And, as is traditional at this time of year, I'd just like to mention my favourite porn title: Rude Lesbian Nurses. I like it because I don't think the title exactly conveys the erotic delights its makers intended. And I mention it because it makes our hit rate soar.
This is my yearly summing up of what I've liked in the previous year. I mean in the media, really. I like a covered market and the sort of pies made by small companies that you find in out of the way petrol stations, and my greatest moment of relaxation was just after start of play at the opening match of the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. I like falling asleep during a Test Match, and theme tune to The Sky at Night. But I see no reason to trouble you with such trifles.
I think my three favourite novels of the year were probably Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts and Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi (going by UK publication dates, that is). I've been reading a lot of older fiction this year, including my progress through all of Christopher Priest (The Space Machine having had all its ideas plundered since publication being now rather unsatisfyingly predictable) and now I'm catching up with Greg Egan, so my commitment to new fiction (other than reading all of the Hugo nominated work in every category except novel) this year has not been what it should be.
Moxyland is a ressurection of that most dead genre, cyberpunk, in a near future South African everyday dystopia. The setting implicitly says that ending apartheid didn't make everything bright and shiny, and that grand old SFnal feeling of 'if this goes on' is to the fore, with lashings of atmosphere, character and humour. But it definitely opts for SF exploration rather than satire, which might have been too easy. We cut between four characters from different social strata, all of whom are playing the game, and here comes the great unremembered point of cyberpunk, they're all rather enjoying the dystopia, the Funky Catastrophe, until very bad things happen. I'm a bit too gnarled and ancient for the politics, but it's really got a kick to it, and I recommend it highly.
Yellow Blue Tibia is from that interesting place where a new inflationary universe of SF has sprung up, amongst literary fiction. Some of that universe is formed by literary authors who look down on our ghetto and despise it, and some is formed by literary authors who simply don't see why they should enter a ghetto and prostrate themselves just to write about what they like. Adam Roberts, aside from both groups, is an SF writer who can decide, like Aldiss, Ballard, Priest and most of the others from the New Wave, to use the tropes of a literary novel, ambiguity most of all, to enter that universe himself. He's been, frankly, arrogant in the way he told this year's Hugo nominated authors (and artists, even!) that their work wasn't cutting edge enough. But that doesn't change the fact that he deserves more recognition, and that perhaps the SF ghetto should reach out more to embrace that new universe, and redefine, a little, its terms of engagement with literary quality. Yellow Blue Tibia is a wonderful collision between the Soviet way of seeing the world, the SF way of doing that, and the universe of flying saucers. It keeps its foot in the SF genre, right at the end, by offering not a dreamlike wandering off from its road trip through the Russian consciousness, but a nuts and bolts explanation, which might come as a bit of a shock to a literary audience expecting something more like The Magus or Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow. But who knows, they might have liked that shock, they might want more, and we should welcome them with more, and more like this from Adam Roberts.Everyone knows John Scalzi, our current Heinlein as much as Stephen Baxter is our modern Clarke. I've now read all his novels, and have decided he's the 'airport bestseller SF writer' I was waiting for a few years back. The only trouble is, he's not yet a bestseller on a Stephen King level, which suggests that, now somebody's had a real go at it, the public appetite for SF may be genuinely waning. Was SF really just the literature of Project Apollo, and a long time in dying? We shall see. In the meantime, Scalzi writes hard SF for everyone: nom nom nom.
Let's get past movies, because I'm sure I feel the same way you do: I worship the perfect narrative shape and boldness of the new Star Trek; Moon; District 9; awaiting Avatar, etc. For some reason I'm never as excited by a movie as I am by a great TV show. I think it's just about how I interact with narrative, and that a lot of other people provide all the commentary one needs about movies, so let's get to this year's TV, eh?
Torchwood: Children of Earth reinvented post-watershed telefantasy exactly like Russell Davies reinvented family telefantasy. Initial BBC nerves, scheduling worries, and then bam, it wins its slot every night and everyone's talking about it and execs all want some more of that, please, and didn't they say it was going to be a hit all along? It's incredible that this hard beast grew out of the corpse of dear old campy slash fiction Torchwood, a show for our enjoyment, not for our experience of drama. It's like The Monkees suddenly did an episode set in Vietnam. The outcry amongst fans was a shock to me, and hardened me in all sorts of ways (yeah, right, Russell T. Davies is 'a homophobe' because he killed your favourite character, I hope he kills your next three favourite characters too, and that you thus realise that accusations of sexism and homophobia aren't yours to throw around when all that's happened to you is that you've been asked to feel something). The hardcore of the political response to the alien threat produced a genuine chill, that SFnal feel of alienation largely conveyed through expression and tone. I was a little disappointed by the ending: surely that government would be wondering if they'd be hanging from lamp posts soon, not about a snap election? But a shared experience of adult SF for millions of people: invaluable.
