Hugo shortlists… we have Australians

the lost thing While we’re talking awards, the finalists for the Hugos have been announced, and I recognise a couple of Aussies elbowing into the field: Sean McMullen, Shaun Tan and Jonathan Strahan. Very nice.

And South African Lauren Beukes is in there, too: I mention her because I greatly enjoyed her Moxyland (Angry Robot). Her Zoo City just won the Arthur C Clarke Award. And oh hell, wasn’t that Vincent episode of Dr Who just one of the best? It’s up for a gong, too. Along with, um, that 18+ song about being passionately attracted to Ray Bradbury.

The winners are announced in August.

Swancon, Ditmars and a darn fine time

dead red heart australian vampire stories

Swancon, the annual get-together of Aussie spec fic fans held in Perth — usually at Easter — doubled as the country’s national science fiction convention — the 50th — this year. It’s a four-hour flight from Melbourne and worth every frequent flyer mile.

This year’s convention was held in the Hyatt and the venue was a good slab of the reason the con went so well — chiefly, the foyer, which offered a raised lounge encircling a non-functioning fountain featuring elephants, lions and a Cleopatra’s needle aimed like a rocket at the lofty atrium roof. The foyer also had a bar which featured a Hyatt-priced drinks list and some of the most harried bar staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of waiting to be served by. Honestly, if you’re a hotel hosting an SF convention, you need to heed the warnings about our thirst levels. Sure, some folks wander around dressed as giant chipmunks (I’m told it was a raccoon, but I truly believe it was a chipmunk, or possibly a squirrel: just he or she was in disguise because it was masquerade night), but we do like a drink when we haven’t seen each other for so darn long. Especially our pals in the west, who have churned out 36 Swancons so far but don’t get to come east anywhere near as often as they should. (That four hours can be a costly trip.)

more scary kisses paranormal romance anthology

The beauty of the foyer was that it provided a natural gathering place. I’m not sure the various bridal parties, holidaying families and Eastering businessman appreciated the confluence, but I thought it was grand: here was the perfect alternative panel of writerly types drawn from all around the country, and overseas (very happy to hear that Glenda Larke has designs on returning to her native West!).

The guests were Sean Williams, Justina Robson and Ellen Datlow — Sean and Ellen are always great value and Justina proved so engaging I bought her book — Lila Black has been “tortured and magic-scarred by elves, rebuilt by humans into a half-robot, part-AI, nuclear-fuelled walking arsenal”, and that’s just part of the blurb for Selling Out.

Some organised highlights included the delayed appearance of the Paul Haines collection The Last Days of Kali Yuga, a gorgeously produced title from Brimstone Press; Paul’s reading of a new story proved a very emotional moment.

Another enjoyable launch was the Ticonderoga Publications double — More Scary Kisses and Dead Red Heart — in which I’ve got some yarns. The launch also marked 15 years for TP — not a bad achievement at all!

There were panels of interest covering the craft of writing, the business of writing and all manner of stuff relating to fandom and movies and conventions.

We ate far too much curry — Anzac Day and Easter combined to keep sleepy Perth very snoozy indeed — but the curry at the little place across the road was damn fine and they did a respectable breakfast as well, bless their holiday-defying work ethic.

There was a masquerade ball — it went off, I was told, and there was a most excellent Japanese lantern girl costume and a ginormous lizard and Little Red Riding Hood and the aforementioned squirrel-in-disguise — but I was late back from the dinner hunt and, you know, there was a great impromptu panel being conducted in the foyer at the time… followed by a room party! Yes, the sound proofing at the Hyatt meant we could squeeze 20 people into a room and spill chips and some truly, um, intriguing confectionary puddings around the place.

Cat Sparks has posted her Swancon photos

There was also awesomeness at the Ditmar awards — fan-nominated and voted on by members of the natcons — which started with the decoration of mighty pillars in the auditorium as rocket ships and finished at the last announcement. I’ve listed them below, but draw attention to my wife’s win for her short story, ‘She Said’ (a tie with the inimitable Cat Sparks!), and the special awards (not listed below) won by Paul Collins (A Bertram Chandler) and Lucy Sussex (Peter McNamara award) and Anita Bell (the Norma K Hemming award for her novel, Diamond Eyes).

Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann must be reeling — a Ditmar on top of their Oscar for The Lost Thing!

But most of all, the best thing about Swancon was the people: my buddies from Brisbane — I miss you guys! — and all over the place, all coming together to congratulate and commiserate and enjoy the camaraderie of those who value imagination as one of the most prized of human faculties.


Best Novel: Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts (HarperVoyager)
Best Novella or Novelette: ‘The Company Articles of Edward Teach’, Thoraiya Dyer (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Short Story (tie): ‘All the Love in the World’, Cat Sparks (Sprawl, Twelfth Planet Press) and ‘She Said’, Kirstyn McDermott (Scenes From the Second Storey, Morrigan Books)
Best Collected Work: Sprawl, Alisa Krasnostein, ed. (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Artwork: ‘The Lost Thing’ short film (Passion Pictures) Andrew Ruhemann & Shaun Tan
Best Fan Writer: Alexandra Pierce, for body of work including reviews at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Fan Artist: Amanda Rainey, for Swancon 36 logo
Best Fan Publication in Any Medium: Galactic Suburbia podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Tansy Rayer Roberts, & Alex Pierce (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Achievement: Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, Rachel Holkner, Alexandra Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, & Tehani Wessely, Snapshot 2010
Best New Talent: Thoraiya Dyer
William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review: Tansy Rayner Roberts, for ‘A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who’

Eona: a soaring sequel

eona aka necklace of the gods by alison goodman

It has been three years since Eon, aka Two Pearls of Wisdom, set alight the fantasy firmament with its faux-Chinese setting, gender blending and superb story-telling. The story involved a young girl who has to masquerade as a boy to have her shot at being a Dragoneye — one of a chosen few who link with a pantheon of celestial dragon spirits in order to tame the weather and bring prosperity to the nation, as well as garner significant powers. I reviewed it here.

And now we have the sequel, Eona, aka The Necklace of the Gods, and it’s been well worth the wait. It’s wonderful that Alison Goodman was able to get off the factory processing floor that dominates so much of fantasy publishing these days, trust that her readership would stick by her, and deliver such a quality read. Sadly, the economics of full-time (genre) writing don’t seem to be engineered that way — the focus remains on quantity, not quality, although one doesn’t necessarily negate the other!

I review Eona (Necklace of the Gods is such a more romantic title, isn’t it? The UK cover is delicious!) over at Asif, and highly recommend it as both a stunning sequel and a valuable case study for writers looking to roll out a series.

Review: Engineering Infinity

engineeering infinity by jonathan strahan (ed)

Usually, mention of ‘hard SF’ would make my eyes glaze over. I’m the kind of tech-zombie who is happy to just press the button and have the machine do its thing, without too much thought for the how. It’s only when it doesn’t work that I start to ponder, and even then it’s a case of hard Fs rather than hard SF. So when Engineering Infinity (Solaris) landed in my mailbox and editor Jonathan Strahan started talking about hard SF in his introduction, I started to sweat. But whew – as Strahan says in summarising his anthology, these aren’t necessarily hard SF stories in the classic mould, though they do all have humanity and technology bumping heads and seeing what happens. It’s a superb collection of 14 well-crafted and quite varied yarns. One of the most technical — Peter Watt’s ‘Malak’ — was one of my favourites, along with Greg Benford’s serial killers meet time travel yarn and Charles Stross’s space zombies. Definitely a book to keep an eye out for, regardless of whether you like your SF hard-boiled or runny in in the middle, with that tasty side of humanity. My rather more considered review is up at Asif.

Jeff Martin: The Ground Cries Out … for something new?

ground cries out by jeff martin and the 777

Jeff Martin has been wandering since the Tea Party split up in 2005 (see below for reunion news!): a solo album, then the Armada with Wayne Sheehy, and some touring — a lot of touring — with numerous collaborators as the fancy took him. In there was a move to Ireland and now to Australia. Bassist Jay Cortez has become a regular, joining Martin in his latest endeavour, the 777, which is completed by drummer Malcolm Clark.

