31 December 2004

Brain-Racking Time

There's a literary device which I'm considering using in Peculiar Lives, which I'm certain isn't original. However, I cannot for the life of me recall where I've read it. On the basis that one should always be aware of who one's stealing from, I'm straining my brain to remember where, exactly, I've encountered this particular narrative pattern:

The book, narrated in the first person (and in an archaic style, although whether authentically or in imitation I don't recall), has a false ending which appears to bring the story to a close. Someone close to the narrator (very likely the book's central character) has left him (I believe it's a him), presumably forever. They may well have died, in fact. However, there is a final chapter / passage where the narrator returns in great excitement to writing the supposedly finished story, having just received a visit from the person in question, who has reassured him that all is well. There's some doubt in the reader's mind as to whether this is all a delusion or a dream on the narrator's part. It begins something like "It is with great astonishment / exhilaration / arousal / whatever that I resume my tale, which I had thought forever finished. For [insert name here] has returned to me, this very night!"

It doesn't seem to be from any of the books I thought it might be in. So, I'm opening up the question to the floor. Does this sound familiar, at all whatsoever, to anybody reading this? Or did I dream it?

24 December 2004

A Very Merry Christmas to All of You at Home

It's been (briefly) a surprisingly sunny Christmas Eve. Earlier I took the scooter up the road to buy earplugs (a vital commodity when visiting one's in-laws), and I felt hot. Now of course it's gone overcast and miserable again, but I appreciate the effort.

I have now finished the first complete draft of my novella (cue angelic trumpets, hallelujahs etc). There's still a lot of work to do before the book's finished, of course -- it needs a thorough rewrite and extensive polish, just in the nature of things; and there are some tricky copyright issues to be worked out, relating to some rather vital chapter epigraphs I want to lift from dead-white-male-but-still-in-copyright S.F. authors. But all of that can wait until 2005.

All of which means I'm allowed to spend the next week Not Working, but instead doing things like reading, eating, drinking and very likely helping with the washing-up. Today, for instance, I have mostly spent in the mind-numbingly tedious tasks of wrapping presents and packing, which has been nice.

Our plan is to spend three days with in-laws, three with parents and New Year's Eve probably in our own living-room watching The Wicker Man on ITV. I may be online at some point (using my parents' broadband, if not my in-laws' dial-up), but I doubt I'll be updating the blog before the 31st or so.

And so, it only remains for me to wish everyone reading this a splendid festive season, however you wish to celebrate it.

[Deity, spirit or impersonal force of choice] bless us, every one.

19 December 2004

Slightly Momentous

Well, the novella now has a title. And the title which I've chosen, in consultation with the editor, as being the most appropriate to the volume's content, is... Peculiar Lives.

Trust me, it works. It really does fit the novella remarkably well. It does however, mean that to avoid ambiguity, the title of this blog is going to have to change, slightly, to Peculiar Times. The URL will stay the same -- http://infinitarian.blogspot.com/ -- and there shouldn't be any particular practical implications, except that anyone who links here (er, does anyone?) will have to change the wording.

The title itself has been rattling around inside my brain for ages -- before I kept this blog, I'd used it as the title of an (unpublished) short story about a bookshop owner, and as the name of the bookshop within the story. Using it for a published book should stop me from recycling it again, at least.

18 December 2004


I've put up my short story 'Scapegoat' (originally published in Emerge), at www.infinitarian.com. I hope some of you like it, at least.

Emerge is an anthology of work by Christians, so the story has a religious theme -- but it's not exactly a conventional one, so I hope it can be of interest to secular readers too.

It's remarkable, looking back at this, to see how my style and approach have changed (for, I hope, the better) in the last couple of years. The concentrated and protracted process of writing Of the City of the Saved..., and since then the short stories and novella, has forced me to focus on the actual mechanics of writing as never before, and my inclination when reading older material like this is to be hyper-critical. The story reads as if I was out to shock the volume's more conservative readers -- which I was -- and this seems a slightly adolescent ambition now. The influence of Sandman on the work is also rather embarrassingly obvious.

If you do find 'Scapegoat' an interesting read, do consider buying Emerge. It's packed with good stuff -- poetry, prose and drama from unpublished and professional authors alike. And Subway is a small press, with some interesting publications under its belt, so it's worth supporting.

17 December 2004


...Last day of term, and I really can't be bothered with anything. Tomorrow I begin a week's writing, during which I theoretically finish the first draft of the novella; after that, if I'm really lucky, a week off visiting family, eating far too much and being given presents. So naturally I'm uninclined to deal with the petty problems of students, even if they do all seem suddenly to have developed a remarkable eagerness for study. Perhaps it's just that only the keen ones are in college today.

I've heard back from my editor, to whom I sent the first three-quarters of the novella a couple of weeks ago: he says there's nothing much wrong with it, which is a big relief. My visions of spending February frantically rewriting the whole thing from scratch have now receded rather.

We're discussing covers and blurbs as well, which is always rather exciting. We also need to finalise a title rather urgently, as the novella has to be given a "Coming Soon" slot in the next novella of the series, which is going to the printers in the next week or so. Having decided that A Man Apart was rather crap, I'm now leaning towards Men of the Times, or possibly Man of the Times. The only problem is that that sounds rather like a group of journalists. Hey ho.

Van Me to the Fens to Wrestle Pigs

Yesterday, as I was scootering to work, cursing the earliness of the morning and wondering when I should next take the bike in for a service (answer: some time next week, really, as if if it doesn't get seen to every few months the spark plugs tend to start to fall apart), I realised with a jolt of horror that I was stuck behind the poo-lorry.

It's a mystery to me why anybody would want to freight excrement (or dung, or manure, or whatever the agrotically correct term for the stuff is) around the city in a large lorry, but obviously somebody in the vicinity of Bristol considers it worth their while. Perhaps it's the rural equivalent of performance art.

Whatever the reasons, there is a driver who regularly transports a lorry-load of poo around Bristol on a Thursday morning, and I occasionally encounter them, and it's horrendous. While the vehicle is actually in motion the stench isn't too bad, but the moment it's stationary, its hideous miasma rises up around it like a halo, and makes its immediate vicinity unbearable for any road user not hermetically sealed into a metal box. It really is very, very noxious and unpleasant, and whether you're stuck behind it (such that you have to drive into its mephitic odour whenever you stop at traffic lights) or vice versa (so that it pulls up behind you, and its foetor continues forward to envelop you) it's deeply unpleasant.

It's difficult to overtake a lorry on a scooter that only does 30 miles an hour, so instead I held back, hoping that a few cars would come between my bike and the dung-transport. Instead, a huge crane on a truck came thundering past me and tucked itself in ahead of me, with great big whirly flashing yellow lights on the top.

The smell of excrement is unpleasant, but constant disco effects going on in front of one's helmet visor make concentrating on driving pretty much impossible. Fortunately we were approaching traffic lights, and they were red, so I was able to flit like a hefty petrol-driven fairy betwen the streams of stationary traffic and enter the bicycle box beneath the lights. This had the effect of infuriating any number of car drivers, who roared indignantly past me once the lights had changed, cursing the persumption of the lesser creature who had challenged their territorial mastery.

Nevertheless, I had successfully removed myself from the proximity of both the poo-lorry and the great big light-flashing crane. "Hurrah," I said to myself, and -- as anyone who's made an elementary study of comic timing would expect -- my bloody spark plugs failed. The bike ground to a halt and I pulled over, then watched, listened and smelt as several more car-drivers, the poo-lorry and the great big light-flashing crane all drove angrily past me.

I had to walk the last half-mile, pushing the bike, and arrived at work sweaty and knackered.

There's probably a moral to all of this -- something about hubris, and how people who have the temerity to drive scooters really deserve to have bright lights flashed in their eyes whilst smelling of poo -- but honestly, I'm not sure I can be bothered to tease it out.

14 December 2004

Odious Comparisons

My promise of more and more interesting bloggage is beginning to look rash (although today's crop of comments has been rather interesting, I've thought).

I've been meaning, though, to praise the other short stories in A Life Worth Living, on the grounds that I was being altogether too smug about my own (that would be "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants", which you can find praised here and here). In fact, ALWL is not my absolute favourite Benny anthology -- I think that would still be Life During Wartime -- but it has some damn good stuff in it.

