amico: Drums and vocals
Matt Jardine: Vocals
Nick Walusko: Guitar and vocals
Brian Eichenberger: Guitar and vocals

Normal Blogging Resumes Monday

Today I’m doing final edits on the manuscript of my novel, Faction Paradox: Head of State. Tomorrow I may go and visit some friends in Yorkshire.
From Monday, I’ll be doing non-political music posts for most of the month. I intend to finish off California Dreaming this month, and I’ll be reviewing gigs by the touring Beach Boys and Paul McCartney, and maybe also by Pacific Soul Ltd, B-Side, and Blake Jones & The Trike Shop.
Those who want to read me talking about things other than music, a reminder — over on Mindless Ones I’m doing a ten-part serialised look at Grant Morrison’s comic Multiversity, which will be running daily for the next week. Parts one, two, and three are already up. (Note that this was written just *before* the election — I hit “post” on the first part five hours before heading out to start the horror that was polling day).
June will probably mostly be posts about science fiction — I’ll be looking at the Hugo nominees and also restarting my Heinlein reread and Pratchett guides.
Maybe in July I’ll have more to say on the election publicly. I think I *might* have a cool enough head by then…

Post-Election Liberal Playlist

I can’t write today. Too angry, too sad, too worried. Instead, have some music that sums up my very complicated mixture of despair and determination to fight back:

The Land Song — George Hardy
Winter of 79 — Tom Robinson Band
No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In — The Bonzo Dog Band
I Feel Liberal Alright — David Steel
Jerusalem — Steve Earle
For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield
Hard Times Of Old England Retold — The Imagined Village
After The Fall — Klaus Nomi
It Won’t Always Be The Same — The Millennium
Common People — Pulp
Dead End Street — The Kinks
Ghost Town — The Specials
This Land Is Your Land — Woody Guthrie