The 777 album The Ground Cries Out (Riverland/EMI) is a gorgeous product with a gate-fold centre piece in the CD booklet that sets the tone before the stereo has even hit play. If you’re a fan, you won’t be surprised to hear Middle Eastern stylings, Indian stylings, some foot-stomping blues, and that Tea Party-style rock. There are lovers leaving, lovers yearning, meetings in gardens, angels, nefarious shadows, stars, fires and femme fatales … familiar rhythms, familiar scenes, familiar phrases. It’s all feels very … familiar.

Fortunately, Jeff Martin’s brand of familiar can still be engaging: the title track is as catchy an anthem as, say, ‘Line in the Sand’, and one of the standouts, ‘The Cobra’, is given an extra touch of ominous by Cortez’s deep bassline.

Cortez has a big hand here, playing a bunch of instruments and penning ‘The Mekong’, an instrumental with a strong Vietnamese/Thai vibe. It’s one of two instrumentals, the other a more standard guitar piece.

‘Santeria’ and ‘Queen of Spades’ offer irresistible grooves, ‘Riverland Rambler’ shows country underpinnings with honky tonk piano while ‘1916’ uses a railroad beat. Closer ‘The Pyre’ — another standout — ramps up the atmospherics with thumping percussion and buzz guitar chorus.

The album feels to be skating perilously close to finding comfort in the familiar, but in this case, the devil — and the delight — is in the details.

Jeff Martin 777 are on tour. Toe-tapping is assured.

And in other Jeff Martin news: the Tea Party are reforming to play gigs in Canada in July and August, with tour dates out real soon. You can almost hear the fingers snapping as they cross throughout the USA and Oz, can’t you?

Australian Shadows announced

The Australian Shadows awards for best Australian horror of 2010 have been announced, and Kirstyn has landed a win for her short story ‘She Said’, published in Scenes from the Second Storey. Bob Franklin’s collection of short stories, Under Stones, won the long fiction category (collections are ranked with novels and novellas) and Macabre took out best edited publication, which includes anthologies and magazines. The awards are conducted by the Australian Horror Writers Association.

Terry Pratchett in Melbourne: still exploring the colour of magic

mort by terry pratchett

The Wheeler Centre hosted Sir Terry Pratchett on Tuesday night in a sold-out appearance. There was a reading from an upcoming Discworld book — Snuff, featuring Sam Vimes, still kicking heads and taking names and a little bemused by it all — and the delicious smell of coffee in the foyer and the slightly offputting shades of green in the landscaped ceiling that made me feel I was looking down on some bizarre expressionist landscape, only it was up and I was down. Outside it was raining and inside it was warm and when I left the ‘reserved’ sign taped to my chair – reserved for the embarrassed latecomers, not anyone important — stuck to my back and it was only a kind alarm from the people behind me that saved me from further embarrassment.

Yes, it was a strange old night, sitting there, miles away in the tiered seats, acutely aware that the creative soul on the stage below is having a much more intimate conversation with his old character DEATH than he really ought to be.

It was the elephant in the room, that vile Alzheimer’s announced in 2008, and it roared out from backstage during question time when Pratchett, his trusty hat on his knees, his body thinner than I remember from a previous visit, was asked what we could do to legalise death with dignity.

Tell your government to change the law, he said; point to the countries that are doing it and doing it right; challenge the naysayers to prove their irrational fears of institutionalised malpractice; reject arguments based on God.

Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, the beginning of the Discworld phenomenon, was all the rage at uni — it came out in 1983 and we were playing catch-up, as avid fantasy readers do. I’ve followed along, dipping a toe in here and there, enamoured of any story featuring Death (who talks in FULL CAPITALS), and quite taken with Carpe Jugulum and Guards! Guards! Along the way have been other projects, and Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman about the apocalypse, is a standout.

