Fanzine Revived! I'm Not Gonna Explain!

Issue 10 November 2002

Where the Hell Am I?

So maybe I will give a short explanation of my long absence. The last issue of FRINGE was over a year ago, and I was on my way to London to look for work. Never a pessimist, I was sure that those English employers would be falling over themselves to give me a job, and what with my brother's wedding scheduled to take place the following month I was worrying that I would have to tell these new employers that I had to immediately take time off to head for the wilds of West Cork to be the Groom's Sister. Ever naive, I was very wrong. After six increasingly depressing months in a drafty flat in South London, most of which I spent asleep, I finally got an interview. The most surprising thing about this interview was that it was in Helsinki. And now another six months after that, I'm watching snow falling outside and wondering will it get above freezing today.

It has been a strange time here, a great adventure and an experience that not many people get the chance to have. Superficially, Finnish culture seems similar to Irish culture, with a good proportion of it involving alchohol and pubs, and the rest of it involving looking askance at the neighbours who used to own the country and bitching about them. Plus there is the conflict between the rural, traditional way of life and the urban, high-tech industries that are supporting more and more of Finland's economy. But when you have been here a while, you recognise how different the Finns are from the Irish in quite fundamental ways. They have no tradition of small talk, for instance, and there is no word for "please". "Hi there, if it's no bother, could you get me a pint please, thanks a million" gets some very strange looks - just bark "beer thanks", and they'll relax.

Language is another problem, and despite learning a couple of new words a week, I'm a long way off being able to string a sentence together. No foreigners speak Finnish fluently, and even the Swedish speaking Finns, who learn Finnish from a very young age, sound "funny".

But amongst the complaints, there are some great things about this country. In a city slightly smaller than Dublin, there are four different forms of public transport, all of which run on time and frequently, and are cheap. It took a while for me to actually start to trust timetables, and I still marvel at the miracle of a bus turning up when it is supposed to, to the minute. To counter the winter weather, I live in the best insulated housing in Europe, where I don't pay for the heating. I have an en suite sauna (man's greatest invention!) and a heated bathroom floor (man's greatest invention!) and a dishwasher (man's greatest invention!), on top of the more normal mod cons. Apart from my tendency to bore people stupid talking about the weather, I'm settled enough that I'm planning on staying at least another eighteen months.

Yes, I have eaten reindeer. It tastes remarkably like venison, who'd have thought?


FRINGE is only revived because of the number of people asking about it at Octocon, revealing a readership I had no idea existed, so it is fitting that I try a short account of the con.

Last year, I indulged in some performance art by collapsing Sunday afternoon almost at the feet of Anne McCaffrey, and finally being stretchered out during the Closing Ceremony. From my point of view, then, Octocon this year was an immense improvement on last year, since I managed to stay on my feet and avoided having even one ambulance called for me. I feel proud.

My problem with con reports is that I am never aware of any of the gossip that doesn't involve me, and I flatly refuse to gossip about myself. One thing I will say: probably not who you think it was.

Since the most interesting thing about me at the moment is that I live in Finland, I spent a large proportion of the con basically repeating what is written in the opening section above. My apologies to anyone I might have given monosyllabic answers to - much as I love the sound of my own voice and talking about myself, it began to get a little dull saying the same things over and over again. Next time I will prepare a fact sheet to hand out. There will be a quiz.

This year for the first time I managed to get to Michael Carroll's Secret Panel, to be entertained with a brief history of Ireland and a portrait of the Irish character involving some of the worst jokes known to Man. I was also a citizen of Freedonia, an Evil Empire created by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman, with our lovely figurehead the Princess Sparkle, tragically killed in a car crash when she started to show evidence of thought. Obviously no resemblance to anyone living or dead there, then (ooh, I wonder will I actually get a LOC from that comment!)

The Guest of Honour interview, China Mieville, was interesting. I'm not sure we got any earth-shattering new information, and what was said is documented elsewhere, for instance the reason for his name, so I won't repeat old information. His influences certainly have a hefty overlap with my favourite authors, but I would have guessed that anyway.

The highlight of the con, for me, was the book launch on Saturday evening of a collection of short stories by Nigel Quinlan and Dermot Ryan. Nigel has been a good friend of mine for over ten years now (we were both children! Really!), and it was great to see stories that I had read when he first wrote them being printed in a real book! I can remember the events that inspired some of the stories, Black Hole Road was a short walk from the house we briefly shared in Cork after leaving College. We were both unemployed and attempting to be Writers - whilst I spent most of my time staring at the computer screen or playing games, Nigel actually succeeded, and that feels so great. Rush out and buy the book, This Way Up, since not only is half of it by my friend, the whole thing is very good. It's good to see new Irish SF writers getting a break, and it is especially good when they are both talented. Just buy it, okay?

The "All Fantasy Is Crap" Debate

Any gathering of SF fans, and by SF as always I mean Speculative Fiction, will eventually degenerate into this debate, it's one of the certainties of life, the same way there will always be somebody who draws analogies with Star Trek episodes. A couple of the Octocon panels were dedicated solely to it, and whilst I didn't comment at the time (I was hungover and incoherent), ideas germinated in my mind that I would like to trundle out here, where nobody can shout me down.

Firstly, this argument always reminds me of main stream critics who denounce all "sci-fi" as crap - it has always been my opinion that they are merely illustrating that they are not well read enough to put forward an opinion. Similarly, when confronted with an SF book that is good, they will argue that it isn't science fiction, solely on the basis that it is literature. Likewise, the anti-Fantasy brigade will trundle out generalisations until somebody points them, for instance, to Gormenghast, which will make them refine their argument to only including crap formulaic fantasy. Compelling argument there.

