Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should Really Get Someone Else To Help Lace Up, Like That Bit In Titanic

The book was released a month or two ago, and the film's just come out.

So, if you're a fan of fiction involving people wearing tightly-fastened masks, it's a good time for you.

And you might want to chat to a medical professional about that. There's a lot of interesting other stuff out there.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Have No Mic, And I Must Speak

Back in the 1980s, my family went to stay with some relatives for New Year's Eve. I don't remember much of the festivities itself, but one thing I do remember - for reasons that will become clear - is that nearby, about five minutes walk away in fact, was a comic shop.

Now, I'd been reading comics for a while, but my 'local' shop in Sheffield wasn't very local at all - it was a couple of bus rides away, and of course that kind of travel ate into the potential spending money (this was after Sheffield's insanely cheap bus fares had been abolished - boo! A flat fare of 2p was a fab thing to a cash-starved kid), so I tended to walk there with my friend Simon. Which took about an hour there and an hour back, so you can see why a shorter walk was so appealing.

This comic shop - I don't think it's there any more - had a pretty decent selection of recent comics, and also, as was often the case back then, also sold a lot of paperbacks (mainly SF, fantasy and horror), which you could then sell back to them for half the price in credit. So, being a bookish child and having a bit of Christmas money, I bought myself a book and a comic: All The Sounds Of Fear by Harlan Ellison, and the Warrior Summer Special (both pictured). Small pressies to myself, as it were.

I think I can, without fear of exaggeration, state that it was the greatest couple of pounds I ever spent, and that the combined effect of the two did strange things to my brain for which I will always be grateful.

The Warrior comic featured some stories by Alan Moore, whose work I was already starting to look out for (from the cover-date of that comic, I guess I was something like 12, and was just learning that certain names recurred on the credits of things I liked), and other writers as well, all of which made it a pretty heady brew, and then when I started to read the Ellison, my noggin was permanently bent out of shape.

If you've never read anything by Harlan Ellison... well, obviously, I think you should, but there's a fair chance you don't recognise the name, especially in the UK; this is pretty odd really, given that he is one of the most-recognised writers ever, but he tends to fly under the radar for a lot of people. Still, have you seen that original Star Trek episode with Joan Collins in? He wrote the screenplay for that? Seen The Terminator? Yeah, he provided (ahem) 'inspiration' for that. What about Babylon 5? He consulted on that, and the new version of The Twilight Zone and heaps of other stuff - and that's just his filmed work, his short stories are allegedly among the most reprinted in the English Language. So yes, I think you should read his stuff - it often has futurist backdrops, but don't let that fool you into thinking it's science fiction. Cos it isn't.

Anyway, I read the collection of stories in All The Sounds Of Fear, and whatever else that new year brought, it certainly opened with me having a new and strange outlook on just what the written word, when combined with imagination, could do. It's probably very much one of the reasons that I started writing - not because I sought to emulate his work, or anything so straightforward, but rather because it suggested there was a place in the world for writing down the more spiky and awkward of ideas, if you could do it. And that's why I cite him as my favourite writer, when asked - it sounds wilfully obscure to most people, but I like to think it's actually the truth.

Jump forward many years (past 1986, incidentally, when The Singing Detective made me realise just how unlimited the medium of TV could be), to last Friday night, on London's Southbank; it was raining, and England were playing a World Cup match, and that's why there was a limited turnout at the screening of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a film about Harlan Ellison.

There were probably about 30 of us, plus screenwriter and friend of Harlan Ellison James Moran and the film's director, Erik Nelson, but the limited numbers weren't any kind of damper on the event - the film was funny and smart and showed HE in what looks like a fairly balanced light. Yes, there were scenes where he was a bit short-tempered, but there were others where he spoke about writing and literature with a passion, and when he read sections from his stories the talent was painfully evident. So yes, it was a good film.

Afterwards, Messrs Moran and Nelson asked the audience to come nearer the front, as they were going to do a link-up to LA, where they'd ask Harlan some questions. I moved down as requested, and indeed got a front-row seat, which I was pretty pleased about. They linked up okay, and asked him a few questions, and then they asked if anyone in the audience had any questions. There was a pause, and then I realised that my hand was up, and they were nodding towards me.

I'll freely admit I was quite nervous about asking my question, not because I was speaking in front of a small crowd (as anyone who knows me will be aware, I'm a hopeless attention-seeker), but rather because this was probably likely to be my only actual interaction with Harlan Ellison, whose work I've enjoyed for over a quarter of a century. If there's anyone whose work you admire, imagine how you'd feel in a similar situation. Yep, there you go, now you get it.

Anyway, with both the film and my own personal 'history with HE' (recounted above at length - and you probably just thought it was the usual self-indulgent rambling, but hopefully now it reveals itself as the vital backstory it was intended to be) in mind, I asked my question, which came out in a slightly gabbled and nervous way, and sounded something like this:

"We see you in the film speaking to college students, and a couple of people in the film say that your work should be taught in schools - what, do you think, would be the ideal age for people to first read your work? When would you most want to get hold of their fragile minds? Teenagers? Ten? Eight? One?"

As those of you who can read will probably note, this is actually a series of questions, mainly because I was gabbling to fill the gap caused by the satellite delay, and I didn't actually have a microphone, so it was a bit uncertain to me whether Harlan could actually hear any of what I was saying. But he'd heard some of it, it seems, because he asked "Was that a question, or a diatribe?"