I'm not even going to begin to attempt to review ALWL, as that could only end up being an ignominious mess, but I do want to mention a handful of the stories. [I tried to use an HTML list below, but it shagged my formatting for some reason, so here's the inelegant version.]

Kate Orman is on excellent form with "Buried Alive", a tale of alien dynasties and their nasty secrets.

Ian Mond's "Denial" is a thought-provoking story with a compelling twist -- and not the one I expected, either.

"The Blame of the Nose" by Ben Woodhams is another comedy story, and one which threatens to be funnier than "Sex Secrets" on numerous occasions.

Benny's original writer, Paul Cornell, has a lovely piece in "Misplaced Spring" -- a quiet story where virtually nothing happens, unless you happen to be interested in characters, emotions and relationships.

Probably my favourite story, though, is Eddie Robson's "Against Gardens" -- a fabulous, lyrical and annoyingly well-written exploration of death and gardening. With a Martian in it.

So -- plenty of reasons to buy A Life Worth Living from Amazon.co.uk or direct from Big Finish Productions, then.

In other news, having recently (ooh, say around 5,000 words ago, at the 30,000-of-40,000-word mark) moaned extensively to B. that I was getting nowhere, that I was a terrible writer and that my novella was a heap of absolute arse from start to finish, I was amused to read Neil Gaiman's recent blog entry, where he reveals that not only does he get hopelessly miserable three-quarters of the way through every single thing he writes, but so do all the other authors his agent deals with. So that's all right, then.

In fact (judging by his last entry) both Neil and I seem now to have passed this seventy-five-per-cent hurdle, so all's well, and the world should have both Anansi Boys and A Man Apart (as it probably won't be called) to look forward to next year.

(Hmm. I wonder which it will enjoy more?)

13 December 2004


2,500 words written, and something like 4,000 extensively rewritten, this weekend; including the philosophical kernel of the novella, with which I am pleased. Only the last chapter, some 5,000 words, left to go. I am, as I believe the young people describe it these days, teh r0xx0r.

More, and I hope more interesting, bloggery to follow tomorrow.

21 Gram Salute

So, Saturday night B. and I rented the D.V.D. (such being the hectic glamorous lifestyle of an author and his paramour) of 21 Grams.

It was actually very fine -- one of those all-too-rare film-scripts that makes significant demands of the audience's intelligence, and what's more it was acted and directly profoundly well. My one complaint was that, given the title, I was expecting rather more of a speculative thriller predicated on the notorious "weight of the human soul" experiments, rather than a mainstream drama which merely mentions the concept in the final monologue. Excellent film, just rather misleadingly titled and marketed.

Anyway. I couldn't remember where I'd seen the female lead, Naomi Watts, before, so I looked her up on the Internet Movie Database. It seems that she was also the female lead in both Ring and Mulholland Drive, which makes sense. To my astonishment, it also turns out that she was born in Shoreham of all places, and therefore very likely in the same maternity hospital as I was, albeit three years earlier.

(Apparently she's Nicole Kidman's best friend. I wonder whether... erm, no, almost certainly not.)

10 December 2004

Stealth SF

The Dragon Waiting has got me wondering whether any fringe alternative-universe novels have ever been written which appear at first to be historical novels, but where, in a relatively late development, a historical event suddenly happens quite differently from how the reader expects?

One approach would be to make the story primarily about the event itself rather than its consequences -- an account of the victory of the Spanish Armada, for example. Another would be to examine the more personal effects of alternative experiences (as Sliding Doors did for example), but in terms of a well-known historical figure -- a novel about Abraham Lincoln where he ducks, for instance.

Can anyone think of any candidates?

Edit to add: I should specify that I'm not talking about novels of time-travel where visitors from the future change history -- I'm aware that there are lorryloads of those. I'm thinking of stories with no "SF element" except that a historical event happens differently.

The Dragon Sundered

I've been meaning to say a few more words about John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting, which I finally finished a week or so ago. It's a fabulous novel, full of politics and intrigue against the backdrop of one of the most interesting alternative histories (and certainly the most interesting alternative-history-with-magic) that I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the story comes apart down the middle, and the two halves don't really match.

The first half of the novel, which introduces the new history allusively by examining the current state of play in Wales, France, Florence and Milan, is a tour de force: it's this fantastic exercise in worldbuilding which is the novel's real strength.

The Byzantine Empire dominates a Europe which never knew Christianity, or at least never as a mainstream faith, and which is characterised by a bewilderingly diverse pagan pluralism. Perhaps because of this (although in fact neither group seems very religiously-minded), both wizards and vampires are present, and play prominent roles in European power-politics. (Oddly, the Duke of Milan is one of the latter, not of the former.) In non-Byzantine Britain, King Arthur once ruled and rumours of Robin Hood haunt the forests -- but oddly, the Wars of the Roses happened according to schedule, and now (in the late fifteenth century in our history) Richard Duke of Gloucester requires help to consolidate his brother's reign over a radically unstable England.

The second half of the book, which narrows in on Britain, the family of the soon-to-be King Richard III and the literally byzantine machinations of his enemies, is less impressive. The plot is well thought through, and so convoluted as to make one's eyes water, but in presenting England, Scotland and Wales in such detail -- and with a history so similar to our own despite the differences -- we lose the grander picture. While vampirism and wizardry continue to provide important plot functions, the paganism is reduced to occasional glancing references (indeed, the only character whose faith is examined in this half of the novel is a stray Christian) and Byzantium might be any nebulous overseas threat.

Richard himself is as witty, charming and intelligent as Shakespeare's, while being also loyal, altruistic and handsome (although there is a reference to his having been a sickly child). This Richard is simply too idealised: when he does show a flaw (in being too readily taken in by one facet of the labyrinthine conspiracy), you can't believe it of the character Ford's painted. This is in no sense (as I earlier suggested) a retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III: instead it's an entirely new interpretation of the historical story of Richard himself (one with what's probably a unique solution to the problem of the Princes in the Tower).

The four other central characters -- including a vampire and a wizard -- who connect the two halves of the novel are convincing enough, but somehow seem to be acting according to formula. One feels as if Ford is committed to characterisation as his novelistic duty, but finds it less interesting than (in the first half) his setting and (in the second) his plot.

It was the setting which really interested me. The story left me hungry to see more of its world: the Zoroastrian Saracens of the Middle East; the New World and its deities being brought under Byzantine or British rule; whatever mutations of our nineteenth and twentieth centuries this fascinating history might cast up. Most of all, I wanted to see the City of Byzantium itself, but this never happens -- instead London takes centre-stage, and is rather dull.

It's the world which Ford creates which is his real star here. What a shame that it's almost invisible for most of the second half.

06 December 2004

Grinding Away

Apologies for the slight lapse in updating this blog. I'm knackered, frankly.

This weekend I've written over 3,000 words and rewritten 2,000 more which, if you've been paying attention, you'll recall is pretty good going for me, at this point in my life and with this novella. This means that I have somewhere around four-fifths of a complete draft, which is moderately pleasing. What's more, I've been given a likely publication date of July 2005, with the title being announced in March or so -- assuming it's finished on time, and is any good, and all that kind of thing. So, Go Me.

The plan is still to complete a draft by New Year (or preferably Christmas, so that I can take a week off), and to rewrite ruthlessly throughout January, handing in a crisp and well-tooled product for the 31 January deadline. At which point I plan to fall over in a heap and whimper for a little bit, before addressing the lengthy but hopefullly less arduous editing process which will likely ensue.

(Yes, I did just use "hopefully" to mean "I hope [that]". Does anyone want to make something of it?)

I've also been asked for some notes towards the cover, which is always fun... if slightly awkward in this particular instance for a couple of reasons, the most glaring of which is that my most visually striking character doesn't bother with clothes, and is therefore almost certainly undepictable within the context of a book cover.

I'm also trying to come up with an alternative title, having spent the last few months progressively going off the one I settled on back in April, until now I feel it pretty much stinks. I have a number of ideas -- indeed, Peculiar Lives turns out to be strangely apposite, were it not already taken -- but none of them leaps out as being obviously right. More work needed there, obviously.

27 November 2004

Break Out The Party Hats

Wow. 1600 words today -- written (for good reasons) in a completely different narrative voice from the rest of the novella. This comes as a welcome break in the flow, for me and probably the readers too. Now all I need to do is write... er, about twice that tomorrow, and I should reach my target for the weekend.

