Category Archives: General

2017 – Looking Forward

As Hugo Award season begins with the opening of nominations, I’m thinking about my plans for the year ahead – which include attending Worldcon for the second time (after Loncon3 in 2014), where I’ll get to see the Hugos given out first-hand.

I don’t travel much, but 2016 was a bigger year for me than usual – I spent a week in Norway, I attended Nine Worlds Geekfest in London (which was a really good con, that I wish I’d managed to write something about here), and I took my usual trip to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. In 2017 things are looking similar – I’ll be heading to Scandinavia again, this time to attend Worldcon 75 in Helsinki – unfortunately that doesn’t leave me much time for sightseeing, but I’m going to hang around an extra couple of nights to see the city. I’ll be going back to Nine Worlds, because it really was that good last year. And I’ll probably be going to Edinburgh yet again.

Of course, there’s one issue with these plans: They’re all in August. That is going to be one long and expensive month, which is why I’m not 100% certain about the Edinburgh Fringe this year. The rest of my year will be uneventful, I expect. The first few months of 2017 I’ll be trying, as usual, to get as much Hugo-eligible novel reading done as I can in time for nominations (nominating for the Hugos is a big deal if you care about the results, by the way – in the past categories have been swept by a small handful of voters, though this year there are new rules in place to help with that), which I’m further behind after my shorter-than-usual 2016 reading list.

As for the rest of the year, well. I’ll keep reading, keep gaming, keep watching great films and TV, and maybe even get around to writing about some of it here. More often than last year, at least.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016

I’ve been in Edinburgh since Monday, on my annual visit to the Edinburgh Fringe. Usually I’d make a summary post each day, but this time I thought I’d just write it up in one post.

TL;DR my favourite shows this year:

  • Daniel Sloss, So
  • Chris Coltrane, Socialist Fun Times
  • Nicole Henriksen, Makin It Rain

But I didn’t see anything I’d say was bad.

Monday

My first day at the Fringe was a little shorter, and I mostly saw acts I’d seen before in previous years. The first show I saw this year was Tamar Broadbent’s Get Ugly; this is the third year in a row I’ve been to Tamar’s free show, and she was as good as ever, very funny with good songs.

Next was Rachel Parris, another musical comedy act. I first saw her in a free show a few years back which I enjoyed a lot, but her paid show the next year – which used character comedy – was a little disappointing in comparison. Best Laid Plans, her show this year, was back to something more like that first year, and I enjoyed it.

After that was the last repeat on previous years, Daniel Sloss’s So. Sloss is one of the best stand up acts I’ve seen, and this year was just as good as last year, highly recommended.

My final show on Monday was Russ Peers’ Bad Gay, which started off awkwardly when I was the only person who stepped forward when they called for people with tickets to go in. It was one of the shows that are free to get in but give the option of buying a ticket, which is not clear on the Fringe ticket website; it turned out I had a few tickets like this. As it was 10:30pm on a Monday, it was a pretty small crowd. Peers’ show was a little rough around the edges, but amusing enough.

Tuesday

I fell afoul of my indecision on Tuesday, and didn’t go to either of the first two free shows I’d been considering to start my day. In the end I started with The Punel Show, which is exactly what it sounds like. The show was a bit of a disaster, as one of the two hosts was absent due to an injury and the remaining host was a little lost, but it still managed to be a lot of fun (so long as you like a lot of bad puns).

After that was Laura Lexx, Tyrannosaurus Lexx, which wasn’t the greatest standup show, but was still worth the price (this was another of the”£5 or pay what you want” tickets).

My next show was James Wilson-Taylor’s Ginger is the New Black. Another musical comedian, this show was a bit shoutier and more absurd than most I saw, and got a lot of laughs out of me.

After I grabbed some food (I barely ate on Monday and was trying to do better), I moved on to American standup Ari Shaffir’s Ari-S-P-E-C-T, which I think was my favourite show off the day.

Finally, there was Gillian Cosgriff’s This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which had my favourite songs out of all the musical comedy acts I saw this year.

I’d planned to see another after that, but it was late, wet, and I had a 25 minute walk to get to my hotel, and I really wasn’t feeling up to more.

