The Lowest Heaven – review

So I was fortunate enough to attend one of the book launches for the Lowest Heaven – a selection of fine Sci Fi shorts drawing upon those celestial bodies we know and love (from a distance, of course) published to coincide with the Visions of the Universe exhibit at the Greenwich Observatory.  We have names ranging from Alastair Reynolds, Sophia McDougall, James Smythe, Adam Roberts, Maria Headley, Esther Saxey and so on who provide us with each slice of this cosmic pie. The pastry topping is wonderfully glorious, as you can see:


Right, whilst we’re on the subject of pie – there is a certain nostalgic value in these short stories. The yearning to explore, the unbridled optimism of flinging ourselves star wards feels very Golden Age esque at times – if this is a pie, it could be the comforting apple pie that your grandmother made (in my case, still makes). To me, that is not a bad thing per se. There’s only so much grim-dark you can take and although there is a rough side for every smooth in this collection, the excitement of expanding ourselves – the stories we would encounter, the species, the culture is something we would be foolish to miss out on. We have a mixed bag, let’s say.

I’m not going to go through all of these in order – well, maybe a line or so, let’s see how it goes – it’s hard to review a short story collection without spoiling EVERY SINGLE ONE. The one that sings out to me in the midst of typing is WWBD (What would Bradbury do) by Simon Morden, where this nostalgic message of human exploration as opposed to pure robotic scouting really hits home. Being a Bradbury phile as I am, this really warmed my cockles. We have another famous writer making an appearance of the Hardboiled styling of The Jupiter Files by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

On the topic of nostalgia, By Way of the Moon (it’s a very long title, be warned) by Adam Roberts is most certainly harking back to the old Vernian/Wellsian yarn, complete with the tone and language. It’s rather turgid as the form would suggest, but well paced. If you like these classic authors, you’ll like this literary love child.

Esther Saxey’s Uranus had this whimsical quality to it. It reminded me very much of Star Maker but the flights of fancy are counterbalanced by this rather strained relationship. Another classic writer mentioned here, too!

Sophia McDougall’s Golden Apple – relating to the Sun – is a great yarn indeed. It reminded me of this tale in Myth Understandings, and I can’t find my copy. It’s Gywneth Jones’ Grass Princess (is this right? I’m trying to remember the title), and this need for her to assimilate with what gives her strength is well written indeed (argh, it’s so hard not to spoil the plot!)

The Krakatoan by Maria Headley is darned good fun and the ending will send shivers down your spine.

The Comet’s Tale by Matt Jones is a rather familiar premise with a little twist in its… tail, with the tripped out 80’s cult stylings and its presence shown through the angle of an unrequited relationship. Ashen Light by Archie Black seems to me to be Desperate Housewives set on Venus (dirty crimes carried out on manicured lawns).Talking of TV shows, we even have a reference to America’s Top Model in We’ll Always be Here by S.L Grey (good name!) of two sisters trapped in a orphanage. Read it, and you’ll see what I mean. Saga’s Children by E.J Swift is a little anticlimactic in its conclusion (always hard to pull off in a short story), but the emotions are well written.

We do have the Posthuman as well; Enyo-Enyo is a rather creepy but fitting portrayal of replication and division – well done. A Map of Mercury by Alastair Reynolds is a favourite of mine here, with the idea of art taken to the absolute limit – with a strong and formidable tone. From this Day Forward by David Bryer depicts a rom-com styling with clones.

Lavie Tidhar’s Only Human  without spoiling anything, explores the human condition, loyalty and what could be effectively (That’s pretty good going for SF – giving that’s what it mainly sets out to do!).

Air Water and the Grove by Karron Warren depicts a poignant tale of father and son during the events of Saturnalia. The trees are truly terrifying and beautiful, and are described thusly.

James Smythe The Grand Tour is wonderfully written – how a bike journey depicts a frail and fearful society. The ending is especially powerful and enigmatic.

Magnus Lucretius by Mark Newton was indeed an interesting tale – another favourite of mine – with the Moon being used to house an Ancient Earth as a bizarre Disney theme world. Loved the character of Felix (but then again, I would).

Sorry for the rather sparse litterings of a review – I find it so hard to write a spoiler free review on short stories! All anthologies are a pic and mix, and this one is no exception. This collection has something for everyone;  in my opinion it’s worth checking out.  There are comfort reads, light hearted reads, poignant reads, but all contain food for thought. So, what are you waiting for? Go on! Shoo!


Non Fiction Friday – Stage the Future!


For those who don’t know, I’m doing my PhD on Science Fiction and Theatre. When I mention it, I get one of 2 responses. One is often “Oh… I see. Are you going to write an SF novel?” to “Oh my gosh! Fantastic! I’ve always wanted to see SF in theatres!”. I have received more of the latter (although I am going to write an SF novel, but primarily my interest is on the theatrical side), and so am very privileged to be celebrating the combination of the two with Christos Callow Jr. for our conference Stage the Future.

