Monday, April 30, 2007

Elf Fantasy Fair

Was quite fun!

John Picacio emailed me -- way in advance -- that he was one of the guests of honour on Elf Fantasy Fair on the (long: starting on the Friday) weekend of 20 - 22 April. At first I wasn't going to make it, because I was planned to do a training in Hobart, Tasmania (Australia) at that time. However, this training got delayed, so I was able to seek out John and his wife Traci.

(Now the training will be late May, in the middle of the Interzone email reading period. It's not how I planned it, but how things worked out.)

Thing was, I couldn't go on the Friday, because I had to work, and my brother wanted to go to Pestpop on the Saturday -- and I don't go out that much with him since he's become a father -- meaning I had to do Elf Fantasy Fair on the Sunday.

So I sought out John during the costume judging -- John was one of the judges -- and had the plan to take him and his wife out for dinner that Sunday night (the fair closed at 19.00 hrs) in Utrecht. When walking through the fair, John introduced me to several of the other guests of honour: Chris Geere (actor in the movie Blood & Chocolate, which I now have to see), Professor Rotherham (Elf Fantasy Fair regular, specialised in all things Arthurian), and Brian Froud.

What happened was, that when John told the other guest of honour that he and Traci wanted to go out for dinner with me, they all wanted to join! And so it was done: David Anthony Durham -- who was invited for his knowledge of Hannibal's March of Rome (which was the theme of this year's EFF), as evidenced by his novel Pride of Carthage, and after talking to him in the pub after dinner I now have to get his fantasy novel Acacia -- Chris Geere -- so witty and cheerful that I have to see the movie -- Professor Rotherham -- who knew just to which local pub to go, among many other things -- and Brian Froud, together with the driver Martin and EFF PR guy Ronald went to downtown Utrecht to have dinner.

At the Greek restaurant on the canal a great time was had by all, after which we retreated to a pub -- Vooghel -- where we had such a good time that I made the very last train to Den Bosch with about 30 seconds to spare (if that).

If there is one thing I regret, it's that I didn't go to EFF earlier, because there was a rare kind of group dynamic going on: John Picacio (and Traci), David Anthony Durham ("big D" for some reason), Brian Froud ("little B" for another), and Professor Dr. Ronald Rotherham ("the prof"): a group of individuals who didn't know about each other before the fair, got along phenomenally well. If anything, that Sunday night was too short, but I had to work the next day, and everybody else had a flight to catch.

If there ever is a next time, I'll make sure to get there on the Saturday, or Friday!

(And John Picacio has some nice pictures on his blog!)

Jeff Martin & The Tea Party

Thursday April 12 Jeff Martin gave an acoustic show in the Willem II, a concert venue in my home town of Den Bosch. Jeff Martin was the frontman of Canadian rock trio The Tea Party.

(OK: I know I've gotten behind on my blogging: that's what real life does, right?)

The first time I saw The Tea Party was also in the Willem II, some ten years earlier. At that time there was still a record shop specialised in rock and alternative music -- it was called Elpee -- and Paulus Tops, the shop's owner, urged me, in no uncertain terms, to go to the Tea party gig in the Willem II. I didn't know the band yet, so was reluctant to go. But Paul's enthusiasm was so great, that I hardly could not go.

(Aside: I miss that shop: through it I found out about bands I might never have known about. Say what you will of the internet and the blogosphere: in my opinion nothing really works as well as talking to people in the flesh.)

So I went, and it's still one of the very best -- possibly the best -- shows I saw in the Willem II. Their second album The Edges of Twilight was just out -- still easily my favourite album of them -- and they played everything from it, often in extended versions.
For example, "Turn The Lamp Down Low" was followed by an outro in which the complete band were playing a variety of drums. Throughout the gig, the band used several non-western, acoustic instruments, which were fully integrated in the songs.

I was completely flabbergasted.

I've seen The Tea Party quite a few times since then -- mostly in Holland, obviously, although I saw them once in New York when I was there for the day job -- but no matter how good these shows often where, none quite captured the magic of that show in the Willem II (they played there again, but I missed that show because I was out of the country: I travelled a lot at that time).