Anyway. What I wanted to say was "Good grief, it seems that Peculiar Lives is a year old today." The first entry I posted -- in which I referred to the blog as "Currently in its infancy, if not its embryohood" -- was on 27 November 2004. This is my 113th post since then.

I see that I've managed to achieve most of the goals I listed on that occasion: my website's up and advertising my novel, it has material relating to my thesis on it, and I have indeed used this blog as a venue for "wittering [...] about Reading, Writing, Art, Politics, Religion and my Life".

Would it be appropriate to name some goals for the coming year? I think it would. So...

1. Get this bloody novella finished. Publication to be followed by gushing reviews and general critical adulation.
2. Finish the talk transcripts and add them to the website. Hypertextualise the reading list that's already there. (These are probably going to need a rewrite before they're presentable, in fact -- my speaking style is just too rambling and vague for readability. It should only take a single pass of my Coherentron™ to firm them up.)
3. Put some more original fiction on the site, preferably including at least one piece which uses hypertext to its advantage rather than sitting there like a shopping list.
4. Watch new Doctor Who and enjoy it.
5. Get commissioned for a second round of talks at Greenbelt, and deliver them to rapturous applause and offers of lucrative book contracts.
6. Get at least one more full-length fiction commission, and some short ones. Oh, and possibly an agent.
8. Spend more time with B. / the cats / our goddaughter / our friends / my parents / my books / the television. (This one requires said time to be created ex nihilo, and may therefore necessitate a deal with the arcane powers lurking within the very architecture of space-time itself, or possibly quitting my job.)
9. Win the lottery and buy a large mansion on the edge of the city. Acquire a butler, plenty of electronic gadgets and a cool car. Dress up as a gigantic bat and fight crime. Start dating Kim Basinger and/or Michelle Pfeiffer.
10. Lose some weight. (OK, we're probably drifting into the realms of fantasy with that one.)

Check back in a year's time for a progress report on these.

26 November 2004

Another Review...

Good Heavens above. The second review I've seen of A Life Worth Living also cites my story as the reviewer's favourite. Well, almost:

Arguably my favourite story in this anthology is Philip Purser-Halland's [sic] 'Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants', which concentrates on the oft-forgotten writing career of one Jason Kane. [...] This is an hilarious and very entertaining story written by someone who obviously has an excellent grasp of the central characters.
I'm so delighted with this that I'm going to forgive Noel Warham for getting my name wrong.

23 November 2004

Pizza and Swedes

Grr. Frustratingly unproductive weekend, caused partly by the momentary glimmerings of a social life and partly by my own hopelessness and indolence.

Friday night through to Saturday afternoon were taken up with sister-in-law, friends, goddaughter, pizza and beer... thanks to the last of which, the remainder of Saturday was also thoroughly unproductive. Sister-in-law's visit was very pleasant altogether, though, and I'm not complaining. Friday night we explored an as-yet-unvisited pub near to the new house, which had a parrot. Lunch on Saturday, with all the items on the above list, was also very enjoyable. It turns out that, as I rather suspected, Zerodegrees do damn good food as well as damn good beer. The bastards.

Since then, I've written around 1000 words, realised that some of my chapters would work better a different way round, clarified some plot points and made a few notes towards the epilogue; all of which is rather less achievement than it might sound, and certainly doesn't match my chapter-a-weekend target. Never mind, I'm sure I can catch up.

Meanwhile, a couple of worthwhile snippets relating to stuff that's already safely written and published. Mags L. Halliday, the author of the forthcoming Faction Paradox novel Warring States, has written a pendant to her novel, set in the City of the Saved after her characters' deaths. (That's not a spoiler, incidentally, as the City happens after everybody's deaths.) The piece, which is called "The Night Is Long and Dreams are Legion" (and which is great), is being published in issue 15 of the Mythmakers fanzine. [Edit: Actually issue 14.]

In unrelated news, one of my fellow-contributors to A Life Worth Living -- Mark "Sin" Deniz, who contributed the story "Welcome to the Machine", has been interviewed in Norrkopings Tidningar. (At least, I think it's an interview.) I mention this solely because it's rather exciting to see a big photo of the book in a major national newspaper, even if it does happen to be a Swedish one I'd never previously heard of.

The book's heroine is referred to as "kultmässiga science fiction-hjältinnan professor Bernice Summerfield". Remember, you heard it here first.


I've also begun transcribing my Greenbelt talks on Science Fiction and the Bible for my website. This is an odd experience, to say the least. I'm working from minidisk recordings of myself talking from notes (and copious rehearsal). There are bits missing: the first recording begins with me saying "-- shambling around going 'ughhhh'" [*].

I want the transcripts to be a reasonably accurate record insofar as that's possible: however, I'm amazed by how incoherent and rambling I appear to have been. I'm obviously not transcribing the occasions when I say "er", "ah" or "um", repeat words, hesitate and the like, but my speaking style is startlingly different from my prose style. I run sentences into one another with "and"s and "but"s, I change direction halfway through a thought and end up with something that actually isn't a sentence at all, and I assert -- embarrassingly often -- that what I'm talking about is "interesting because...", as if I'm desperately hoping to persuade the audience.

Hey ho. It's also a surprisingly long-winded process, given that the two talks together come to a little over an hour and a half, so don't expect to be seeing the web transcriptions any time soon.

One of the reasons why I'm doing this -- and why I had B. record the talks in the first place -- is because I'm very much hoping I can talk again at Greenbelt 2005, perhaps in a larger venue as well as at "Between the Lines". Watch this space for further news as to that.

[*] I go on to say "...is a marvellous cinematic image and I love it, but it isn't the character Mary Shelley wrote."

19 November 2004

'Pedia Studies

I imagine most regular Web users are well familiar with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia run along anarchist lines, with full editing privileges granted to all. If not, The Guardian ran a worthwhile article on the concept a while ago. It's a truly vast and comprehensive resource, and usually a good 90% reliable -- although in the nature of things, at any given time any given article may be utter drivel. It draws on the specialist expertise of a vast population of users -- all of whom know a great deal about something, even if it's only how to type so that nobody knows what the hell you're on about.

Anyway. I've been using Wikipedia for a while -- not least for reference links from this blog -- but I hadn't come across its inventory of "Unusual Articles" until it was brought to my attention by Hatmandu. Since then I've been obsessively livening the drudgery of work by going through the list.

I already knew about a number of the entities referred to -- the Reptilians, for instance, vagina dentata and the recently-discovered Mexican Perforation. Somehow, however, the entire existence of the Voynich Manuscript has previously managed to pass me by. And I was delighted to discover the existence of Mr Optimus Prime, of Exploding Head Syndrome and of the Wilhelm Scream.

The Timeline of Unfulfilled Christian Prophecy is well worth a look, too. But my favourite discovery has to be Heribert Illig, the German historian whose "phantom time hypothesis" insists that most of the Dark Ages were just made up, with 300 spurious years having been inserted into history shortly before the Medieval period.

According to Herr Illig (who believes that this was done at the insistence of one of the Holy Roman Emperors so that he could pretend he was reigning at the turn of the Millennium), the current year should rightfully be 1707. It's one of those fantastically barking-mad ideas which becomes more and more entertaining the more you think about it.

Like Wikipedia itself, it's a splendid example of "thinking outside the box". Admittedly, though, I wouldn't expect it ever to catch on in quite such a big way.

That's Very Pleasing...

In the first review that I've seen for A Life Worth Living , Richard McGinlay has this to say:
My personal favourite, however, is Philip Purser-Hallard’s "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants", which deals with Jason’s latest scheme to boost sales of his xenoporn (inter-species sex) novels through the use of fake literary criticism and android literary critics - with hilarious results!

OK, so that gives slightly more away about the plot than I'd have ideally preferred -- but blimey, you can't buy good press like that.

(Well, all right, you probably can, but on this occasion I didn't.)

17 November 2004

Two Novels, with Vampires

As a diversion from banging on about my own books, here are some thoughts about some other people's.

Firstly, To the Devil - a Diva! by Paul Magrs, which I've mentioned previously, and which I finished over the weekend. This is quite lovely, although the acerbic treatment of SF fans may give some of Paul's readers pause. (Possibly Magrs, as a successful mainstream writer who's also produced Doctor Who novels, had some things he wanted to get off his chest.)