Erik then summarised the question, and Harlan answered it, giving a solid and considered answer - but then again, I probably would say that, as he seemed to suggest that the age of 14 or so was about right, thus making me ahead of my time as a child - and I was suitably pleased, on a number of levels.

And as the second - and only other - question was about the long-delayed third volume of Dangerous Visions, which is decades past its due date, and HE tends to get a bit fed up with being asked about (and showed as much on this occasion), I think that I probably did all right, all things considered.

Apologies for length here, but I was really rather chuffed about it, and wanted to record the event in what, I guess, is probably the closest thing I have to a diary. Given that I've met Alan Moore a couple of times, and that Dennis Potter has been dead for a number of years, I guess I've completed my interaction with the people whose work remoulded my thinking in the 1980s, which feels oddly satisfying.

One final point: if you want to see a terrific example of HE's writing, read the short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, from which the title of this post derives. The title's remarkable enough, but the story itself... well, to say "it lingers in the mind" is several kinds of understatement.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Future And Past: The Name May Be Its Future Chart Position (1), And The Form In Which It Would Have Been Sold Until A Few Years Ago (45)... Perhaps.

Longtime blog readers with appallingly long memories will recall that a friend of mine Ian is a singer by trade, and lookylook, his band's video is available to view online (ignore the fact that the frozen image below appears to show him doing an impression of the Joker, he's actually a very presentable chap):

That's rather good, innit? The single's out on 5 July, and will be available from iTunes and other places like that. If you like it, please buy it. And even if you don't like it, please buy it just to please me, for my wrath is great and far-reaching and painful for those who displease me.

As the aforementioned longterm readers will also be well aware of.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

And That Explains Why Lol Creme (Of Godley and Creme) Never Signs His Text Messages

So, as Mrs S and I returned to the car after a bit of shopping the other day, a chap came up to me in the car park.

"I'd like to congratulate you on your parking."
"You scratched my car," he said, and gestured to a car which, I then realised, had been parked next to ours, but which was now slightly further away.
"Well, I'm sorry if I did, but I didn-"
"Just be more careful in future, all right?" he said, and then went away pretty quickly (leaving me to wonder if he was telling the entire truth about the alleged damage).

As Mrs Wife pointed out, it hardly seemed worth sticking around to make the point, and I also had doubts about the claim of damage (it had been close, yes, but when I'd got out of the car, my door had only touched that rubber strip thing which most modern cars have along their sides - for just that reason). But it also made me think about something which is relevant to writing, and certainly to life in general: the need to express yourself clearly.

I'd been thrown off by his opening gambit because it just hadn't made any sense to me, coming as it did from a rather obtuse angle and then suddenly switching to the main point. I mean, I know full well that a great way to throw an argument a bit off track is to shift from discussing the opinions at the heart of it to the method of discussion ("look, you don't have to shout, all right?" etc), but if you're trying to make a point to someone in the first place I think it's probably key to express that pretty clearly.

I think we've probably all had experience of disagreements which begin with you being wrong-footed by a bewildering opening - something like "I think you've got something to tell me, don't you?" - which kind of leaves you feeling a few minutes behind as you try to catch up and figure out what you're supposed to be discussing, or what you've allegedly done; I guess that's partly due to the fact that the person initiating the (ahem) discussion has had more time to mull it over in their mind and try to figure out the sharpest and snarkiest angle of attack - which lets you know that they're not happy, though not necessarily what they're not happy about. Which probably isn't the ideal way to communicate.

In a similar fashion, I often find myself slightly bewildered by slang and text-speak and the like, which is obviously a sign that I'm an old fart, but I think that sometimes it almost seems like the point of the slang is less about getting your point over, and more to be seen to be using zOMG, LOL, dat, 2day, and the like. In this situation, I guess the medium, or at least the method of communication, becomes the message.

You see slang and invented languages used a fair amount of fiction, too; A Clockwork Orange is a pretty good example, though if memory serves that gradually adds more and more of the invented lingo until you suddenly realise, towards the end of the book, that most of it is in Nadsat. Quite a lot of books written in not-quite English (or at least, not quite English as we know it today) are off-putting to the reader, and are often reviewed with comments to the effect that 'persevering pays off', though I think there may be an argument to be made that in the opening stages of a book, care should be taken not to alienate the reader; it's a case of setting out your stall or being on your best behaviour in the early stages of a relationship, to my mind, though of course you don't want to make your beginning so smooth and easy that it misleads about what's to follow (whilst I haven't read beyond the first Harry Potter book, I gather that the series gets darker as time goes on, and deals with far less innocent stuff), or so cautiously tailored to avoid alienating anyone that it ends up appealing to no-one.

I guess the point of all this rumination is that there's some truth to the idea (which I'm not claiming to have originated) that the quality of your communication is the degree to which it's understood; if you want to be understood clearly, so that you can proceed (with your story or argument or whatever), I guess the key thing is to rein in any tendency to elaborate or approach from a clever angle, and just to get to the heart of the matter as directly as possible.

I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's advice about writing, which I think applies: "Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

...Which also goes to explain why so many of my blog posts are published as written. Hmm.