Then the news came that Jeff Martin quit the band just after they released their latest album: Seven Circles. I quite liked Seven Circles, and was hoping to catch the band live once again (they regularly toured Europe: I believe that they were very popular in three countries: Canada [their home country, and this probably paid most their bills], Australia, and The Netherlands. They never quite made it in the USA, while Celine Dion did. Oh well), but it was not to be.
Instead, Jeff Martin needed to get back to his spiritual and musical roots. I don't mean this as a put down: after the Jeff Martin/Wayne Sheeley show I had the opportunity to talk -- albeit shortly -- to Jeff after the show in the bar, and I got the very strong impression that Jeff needed to do this: refill his spiritual reserves after a very demanding time. I really try to understand that.
The two comparisons that come to mind are Marillion/Fish and Kansas.
Fish -- the singer -- left Marillion because -- as far as I can tell -- the continuous touring took its toll. Marillion was doing fine in the UK, but didn't quite break through in the USA. Some artists take long tours well, supposedly Fish was not one of them. So he quit, and personally I think the parts (Marillion minus Fish; Fish minus Marillion) never quite added to more than the sum.
Kansas had an almost similar problem back in the early 80s: they *did* have a few hits in the 70s (Dust In The Wind, Carry On My Wayward Son), but didn't have more hits after that. So first Steve Walsh left the band (to be replaced by John Elefante), and when the Vinyl Confessions and Drastic Measures albums didn't bring forward any hitsingles, Kerry Livgren left (as did John Elefante), Steve Walsh returned, and the band brought in guitar player extraordinaire Steve Morse.
Two albums were released: Power and In the Spirit of Things. As Steve morse later commented: the band was under immense pressure from the label (MCA) to write a hit single. They tried, especially on the In the Spirit of Things album. But they failed to produce a hit, while both albums are awesome. They are the Kansas albums I play all the time: more than their classic Point of Know Return and Leftoverture ones.
(Hence my theory: an artist can create great art while inspired, but not necessarily *popular* art. Still, an artist should produce inspired art, and worry about succes later. Which doesn't pay the bills, I know, so where are today's Maecenas?)
So there's The Tea Party: succesful in Canada (25 million people), Australia (20 million people) and The Netherlands (16 million people). While certainly nice, to the label it probably didn't quite count as much as breaking through in the US (300 million people). Hence all the US tours, which eventually wore Jeff Martin out (like they did Fish).
It's unfortunate: while I did enjoy Jeff's acoustic gig (and there's a taster on Youtube here), I'm afraid his solo ventures will never quite reach to the heights like The Tea Party did. While I understand and respect Jeff's choice, I'm sad that the band was, well, disbanded. I certainly hope Jeff's solo carreer proves me wrong, and I'll certainly check him out again when he plays our lowlands.
Still, I am a little sad.
(And why the '.'-s? Because blogger, for some reason, won't let me make spaces between my paragraphs. Maybe I should move to Wordpress?)

Decoration ("Lintje") for my mother!

Today is 'Koninginnedag' (Queen's Day) here in The Netherlands, and as a part of these nation-wide celebrations people that have contributed, with voluntary work, to our society, are decorated.

This year, my mother was one of the people to receive a royal decoration for her work as a volunteer. Maaike de Vries-Schouten (yes, that's the name of my mother) has been very active all her life, never content to settle into 'just' a role as mother and housewife (please note that I most certainly don't mean to demean the role of mother or housewife: every weekend when I see my nephews: two very intelligent and highly active children I realise how much time and energy goes into raising children, and how hard it is to do that well), while my father -- there will be a post about him tomorrow -- was travelling the world for his day job.

While raising my brother, my sister, and me, she also returned back to evening school in order to finish her 'MAVO' education (this was called 'moeder MAVO' at the time), and when we were getting old enough to take care of ourselves -- which we learned fast -- she returned to her old profession and became the evening head nurse of the hospital of Gorinchem for which she used to work.

When the kids began leaving the house, and even more when she had to retire as an evening head nurse (she didn't really want to, but had to), she began doing volunteer work, such as assisting handicapped people on the 'Zonnebloem' boat (this is a vessel that goes on weekly holiday trips with physically and metally handicapped people. The vessel is manned mostly by volunteers like my mother), helping run a 'wereld winkel' -- the Dutch equivalent of an Oxfam shop -- or organising EHBO (a bit like the Dutch version of the Red Cross) events, and more.