Given that the whole novel reeks of intellectual nerddom, though, I don't think it can have been too heartfelt. Magrs has described Doctor Who as a vehicle for trans-genre migration, opening up doors between all kinds of normally isolated fictive spaces and allowing them to meet. Since his ultimate deconstruction of Who itself in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, his own work (which started off in a rather restrained and gritty magic realism) has turned this meeting-space into a cross-genre particle accelerator, throwing together radically different elements and combining them, in order to see what exotic kinds of matter are created.

The present-day story of TtD-AD! (and don't you love titles with that much punctuation?) incorporates elements from Hammer horror films, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Queer as Folk, as well as what I suspect are gay soap operas I don't even know about. Throughout the novel there's a devoted (and, yes, fannish) love for all that's camp and schlocky in British horror: there are even flashback sequences which take the pulp-horror motif back to its mid-twentieth century roots in the work of Dennis Wheatley; with a guest appearance by the C.S. Lewis character Magrs created for Mad Dogs, Professor Cleavis, who of course is not at all in favour of all the satanic goings-on.

On top of all this -- and perhaps most importantly, as it would be very easy to get lost in all these pomo-porno-pyrotechnics -- TtD-aD! is a novel that deals with human feelings, with love and family and with the very real phenomenon of the emotional vampire: a "friend" whose parasitic love does nothing but drain their victim dry. On this point incidentally (if few others), Magrs and the original Lewis would have been entirely in agreement.

Since finishing the Magrs novel, I've embarked on The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, a retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III in a fantasy setting. This also has vampires in it, and wizards, but that's not so much the aspect that interests me.

The Dragon Waiting is also an alternative history, one where (by the convention of these things) things such as the Wars of the Roses and the geneaology of the English royal family are much the same as in our familiar history, but where Christianity never became the official faith of the Roman Empire, and as a consequence Byzantium still rules the majority of an entirely pagan Europe. There are even brief hints (if I'm not misreading certain references to a god of carpentry named "Esus") that Christianity was simply assimilated into the Religio Romana.

The novel's well-written and involving, but it's the setting that I'm really enjoying. (It makes up for the wizardry, which to be honest I often find a bit tedious in fiction.) I love alternative histories, especially ones which have been thoroughly thought through, and it's the little details that make this novel such a joy: the pagan Pantheons taking the place of the cathedrals in Byzantium and Florence, Dante's poem of descent into the Underworld, the Commedia dell'Uomo, throwaway references to the early discoveries of the New World and Copernican cosmology, and the revelation that Richard the Lionheart fought side-by-side with a Zoroastrian Saladin as brothers in arms.

I'm not far into this novel yet, so there's a great deal still to discover about the world it's set in. But it's a fantastically detailed and layered construction, set with glittering jewels, and it's quite beautful.

16 November 2004

Sharing My Solipsism

Work on The Novella continues to progress reasonably well. I managed to write around 4,000 words this weekend, which hits the chapter-a-week target rather well... except that one of the other things I did over the weekend was to overhaul the book's structure entirely, such that what used to be a whole chapter is now, in most cases, half of one.

Still, I'm on course, all my protagonists are where they need to be, know the things they need to know and so on. More pleasingly, I'm past the halfway stage: some 21,000 words are now written, with only circa 17,000 (five weekends' work, with luck) remaining. This makes a big difference, psychologically: it's all downhill from here.

I've also written an Afterword, putting The Novella in the context of the work of the Great British SF Novelist whom I'm ripping off critiquing metatextually. Today I've used my work's subscription to the online OED to confirm the 1950s period authenticity of half-a-dozen words, including "poltergeist", "ecological niche" and "Cro-Magnon".

One comment which has sometimes been made about my novel Of the City of the Saved... (sorry, sudden change of subject here, but it becomes relevant) is that the protagonists don't seem to do all that much -- they mostly just move around from place to place, experiencing things and having revelations made to them.

Which is pretty much true, although it doesn't apply to all the characters -- Godfather Avatar's pretty proactive, for example, as is Gnas Gortine.

However, I'm not convinced that this is actually a problem, unless you enter the novel expecting a conventional S.F. thriller. OtCotS is essentially an S.F. picaresque, a "planetary romance" without the planet[*]; and the experiences of and revelations to the characters, rather than their actions, are what these strands of the storyline are about. This is quite deliberate: all the "action" occurs on the level of the City's various gods and godlike figures, and the humans are pretty much their puppets.

(The one character for whom this does seem anomalous -- at least in terms of how I wanted the novel to work -- is Laura Tobin. As a private eye, she brings certain genre expectations with her to the novel; and the fact that she does little to shape her own plot strand beyond solving the murder mystery -- in what some readers have rightly considered a rather sudden and poorly-grounded flash of inspiration -- is, in her case, rather jarring. This is admittedly unfortunate, as she's OtCotS's chief protagonist.)

The reason I mention all this is because, if this is a flaw, The Novella's going to suffer from it too. It deals with character -- you could even call it a character study -- but the sympathetic viewpoint characters don't drive the action, which instead happens at the whim of the powerful, remote and alien ones.

I say this now purely so as to avoid disappointment.

[*] Well all right, just the one planet.

11 November 2004

Lean Mean Prose Machine

Phew. Having worried enormously last Monday that I hadn't reached my chapter-a weekend target for the novella and was therefore going to crash very slowly but with great inevitability into my end-of-January deadline, I came home from work today and -- with the aid of food and coffee redoubtably provided by the wonderful B. -- wrote nearly 1,100 words straight off. (Admittedly 100 of those words are an H.G. Wells quote, but hey, it all fills up the page.)

Now my head has fallen off, but I'm very happy -- the way I've been performing recently, a thousand words is about what I expect from a full day's work. Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of my narrator's abstruse style. Certainly I should have no trouble in hitting my next chapter-in-a-weekend target, which means I'm hopefully on course to finish a fair draft by New Year and to spend January revising and polishing. Hurrah.

My main concern now is to try and get a decent night's sleep with all that coffee inside me. Whisky may be in order.

(Quick straw poll: When I go on about writing in this much depth, is it irritatingly whingey and solipsistic? Or does it form an invaluable insight into the creative process? Maybe it's just an invaluable insight into how whingey and solipsistic writers are. Do let me know.)

07 November 2004

Media Update

I think The Algebraist is going to take me quite a while to read. Not only is it very long (more than 500 pages, each of them large and closely-typeset) and typically dense (setting up, at present, the premise of a complex "post-civilisation" based within the atmosphere of a gas-giant, which is itself the tiniest mote in a vastly more complicated galactic culture -- although not, as it happens, the Culture), it's also physically a huge object. It doesn't fit inside my motorcycle bag, so I can't take it to work and read it during my breaks there; what's more it's too heavy to hold above my head to read in bed, which leaves me pretty much no opportunity for reading it. I've had to revert to using an older pair of glasses with a less restricted field of vision at bedtime, just so I can rest it on my recumbent chest.

Ahem. The book itself is great fun so far, though -- exuberant, witty and, as ever, astonishingly clever. Justina Robson (whose Natural History is also on my wishlist) suggested in The Guardian that it was under-edited, and sadly I'd have to concur with that so far: there are a number of places where I might have expected an editor to say, "This is all very interesting Iain, but do we actually need it here?" Still, Banks firing on all cylinders is worth watching just for the pyrotechnics, and I'm hoping the book will settle down a little once all the introductory stuff is out of the way. Spotting Banks' obsessions is always part of the fun, and I have a creeping suspicion that the so-far unexplained categories of "aHuman" and "rHuman" are going to turn out to mean "atheist Human" and "religious Human" respectively, the latter having been corrupted from the human "norm" at some point in the distant past.

By contrast, I'm racing through To the Devil - a Diva!, which is also enormous fun. Hammer-style satanists and vampires are colliding with modern-day soft-porn soap-operas and gay Mancunians in a spectacularly camp romp. Paul Magrs can do serious when he wants to, but when it comes to camp romps he's difficult to beat. Marvellous stuff.

Finally, the two episodes I've seen so far of Firefly are every bit as good as people say they are. Which, given how good people say they are, is pretty damn astonishing. I love the whole spaceships-and-horses Western styling, particularly the banjo music, and the characters are fantastic. More about this when I've seen more of it.

You'd Better Watch Out...

Our new next-door neighbour put up his Christmas lights yesterday.

