Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings

May 30, 2010

Bury Met, 20/4/10

Half way through this concert, Jon Boden described his recent album, “Songs from the Floodplain”, as being set in world where the oil and other things had run out.  There was no electricity, and so people had to make their own entertainment.  Entertainment such as Folk Music.  This got a laugh and round of applause from the audience, which was rather ironic given that out of the couple of hundred people present, only five of us were making our own entertainment that evening.

It seems a shame to begin a review of such an excellent gig on what might seem to be a negative point, but, despite claims to the contrary, this was not Folk Music.  Yes, there were folk tunes included, yes the concert began with music played on wax cylinder phonographs,and yes, the songs had a folky feel, but taken as a whole, this was a very modern event.  The way the songs segued into each other; the way the group would set a cylinder playing on the phonograph and then join in; the attention to detail in the arrangements; all this showed a sit list as preprogrammed and rehearsed as something that Lady Gaga might perform.

Not that this is a problem.  Far from it: I don’t subscribe to the view that rehearsal is bad, and I deplore the way that amateurism is frequently passed off as self-expression.  This was a group of people who clearly had a vision about what they wanted to perform, and they delivered it.  (Incidentally, why is it, recently, that Sam Sweeney keeps turning up on stage when I go to a concert? He was playing the drums this time, occasionally with his fiddle bow.)

Anyway, I’m increasingly of the opinion that Jon Boden is not just a great arranger, but he’s shaping up to be one of our best song writers.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops.

I meant to write this entry earlier as the tour ends in Cambridge tonight, so it’s unlikely that anyone persuaded by this will have the opportunity to go and see the group.  Still, it allows me to describe how the show closes without spoiling it for anyone…

First, Jon Boden asks the sound techs to turn off the PA, then he launches into Stardust.  (It’s funny how this song is relatively unknown nowadays, given it was the most covered song ever until Yesterday.)  When he finishes, someone steps forward to play an old recording of the song on the phonograph, and the band accompany the song to close and fade.  Lovely, and strangely poignant.

I think I will end this entry in the same vein…

Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love’s refrain

Eastern European Folk Tunes by Merima Kljuco

May 14, 2010

This blog gets more hits from people searching for accordion news than you might think, thus confirming that the worlds of SF and accordions are closer than you might think.  When oh when will the other SF writers wake up and realise this?

Anyway, here’s something about accordion music.

I bought the above book in Chappells from a gentleman who couldn’t quite keep the scorn from his voice as he announced to the store in general “Oh, one of those books with a CD in them.”

What is it about people who work in music shops that makes them so patronising?  Why did he feel it necessary to imply it was cheating to hear the music before I tried to read it? Did he think that was going to make me want to return to his shop?

Actually, I’m glad the CD was included as Merima Kljuco plays more than is written, and you get a feel for a very different style of playing.  Many of the tunes are in 7/8 or 11/8.  As someone who grew up listening to prog rock, unusual time signatures hold no fear for me, but Merima is at hand with advice for those experiencing difficulty suggesting a solution, as follows:

-simply by using the the name of the famous Russian composer, Peter Tchaikovsky.  I am sure he will not mind if we borrow his name to help us out.  How do we do this?  Simple: ‘2’ is always ‘Peter’ and ‘3’ is ‘Tchaikovsky’.

For example, on a 7/8 bar with a 2+2+3 division, think Pe-ter Pe-ter Tchai-ko-vsky

I don’t know about you, but I rather like the style of that explanation.

What about the tunes themselves?  I’ve been working through them over the past couple of months. Some of them sound rather odd at first to the Western ear, almost like a Hollywood parody of what Eastern European music should sound like, but as many of those early Hollywood writers were of Eastern European origin, I suppose they were simply reflecting what they knew.  But I find the tunes have grown on me.  They’re not as difficult to play as I imagined.  If anything, it’s the left hand that causes the most trouble as the extra beat has a habit of falling in (what is for me) the wrong place.

If you want a change from musettes and strathspeys, then this could be the book for you.   If you’re wondering what happened to the SF, well, maybe next time…

The Museum of Curiosity

May 12, 2010

One of my favourite radio programs returned on Monday night.

The Museum of Curiosity invites three guests to suggest an artefact to be exhibited in an imaginary museum.  It has a good record of inviting scientists to make a contribution, and the first episode continues in this vein, featuring the cosmologist Marcus Chown.