I have three particular favourite telefantasy shows at the moment (I always say Doctor Who isn't a show, but a lifestyle choice): Flash Forward; Dollhouse and Stargate Universe. Warehouse 13 is well made and great fun in a way nothing else quite is, but needs maybe one more season to be completely sure of its tone and produce some masterpieces. Fringe has been showing signs of tottering on its tightrope over those sharks, looking like it realised that it doesn't have a format and panicked, until suddenly last week, with the parasitic worm episode, it righted itself, shrugged its shoulders, and decided it was a show where a family work the X-Files. That's the format. Phew. If shouty black boss Broyles (we've established there are three roles for African-American men in telefantasy: shouty boss; really nice friend and alien warrior) can be fully included in that family, as Astrid suddenly was, then it might be full speed ahead from here, and maybe even some cool tricks along that tightrope into the second half of the season. But we shall see. Lost has been brilliant, particularly my favourite episode 'The Variable', an actual new time paradox story that deserves Hugo attention, but this coming season will make or break a genuine American classic that'll be remembered for years to come as being that show where loads of the audience left after season two, and then spent the rest of their lives hearing how great it got after that.
Stargate Universe is the most solid of my favourite three, with barely a mis-step along the way. It's shown, like Torchwood, a desire to make actual drama, with feelings of anger, despair and frustration summoned up and exorcised in the audience. We're asked to find things we love and loathe in virtually every character, and the show's central plan is character conflict against a background kept very very simple. The episode 'Time' was bold enough to ask us to realise that the seemingly loose thread ending actually tied up the time paradox neatly, and couldn't be referred to next episode... and then the show didn't refer to it next episode! Another Hugo pick for me, there. I'm just continually pleased by this show, much much better than it should be. Less is more.
That competence is also displayed in Flash Forward, the sort of show that answers the audience's questions at the moment they think them, following the line of logic in a very SFnal way. In many ways, this is the purest SF show out there, in that it posits one change and then watches how that makes the world. I like the reversals, the surprises, the sheer business of television it makes use of. Only once did I feel a wobble: where two scientists play poker for stakes which we can't fully understand and that don't seem to matter that much. Unfortunately, what I at the time saw as another breathtakingly bold move, the (no spoilers) action which revealed the future could be changed, may have been the undoing of the show in the public imagination. Guys: they were waiting to see how you made every flash forward work out. You shouldn't have told them they might not. I didn't see it until after the fact either, but I think you might have run over something back there. I think it might have been a shark. But if the quality keeps up, and with the flash forwards excitingly promised at the end of season one, I think even that shark may turn out to have been just a bump in the road.
Dollhouse is anything but straightforward. It's a show which shows us sexism, prostitution, rape and war crimes, and makes us complicit in being close enough to the people who do those things to sympathise with them. I've seen people online saying that to like this show is to be a bad person. It's like Michael Powell and Peeping Tom all over again. I think perhaps if those commentators made Dollhouse it would start with a caption saying sexism is bad, to educate all the people who didn't realise that, and then have some scenes of people telling each other that sexism is bad, and then introduce us to some villains who aren't nice people like us, who aren't people at all, really, who deserve to be blown up by the end of the episode, doing bad sexist things. You see, this is why Joss Whedon is a genius, because, like Russell Davies, he sees that he's got a parade following him, and instead of doing tricks for them and getting applause, leads them into a dark forest where things may hurt them.
I should take a moment to say how much I enjoyed 'The Waters of Mars'. That Dalek in the skylight: the deep time and resonance of The New Adventures novels. I'm going to blog a lot about the regeneration coming up. It's always a big moment in the lives of any of us emotionally involved with the mythology of that show. I always get the feeling that the next Doctor will be 'my' Doctor, and you know, they always are. But there are loads of people who instinctively feel the opposite, and this time there are Tom Baker sized shoes to fill. Lucky there's a Peter Davison on the way.
A quite brief trot through comics now, because later in the 12 Blogs I'll be doing Five More Comics For Hugo Voters, and will mention a load of my favourites. But this year I've loved Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe (especially the fight with the small robot who entered the party); Secret Six (a heart-tearing story about slavery that looked further into the darkness than any comic I've read, in an adult rather than adolescent way); Fables (still the world's best comic); Fantastic Four (cosmic and personal at once); Phonogram and SWORD; The Unwritten; Detective Comics; Batgirl (the neglected fun new bat book); Captain America; Matt Fraction's catwalk X-Men and The Marvels Project.
Music: Ladyhawke; Little Boots; The Flaming Lips; Empire of the Sun; White Lies; The Duckworth Lewis Method; Calvin Harris. And how sweet it was to fall asleep under a big hat at the Wychwood Festival.