A bald statement one the face of it, and one which fails to take into account the full ramifications of the event. For a start, it glides quietly over the fact that yesterday -- as those of you with access to a calendar will be able to confirm -- was the 6th of frigging November for Christ's sake, three clear weeks before the beginning of Advent and a whole seven weeks prior to Christmas itself. Presumably, in our new next-door neighbour's perceptions, the festive season begins just after Bonfire Night, and finishes -- when? Septuagesima? St Valentine's Day? August Bank Holiday?

Again, the sentence above doesn't commit itself concerning the scale of the operation. Our neighbour (a man whom we have incidentally never yet seen outside an Elvis T-shirt, but that's by the by) is apparently well-respected, in those circles which respect people for this kind of thing, for the lavishness of his seasonal light displays. His house has appeared on the local television news two years running. For all I know he's won awards.

The entire front of the house is smothered with flashing lights. A plastic Father Christmas and a snowman jostle on top of the porch. A sled with full reindeer team rushes from right to left above the ground-floor windows, and a whole row of hanged Santas depends from the gutter. A glance through the front window from the street reveals that the entire front room is decked out in the indoor equivalent of these displays.

I realise that I'm speaking as a man with a TARDIS-shaped bookshelf, but this does strike me as just the tiniest bit obsessive.

Our neighbour has even tried -- rather persistently, actually -- to involve us in his great work. Apparently our predecessors in the house were only too pleased to play host to his Jackson-Pollock-meets-Vong-Phaophanit installations. We, by contrast, expressed our gratitude at his willingness to consider our house a worthy canvas for his art, explained that we don't tend to consider reindeers and snowmen the aptest symbols of the Incarnation of Our Lord, and respectfully declined. Three fucking times.

It's going to be very difficult living with this for the next however-many months. Every evening when I come home from work, that string of butchered Santas will greet me like a hideous warning of the summary justice awaiting fat men who offer children sweets.

B. and I have a plan, though. Come Easter, we intend to erect in lights a twenty-foot crucifix, complete with an attractive crown of thorns and flashing droplets of blood; perhaps with an animated spear thrusting in and out of the occupant's side. It will be expensive to commission, but surely worth it.

It might even get us on the local news.

03 November 2004

A Historian Writes...

With hindsight, it is easy to overestimate the importance of the U.S. presidential election of 2004. The closeness of the vote on this occasion frequently leads historians to speak of the result as a “turning-point”, ignoring the equally close contests in 2000 and 2008, not to mention such pivotal events as the assassination of Vice-President Schwarzenegger in December 2013.

If the re-election of George W. Bush for his second term as President has a significance in terms of global history, it is that this, far more than his original accession to power, was the point when certain facts became clear to the traditional allies of the U.S.A. Namely, that not only was the behemothic American hegemony finally at the beginning of its long and agonising decline, but that it was determined to take as much of the rest of the world with it as possible.

Without the draconian restrictions on individuals' rights to freedom of movement, association and speech imposed during Bush II's first and second terms, it is difficult to imagine the American public tolerating the atrocities which would later be inflicted on the Constitution, particularly the abolition of the two-term limit which enabled incumbent Cal Douglas to have the Senate declare him President and Commander-in-Chief for life on 16 March 2041. Certainly the Bush administration's legacy included the makings of a totalitarian infrastructure which Douglas was readily able to devote to his “Bible First” agenda. Douglas's early Bible Education legislation, the Salvation Camps and ultimately the mercifully thwarted Armageddon Program, would all have been impossible without the legacy of the Bush administrations.

This legacy also included the network of large-scale overseas protectorates which the United States had been accumulating since the earliest years of the twenty-first century. Most of these puppet states were inspired at some time or other to follow the lead of Britain and Israel and to petition for full status as members of the Union, but America's overseas dominance had been increasingly matched by a virulent xenophobia which led many of its inhabitants to consider the loyalty of San Fransicans or New Yorkers as suspect, let alone Filipinos or Iraqis.

The U.S. empire had spread itself too widely: and with the steadily swelling cultural influence of China over the rest of the globe, and the emergent superstate of Dar-El-Islam, which had after all largely defined itself by its opposition to American ideology, it was inevitable that these foreign territories would fall. What seems more surprising is the subsequent fragmentation of the United States itself, into the balkanised and often competing territories we see today.

The two coasts, always more internationally-minded than the central states, fell under the relatively benign influence of pan-Pacific China and Islamised Europe respectively, and now form moderate buffer zones between the isolationist Southern and Northern United States and the rest of the world. Texas, which had always had hankerings towards independence, and California, which at the beginning of the War in 2053 had been 62% Hispanic, became sovereign nations, a status to which both Britain and Palestine reverted.

Historically speaking, the continental United States had been one of the largest unified territories ever to have existed: its breakup was, in retrospect, inevitable. To trace the current world order back to such a minor event as the re-election of a President who was, at worst, the enthusiastic tool of those more devious and ruthless than himself, is evidently simplistic. Nonetheless, a case can be made...

[From The Road to Disunion by Dorothea Siddiq, Professor of Infidel History at Oxford University (O.U.P., 2104)]

02 November 2004

Post-Birthday Musings

Back at work today, which is a bit of a comedown. Half-term was mind-numbingly unproductive in terms of writing, perhaps because I'm still shagged out after the house move. (Or perhaps because I've been eating too much recently, and have become fat and sluggish -- my metabolism is usually pretty finely balanced between stallion and walrus.) With luck next weekend will be better, since if it's not I'm in severe trouble with my editors.

Oh, but my other editor likes my short story, which is always pleasing. And I had a very pleasant birthday yesterday, and managed not to panic too much about being suddenly 33 years older than I was when I was born. I think some presents are still on their way, but B. gave me To the Devil - a Diva!, the new novel (evidently a 70s Hammer horror spoof) by the ever-wonderful Paul Magrs, and Neil Gaiman's marvellous children's book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.

Various friends, relatives and cats chipped in with other stuff, of which I'm most excited about Iain M Banks's The Algebraist. Not only is Banks one of my favourite authors, but the last time he tackled a posthuman society was the quite wonderful Feersum Endjinn -- not the most highly-regarded of his S.F. novels, I know, but one which I've always admired.

I also have new slippers, which is very nice indeed as the old ones started falling apart quite some time ago, and had very nearly finished the process.

B. and I spent yesterday evening watching Ang Lee's Hulk on DVD -- cinematographically by far the best of the recent crop of Marvel superhero films, and a present from my brother -- and eating the far-too-much elaborate Italian food which B. had bought in specially for the occasion. Mmm.

[3/11/4 -- Edit to Add: My parents' present turned up yesterday -- the entirety of Firefly on DVD. I'm so looking forward to seeing this -- I've heard great things about it from people whose opinion I respect, and I can't see how an S.F. series from Joss Whedon can plausibly fail. (Artistically, that is. Apparently it somehow managed to fail commercially, which is how all the episodes ended up fitting onto one DVD boxed set.)

It's a real treat having an S.F. series to look forward to which is pretty much guaranteed to be excellent, but which I know next to nothing about in advance -- I've deliberately avoided spoilers to the extent that I know considerably more about Doctor Who 2005 than I do about Firefly. So, hurrah, and thanks Mum and Dad.]

29 October 2004


Some of you reading this may be aware -- or could work out from the information available to you -- that I'll be 33 years of age on Monday (and therefore precisely a third of a century old come 1 March 2005). Probably everybody reading this who isn't related to me by blood or marriage can safely ignore this fact; but on the offchance that those of you who are might be thinking of getting me a present, I'll mention that my Amazon wishlist is located here.

28 October 2004

Hard Hats Must Be Worn

There are three stages to writing fiction. (At least, the way I do it. There are, of course, sundry approaches.) They go like this:

1. Planning. In many respects, the most fun part of the whole process. This involves assembling characters and concepts from the random disconnected scraps your brain has been accumulating and setting aside in storage, and piecing together a narrative in which they can interact with / discover / create one another. Do this right, and the various strands come together like some fantastically intricate wire sculpture. It can be beautiful to watch.

(I tend to produce disproportionately long planning documents which go into great detail about the characters and their setting, provide scene-by-scene breakdowns of the action and the like. The proposal -- which I may get round to posting on the web at some point -- for what was originally called "Lost Souls of the City of the Saved" was just under 30,000 words long, a staggering quarter of the length of the full novel. Of course, that did include a lot of material which made it to the final draft in some form or other, so I saved myself time later.)