Wednesday

Wednesday was my best day of the Fringe. Some of the crowds were small, I got soaking wet, but I had some of my best times at the shows I saw that day.

The day started a little weak with Sooz Kempner’s Queen; the show had strong storytelling elements and Kempner’s cover songs were strong (she has a good voice), but the original songs weren’t great and the humour wasn’t quite there. (I honestly think the show could be fine without being funnier because of that storytelling side, but Kempner kept calling attention to the weak laughs.)

I followed that up with Laurence Owen’s Cinemusical High, a one man high school musical, which was a lot of fun.

The next show was Chris Coltrane’s Socialist Fun Times. I’d tried to see Coltrane before a couple of years ago, but the venue had been packed full; this time was also packed, so much so that people were sitting on the floor. It’s political comedy, very left wing as the title implies, and very very funny. Really glad I caught this one, will probably try to see him again on future trips.

As good as that was, the next show I saw is possibly my favourite out of all five years I’ve been to the Fringe. Nicole Henriksen’s Makin It Rain is a one-woman theatre piece about her work as a stripper to support her comedy career. Henriksen gives a strong performance which is at turns funny, sexy, serious and poignant. As well as an autobiographical piece, it’s also a feminist discussion of the stripping profession, the impact it has on performers, and its position and perception in our sexist society. Strongly recommend seeing this one. (Note: includes nudity.)

After that, I went to a standup show by Danny Deegan, which had the smallest crowd out of all my Fringe shows with only 5 people present. Deegan handled it well, though, and delivered a solid set largely about his relationship with his father. I think we all had a good time despite the turnout.

After killing some time watching a street musician (or more honestly, taking shelter under a tree from the rain, which happened to be next to a performer), and getting well and truly soaked walking across town to the venue, my final show of the Fringe was Rahul Kohli’s Newcastle Brown Male. Kohli’s set about racism was a decent end to a very good day, I enjoyed it a lot.

That’s it for my 2016 trip to Edinburgh. Right now I’m on a train from Edinburgh to London, where I’ll be attending Nine Worlds Geekfest; more on that later this weekend. It’s been a good trip this year; here’s looking forward to next year.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Short Fiction Edition

I don’t read a huge amount of short fiction, but I read a lot more than I used to, usually stories I see linked on Twitter and save to the Pocket app. For the last couple of years I’ve taken to sharing each story I read on Twitter myself, but today I felt like collecting some of my recent favourites into a post.

Before I get to the links, though, I had a thought to share. I found myself thinking this morning that most of the really great short fiction I read, while it’s SFF genre, centres not the genre concepts or the plot, but the relationships between characters, romantic and otherwise. And it occurred to me that this is, in part, what the Sad Puppies were reacting against, way back in the early years of that kerfuffle.

Larry Correia’s stated purpose in starting Sad Puppies was to get award nominations for “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”. The second half of that has gotten plenty of attention (there is indeed a large part of this which is a reactionary response to the increase in inclusive and diverse works being recognised for awards, for which see Foz Meadows’ excellent breakdown of where they’re getting it wrong), but it’s more to the first part my thoughts went today. In addition to the diversity backlash, the Puppies often set up a conflict between this “unabashed pulp action” and the supposedly more ‘literary’ work which was appearing on award ballots. And it seems to me that this part of it was about exactly what I observed above: the stories they object to are the ones that do not place action or cool SFnal ideas at their centre, but the interpersonal relationships of characters; where character and relationships are the main throughline and focus.

It does feel like there has been a popular shift toward that kind of fiction in recent years (in novels also – look for example at the popularity of The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice), but it’s hard for me to make a solid claim on that. The short fiction market has changed dramatically with the growth of online publishers, and many people – myself included – just did not read much short fiction before that change. I also can’t say what short fiction the Sad Puppy supporters have been reading now or in the past, but having been exposed to their complaints on and off for the last few years, it certainly seems like part of the trigger for their lashing out was seeing award-nominated stories which had their focus in a different place from what they were used to.