Popular science is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment on the BBC, which is a good thing considering how successful successive governments’ attempts to kill it off in schools has been, so I’m all in favour of any program that gives air time to scientists amongst the endless stream of artists, politicians and journalists.  Saying that, and an added bonus for SFF fans, Terry Pratchett was also one of the guests on the first episode.

I like this program.  The humour reflects the pleasure in the fact of learning something new rather than taking the more fashionable route of being sarcastic and dismissive.

If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to the episode on BBC iPlayer up until Monday 17th May 2010 by following this link

The program’s website is here


May 3, 2010

On Saturday I participated in the Life in 2050 event, as part of Sci-Fi-London.  The aim of the event was to try and do something about the lack of British Sci-Fi Films appearing in a British Sci-Fi Film festival.  To that end, the organisers had arranged for two Scientists (Jonathan Cowie and Simon Park) to discuss new developments, whilst two writers (Philip Palmer and me) would discuss the story potential of the ideas.  Around twenty scriptwriters attended who would hopefully turn the ideas into treatments.

This was one of the most interesting and enjoyable events I have attended for ages.  For a start, it took place in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.  At lunch time we were given a fascinating tour of the exhibits: parts of men, women and children stored in pickling jars:  enough parts to resurrect an army of the dead given a sewing kit and decent bolt of lightning.  Actually, this description is probably selling the museum short – go and take a look if you’re in the area to see what I mean.

As to the event itself…

Philip Palmer led off with an introduction to the day.  I followed up with a short talk about the difference between an idea and a story, and then Jonathan Cowie got the science going with a ten minute talk about the perfect storm awaiting the planet somewhere between 2030 and 2060.  Population pressure, bacteria spreading, food shortages… it sounds rather selfish to regard all this as nothing more than raw material for film scripts, but we began to discuss possible stories.  Philip Palmer was rather taken by the looming  phosphorus shortage and we spent a happy time discussing recycling skeletons.  As Philip kept pointing out, the key to a script is great visuals, so we imagined skeletons on buses, Gothic churchyard scenes  and piles and piles of bones.

After lunch Simon Park gave an equally interesting talk on Slime Moulds and bioluminescent bacteria amongst other things, and we continued with the discussions.  It’s always interested me how different writers approach the same idea in so many different ways.  There is a tendency, I think, in beginners to worry that people will steal their ideas.  This is a mistake:  it’s the application of the idea that makes the story.  It was also nice to discuss the extrapolation of the ideas which, for me at least,  is what makes a good SF story.

This was a valid and worthwhile event, I’d be very interested in seeing more of this sort of thing.  Thank you to Robert Grant and Sci-Fi-London for organising it.  I don’t know about the screen writers, but I got a novel and several short stories out of the event…

Three German Words

April 22, 2010

Did you know that the German for Daffodil is Osterglocke, which means Easter Bell?

Or that Pansy is Stiefmütterchen, which means Little Mother-in-Law?

Or that Daisy is Gänseblume, which means Goose Flower?

A German teacher told me this on Monday, and I thought I might share it.

I realise that the above has nothing to do with the two themes of this blog, but there is more to life than robots and accordions.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke

April 14, 2010

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog on the Small Presses being one of the most significant developments in the field of SF/Fantasy over the past twenty years.  Here’s a book that illustrates my point.

Frankie Finnegan is an unhappy dreamer: he’s bullied at school and his home life is falling apart.  To compensate, he escapes into the imaginary world of Faraway.  But what happens when Faraway becomes real and Frankie finds he has the power to shape his own world?

How many people haven’t thought of something like that as a plot for a story?  It’s like the portable hole, an idea that sounds like a good one until you try and write it.  Keith Brooke, however, has the skill and imagination to make the story work, and then some.

Frankie Finnegan is a believable hero.  Irritating, sympathetic and pathetic in equal measures, he stands up to his bullies by feigning obsequiousness, thus winding them up further.   In his struggle to assert himself, he always ends up sowing the seeds of his own further destruction.  When he succeeds in creating the mock Victorian Freakshow world of Faraway, that same character trait is ever present asserting itself, and Frankie gradually comes to understand that it’s not his world that needs to change, but Frankie himself.

This is an elegant little gem of a book:  unsettling, funny and exciting in equal measure.  Keith Brooke has enjoyed some success as a children’s author writing under the name Nick Gifford, and this book would perhaps fit in well with that work.  It is a children’s book, but a book that can be read and understood by adults too- conjuring up memories of childhood and wistful sense of understanding.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie (Newcon Press, 2010) by the seriously underrated Keith Brooke.  Recommended.