2. Composing. This is the bit where you actually sit in front of your bloody computer and bang away at the keyboard, translating the sparking of the neurons in your brain into actual words on (what will ultimately be) a piece of paper. This is the horribly painful and unpleasant bit -- as Douglas Adams once said, "Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds" ["On Writing Humour", 1984]. (Mags Halliday recently put this equally succinctly: "All writing boils down to someone sat alone at a keyboard, swearing.")

Of course, when it goes well, this part of the writing process -- using a God-given talent to its fullest expression -- is one of the most gloriously satisfying activities a human being can undertake (at least alone and with their clothes on). When it goes badly, however -- as it seems to, for most of us, at least half the time -- the frustration and despair can be enormous.

3. Polishing. This is the other fun bit -- taking what you've created and making it better. At this point you can't lose -- you have the necessary raw material (even if extracting it felt like open-cast mining being carried out on your brain) and you can't wreck it by refining it. As you sort, reject, tweak and append, you see the work solidifying and taking on its final form: it's like the moment when, stirring together melted chocolate and cream, the two suddenly combine into one glossy, sleek and dark-brown substance.

The problem at this stage is knowing where to stop -- no work of art is ever perfect, and unfortunately there comes a time when, while the author can see the imperfections, they're too familiar with the text and too involved in it in its extant form to see how to improve it. (A clue is when you find yourself putting things back how they were before the last set of revisions.) At this point, ideally, one puts it in a drawer for a year and forgets about it. In practice, this is usually the point at which things get submitted, rather late, to editors.

...All of which is leading up to explaining that I've recently finished stage 3 on the Shakespeare-themed short story, and now need to return to banging away at stage 2 of the novella.

The story has turned out very pleasing, actually -- it was handed in way overlength and past deadline, but since both of those extensions were cleared with the editor this doesn't seem to constitute a problem. I'll say more about the end product when the anthology is announced, which looks like being sometime next year. And now I need to return to the novella, which is around one-third finished and has a deadline of the end of January.

It's going to be a lot of work, and needs me to immerse myself fully in the experience as soon and as thoroughly as possible. There's no time to lose here.

Hence this second blog update of the day.

Hominid News

I don't often link to random news stories, but this rings too many of my bells for me to pass it up (so thanks to Colin for bringing it to my attention). It's a recently-discovered species of human, apparently extant as recently as 12,000 years ago -- well after the last known Neanderthal remains in Europe, and way way after all other (proto)human species were thought to have been extinct.

It was a dwarf species located on the Indonesian island of Flores, which it shared with pigmy elephants and komodo dragons. (Predictably and tackily, the hominids, who may have been partially arboreal to avoid the dragons, have already been nicknamed "hobbits".) The species is thought to be descended from Homo erectus -- which in itself suggests that erectus were brighter than anyone thinks, as they must presumably have reached Flores using some form of boat.

Excitingly, it's plausible at least that this species may have coexisted with modern humanity. Like most communities everywhere, the Floresians have folklore concerning hidden "little people" who were seen at various points by their ancestors -- the difference being that, in the case of Flores's "Ebu Gogo", it now seems very plausible that there was an actual anthropological basis for the stories. While one example obviously doesn't make a generalisation, this does means that global legends of yeti, faeries, elves and orang-pendek have acquired overnight a slightly stronger, and mildly disturbing, call on our respect.

From the point of view of an S.F. author, the really intriguing factor is what has always intrigued me about the other human species (and which I wrote a certain amount about in Of the City of the Saved...). If Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis did meet, what would we have to say to each other? Would our respective ethics, culture, art, craft, religion and ritual show us both how much we had in common, or would they be mutually alien and incomprehensible? How did a floresiensis human think, reason and imagine? What was, or would have been, their understanding of their distant cousins? Could they be integrated into sapiens society, or we into theirs?

It's the ultimate unanswerable question in S.F. -- the subjectivity of an alien. Since floresiensis is clearly extinct now (unless we're very lucky), this question won't get answered any less speculatively, even by scientists, than the equivalent questions relating to Neanderthals. But even so, such a (very nearly) concrete example of interaction, at such a recent point in history, between two such distinct sentient species, can't help but get my imagination running ahead of reality.

25 October 2004


Trivial admin note: My website has moved from web.onetel.com/~purserhallard to www.infinitarian.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk. The redirection from www.infinitarian.com should still work admirably, but any links to the previous site should be updated.

Peculiar Lie-Ins

For what feels like the first time since, ooh, somewhere around puberty, B. and I managed a weekend off this past weekend -- strictly no work, no writing, no unpacking, and no house-related fretting permitted. Instead, relaxing, lying around in bed, going out and eating nice food was the order of the day. Except Saturday morning, when the broadband engineer was coming -- but hey, we coped.

(You can read B.'s own account of the fun on her new LiveJournal, Irregular and Incoherent Musings, which she's just started under the splendid LJ username titaniccapybara.)

So, Saturday was spent lounging around, playing the Settlers of Catan card game (the rather fine Wizards and Dragons expansion which B., of course, won), welcoming the broadband man and keeping him away from the cats, and then playing with the shiny new PC connection. In the evening we watched Wilde, which we'd recorded during the week, and went out for a fantastic meal at Glasnost, a restaurant within only slightly overstretched walking distance of our new house.

Glasnost is fab -- arty in ambience without being painfully trendy, combining a very decent selection of gorgeous veggie food (they also do meat and seafood, which I'm assured are just as adequate) with access to a mindblowing Bailey's and Maltesers cheesecake, and flavoured vodka shots. We came home late, full and somewhat glowing. Very pleasant.

On Sunday, after more lounging around, we headed to Bristol Zoo, via a very nice all-day veggie breakfast at a café (unwebbed, so far as I know, and I can't actually remember the name) in Clifton.

The zoo (once famous for housing a popular elderly elephant, Wendy, who sadly died a couple of years ago) contains numerous excellent animals. We particularly like the colony of penguins (including a gay couple, apparently), the very cute red panda and the lions, who a couple of years ago produced a beautiful cub (now resident somewhere in Germany). The zoo also houses two specimens of that most excellent rodent species, the capybara, who are effectively giant bone-idle guinea-pigs and can't be sufficiently commended for their lifestyle of lying around in straw, eating and taking the occasional dip.

Once we'd left the Zoo, we indulged ourselves with insanely rich hot chocolate and further chocolate cheesecake at the most excellent Bar Chocolat in Clifton, one of B.'s favourite locations in Bristol. The cheesecake was to die for, but I didn't think the dark chocolate pecan slice worked terribly well.

We then went to see Collateral, which was violent but vacuous fun. (It wouldn't have been our first choice, but we couldn't get to either Hero -- B.'s preference -- or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow -- mine -- at a sensible time.) Then home, followed by some decent enough ready-made curries from Tesco's, and bed.

This is my half-term week -- although it's going to be broken up by a day's course in library computer systems, annoyingly -- so with any luck I ought to be able to finish the short story and get down to some substantial work on the novella. Certainly this weekend has helped prepare me for it.

24 October 2004


...I have broadband connection. A nice man came round yesterday and ran a line all the way from the cable point downstairs up to my study and my computer. It's glorious -- I can even watch webcasts, which I was never able to do with my dial-up account.

Allow me, then, to use my first post made by means of this miraculous portal to bring to your attention Osiris Press, an exciting new publishing venture (and, remarkably, not a vanity press) specifically geared towards seeking out talented new authors and publishing their work. If you think you might be such a person, then have a look at their Authors' Guide. This is a venture that deserves to succeed (so feel free to publicise it further if you like).

19 October 2004

The Lure of Lovecraft

21st October: I have been deciphering this arcane text for weeks now, and already I feel my fragile sanity beginning to crumble. I can scarcely suffer this loathesome torment any longer without going mad -- the eldritch, scarcely human prose style; the degenerate plotting, lacking all form or structure; the hideous relentless pacing!

Yes indeed, I've been reading the short stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and now I really, really want it to stop. Lovecraft may be one of the most widely-read horror writers of all time, and an enormous influence on authors in many genres -- but he really (and this must be whispered for fear of angering the Elder Gods) isn't all that good.

It's actually something of an accomplishment to reach adulthood as an S.F. geek without reading any H.P. Lovecraft at all: awareness of his work has infiltrated fandom at all levels, like a maismic taint creeping insidiously out of the slimy (You've done this bit - Ed).

