FRINGE

FRINGE

Issue 14 September 2003

Come Into My Parlour

All month I've been trying to think of a slogan for FRINGE, for no real reason except that it entertains me. I want it to start: "Welcome to FRINGE, the fanzine that -" and then I think of lots of unlikely things that FRINGE might do, like refreshing parts that other fanzines don't reach, or getting rid of stubborn blackheads better than any other fanzine, and then I'm wrenched back into the reality shared by most of us, and I end up with something like "Welcome to FRINGE, the only fanzine written by an Irish woman living in Helsinki!" To think I studied marketing.

If anybody is wondering, there is no real point to the above paragraph. Wait! I've thought of a point for it. If you enjoy hearing about the completely trivial things I think about, you can find more of them at my new livejournal, which is what all of the Cool Kids are doing these days.

Before I start into the body of FRINGE, I'd like to publicly extent my congratulations to James Shields, host of lostcarpark on winning a Wooden Rocket award for Best Fan Site. James has been the brains and the brawn behind lostcarpark since its inception, and with very little drama has created a site that showcases the best of Irish fandom. He also is the original designer of FRINGE's web pages, and whilst I have taken that over now, and made some changes, it is still an adaptation of his work that I probably haven't thanked him for often enough. Plus, he has been very brave in allowing me direct access to the site to upload whatever I choose. Coming soon: Free Finnish Porn! He doesn't take praise well, so if you want to make a grown man blush, send him an appreciative email at james@lostcarpark.com.

Finncon X - the report

I haven't really been to very many cons, the vast majority of the ones I have been to have been Octocons, which are fairly small and ... familiar, and I know lots of people there.

So Finncon was kind of my con debut. Over 4000 people attended at various stages over the weekend, I was on a panel talking to about 60 or 70 of them at one stage, with a hangover and nothing really prepared. The first half of it was pretty stilted, but then the audience started asking questions and giving opinions and things picked up. Asked which was the book that last fired my enthusiasm for SF, I recommended Garth Nix's Sabriel, and lots of people wrote down the title, which was pleasing. I felt like a bit of an imposter, to be honest, everybody else on the panel was some form of writer, although I noticed that the very fact that I was on the panel had people assuming that what I said was worth listening to. Cool. So I was an imposter, but nobody found me out.

Dave Lally was also present representing Irish fandom (on the Eurocon committee no less). Lally is very good at being Lally. I had warned some of the Helsinki fans about his qualifications to talk for Ireland (as opposed to speak for Ireland, which is a different matter), but even so they were a bit surprised. Oh, and he overheard me talking to somebody about somebody else who is moving to Tampere, and is now convinced that in fact I'm the one moving to Tampere. If you hear this rumour, be assured that it is completely false.

Other highlights of the con included the Robert Jordan world paperback tossing championships, won unsurprisingly by Finland, with a record breaking toss of 19.20m (IIRC). There was even a cup as a trophy, and those who didn't like Fantasy literature could choose to toss a copy of Battlefield Earth instead. It was a very enjoyable event. Next time, I will be entering to represent Ireland, and feel confident that I will be the holder of the Irish record by the end of the event.

There was a very interesting panel on definitions of genres, and categorising them, which taught me new things anyway - you can categorise a book along two axis, the genre of the setting (eg. sf tech, high fantasy, westerns) and then also along the axis of sentiment (eg horror, detective, comedy). It isn't a perfect system of course, you can have sf tech-horror-comedy books and films, but it was a new way of thinking about things. His other way of classifying books and films involved how many changes they made to reality, and whether these changes were scientific or mythic. Eventually if you make enough changes, you reach a ceiling where the created world is too far from reality to be understandable to us (and the location of this ceiling changes depending on the individual). Banks' Culture novels apparently come very close to that ceiling.

The Culture books also got a mention and a plug in a panel on Posthumanism and the Vinge Singularity, which was actually the first time I had learnt very much about Posthumanism and what it is all about. I mightn't have paid as much attention as I should have done, since the panel was full and in a room without air conditioning, and many of the fans (the human kind, rather than the kind that would have helped the problem) were a little on the ripe side at that stage of a Sunday afternoon. Simon Ings is another recommended author (from the panel) who has good ideas about posthumanism worked into his novels.