Personally, I’m one of the apparent majority who is very much enjoying these stories. Even the weirdest of weird SF is about people in some sense, and human relationships and emotions are a familiar point for readers to hold on to while experiencing the utterly unfamiliar. In addition, SFF concepts are and always have been a great tool for exploring ordinary human issues, whether large-scale social concepts, or just the way two people relate to one another. The small stuff is just as important as the large, and (IMO) can be a vehicle for more emotionally poignant stories.

I guess I’m just not in it for the action.

Anyway, that (long) tangent aside, let’s get to the story recommendations. I can’t say all of these will fit the type I’ve referred to above, but I can say that I greatly enjoyed every one. These have all been read in the last month or so, mostly while I was on holiday (when I did a lot of reading in airports and on planes). Listed in alphabetical order.

Android Whores Can’t Cry, by Natalia Theodoridou, in which a reporter visits the Massacre Market, where people engage in illicit trading of evidence of the government’s atrocities (and then things get much weirder).
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat, by Pear Nuallak, in which an agender art student struggles with their place at a demanding school.
Infinite Skeins, by Naru Dames Sundar, in which a parent searches through infinite alternate worlds for their missing child.
Meshed, by Rich Larson, in which a talent scout has to convince a young athlete to have a “nerve mesh” installed, but his father objects.
Morrigan in Shadow, by Seth Dickinson, in which the question is posed of whether achieving victory is worth making monsters of ourselves.
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, in which a darker and weirder take on Star Trek transporter tech is used for war.
When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J Miller, in which a mother sets out to find her son, who has taken a strange new drug.
Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, by Saladin Ahmed, in which three brothers are trapped in another man’s story, robbed of their own name and nature.

Bergen, Norway

This morning I sat for half an hour in the shade beside a lake, as people walked by, and birds chirped, and a saxophone played somewhere off in the distance.

image

What I’ve Been Watching (TV)

Along the lines of my last post, I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on the TV shows I’ve watched over the last few months. I tend to watch one show at a time, watching through a full season on Netflix or a DVD box set, mostly by an episode a day. These are the ones I’ve finished lately.

Sense8

This was a really well made show that I enjoyed a lot. A science fiction show about 8 people around the world who have a connection that lets them communicate, share thoughts and emotions, and even control each others’ bodies. Though some of the storylines were clichéd or used stereotypes, and it tends a little toward soap opera-ish drama, it was still a really good show. Looking forward to more.

Person of Interest (s1-3)

I finished the third season (the last one available on Netflix) of this last week. While it starts out as a fairly formulaic crime-of-the-week show with an annoyingly hypercompetent male lead in season one, the quality is high throughout, and the show evolves by season three into a complex SF drama with an ensemble cast and tackling themes of surveillance, security and artificial intelligence. Despite the departure of one of the show’s best characters I’m still looking forward to more.

I can’t say that I support the show’s implied belief that all-seeing surveillance is good so long as it’s in the right hands, however.

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Thanks to DVD release schedules I’m always a year behind on this series. I enjoyed this about as much as the previous seasons, though like Asylum it kind of fizzled out in the final episodes. I also felt like the character of Dandy was a bit inconsistent through the season, changing his behaviour to fit whatever was going on in the plot. Still, it’s always an interestingly weird show and I’ll keep on watching.

Jessica Jones

Lots and lots has been said about this one lately. I watched the whole thing even faster than I did Daredevil, and it was pretty great. It’s very much a show about rape and consent, and the consequences for victims, and those issues are handled well throughout. Killgrave’s power is terrifying, although I found his actions lost impact the more we saw of him. I agree with some of the criticism that the story meanders a little – it takes a couple of episodes too long to reach the final confrontation, though there are other good bits in there – but I still enjoyed it all. I really want to see more of Trish Walker and her becoming Hellcat, and I wouldn’t mind more of Jessica-as-PI (there were only really two episodes of PI cases in a season otherwise focused on the “find and expose Killgrave” plot).

