Sunday, 21 December 2008

A strange responsibility

I seem to spend my life telling people what to like. Well, not exactly, but my life does revolve around telling people what is worthy of them parting with their money for. This can be something of a burden sometimes, but it has made me much more honest in what I write. In both of my professional capacities I tell people how great or how bad bits of entertainment are, and the knowledge that I am passing judgement on projects that a great deal of time, money and effort have gone into is always present when I write my reviews.

It is easier to write movie reviews or merchandise reviews than it is to write about new albums. I think this is down to feeling more empathy for struggling musicians than ultra-rich movie companies who are able to make films so expensive that their effects budgets alone could feed a country for a year. With film and TV I can be more vicious- I'm just another hack, and my bile or hyperbole won't really do much for their sales either way. Film reviews are so common and so varied that even the worst aberration will get a shining review somewhere, from either a madman or a studio plant.

With music, it is much more complicated, as my words do actually carry some weight. A great deal of the music I review for the magazine is from small labels and new acts, who are also facing the struggle of playing music in genres that are not currently massive sellers. Reviews of these releases can have a huge impact on sales, and do actually have some say in the success of the album.

Even if the music you're having to listen to is not of a genre you are particularly into, you cannot just dismiss it outright. You need to listen with an open mind and recognize that there is some talent at work. As well as the songs, you must take in the performances, the production, the mix, the presentation. Everything. Even if I am sent a promo by a band I have an abject dislike of, it will receive the same honest review it would get if I loved them. That's how things are. The knowledge that the 200 words or so that I bash out has the task of summing up months of work for these musicians is always hard to think about. It is also why it has to be really, really bad to get a negative review from me. Absolute honesty in writing reviews generally will help you find something positive in the most difficult of releases.

The point? Reviewing anything can have a great effect. Think of the work that went into what you are listening to/watching, and the effort that people made. You'll find it much harder to review things, but you'll also find that what you write is much clearer, much more informative, and much better.

Monday, 15 December 2008

British Science Fiction and Fantasy TV adaptations- where next?

In the wake of Doctor Who becoming such a massive institution once again on British screens, there have been various attempts to capitalize on the gap left in the listings when the Doctor isn’t on the air. This has been done with varying levels of success on both the BBC and ITV, who have both attempted to create something new that would engage the science fiction and fantasy audiences as much as the new adventures of the Doctor and his companions have done.

Let’s see. Aside from Primeval, there hasn’t really been much in the way of original new material out there for families and younger viewers to enjoy. The Sarah Jane Adventures, of course, are a Doctor Who spin-off, so they don’t really count, as good as the series is. Aside from Primeval’s tales of Dinosaurs, future beasts and former S Club 7 members, the science fiction and fantasy scene on British TV has seen duds like Robin Hood and the overly fantastical Merlin attempt to fill the Saturday slot for speculative adventure, and they haven’t really had the impact that was hoped for. Robin Hood was dire in every sense, and Merlin, while showing promise, struggled to fill one series.

So what else is there out there for TV companies to adapt? There are thousands of properties to consider. Terry Nation’s SURVIVORS has just come back to some fanfare, starring Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman, and there’s the eventual Blake’s 7 recreation to look forward to as well. The thing is, TV companies are being a little short-sighted in prospective new projects.

How about adapting E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark stories? Or what about Lensman? With advances in TV special effects, these are both possible. Another reimagining of The Tomorrow People has the potential to be great too. Hell, what about turning their attention towards the many fantastic (and very British) ideas from 2000ad? How about a Rogue Trooper or Strontium Dog miniseries? Or perhaps Slaine?

One avenue of adaptation that is proving to be rather good is Discworld. The stories that have thus far been adapted for the screen have been compelling, entertaining and have drawn suitably impressive ratings. More would be appreciated.

British science fiction and fantasy works at it’s very best when it takes place in an almost contemporary setting, or a completely contemporary setting in which something is a little askew. British TV has always done that very well. In which case, how about going the whole hog and resurrecting Quatermass as a series? Or, what about a new incarnation of the Avengers? There’s so much out there.

Just not Crime Traveler. Anything but that.