The Masquerade was good, my favourite costume was the two guys (or girls, or one of each?) dressed up as a giant milk carton and a giant wedge of cheese. Maybe because they had their supporters organised to chant near where I was standing. Oh, and possibly also because I couldn't really see any other of the costumes.

Anyway. I met a few British fans I hadn't spoken to before, I learnt a lot about Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, I did my social butterfly act of drifting from group to group, I slept through the Polish snoring competition that was going on in the cheapo accommodation I was staying at (earning the respect of the sole Latvian fan, who claimed to have got about five hours sleep the whole weekend), I braved communal unisex showers (not one for the faint hearted, let me tell you, and not something I'll do again), and I had fun. Oh, and the trains from Helsinki to Turku are great, especially the air conditioning on days when the weather is over 30C...

Time Future

Maxine McArthur's novel Time Future caught my eye in the bookshop, on one of my periodic hunts for new authors, and I read it in a couple of adrenalin-fueled hours. It's her first novel, and whilst I find myself being more and more impressed with first novels as time goes on (is the publishing industry getting tougher, perhaps?), I'll still go on record as being impressed with this book.

Commander Halley is the station chief of Jocasta, Earth's first outspace station, humanity being one of the eight lesser species involved in the Confederacy, an alliance of twelve races, four of whom have technology far advanced of anything the other eight could hope to develop. This includes faster-than-light drives, so Earth owning a station deep in space makes them even more reliant on the good will of the Four.

Except that Jocasta has been blockaded by the Seouras, a race outside of the Confederacy, for the past six months. Attempts to send out ships to get help from the Confederacy have been blasted, and the Confederacy seems to be strangely unconcerned at the lack of communications from the station, and strangely shy about sending anyone to the system Jocasta is located in to see what is going on.

Halley's position is therefore unenviable. To make it worse, before hostilities broke out the Seouras implanted a communications device in her, and her alone, so she has the sole responsibility of travelling over to their ships for "discussions" whenever they summon her. The station has been blockaded for months, water is short, systems are going down, Halley seldom sleeps and never manages to find time for a good hot shower.

McArthur bravely uses a first person narrative to write a huge space opera, and does an excellent job of portraying Halley's exhaustion both directly and indirectly - plot strands come and go as Hally remembers them, getting caught up in action after action without the time for reflection that we know she needs and that we need too. There is a past history of both Halley's life, her family's, and Earth's, and these are believable.

But back to the plot! There's so much plot here it is difficult to know where to start. Jocasta's systems detect a mine explosion on the limits of the system they are in, a mine that only detonates when a faster-than-light ship slips back into normal space. A ruined ship floats into range of their sensors and is rescued. On board are several dead humans and one live one, and no sign of any aliens, which is strange since the technology needed for FTL travel is a closely guarded secret. Stranger still, these humans left Earth a hundred years in the past, and were apparently heading to Alpha Centauri. The "mistake" that had them overshoot their destination by fifty years begins to look more deliberate the more it is investigated.

Meanwhile, a series of grisly murders are taking place on the station, their viciousness pointing to a sub-class of one of the alien races that died out years ago, and whose breeding is banned under Confederacy law. Halley's ex-husband shows up, although nobody should have been able to get into Jocasta's system, and though he claims to be attempting to patch things up with Halley, he is also extremely interested in the FTL engine that the station now has, thanks to the ship the hundred year old humans arrived on.

It goes on, tightly plotted, tightly written, an enjoyable read. It won't set you alight, but it is competent and good, an example that the middle-range of of the genre, whose death-knell is repeatedly sounded by industry experts, isn't quite dead. If it wasn't for the existence of a sequel, Time Past, I would compare it to the kind of adventure SF produced by Robert Silverberg and Bob Shaw in between their better-known works of genius. Since it does stand-alone, the sequel apparently continuing Halley's adventures but not being needed to complete the first story, I'm instead reminded of James White's Sector General books - which is high praise in itself.

Dead Air

For my birthday last year, I asked my parents for Iain Banks' latest novel. I got a copy of Walking On Glass, published in 1985. This year I was more specific, and asked them for Dead Air by Iain Banks, and got a copy of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett instead. We had words, and on my trip to Ireland in August I found a brand new copy of Dead Air waiting on my bed.