Legend of Korra: Book Four – Balance

Legend of Korra has had its ups and downs, but season 4 was this show at its best. Focusing strongly on Korra’s recovery and PTSD after the end of Book Three, we see a hero who is struggling to find her strength and purpose while dealing with a morally complex political situation in the Earth Kingdom. …At least at first, as my only real criticism of this season is that the antagonist Kuvira, “Great Uniter” of the Earth Kingdom, goes far too rapidly from a complex character trying to do what she feels is best for her people, to an outright evil maniac with a superweapon. I feel like this was an issue of season length: the pieces were there, but in a half-season there isn’t the time to explore and develop them fully.

I compare this with the show’s precursor Avatar: The Last Airbender, where large parts of the show were devoted to following characters like Prince Zuko as he struggled with his purpose through the course of the show, moving from a villain to an ally over three seasons – a fully planned-out series with full length seasons gives creators the luxury to delve into the evolution of a complex character like that. From what I gather, Legend of Korra was never guaranteed to continue beyond each short season of 12-13 episodes, which left the creators having to build their story out of short single-season arcs. They still did very well with what they had.

Also watching…

Aside from these listed series, I’ve also been keeping up with Agents of SHIELD, which is doing much better than when it started out. I was until recently watching Doctor Who, but I’ve let that one slide. Right now my new daily watch is Aziz Ansari’s Master of None – I’m three episodes in, and the third episode was pretty great, so I have high hopes for the rest.

Edinburgh 2015 – Day 2

Little late writing this one up. I’m back home now from my very short visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which was pretty good. The only real problem I had is that I turned out to be really awful at successfully attending free shows – nearly every one I went to was full when I got there. I guess in future I need to allow more time, because not only would I miss the show I’d wanted to see, but I’d also not be able to find an alternative because I’d only really given myself exactly that hour before I had to head for a paid show.

That started straight away on Saturday, when I tried to start the day with David Callaghan’s “No Momentum”. When that fell through, I decided I should work out where one of the other venues was while I had the time. My last show of the day was a long walk out of the centre, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there – and it’s a good thing I did a trial run, because I got lost. I eventually did find the place, then walked all the way back for a quick lunch.

My actual first show of the day, then, was Austentatious, who perform a different improvised Jane Austen novel every day. The title that came out of the hat this time was “Magic Mike at Pemberley”, and the group seemed to have a lot of fun with that.

Next up I was supposed to go see “Worst Show on the Fringe”, which is some short sets by comedians who have received one star reviews in the past. Unfortunately I got a bit lost and never made it to the venue. I headed into the nearby Free Sisters instead to see a show that was about to start, and that one turned out to be full. Not a great beginning to the day, really. I was determined not to miss the next one on the list, so for the next half hour or so I headed along the Royal Mile. Not the best idea, as it turned out, because it was packed so full you could barely move. I did however get to see a man juggling flaming torches while riding a unicycle balanced on a rope, so that was something.

The next free show on my schedule was Tamar Broadbent’s “Brave New Girl”, and I made sure I set off a lot earlier for this one. Turns out that was a good idea, because the venue was not making things easy to find. I had no idea which room it was in in Cowgatehead, there were no directions, and when I finally found the schedule which showed the room I was looking for, it was posted on the back of a closed door.

I saw Tamar Broadbent perform last year, and enjoyed it a lot, so I was glad to get to catch her again. She’s a really funny musical comedian, and I recommend anyone who’s at the Fringe try to catch her show (note: not for kids).

From that I rushed straight over to Pleasance Dome for more musical comedy in Yve Blake’s “Lie Collector”. Blake collects true stories of lies people have told and turns them into songs. It’s kind of a delightfully weird show, with a sometimes over-the-top and shouty performance from Blake, lots of ridiculous costumes and plenty of mugging. The show gets into some fairly serious material toward the end, and there was at least one of the true confessions used in the show that I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it being used in this way. Still, I overall enjoyed the show, it was an interesting mix of silly and serious.

Another quick rush down to the next venue followed. The next show up was Sarah Kendall’s “A Day in October”. This was a really strong show – funny and touching, and just a really excellent work of storytelling. I think this was probably the most well-crafted standup performance I saw on the fringe this year.