Then again, how about, shock horror, something original?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

X Factor - Karaoke for Dolts

And lo, the country did fall into a blank-eyed trance as X-Factor swallowed what remained of its collective soul. Seriously, this sorry excuse for entertainment, this overblown karaoke show aimed at the lowest common denominator, is a blight upon our screens the likes of which we have not seen since Eldorado. You can argue that it is 'Just a bit of fun', but you can't ignore the fact it is a selection of tired songs being 'performed' by people with all the talent of navel lint.

While it will no doubt make me sound older and grumpier than my 30 years should allow, I am longing for a time when people were known for passionate music (of their own composition, no less) that they believed in and that carried some kind of message, not grotesquely ululating cacophonies will all the artistic merit of a Motley Crue B-side. The pop idol/X factor phenomenon has given the culturally challenged masses a voice, and it really isn't one worth singing the praises of.

Encore? No thanks. Just lower the curtain and clear the stage. Hopefully it will then be graced by some genuinely talented people.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The best of Jim Baen's Universe – Volume One

Yes yes, I know: I was supposed to be reading that Steampunk collection, but I got waylaid by the rather superb first collection of the best of the late Jim Baen's website. Bringing together the finest of the fiction posted on that most auspicious site, it is making me wish I'd checked the place out long ago. With a marvellous mix of pure SF, fantasy and lots of stories that flit between the two, it provides a strong overview of the modern SF scene. I'm still reading it, and a full review will follow once I'm finished. Just wanted to pass the title along as it is really worth your time.


In other news: Taking a brief break on the new novel to get a bit of distance from the material in order to look at it with fresh eyes soon. In the meantime I have a stack of other new material to write, including the title novella from my forthcoming collection, TO BANISH THE DARK. The outline and research have been fun. This one's going to be epic. Expect spaceships and explosions, as well as a very surprising guest...

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Steampunk – The genre comes of age?

That's a rather odd title really, as the Steampunk genre has been around pretty much since the era that it is so obsessed with. I have some lengthy train journeys ahead of me this weekend and thus picked up a couple of paperbacks, one of which is Extraordinary Machines, the 'definitive' Steampunk anthology (according to the cover). Now, I love the idea of the genre itself, but have never really read much, if any fiction that is labelled as such. I have friends that are huge fans of the whole concept, the whole shebang, right down to creating their own outfits and props, but that all seems a bit much for me personally. I do love the notion though, and the imagery is undeniably powerful.

But what is the draw of Steampunk for the modern audience? It can't be nostlgia, as the era that Steampunk encapsulates is much too distant for current readers. I'd put it down to a number of things, but one of the main things I think that gets people into the genre is the sense of adventure that it seems to create, a gung-ho sort of feel that isn't reliant on the latest gadgets at least not by our current standards). The genre has been bubbling away in its own little corner of SF, fantasy and horror since the seventies,SF old and new, who is only just taking a dip into the genre.

I'm curious. I'm curious about how the stories work within their era specific contexts. I'm curious as to what the characters will be like. You see, I'm picturing dashing adventurers and dastardly villains, with a healthy dose of airships, brass robots and cog-driven Doomsday machines. I'm hoping at least for escapism. That much, I think, is certain to be offered in these pages, but I'm more curious than excited. I want to see if the genre has some substance. It certainly has a readership, and it certainly has a growing fanbase all over the world, but is it actually any good?

Looking at the talent on offer in this anthology, there does seem to be a great deal of weight behind it (Robert Reed's name on a list of contents tends to always be a good sign). Really though, I am thrilled that the genre is around, as it reminds the contemporary audience of the origins of the speculative genres, not to mention pointing them in the direction of some of the books that tarted it all, and that can never be a bad thing. While the current crop of writers may never match the wonder of Verne, Wells and their peers, they can still inspire and thrill. I look forward to bringing you a full review soon, and more thoughts on a genre that seems like it shouldn't work, but does so well.

Incidentally, posts will now be much more frequent. My brain is starting to bulge with all the ideas and articles on SF, fantasy, New Media and more that I want to offer you. There will be some changes to this blog and my online presence soon, and the amount of content will grow and evolve. Here's to 2009, and all of our futures.

Andrew Hawnt, Dec 2008