On the other hand, his pervasiveness makes a familiarity with him remarkably easy to fake, and I've been bluffing a basic knowledge of Lovecraft for years now. B. and I even bought a cuddly Cthulhu doll for the recently-hatched spawn of the friends to whom I dedicated Of the City of the Saved... .

I could have carried on with life quite happily without ever dipping my toe in those stygian depths. Still, to say that Lovecraft has an impressive reputation is something of an understatement, and I've always felt I'm insufficiently versed in horror fiction. So I borrowed the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories from the library, to read through during the move. (Note to self: when selecting calming, fluffy reading matter to tide oneself through a time of stress, apter choices do exist than either Lovecraft or Nabokov.)

I'm now much better versed in Lovecraft's work, having read slightly more than half of the material in the book. I've read most of the really famous stories -- "The Outsider", "The Rats in the Walls", "Nyarlathotep", "The Colour Out of Space" and, obviously "The Call of Cthulhu". I've even read "Herbert West -- Reanimator". And I honestly can't take any more.

It's not that Lovecraft is bad, exactly. Certainly his prose style is grotesquely overblown and heavily-burdened with adjectives; and he has a predilection not only for using deliberately obscurantist vocabulary, but for revisiting it time and time again, often in the same story. He can, however, conjure up an atmosphere with the best of them, and his use of gothic techniques -- nested narratives, gradual revelations and the like -- can be interesting.

He has more profound faults, though, which, in a writer of his tendencies, are too significant to be overlooked. He flags his surprise endings far too far in advance, for one thing. He also has an imagination which, while impressive in its scope, is very very limited in anything resembling variety. Pretty much everything comes back to slime in the end -- slime, and madness.

(In fact, I found the information that his father died in obscurity of syphilis rather interesting, as the themes of inherited madness and appalling family secrets seem to crop up very frequently indeed. The annotator[1] maintains that Lovecraft was unaware of this, but I can't help feeling he must have suspected something.)

Most disastrously of all, though, Lovecraft simply doesn't understand his strengths. He's the living counterexample to that clichéd dictum of editors: "Show, don't tell". He's a master at evoking creeping unease, a gradually increasing sense of horror which mounts up during the story. He's really, really bad at bringing this to a climax in a satisfying way. He always ends up dragging his horrors out into the open, where mere hints would have been far more effective.

Great Cthulhu sleeping beneath the ocean at ancient R'lyeh, and sending men mad in their dreams, is pretty frightening. Great Cthulhu getting up and going for a swim -- and failing even to catch the sailors who have intruded upon his resting-place -- is just silly.

I imagine Lovecraft's fiction would work better if one read, say, a story every couple of years spread out throughout one's life rather than, as I have, ten stories in a couple of weeks. I also imagine it works a great deal better if you're a fourteen-year-old boy, which of course many of his most enthusiastic readers have been at one time or another. But in the final analysis, I can only put his inexplicable popularity down to the fact that he's such a phenomenally rich source of material to parody...

...and look, I got through that whole post without saying "squamous", "gibbous" or "rugose".

[1] S.T. Joshi's exhaustive annotations are even more po-faced than Lovecraft himself -- a fact which occasionally causes them an entertaining wobble:

35. That is, the First Baptist Church, founded in 1638 by Roger Williams. The present building dates to 1775. Lovecraft remarked after visiting it in 1923, "This is my maternal ancestral church, but I had not been in the main auditorium since 1895, or in the building at all since 1907, when I gave an illustrated astronomical lecture in the vestry to the Boys' Club." On this occasion Lovecraft tried to play "Yes, We Have No Bananas" on the church's organ [...]

Irritable Rant

Ah, splendid -- it seems I can post to the blog from work. I never used to be able to do that -- I.T. must have reconfigured the firewall.

So, let me tell you about my broadband connection.

It isn't, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody working. Or rather, the connection itself is working fine (as I've discovered by lugging the PC and monitor downstairs to the living-room and plugging them in manually) but I can't get the bloody wireless connector to work for love, money or chocolate.

Despite appearances, this is the fault of the providers, at least partially. When their engineer came to install the connection, he advised us that our best option was to have him install the cable modem in the living-room (downstairs, front), rather than in the study (upstairs, back), and to use a wireless router to connect the two. It would, he said, be easy enough.

Like a fool, I assumed he was a professional whose advice could be trusted. In fact -- as every other employee of the company to whom I've since spoken has agreed -- he was fobbing us off in order to get out of doing an awkward, time-consuming job. (It turns out, in fact, that according to company policy if he wasn't able to make the connection directly he should have ordered and installed the wireless equipment himself.)

He probably assumed I had the technical competence to install a router effectively, and would never be any the wiser. Boy, did he pick the wrong person to tangle with there.

Since then -- following a handful of protracted conversations with technical support and customer services -- I've wasted Monday morning waiting for a visit from an engineer who was supposed to finish the installation free of charge, only to find that they'd sent out a service engineer instead of an installation engineer. Now we have to wait until Saturday for the proper engineers to visit, and in the meantime I can't email anyone or access the web, except from work. (I have a nasty feeling this won't be sorted out come the weekend either, but perhaps that's just my paranoia speaking.)

I am officially Unimpressed by this performance, and will be contacting the company's complaints department once all this is over.

Thank you for listening.

17 October 2004

A Quick Note...

...while this connection lasts, to say that A Life Worth Living -- the SF anthology from Big Finish which includes my short story "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants" -- is now available. Which is to say, some people are claiming to have seen copies in bookshops, and even to have bought them.

I haven't done either, because I haven't been into a bookshop for weeks, and nor have I had my complimentary copies through yet (though postal redirection may be something to do with that). But even so, you should be able to order the book now via Big Finish, should you so wish. (Amazon don't seem to have their copies in yet.)

Edit to Add: I now have my copies, and very nice they are too. Amazon.co.uk have also received theirs, although Amazon.com still aren't listing the book at all.

15 October 2004

No, I'm Not Dead

Just taking advantage of a brief period of uninterrupted broadband access to assure everyone that:

1. I'm fine;
2. I haven't given up keeping this blog;
3. the house move went OK (if far from perfectly);
4. a surprising amount of our stuff is now actually unpacked; and
5. my shiny new broadband PC-to-internet connection is, apparently, pretty much totally shagged and I'm having a great deal of trouble unshagging it, hence thetotal lack of updates since the move.

I'm very very hopeless with computers. If I can get this connection working properly in the next few days, I'll update more. If I can't, then as you can probably imagine, I won't.

The cats seem to be settling into the new house, anyway, even if the PC isn't.

23 September 2004

Without a Hitch

This blog is liable to go a bit quiet for the next few weeks, as our removal to the new house approaches. Next week, in particular, looks set to be a bitch. I had hoped to write something about the books I've been reading recently, but it's going to have to wait.

A mini-observation meanwhile. The radio reception in our current house is frustratingly rubbish, and my quaintly nineteenth-century lack of a broadband connection means it's not feasible to tune in via the internet, either. I rarely listen to the radio, but once in an epoch I feel its absence, and the broadcasting of Fit 3 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is just such an occasion. So much so that when I discovered at work today that the original Hitchhiker's computer game was up at the BBC website, I fell on it with great glee and will, if I don't ease off a bit, end up in serious danger of being sacked.

I never had this in the 80s (I didn't have a decent enough computer), and am currently stuck trying to stop the Vogons' cleaning robot flying off with my Babel fish.

Share and enjoy.

18 September 2004


I've added a few updates to the website today, amounting mostly to an expanded FAQ and some photos of the cats. Awww.

I haven't added to the FAQ the Question I actually get Asked most Frequently, which is "How well's your novel selling?", since I keep forgetting to ask that same question of the publisher. Basically, though, Of the City of the Saved... has a certain expected readership: it's bound to sell pretty well within a certain narrow demographic, and hardly at all outside. Still, some figures on that would be nice.

(NB: The mirror site at Thoughtplay is likely to be a while updating -- and indeed is visibly behind by two updates already -- as the webmaster's in the midst of a messy house move. If you do happen to be doing any linking to the site, use www.infinitarian.com.)

One further thing I want to do with the website, apart from putting up the Greenbelt talks and giving the Links page a proper revamp, is to find a banner image to go on the Online Short Stories pages. All the other sections now have their own images (the various book covers, the bitmap Daleks, me as a pirate, me not as a pirate, the title page of my thesis, the Greenbelt, Doctor Who and Faction Paradox logos), but I can't find anything suitable for the shorts. I did try a photo of my monitor with some word-processed text on it, but it looked crap.