I had yet another free show in mind to follow, and bearing in mind that I’d missed three shows in two days so far because I didn’t get there early enough, I was making extra sure now. After a quick burger for dinner, I arrived very early at the venue for Sarah Bennetto’s free show… which wasn’t happening. If I’d looked into things further when I was planning I might have known this in advance: Sarah Bennetto wasn’t available this weekend, and instead her show was being covered by Amy Howerska, who was doing extra free performances of her usually-paid show, “Sasspot”. I didn’t find this out until the performance was starting, so that was a surprise. It turned out to be a pretty fun show, about growing up in a family of professional skydivers, and how funerals are much better than weddings. Funny thing: Howerska’s show was one of the ones I’d considered when working out what to see this weekend, and I’d come close to buying a ticket to her show instead of one of the others.

Finally, I walked a mile in 15 minutes to get to my final show of the day, Daniel Sloss’ “Dark”. This was yet another great show, and it got the biggest laughs out of anything I saw all weekend. It’s also the first time I’ve seen someone perform a Fringe show with live signing on stage for deaf audience members, which is a great idea. (It was also nice to be in a comfortable, air-conditioned theatre after a day of tiny boiling hot rooms.)

All in all, despite missing a couple of planned shows I had a really great day yesterday. My feet are killing me from all the walking (huge blisters), but I had a good time and that’s what matters.

Wish I’d not been so dumb as to go “well, I’ll maybe just do two nights this year” when I finally decided to book my trip. A weekend at the Fringe is definitely an annual thing for me now, and I’ll probably stick to three nights like last year. It’s impossible to fit everything in, and two days (one of which starts after 3pm because of travel) is hardly anything. Looking forward to next time.

Edinburgh 2015 – Day 1

I’m back in Edinburgh this weekend for my annual visit to the Edinburgh fringe festival. Only staying two nights this year, and yesterday was my first day. As usual, I planned my whole trip out in advance, and as usual the plans didn’t last long.

I arrived in the afternoon just late enough to not be able to go to the first free show I’d intended to after checking in to the hotel, so instead I took a look at what was starting soon and went to see a free show by Hari Sriskantha. It was a decent enough standup set, though maybe a bit unpolished; worth it if you’re just looking to kill some time like I was.

My first paid show was a little bit later, this was Rhys James: Remains. James does standup mixed with some poetry, and the show was smart and well done – I enjoyed it a lot. Recommended. Afterwards, I was meant to go to another free show, which was at a venue quite a long way out from everywhere else. Me being me, I managed to talk myself out of seeing it by the time I got there. Instead, I walked all the way back where I’d came and went for a proper meal, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d gone to the show.

I figured I’d fit in another free show after dinner, since I had a lot of time left over, and decided to go and see Ahir Shah’s show. I saw Shah in the same place last year, and it was one of my favourite shows, so it seemed like a good bet. Unfortunately, when I got there the room was full, so I had to miss out. On top of that, it was now only a bit more than an hour until my next show, and I couldn’t see anything else I could get to that would be over in time. I went back to my hotel and spent an hour catching up with newly revealed Hearthstone cards instead.

The third show of the day was Luisa Omielan’s “Am I Right Ladies?!”. This one was a lot of fun, my favourite of the day. The show’s filled with a lot of positive messages about sex and body image and dealing with depression, all wrapped up in Omielan’s ridiculous clowning – it’s a very funny show, and well worth seeing. Unfortunately,  she’s only performing three nights this year.

I ended the night with Loren O’Brien’s “aLOne”. I was surprised by how tiny the audience for this one was for a paid show; only about a dozen people, and I think this maybe spoilt the atmosphere of the show a bit. Honestly this one was a bit underwhelming. I’m not sure exactly why; the jokes were there, and O’Brien seemed like a talented perfomer, but there weren’t really any big laughs from the show and a lot of it seemed to fall flat. I had seen one segment of the show online before going, and O’Brien did it much better there than she did last night, so maybe she just wasn’t quite on form (performing for a mostly empty room can’t help). There’s something very close to a good show there, but she didn’t quite pull it off.

And that was it for my first day at the Fringe. Full day today, so I should see more than yesterday. Here’s hoping they’re all good ones.