There has been little written on the subject, it has to be said. We have Science Fiction and the Theatre by Ralph Willingham, although with some good mentions of cognitive estrangement, has an apologetic tone and casts certain stereotypes over SF and subsequently, its staging. We also have Staging the Impossible, which does set out to mention the possibilities of staging SF, but in its wake cataloguing a list of defeats. I will be reviewing the two in earnest, do not worry! However, there is a line in the latter that speaks to me(originally from Julius Kargalitski’s essay The Fantastic in Cinema and Theatre):

Consequently, for Kagarlitski, cinema is “an ideal instrument of the fantastic” (11), for it  “excludes any possibility of interference”–in effect offering viewers the sense that “what has been put on film, has, as it were, already happened” (11).

Kagarlitski implies that it is difficult for a theatrical production to “project” such a sense of historicity and thus validate the content of drama. Given this viewpoint, audiences expect less from a production of science fiction in a theater.(Murphy, 198)

There’s something very misleading in this. He mentions in the article that theatre is a conditional art, generating power from the present moment (p10/11). In our “Information Age”, are we not in fact living this SFnal life now? Donna Harraway described us of being Cyborgs in her Manifesto in 1985. We have our information, our footprint, our history in the cloud as it were, our younger generations have their baby photos as purely digital. We are all connected via a grid that, whilst enabling accessibility, erodes our privacy and interaction with the wholly physical world. We are 3D printing human organs, for crying out loud! Is SF then not about exploring our conditional present? Exactly what was being said to dissuade us from staging it in the first place?

Whether you agree or disagree with me, we would love to hear your takes on the subject. Proposals for papers and performance (we couldn’t do one without the other) are welcome with the deadline being Feb 2014. The conference will be held at RHUL, University of London on the 26th April 2014 with our excellent keynote speakers Jen Gunnels and Nick Lowe. You can see our CFP here.

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We look forward to seeing you there!

Writing Thoughts – What’s your Novum?

So I thought I’d break up the blog with more miscellaneous material – how people interpret writing at large. Knowing an author personally makes you think sometimes about the stories they write with an extra added dimension – not all the time, but it makes you think – no matter how Barthes warns us against it sometimes.

Now, I don’t know how many people have read my work – but I sometimes wonder when writing what the author will think. Art is a very personal thing and even if you create degrees of separation (which of course is fiction), there is an underlying personal message, whether you try and disguise it or not.

When I write SF, for example, I often mention the presence (or absence) of children and the act of raising a family. Fishbowl is about a system where children are neatly categorised and raised to a strict routine, Cuckoos and Chrysalides depicts a woman’s battle to keep her children uploaded until she is ready to care for them, Terra Firma has a female character who has now given up on the idea of raising a family as she and her husband flail in a post-apocalyptic world.

Now you may say I write about children as I often work in coffee shops and hear kids crying constantly, but I think there’s something else there. And that is that the very idea of having my own human kids is an SF conceit for me. It’s my own personal novum (Marriage and relationships are vastly becoming SF conceits too to me, but that’s another kettle of fish). It’s something believable but at the moment unfathomable to me – the world would inherently be the same, but I would see it differently. Dangers would be more apparent to me, my mentality would change as regards to time and space and purpose. The act of raising children does fascinate me, and I think this is the reason why I explore these many angles in my written work.

Maybe we all have personal novums, which is why we cling to certain concepts in our written fiction. I’d be very interested in hearing some from other people.

Review – Pastoral at the Soho Theatre

ImageEcological change and subsequent disaster is ubiquitous – from the shoutouts to reduce our carbon footprint to the extra charge of acquiring plastic bags – and it’s often reflected in art. However, Thomas Eccleshare’s vision is a bleakly humorous one – a quite unique angle. With dystopian theatre, there is an inherent fear that our suspension-of-disbelief faculties will be overworked and leave us exhausted and unhappy, but that’s not the case here. Dialogue is used convincingly in forms of reportage of the riots outside – nature juxtaposed with household names “weeds growing in Nandos, rabbits in the yoghurt aisle at Aldi”, with the set used to its full potential as it slowly degrades before us like a crumpled plastic bag. The floor snaps and bends throughout, a tree slowly grows through the heart of the inside of the house as nature slowly takes its hold. Flowers are shot through to the ground and it all feels scarily believable.

The characters do this justice too. The old and young bond in a crisis – Moll (Calder-Marshall) and Arthur (Polly Frame) find each other by chance and an unlikely alliance forms between the pair, with some amusing anecdotes and musing on past and future. The theme of King Arthur and the romanticised notion of Pastoral is explored between the two, which of course has now been completely rewritten. The boys looking after them have to go through the ordeal of nature’s way of exposing under the surface – dealing with hunting and gutting with some funny but ultimately bleak moments. In particular, the plight of the Ocado worker can make you laugh, wince and cry. There are other great moments in the play, but I won’t spoil it – just see it!

All in all, when we see how detached we are from the processes of our lives – and the obsession with the end result and surface – it’s like nature revolting. Their products must be respected, which obviously has not been the case. They mention that they cement the grass to block them out, but now the grasses have become resilient. With all this in mind, it doesn’t feel like a lesson in the classroom.

It’s black comedy of high quality. As Moll says “What’s the difference between a hen night and a zoo? One is where hairy animals are prodded in cages by men in uniforms, the other’s a gift shop.” Hear hear!

Pastoral won the Soho Verity Bargate Award in 2011. There are strong Sci-Fi elements running through the play as nature fights technology as well as the “solution” to the problem. It’s rather reassuring for me and I’m sure many others that this element of science fiction theatre is being recognised and rewarded.