Actually, just yesterday she ran an EHBO stand while there was a bicycle race in the village -- Wijk en Aalburg -- where she lives. She's seventy years old now, and still very, very active. I sure hope I still have so much energy when (and if) I reach that age.

So, while I'm obviously very biased, I do think she really, really deserves it.

Keep it going, mum!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


to Triangulation: End of Time. Story called "Near Absolute Zero". Anthology to be launched at Confluence.

Short post: been *very* busy of late. More extended blogging over the weekend (and especially on May 1).

Monday, April 9, 2007

Podcast Sale!

Of "Transcendence Express" to Escape Pod. I've only sold one story this year (so far), but it sold twice.

It originally appeared in HUB #2, which was in the EasterCon goodie bags, so all you Con attendees do read it! Unfortunately, news that HUB will stop as a print magazine, and will become a full online magazine just reached me. I wish the magazine all the best, and hope they thrive, although personally I do prefer the paper version.

Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to hear what Steve Eley and his people make of this one. I can hardly wait!

So it's been in print, in pdf format (available here) , and will be a podcast. Now it only needs to be turned into a movie...

(Can you notice that I've had a few beers...;-)


When travelling to and from EasterCon 2007, and during lunch, I finally took time to read CrimeWave 9. It's understated design may well be the best CW Andy Cox did, and the stories are -- again -- phenomenal.

I actually stumbled upon CrimeWave via The Third Alternative: I bought an issue of TTA, liked it, subscribed and bought back issues, and subsequently found that Andy was also publishing this thing called CrimeWave. Now crime stories weren't really to my taste, and the crime genre evoked visions of numerous clich├ęs, from closed-room murder mysteries to pedantic detectives to hardboiled tough guys and what-have-you. I mean, with the leading magazines in the field being called 'Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine' and 'Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine', well, how unimaginative can you get?

Still, TTA was good, very good, so I decided to try out one issue of CW. I started reading it with no particular high expectations (rather the contrary), but the first three stories completely blew me away. In retrospect this was because I subconsciously expected the same old, cliche-ridden crime stories. CrimeWave 5 demolished all my preconceptions about crime fiction. All the stories were dark, gritty, visceral without reverting to gore, fresh, sharply written with a very modern sensibility.

Awesome. Superb.

I subscribed and bought all the back issues. Quality-wise, CrimeWave 4 and CrimeWave 7 (pictured above: I couldn't find an image of CrimeWave 5 on the net) are probably better, but number 5 will always have a special place in my heart as it so spectacularly shattered my prejudices.

The thing with the CrimeWave series is that Andy Cox only releases a new one when he has enough top quality stories, meaning only about one per year is released. But when it comes out: joy, pure joy!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

350 Word Reviews

There have been complaints in some places that lament the fact that we, at Interzone, use 350 word reviews rather than longer ones. It crops up here, but I’ve seen it in other places, as well. To quote:

If I wanted 350 word reviews of things I'd read SFX but I'd prefer longer more
in depth pieces.

I would vastly prefer the old style of reviews section, where three or four
people an issue would each write at length about several books, to the current
350-words-a-book version.

Maybe people could wonder why there is such a 350-word limit on book reviews. It is, after all, the industry standard. Not only SFX is using it, but the utmost majority of professional publishers. Like, in the UK: New Statesman, Spectator, and the Independent. Or, for reference, check out this overview of the National Union of Journalist, where most reviews mentioned are also 350 words or less. And it's also the same in all the major magazines and newspapers in my country, The Netherlands.

Is this a fossilised habit that refuses to die, or do all these professional, profit-making venues have a certain rationale for it?

A couple of years ago I went to a BeneluxCon in Blankenberge, Belgium. There was a reviewing workshop led by a professional translator and journalist. It was an eye-opener.

The gist of it is that a 350-word book review is more challenging to write than a lengthy one, and if done well is – in general – better for both the reviewer and the reader, and also better from a publicity point of view.

Quite probably, the 350-word limit originated from the fact that print magazines and newspapers only had a limited amount of space available. So, in order to get a broad range of reviews for a broad audience, reviews were kept short and concise.