What do Writers Actually Do?

April 9, 2010

My agent keeps telling me to write about writing on this blog:  many people are interested in the process of writing, he says, and I’m sure he’s right.

What sometimes bothers me, though,  is how much writers themselves know about the process of writing.  There was a prime example of this in the weekend papers.  Without going into too many details, a novelist who had recently left her husband had written an article describing her experiences now she had rejoined the dating scene.  The key point that struck me was her surprise at how insincere many of the men she dated were.

Now, this blog is not about getting down with the Sisters by echoing the message that all men are bastards (this blog, as regular followers will know,  is about robots and accordions).  For a start, I don’t believe that all men are bastards.  I don’t know why all the men she was dating were insincere. Perhaps she just had bad luck – but that’s not what I’m discussing.

What astonished me was her surprise that she couldn’t detect these men in advance.  The reason for her surprise?  She was a writer, and therefore she understood character.

I wonder where she got this idea from.  I’ve met many writers; they come from all walks of life and they display every personality type from the obnoxiously extrovert to the painfully introvert.  Some of them have travelled the world with two dollars to their name, some of them shouldn’t be let out on their own.  I’ve met rude writers and polite writers, writers that bored the socks off me and writers who are great fun to be with.  Some of them were aware of their shortcomings, some of them weren’t.  The idea that somehow because they were writers they suddenly became hyper aware of their fellow humans’ motives is laughable.

Writers are usually great observers of people.  They watch how they interact, they secretly write down their conversations for later on (I learned shorthand so that I could do this without people knowing).  Writers know how to represent character on the page, they know how to make their characters become living, breathing people to their readers (though they don’t always succeed) , but at the end of the day it’s all fiction.

They people writers describe are the people they imagine in their minds, they are not the real people themselves. Writers (and readers) would do well to remember that.

BSFA Survey

March 24, 2010

I’ve just received my author’s copy of the BSFA’s Twenty Years, Two Surveys – a book that compares SF and Fantasy writers responses to a questionnaire now and twenty years ago.  It’s a fascinating read, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Here, for the record, are my responses.  If you want to know what other writers are thinking, buy the book.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Nearly exclusively SF.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

My definition of SF

  1. It has a sense of wonder
  2. It extrapolates (unlike Fantasy, which reflects)
  3. It is cutting edge

The last probably needs some explanation.  Consider a book such as The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Whilst an entertaining read with many Sfnal elements in it, I don’t think there was anything genuinely new in her treatment of the idea of Time Travel.  This is not a problem, the book works well as a romance with a touch of SF in the background.  Granted, if you took away the Time Travel the story wouldn’t work, so by Pohl’s definition it’s a Science Fiction story, but I would argue that ideas such as Time Travel have expanded out of SF and into the mainstream (think about all those James Bond films with a Science Fiction weapon as the plot driver).  This is why I think SF needs to be cutting edge.  If we keep going around and around the same ideas and not adding anything new, then we are missing that indefinable part of the genre that we all recognise from when we first began to read SF aged 11 or 12.

I try to I bring something new or cutting edge in my writing (although I am sure there will be many who claim to have seen it all before) but I attempt to bring something new in my treatment of SF themes. Whether I succeed or not is down to others to decide.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

I didn’t choose to write SF, it chose me.   It’s the extrapolation thing:  there is something in my nature that looks at a dragon, a ray gun or a love affair and thinks “Now how or why would that work?”  (and if the answer is it wouldn’t, I write a story about something else.)

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

I’ve just spent ten minutes using Google to try and find a half remembered George Orwell quote where he said something along the lines of being English means you remember the smell of mutton cooking from your childhood.  Maybe you know the quote.  Getting to the point,  I think that SF should be about getting away from the certainties of childhood.  I think that those certainties and habits instilled at an early age are what makes us British or French or Japanese or whatever.  They are fascinating, they should be examined, but they are not what SF is about.

Saying all that, my characters tend not to understand what is going on, they can’t explain how the world they inhabit works, and they respond to, rather than shape events.  I think this is more a British trait than American.

5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why

(or why not)?

I return to two settings in my work:  South Street, a reflection of parts of the East End of London where I used to live, and Bridleworth, a reflection of the area of the North West where I now reside.