On the Culture emailing list, nominally dedicated to discussion of all of Banks' works and of which I was a member for about five or six years, there has been a long-running debate about whether Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, is a git. All Right Thinking people will agree that of course he isn't, despite the increasingly desperate arguments of the pro-git faction (if killing insects accidentally makes you a git, I'm not sure I know anyone who isn't a git), and will point instead to Zakalwe in Use of Weapons who kills- but let's not spoil that plot.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Ken Nott, the protagonist and narrator of Dead Air, is a git. He cheats on his girlfriend, he sleeps with his best friend's wife, he has an affair with the wife of a notorious and ruthless gangster, and that's only his sex life. A shock-jock with a London radio station, he is paid to ruffle feathers, and the most enjoyable parts of the book are his quick-witted rants on topics from the advantages of supporting a crap local football team to why Israel is like Scotland to the benefits of adopting the Euro. It helps that, despite his deliberately shocking phraseology, I tend to agree with most of his views. And there's something about him that I just fancy.

Banks started writing Dead Air in October of 2001, and the opening scene reflects what was on everybody's mind at that time. During a wedding reception in the East End, the guests start dropping things off the balcony to watch them smash on the carpark below, until everybody's phones start ringing and somebody switches on the TV and they watch the world change in front of their eyes. This opening scene was so familiar from book reviews and blurb, it almost lost its effect. And because of that, one of the main themes of the book, the increased threats in Ken's life, also lost most of its effect.

With that theme ruined due to over-familiarity, the book becomes a string of episodes without the powerful plotting that we have come to expect from Banks' work. There are the usual red herrings and supposed denouements, and as I said above there is no denying this is an entertaining book, but all in all, it ended up feeling flat. We can continue to hope that Banks finds his mainstream form again, the way he found his science fiction form again with the excellent Look to Windward, but Dead Air felt almost as disappointing as The Business.

Quick Summaries

There's been a lot of good quality, competent science fiction coming out of the UK recently, nothing that blew me away, but enough new authors doing good work that we can point to their work if ever cornered into taking part in the Science Fiction is Dead argument.

Gridlinked and Skinner by Neal Asher prime examples. Culture style AIs bickering amongst themselves, a method of travelling faster than light that uses terminology from "The Owl and the Pussy Cat", imaginatively conceived aliens, liberal amounts of gruesome description, I really enjoyed these books.

Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson is a near future thriller concerned with the aftermath of a project to map the human mind, and the implications that being able to completely control a person's thoughts brings. Good characters and a suitably ambiguous happy ending make Robson an author whose future I look forward to.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan is a massively ambitious far future space opera, where bodies are worn like clothes, and human consciousness is needlecast about the Galaxy for instantaneous travel. The main plot focuses on a murder mystery, somewhat disappointingly given the size of the canvas, but it is done well enough, and again I look forward to his later works.

On to fantasy, and there are some good things being done in the epic fantasy trilogy field. The Ill-Made Mute by Celia Dart-Thornton is a lush fantasy drawing on ancient and modern Celtic mythology, a world where humans are under siege from the Faie, and a scarred, foundling mute must travel across the land in search of a cure for his scars. There are some genuine surprises in the plot, which prevents me from saying much more about it, but this is a welcome addition to the field.

Finally, The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling. Generations ago, it was prophesied that only a queen could keep Skala safe, and the current king has been making sure that none of his female relatives survive to challenge his throne. When his youngest sister, surviving as his favourite sibling, gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy, two wizards act quickly to make sure that the one who survives has the form of her brother. Tobin grows up as a boy, gradually learning not to play with dolls, kept away from the main cities and the court where his peculiarities won't be noticed. Flewelling is known for writing alternative sexuality into fantasy settings, and it is done sensitively and carefully, never getting in the way of the direction the plot has to take. The second book is Hidden Warrior, already published, and the final volume is expected some time this year.

Endnotes

My life has again been taken over by rehearsals, leaving me little time to read let alone to write FRINGE. You are probably as tired of reading my excuses as I am of writing them, so I won't dwell on the point: expect the next issue when you see it.

Copyright © Fionna O'Sullivan, 2003.

Contact fionna@theculture.org

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