For a modern print publication, this is still an ongoing concern. In the internet age, one could argue, space limitation is not an issue anymore, so (much) lengthier reviews can be published. Still, even professional online venues like SciFi Wire don't do that. Simply because the reasoning behind it is not sound.

The internet is the gathering place for people with short attention spans. Or, to quote a colleague: "the online reading experience is facilitated by terseness". So in order to snare those rapid surfers, one needs to display brief and succinct reviews, not prolonged protractions from a geeky pedestal. Unless one's main aim is to preach to the converted, but let me give a hint: most professional businesses want to expand their audience.

We expect short fiction writers to be sharp and concise, and not waste a single word. So why should we not expect the same from our reviewers? Should we set the standard lower for reviews? If quantity is more important than quality, then the logical endpoint is spam.

When limited to a 350 wordcount, reviewers must write only about the essentials. It forces them to concentrate on what they really need to say, to get to the heart of the matter. No roundabout reasoning, no self-important side remarks, no bloated blathering, no snarky references for the incrowd. No excess baggage, not a single gram of it. It compels reviewers to develop and hone their craft to perfection. First learn the ropes, the basics before one is allowed to do lengthier essays. Show that you're a professional, build a track record and an outstanding oeuvre before you're allowed more leeway. As mentioned, we expect the same of fiction writers, so why should non-fiction writers be exempt to this?

Well, to me the answer is: no, reviewers are not exempt to these rules, and have to comply to high standards. And about every professional publisher, plus any University course worth its salt agrees with this.

So 350-word book reviews are not a necessary evil, but the industry standard because – when done well – they work. In print and – if not even more – on the internet.

But for those of you that need a refresher, or a primer, here are some links to professional reviewing, and the difference between reviewing and criticism.

So, taking these lessons into account, how would a 350-word, concise and conclusive review look like? One could do worse than check out the professional venues mentioned above in this post, but to put my money where my mouth is, I'll include a review of Blindsight by Peter Watts.

In Blindsight, humanity’s evolutionary destiny is questioned by a First Contact with ominous consequences. A biologist by trade, Peter Watts’s audacious novel challenges our perceptions of consciousness, in a narrative where the science weighs in equally with the fiction, and where each action, confrontation, discussion or character serves the underlying theme. Its intellectual density continuously threatens to collapse into the black hole of its thesis, pulling the reader through a mental event horizon into the unknown.

Warned by a ‘firefall’ event, a crew of humans encounters an alien object on the edge of the solar system: Rorschach, which orbits a brown dwarf, harnessing its huge magnetic field. After initial, indirect, and portentous communications the Earth crew explores the alien craft. The tension increases, and the mystery deepens as the humans enter deeply strange and hostile territory.

It is no coincidence that none of the main characters are baseline humans: each of them – a captain cum resurrected vampire, an hyper-integrated exobiologist whose exosensorium causes synaesthesia, a linguist with a deliberate multi-personality disorder, a major so hyper-linked she and her drones become as one, and an observer who had half his brains removed – illuminate the notion that there are other modes of thinking, different ways of using brain power. Still, these highly augmented humans are no match for the aliens they encounter.

These ‘scramblers’ are more, much more than they seem: the result of a parallel evolution that threatens to outcompete the (unmodified) human race. Already apparent during the study of two ‘captured’ aliens, this realisation becomes undeniable as the confrontation between post-humans and aliens intensifies. And only through the use of all its resources – including the real Captain of the vessel – can the Earth forces, through sacrifice, achieve a temporary reprieve, which enables Siri Keeton – the observer – to get back to Earth to report. If he gets back, and if Earth is the same when he returns…

Definitely not a novel for escapists or the occasional reader, Blindsight is extremely thought-provoking, taking its premise to the ultimate conclusion, showing that the alien without might be closely related to the alien within.

Also, a – much longer – essay on Blindsight is slated for the May issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction. And before everybody accuses me of inconsistency: the NYRoSF is a specific venue for longer critical articles, not a magazine that contains fiction, articles, interviews, and reviews like, well, Interzone.

Finally, if you want a pisstake on book reviewing, look no further.