Much of my work is set on other worlds, so mostly the question does not apply, but two of my short story cycles are set in the near future, and I anchored them in the two locations above so as to lend them familiarity, to contrast the strangeness of the SF with normality of everyday life.  As they were what I knew best, I set them where I lived.  They were British settings, then, because I am British and they reflect my unspoken assumptions and my unconscious prejudices.  They are not intended to be an examination of Britishness, rather a realistic backdrop against which the SF plays out.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

Diana Wynne Jones, for making me want to write

Chris Beckett, for his way of getting everything out of an idea,

J.L. Carr for giving me an appreciation of how every word can count

Larry Niven, for his logical, structured approach

The two Davids,  Lodge and Nobbs for showing that character is not enough, it is the interactions between characters that make a story and

Pat Mills for his breadth of influence

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Every time I think I’ve noted a different response, something comes along to change my mind.   In my experience it is the individual editors’ responses, regardless of their nationality, that are very different .

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy

between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

The Americans are more vocal!

Apart from that, I really don’t know.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

Good SF should make the reader realise the world is a much weirder place than they first thought, that their life so far has been very narrow and provincial, and,  most importantly, it should make them want to get out there and understand our place in the Universe and not to accept anything but the truth for an answer.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?

Not a weakness as such, but there are some SF stories that have to be told in simple, straightforward style if the reader is to follow them.  Stories told in such a prosaic way can be  dismissed by those seeking a more literary style, however I feel they are missing the point.  I feel we are failing as a genre for not successfully communicating our aims to the wider public.  Worse, we fall into the trap of trying include elements or styles into our work that don’t need to be there.

An example would be the recent series of Dr Who.  I heard episodes being praised for their treatment of character, relationships and romance. The Science Fictional element was mentioned rarely, if at all.  Now, it could be argued that the programs were family entertainment, not Science Fiction, and this is fair enough, but good Science Fiction has additional elements to character and style.  You can remove the latter two and still have good Science Fiction.  We should give more recognition to that fact and not slavishly try to emulate the mainstream.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in

British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

The growing professionalism of the small press, and the quality of the product they produce.  The internet may change things in the future, but the physical press is still the goal of most writers, and the medium of choice for readers.  Two major prizes have been one this year by books published by small presses (Arthur C Clarke- Ian McLeod and Edge Hill Short Story- Chris Beckett)  I think we are going to see more of this in the future.

Blood and Iron Extract

March 17, 2010

I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today.  I’ve posted an extract over on my website:  follow the link

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

March 10, 2010

I’ve just finished, and really enjoyed, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.  I thought of writing a review, but lots of other people have already done this so I couldn’t see the point.

Something that struck me about the book, however, was McCarthy’s refusal to use speech marks when writing dialogue – indeed, there is a tendency towards the more literary end of the market for writers to dispense with speech marks and other punctuation.  I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether McCarthy found himself accidentally typing the odd inverted comma when he was writing the book.  After all, the habits of writing become ingrained over the years and are difficult to break.

So it occurred to me to write the Java program at the end of this entry.  It uses a regular expression to remove the speech marks from text, thus converting your writing into McCarthy’s style without having to unlearn all those habits you’ve developed over the years.

So, for example, if your plaintext read

“This is Cormac McCarthy style”  said Susan.  Susan picked up the tortilla.

The LitConvertor makes it

This is Cormac McCarthy style said Susan.  Susan picked up the tortilla.

Of course, this would be more Cormac McCarthy like if it read

This is Cormac McCarthy style said Susan and Susan picked up the tortilla.

Adding the following line after the first replaceAll should sort that out.

literaryText = literaryText.replaceAll(“\\.[^$]”, ” and”);

This is quite a nice exercise for students learning regular expressions – the next step would be a Roddy Doyle conversion

“From this,” he said

-To something like this.

Anyway, here’s the program.

package litconvertor;
import java.awt.BorderLayout;
import java.awt.event.ActionEvent;
import java.awt.event.ActionListener;
import javax.swing.JButton;
import javax.swing.JFrame;
import javax.swing.JTextArea;
* @author Tony Ballantyne
public class LitConvertor extends JFrame implements ActionListener
JTextArea text;
JButton okButton;
text = new JTextArea(“Paste your text here and press OK”);
okButton = new JButton(“OK”);
this.getContentPane().add(okButton, BorderLayout.SOUTH);
this.setSize(500, 500);
public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent e)
String plainText = text.getText();
String literaryText = plainText.replaceAll(“\””, “”);
public static void main(String[] args)
new LitConvertor();