The thing I like about Discworld is not only its humour but its satire. In this universe, Pratchett has found a backdrop to write pretty much any story he pleases, and to sink the boot into pretty much any institution he feels warrants it. He was asked if he felt that frequent commentary on the series — Snuff is the 39th Discworld novel — saying it was getting progressively darker was fair, and he said he considered it to be not so much darker as more pragmatic. (Read some great Pratchett quotes here.)

Still sharp, Sir Terry; still able to deploy observation and wit to poke a laugh, even when talking about death and the right to end life that has run its course.

The conversation covered his journalism career and that industry’s inability to relate the whole truth of incidents — the cause and effect, the story behind the story, the ugly truths that society might not like to take responsibility for — and reflections on his writing career and on his relationships with his characters. The hour-long session was sprinkled with his trademark dry humour, and flavoured with poignancy because there was a feeling that this might be the last time we’d hear this stuff first-hand and, quite frankly, we’re not quite ready to lose that, that and the stories yet untold.

The Wheeler Centre has uploaded video of Sir Terry’s evening here. Pratchett has also been doing the media rounds (an ABC interview is here).

And of course, his books have much to say about our society and its mores. There is some comfort that that wisdom will live on, long after the pen has found its rest. I probably never will know know what the colour of magic is, but I do know that this particular shade wears a battered hat, and will leave the world a little darker when it has gone away. Meantime, write on, Sir Terry; ride on, Sir Knight!

Adalita: singing with ghosts

adalita self-titled album

I’ve been spending a lot of time with ghosts lately. They’ve been surfacing from old photos – some, not that old – as I’ve been digitising my negatives. Loss, it’s like a sea creature, isn’t it; a kraken, rising up when you least expect it, wrapping its long, sticky tentacles of lost love and missed opportunity and abject failure, all those dark tendrils that curl around your heart, your mind, even your lungs. And squeeze. It’s hard enough to face in the privacy of your home, let alone taking it on the road and singing it to faceless masses. Masses who chat over the top of your hearteache, who pay lip service to your craft … no, I can’t imagine it.

Which is why I found Adalita’s solo show at Melbourne’s Toff of the Town so damn engaging. I’ve seen her rock out before at the helm of Magic Dirt – I think the last time, maybe the time before, her lead guitarist stabbed his guitar neck through the low ceiling insulation at Brisbane’s venerable sweat box, The Zoo. Great gig. Great emotion.

And last night at the Toff, it was all about emotion, and there’s no better way to explain it than by starting at the finish, the sole, perfunctory encore tune, anything but perfunctory here. Adalita and guitarist JP Shilo duetted while MD guitarist Raul Sanchez slowly wound up a buzzing guitar, its recurring rasp slowly drowning out the singers as they backed away from the mics, until it was only the guitar, discordant, chaotic, howling. The guitar was loss and the crowd applauded as silence fell, because they understood enough to know that when Adalita dedicated that song to Rowland S Howard and Dean Turner, it was a eulogy.

The ghosts… Howard, an Aussie music legend of Birthday Party fame who had a big hand in Shilo’s career, and MD bassist Turner both died in 2009. The latter co-produced Adalita’s self-titled solo album, which she’s touring now. As if stepping out from the shadow of a band isn’t enough pressure; isn’t enough vulnerability.

In the absence of her band, Adalita had PJ providing effects and support on guitar and violin. Sanchez stepped up for an atmospheric dual guitar instrumental, and support act Amaya Laucirica played drums for one and later a guitar duet for ‘Good Girl’.

It’s a line-up you’ll hear on Adalita’s album, which provided the set list for the evening. She has a great voice, Adalita, and it was grand to hear her playing with form, breaking up the rock song formula to turn songs into stories with changes of pace and volume. It was a short and sharp set, a little melancholy, a lot hungry, a solid chunk of Gibson-driven rockin’ with backing tracks and effects pedals filling out the sound where needed. But that encore: such a powerful ending for a gig on a tour that signifies a new start.

I should think the ghosts would be happy with that.

WE got to the Toff halfway through Spencer P Jones‘ support gig, and apparently halfway through an argument as well. The one-time Beast of Bourbon was hurling insults and guitar licks at a section of the crowd in a performance that straddled the line between performance poetry and song; there was a certain air of Johnny Cash-style maudlin in there, between the shots of tequila (was it?) and slurps of beer and fiery glances. For the record, Amaya Laucirica played first support.

