Good things to read
As I science fiction critic and editor I have read an awful lot of fiction. Choosing three favorite books is hard, but I’ve made it even harder for myself by restricting myself to one novel. If you were to ask me again tomorrow, I might well choose something different, but today I am going for Light by M. John Harrison. He has been one of my favorite writers for years, and is easily good enough to win mainstream literary prizes should he choose to write the sort of books that wins them. Instead he writes brilliant science fiction and fantasy novels which are not escapist, but are very much about escapism. Light is both beautifully written and fabulously inventive. You should read it with Roxy Music’s song, “Street Life”, as the sound track.
Science fiction is also notable for its thriving short fiction market. Clarkesworld, a magazine I had the honor to work at for several years, is one of the best venues. Most people think that producing a short story must be easy compared to a novel. It is only a fraction of the number of words, after all. But those words need to be very carefully chosen. The acknowledged master of the art is Ted Chiang. He only produces one story every year or two, but the work that goes into those stories is incredible. Check out Stories of Your Life and Others for some of his best work.
Lots of people want to be writers, but very few people get to be really good. If you are interested in making a career in science fiction or fantasy one of the things you should do is get a copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook. Not only is it full of fabulous advice from many of the top writers in the field (of whom Jeff is one), it is also a beautiful artefact in its own right.
Good things to watch.
There’s any number of fun, trashy science fiction movies that I could recommend, but choosing between them is hard and anyway I am trying to be a bit serious here. So I am going with Cloud Atlas. To start with it is based on a really good book. Of course that’s not necessarily a good thing. It is axiomatic that the best SF movie adaptations are based on short stories, not novels, because you can’t collapse a whole novel into a 2 or 3 hour movie. That’s why there are so many good films of Phil Dick stories. But Cloud Atlas is also a long and very complicated novel. It was madness to even try to make a movie of it, let alone get into the marvellous conceit of having the same group of actors portray different characters in the different story strands. Watch it, then watch all of the extras. It may be flawed, but given the difficulty of the task the Wachowskis took on it is an extraordinary achievement.
Back in 1966 the BBC and Kenneth Clark undertook to shoot a documentary series chronicling the history of Western civilization. Clark (later made Sir Kenneth and eventually Lord Clark) was an art historian, and certainly knew his stuff. Civilization took 3 years to film, and runs to 13 hour-long episodes. Because it was shot on 35mm film rather than the cheaper 16mm format normally used for television at the time it still looks gorgeous on a modern HD television. Clark obviously has an agenda, and freely admits his ignorance of the civilizations of India, China and so on, but he is no Little Englander. He takes us on a Grand Tour and shows us some of the very best of Western art, thought and literature. There’s even a cameo appearance by a very young Patrick Stewart in the section on Shakespeare. They don’t make documentaries like this anymore.
Much of my TV watching, however, is sport. In particular I am a big cricket fan. (What can I say? It is the only sport we are good at in the part of England where I was born). Now of course most of you will associate cricket with games that last forever. Actually it is only five days, but it seems like forever. (England and South Africa did once decide to keep playing until someone won, but they had to stop after 9 days because this was 1939 and the English team had to catch the boat home.) However, the sport is not deaf to the demands of the short-attention-span public and a new form of the game called Twenty20 (T20 for short) is gaining popularity. It lasts about 3 hours — roughly the same time as a standard baseball game — and it is all action. In an average baseball game, 9 runs are scored. In a T20 game scores of 150-a-side are not unusual. That’s more than a run a ball. Games between top teams can be incredibly close. In the last season of Australia’s Big Bash tournament there was some amazing drama. If you enjoy fast-paced, all-action sport, give it a try. The rules are not that difficult, honest. Cricket has nothing near the complexity of the Infield Fly Rule.
Good things to use
Make-up is all very well, but dear Goddess the amount of faffing around with moisturiser, concealer, foundation, powder, sunblock and goodness knows what else is enough to give a girl nightmares. And then you have to take the whole lot off in the evening when you get home. Not anymore. Now we have BB Creams. One tube, it goes on like moisturiser, and it comes off easily. For someone as useless in the morning as I am these things are just perfect. The one I use is by Garnier, but I haven’t done exhaustive testing and anyway your skin may differ.
I love to cook, but I very rarely have the time so I often end up taking home prepared meals. Microwave food is all very well, but there are some things that just don’t work well in a microwave, pizza being an obvious example. My apartment does have an oven, but it always seems such a terrible waste to turn it on, heat it up, and then use all of that heat to cook something like an individual portion of moussaka. Then my mother showed me her halogen oven. I bought one, and my life was changed. It is basically an oven about the size of a pressure cooker, and it is just perfect for a 10” pizza or an oven-cooked meal for one. It will even do a small chicken, and at Christmas I cook a turkey breast joint in it. Sadly it is not really good for cake, but I can cope with that.
I live close to the small city of Bath in England — once a Roman town, then home to Jane Austen, and now a tourist attraction. One of the best things about it is that it still has a lot of small, independently-owned shops. In these days of mammoth shopping malls full of cookie-cutter chain stores staffed by bored check-out operators who know nothing about the products they sell, this is a breath of fresh air. There is nothing quite like going into a small, specialist shop staffed by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the things they are selling. I’d like to make special mention of Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Independent Spirit, and The Fine Cheese Company. Obviously the chances of your being able to visit them are not high, but if you have a good independent store near you please do use it. If they have good staff you will soon find that they become friends.