Does anyone have any suggestions? (The idea that I should use a pair of shorts will be frowned upon.)

[Edit to add: As an experiment, I've just added a guestbook to the front page, using the same Haloscan technology as for this blog's comments facility. I'll decide whether to keep it or not once I've seen whether I get any comments at all, and whether they're interesting, offensive or whatever.]

14 September 2004


B. has a science degree -- more than one, actually -- which sometimes gives rise to a certain amount of discussion when we watch science fiction or similar on the television.

'All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension,' the TV informed us the other day. 'Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Copper, Lead, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.'

Fortunately we managed to get past the whole 'But Sapphire and Steel aren't elements!' conversation a while ago, agreeing that they might be considered elements in some alchemical sense which diverges from the paradigm used by modern chemistry. This time, however, B. suddenly said, 'But Jet and Diamond are forms of Carbon. That's got an atomic weight of 12. 12 isn't medium!'

I thought about this for a moment. 'Perhaps there are an awful lot of lighter agents, though. Maybe they have a whole load of them based around various allotropes of Hydrogen and Helium, for working inside suns.'

She looked at me suspiciously. 'I suppose that's a technobabble workaround for the scriptwriter's error, yes.'

I'm getting good at those.

Personal Life Update

1. I'm still working on my second professionally-published short story (unless you count the material in The Book of the War), "Minions of the Moon". I've had to write out the manticore and replace it with a hydra, which is a shame, but otherwise it's shaping up nicely. When it's done, I need to dive straight back into the novella...

2. ...except that the house move still hasn't happened, and keeps occupying my time in annoying ways. I had to spend a recent weekend screwing floorboards down in the loft, for instance, which is a bloody unpleasant job, let me tell you. I was dripping with sweat and smothered with filth when I emerged, and I'd only got about ten floorboards down in four hours. And I have to do more of the same this week.

3. On the plus side, I've managed -- most unusually -- two very nice daytime meals with rarely-seen friends at weekends recently. (B. wasn't able to join me for either, which is a shame -- but she gets to go on subsidised meals out at work, which never happens at St Brad's.) One was at the exquisite Demuth's in Bath, which does phenomenal vegetarian food; the other at Bristol's friendly and bohemian Boston Tea Party. One of the friends in question has just returned from five years working in the U.S., to take up a lectureship a mere few hundred miles away in Sheffield -- it will be lovely to see her more often.

4. Work goes "blehh".

13 September 2004

All Irregularities, Etc.

I've been temporarily assuaging my X-Files withdrawal by rewatching the fantastically good Sapphire and Steel. I'm not very far through it as yet (just finished watching the aptly-named Adventure Two), but I'm being forcibly reminded of how atmospheric, tense and downright creepy the series could be.

Virtually nothing about the central characters' background, motivations or aims is ever stated, and the plot, and much of the action, of the episodes is wilfully obscure. Sapphire and Steel seems to tap into the logic of dream or myth, rather than that of conventional TV narrative. The term may be overused, not least by me, but there seems to be something archetypal about these elemental characters and the ritual dramas they act out.

I've also been impressed by the challenge facing Big Finish (coincidentally also the publishers of A Life Worth Living) in their attempt to resurrect Sapphire and Steel as a series of audio dramas. I had thought the idea of publishing novels based around The Prisoner was ambitious in terms of crossing between media, but this seems, if anything, to face even more significant obstacles.

For one thing, on TV a great deal of Sapphire and Steel's narrative progresses through dialogue-free scenes where sinister occurrences -- often, but not always, ghostly apparitions or distortions of time -- are conveyed through purely visual action. It will be remarkably difficult to achieve any similar effect through the use of sound effects -- there are only so many times you can employ distorted clock noises or half-heard babbling whispers. Furthermore, expository dialogue (never desirable in audio drama anyway) is entirely out of character for the elemental agents -- it's difficult enough working out what Sapphire and Steel are talking about when you can see it in front of you, let alone when it's only implied.

I'm intrigued to see whether anything of the aesthetic of the original can be preserved -- despite the fact that some of Big Finish's Doctor Who audio dramas, especially The Chimes of Midnight, have made bold attempts to evoke and sustain a similar atmosphere.

As if this weren't enough, neither David McCallum nor the resplendent Joanna Lumley is available to reprise their rôles. The parts of Sapphire and Steel have been assigned (yes, yes) to Susannah Harker and David Warner respectively. I'm not familiar with Warner's work, but he's supposed to be a decent actor, and Harker was fantastic as the bereaved scientist Angie in Ultraviolet.

Lumley and McCallum, on the other hand, have been called wooden, an accusation not without a polished grain of truth. However, this works strongly in Sapphire and Steel's favour. Excellent actors Warner and Harker may be, but they'll have to be prepared to play impersonal, immaterial forces obliged for mere convenience to put on the semblance of human personalities like masks. There are times in the TV series when Lumley's face becomes so inanimate and doll-like it's simply terrifying. If that's an artefact of bad acting, it's a remarkably fortuitous one -- and also one it won't be easy to reproduce on an audio track.

As with the Prisoner novels, I'm going to have to buy at least some of these CDs, simply because I'm so intrigued as to whether this can possibly be pulled off.

11 September 2004

Slight Update

Many thanks to Stuart Douglas (who manages the excellent Welcome to Wildthyme site), who's just pointed out that A Life Worth Living has materialised on Amazon.co.uk. It's an excellent collection, with short stories from Paul Cornell, Kate Orman and various other SF luminaries as well as my contribution, and I urge you all to go and buy it.

(A less commercially-minded update or two should be appearing on this blog sometime this weekend, incidentally.)

08 September 2004

Robot Replicants Are Go!

Rather later than expected, Big Finish Productions have announced the details of their forthcoming SF anthology, A Life Worth Living, in their Bernice Summerfield range. The collection includes my short story, "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants". Hurrah.

This is another shared-universe project, which is to say the short stories, and the anthology as a whole, are part of an ongoing series based around characters created by other authors -- in this case, Professor Bernice Summerfield, 27th-century archaeologist, adventurer and diarist, sometimes described as "Indiana Jones meets Bridget Jones". Benny was created by Paul Cornell for Virgin's New Adventures series way back in 1992, and has since branched out into her own series, published first by Virgin and more recently by Big Finish. She's a character with a lot of fans, including me, and it's been a privilege to write for her.

The collection as a whole focuses on Benny's academic life, but my story also deals with her relationship with her ex-husband and current lover, Jason Kane (created by Dave Stone for the New Adventures in, erm, 1996 I think). It's about love, life, literary criticism and human/alien porn, among other things. (Oh, and it's a comedy).

I'm particularly pleased because it's my first professional paid-for piece to be published by anyone other than Mad Norwegian Press. Mad Norwegian are marvellous, of course, but it's comforting to find out that more than one group of people believe your work is publishable.

A Life Worth Living is out sometime this month, supposedly, and you can buy it (if you want to, of course) from Big Finish via the link above. It doesn't seem to have reached the Amazon listings yet, but I'll update this blog if and when it does.

02 September 2004

Website Update

My website is now updated with the promised fruits of Greenbelt -- the reading list from my talks and the short story I contributed to the anthology zine thing. I've put up a couple of other short stories while I'm at it, including the "Lucid Episode" entry from this very blog. (I'm not entirely sure the stories are a good addition, actually, and I may decide to take them down the next time I update.)

I'm hoping at some point to hyperlink the reading list comprehensively; and also to put up a full transcript of the talks themselves -- they weren't officially recorded by Greenbelt, but we were able to make recordings on a borrowed minidisk player, which have apparently turned out OK.

In the meantime, here's a quick straw poll. I'm aware that I didn't talk much about issues of faith or religion in Peculiar Lives for quite a while -- pretty much since the beginning, in fact -- and that recently (what with spending a fair amount of time preparing these Christianocentric talks) I've started making rather a habit of it. The perils and misconceptions attendant upon self-identifying as a Christian are complicated, and I'm mildly interested to know how many of my regular readers (assuming I have such things, which may be unwise) have found these recent entries either screamingly embarrassing or more boring than usual.

You all know where the comments button is. Alternatively, email me. I'm genuinely interested...