One Man Lord of the Rings: a melee of one in Melbourne

Charlie Ross is an affable Canadian who has been making a globe-trotting living with his one-man Star Wars trilogy show, and he has expanded his sights with the movie version of Lord of the Rings.

I caught his one-hour adaptation at Monash University’s Clayton Campus and what a madcap hour it was — with a water break at each movie change-over. The thing that makes the show so winning is the humour Ross injects, whether in-jokes, ad libs at the audience, references to other movies (such as ‘Elrond’, played by Hugo Weaving in the movies, uttering a “Mr Anderson” line in firm Matrix style) or comic physicality.

The hour passed in a whirl — Ross is very physical, spending almost as much time on the ground as on his feet — of vocal sound effects, movie lines and characterisations (his Gollum was wonderful, especially doing both Gollum and Smeagol at the same time). I got lost at times — I think he slipped into the superior extended versions at times — because it’s been a while, the cast is huge and the movies are massively long; I’d hate to think of anyone trying to follow without any familiarity with the movies at all.

It was interesting to note which characters really stood out in a propless, costumeless one-man performance: Legolas’s hair, Frodo’s whining, Denethor’s ugly table manners …

It’s been a few years since I saw Ross’s Star Wars show but I remember it being very easy to follow, probably due to my exposure to the ‘good trilogy’, as he calls it.

As an epilogue, Ross had a quick chat from the stage about his career to date: I should think there would’ve been a few jealous geeks in the audience who wished they’d thought of turning loving mimicry into a career, even if the franchise owners take their slab of the gross!

LOTR provided a fun night out with some great chuckles, and whetted the appetite for another viewing of Peter Jackson’s sensational trilogy.

Independent Literary Awards

Some recent writerly chat about the benefit of getting your book reviewed in the blogosphere, as opposed to trying to get mainstream media such as newspapers to show interest, has been given some extra pause for thought by the announcement of this year’s Independent Literary Awards. When I first saw the title, I thought it was awards for books published by independent publishers, but no, the independent refers to the judges themselves: bloggers. Bloggers with blogs concerned primarily with books. Readers, in fact. Avid ones. Not writers, not publishers or publicists, but the folks who we write books for. (Note: there is a conference coming up in Brisbane devoted entirely to readers.)

The beauty, and perhaps it’s a two-edged beauty, as with POD and e-pub, of the internet is that anyone can not only have an opinion, but they can voice it. And unlike newspapers, for instance, there are very few gatekeepers on an indie blog. Biased? Parochial? Slaveringly devoted? It’s all out there, and it’s up to the reader to read between the lines: why is this person saying this? Is it fair? Is it informative? I like to think that, in both blogs and publishing, the quality will rise to the surface. Call me naive.

This is the technological age where we see reviews being used, not just by readers wanting to pass judgement, but by those looking for political clout. We’ve seen this in an ugly form, where readers sacrifice the reputation and skill of writers to protest against the price of e-books — something over which the author has, unless self-publishing, got very little if any control. (cf the Jacqueline Howett debacle, covered neatly by Kirstyn McDermott here.)

Times, they are indeed a’changing…

But back to business: the Independent Literary Awards, now in its second year, shows a new flexing of muscle from the ranks of not just fandom, but a rising and genre-spanning sector of the publicity machine. And these guys are taking it seriously — the list of last year’s winners shows that with a worthy to-read list. It makes sense; literary discourse is increasingly moving online, where it can become not just an essay, but a discussion. Look at the number of podcasts nominated in recent Australian spec fic award shortlists, for instance (Alan Baxter provides a neat overview here). The ILAs are juried by lit-minded bloggers, and accept nominations (Sep-Dec 2011) only from their peers — you have to pass their muster as a lit blogger (‘independent’ from the publishing business) to be considered eligible to nominate. Guidelines are on the website. It’s a step towards recognition and professionalism in what is still, to some extent, frontier territory. Good luck to them!