The second criticism aimed at fantasy is usually that it is escapist, and the speaker prefers books that are more grounded in real life. Again, this is something used by the mainstream against SF, and quite frankly the mainstream critics have much firmer ground under them here. I am just as likely, in my life, to meet an elf as to walk on Mars, and with a few exceptions, this holds true for most SF readers - both genres are equally escapist in this way. If we're going to judge genres on how much they resemble reality, then chick lit is up there with the best of them.

Thirdly, we reach the accusation that fantasy series are so big and bulky, they take up all the room on the bookshelves, and the science fiction volumes get lost amongst them. I don't think anyone who has seen the size of the Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton can take this argument very seriously. David Brin has some hefty sized books out, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is hardly slender, and on the other side of the coin, Faerie in Shadow by CJ Cherryh is a short book, Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is about 250 pages long, the individual volumes of Zelazny's Amber series were all small. There is a trend in all fiction towards longer books, probably to be blamed on the word processor, and whilst fantasy doesn't try and avoid this pitfall, it is also not to be blamed for causing or indulging in it.

At this stage, we get down to the nitty gritty. "Yeah, okay, there is good fantasy out there, but I'm talking about the endless epic fantasy series, all comparable to Tolkien at his best, like Robert Jordan. It's all formulaic and rule-bound". I'll just recommend two recent epic fantasy series, you can try the first book of each, no great expense or effort. George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, about forty pages in (and this isn't really a spoiler) an eight year old boy, one of the view point characters, gets thrown out of window. By the end of the third book, you can point to characters who are unpleasant, but there is no real divide between the Good side and the Bad side. Unlike some science fiction books about war with aliens that I could mention.

The other recommendation is Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. Not quite as well written as George R R Martin's, but if anything bleaker, and perhaps it can be summed up by asking what Titus Groan would have been like if he was illegitimate. One of my favourite series of of recent times, I've just bought the first volume of the follow-up series.

And finally, something we can all agree on: all crap books are crap!

What I've Been Reading Lately

After all that, I've not been reading very much SF lately. A new job in a new country with a new language have combined to have me retreating into easy reading of police procedurals, detective and crime fiction. For people who are interested in that as well, Minette Walters is an author I only just discovered, and I've been devouring her books. She's a bit like Barbara Vine, but with more sympathetic characters, and I am incapable of putting one of her books down until I have finished it. Peter Robinson is another British crime novellist I regard highly, less challenging than Walters, but with an interesting take on some of the rules of that genre. His book Aftermath, for instance, starts when a serial killer is caught, and deals with the process of collecting enough evidence to get a conviction. Somehow in there, and I won't say how, there is as much drama and tension as you could want from your whodunnit. If any other Ian Rankin readers are beginning to feel that Inspector Rebus is a bit of a git, I recommend trying Robinson for a while.

Douglas Coupland isn't an author whose name is usually associated with SF, so I was surprised to discover that Girlfriend in a Coma is an SF novel, dealing with the end of the world. After losing her virginity to her boyfriend Richard in 1979, Karen falls into a coma, leaving only a letter hinting of the apocalyptic visions she has experienced of late. Cut to 1997, and Richard's dead friend Jared starts appearing to him and other high school friends, before everyone in the world except them falls asleep. Not a hugely original idea, for a time I had high hopes of this book, but unfortunately I had to conclude that Jonathan Carroll would have done an immensely better job of writing it. Read Carroll's Outside the Dog Museum instead. Whilst talking about Douglas Coupland, though, an author I usually I have a lot of time for, has anybody noticed how all the new mainstream, angst ridden books, with neurotic and overly intense but ultimately trivial protagonists, are all touted as "comparable to Coupland at his best"?

After years of looking for a copy, whilst browsing at the library a copy of Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds leapt off the shelf at me. It is one of the most frustrating things, having had a book recommended by so many different people, for reasons that convince you that you will love it, and then being unable to find a copy, so I was worried when I started to read it that I had my expectations set too high, and disappointment would make me much harsher than it deserved. My relief at finding that it met my expectations and more was large. This is as close to a perfect book as I have ever come. For people who haven't heard of it, it is set in an Ancient China that almost was, and the good-natured protagonist, Number Ten Ox, takes it upon himself to seek the cure for the poison that has put all the children in his village into a coma. Hiring a private investigator, Li Kao, a man with a slight flaw in his character, the two set out to seek the near mythical Great Root of Power of the ginseng plant. Li Kao's cunning plans get them into as much trouble as they get them out of, whilst Ox's tasks involve seducing an increasing number of women and carrying Li Kao about on his back. Imagine Tom Stoppard wrote a novel set in China, with some help from Connie Willis, add a delicacy of writing that I've never come across before, and you still won't be close to how good this book is. Would-be writers, it is his first novel. Give up.

That about rounds up this issue of FRINGE. Next month I hope to have a guest contributor, a friend of mine here in Helsinki. If I can't bully him into an article, then it will more of the same. My pile of books to be read has lots of CJCherryh, Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman, the first two books in Juliet E McKenna's fantasy series, plus a collection of novella's set in a futuristic version of Japan. And if I don't screw up royally, there might be an account of my first incursion onto a Finnish stage. But only if I learn all my lines.
Copyright Fionna O'Sullivan, 2002.
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