24 June 2004

Monstrous Progeny

I saw Van Helsing Thursday night. Great, if startlingly mindless, fun. The whole look of the thing was very impressive, most of the acting was adequate (although Richard Roxburgh's Dracula was lacklustre -- a bit of a flaw when he was the main villain), and the use of the Universal horror movie icons was very inventive. The Brides of Dracula, with their floaty chiffon dresses morphing into bat's wings, and the electrically-sparking, occasionally-falling-apart Frankenstein monster, were particularly enjoyable.

On the other hand, the ending was messy, some of the computer-animated characters were unconvincing, and they killed off Victor Frankenstein in the first scene. What's more the script could really have done with a lot of polishing. Given that the movie was almost constant action, the last point is perhaps arguable, but I'd have liked to have seen some more intelligence applied, especially given the deliberate harking-back in some particulars to the original novels from which the monsters originally came. This was particularly noticeable in the case of Frankenstein's creature, who (although bolt-necked and shambling) at least talked reasonably like the character from Mary Shelley's novel, with a high degree of articulacy and as much Romantic sensibility as can feasibly be fitted into a two-hour film with lots of fighting in it.

Predictably, I was most interested in this whole postmodern-metatextuality angle. Multiple crossovers across the fiction of particular periods have been a growth area recently, with Alan Moore's excellent graphic novels based around The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen picking up where previous efforts -- Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels, for instance -- have left off. (Both of those series also include Dracula in their paracanon, although he's not named in LoEG.)

Van Helsing riffs heavily on the classic Universal horror flicks, throwing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, his Creature and Igor, Dracula and his Brides, and the Wolf Man into the same plot, just to see what happens. (Nor does the metatextuality stop there -- the early scene in the Vatican, for instance, riffs very obviously on the James Bond films, while Mr Hyde is directly related to the hunchback of Notre-Dame.) Compared with LoEG or Anno Dracula, that's not particularly impressive (just one scene in Newman's Dracula Cha Cha Cha, set in the 1950s, shows Tom Ripley chatting with Clark Kent, Tony Hancock, Gomez and Morticia Addams and characters from sundry horror films) but the logic of the interaction between the various stories and their motifs is well thought-through.

The way such stories seem to work seems to be to take two linear stories (or clusters of parallel stories, I suppose, in the case of the Dracula and Frankenstein mythoi) and use them as mathematical axes, creating a whole new fictional space (in Van Helsing's case, a four-dimensional one) which the new metafiction can explore. These new degrees of liberty are perhaps why the plots of such stories have a tendency to sprawl out of control, but they also allow some astonishing imaginative constructs to be assembled.

Surely a sequel has to be on the cards -- Van Helsing Meets the Mummy being the obvious one, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown into the mix too. Personally I'd prefer to see them bring back the Bride of Frankenstein, but that would be a little tricky now they've killed off the good Doctor.

And how long can it be, in these days of computer-generated footage, before Abbott and Costello Meet Van Helsing?

Minor Update

Feeling a lot better today -- the foot's fine, given enough anti-inflammatory painkiller type drugs. Another few days and I'll be back to normal.

Amazon.co.uk have finally started listing Of the City of the Saved... as available. What's more, they're selling it at 10% off and offering an attractive "buy together" deal with This Town Will Never Let Us Go.

The book also has its first online review at Outpost Gallifrey. Damian Jeremiah's spelling may be a little wobbly, but he's very enthusiastic. Which is nice.

A number of other people have posted opinions, including at least one full length review, to the OtCotS... thread at the Faction Paradox forum. Feel free to read and contribute, if you like. Any discussion forum benefits from fresh blood -- a Faction Paradox forum, perhaps even more so.

23 June 2004


I had an unexpectedly intimate encounter with the road, on the way home from work yesterday in the pissing rain. I had to brake suddenly, the scooter's tyres weren't as firm as one would ideally wish, and suddenly the world came up and met me sideways. Bloody ouch.

I seem to be OK, though -- my knees are grazed (but not too badly), and the toes of my left foot are evidently a bit sprained. I spent this morning waiting around to have them x-rayed, so as to make sure nothing was broken... but this seems to be the case, so hurrah.

Given how it felt last night I'm rather surprised, actually, but today (admittedly with liberal application of painkillers) it's not too bad to walk on. I may even go back into work tomorrow. Just not on the bloody bike, which is now in for repairs. Hey ho.

21 June 2004

A Change of Mind

I'm thinking it's time to change my reading habits. For quite a while now, I've been reading one book at a time, and usually racing to finish it because there are so many other books I want to read, and there's only a limited number it's possible to read in a lifetime, for God's sake.

In fact, The Big Issue always used to give this figure as 3000, which terrified me. There are so many more good books than that... I mean, I own more books than that. Assuming an average reading lifetime of 60 years, this works out roughly a book a week, and I start to panic if I don't manage this. Fortunately I got a considerable headstart when I was a student, as I didn't have a great deal to take up my time other than reading books. At present, however, trying to juggle a job with a writing career, it's a struggle to make that figure.

I think it's time for a change of approach, though. I'm doing the books I read a disservice in rushing through them so fast, and that there's no intrinsic reason, except for this Big Rush, why I shouldn't read two or more at a time. A lot of people work this way: indeed, I used to do the same myself when I had more reading time available. I just need to retain the details of several books in my head over a reasonable period of time, and how hard can that be?

So, then. I'm Now Reading Red Dust by Paul J. McAuley, a well-known British sf writer with a bit of a mystical bent but a strong grasp of science -- rather like a latter-day Arthur C. Clarke, although he can write rather better than Clarke did for the majority of his oeuvre. Red Dust is set in a Chinese-dominated civilisation on a terraformed Mars some 500 years hence, and is marvellous at depicting a planetary civilisation with a realistic cultural and historical texture. (So far it's better than Amazon's reviewer says it is, anyway.)

I'm also reading The Clockwork Woman by Claire Bott, an excellent fable of early feminism and the world in which it operated. The story, which has strong echoes of both Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley, demonstrates "womanhood" as a cultural construct by making the narrator a literally artificial woman. It's part of Telos's Time Hunter series, and is a sophisticated read.

In between times, I'm reading the latest issue of Fortean Times, which has a splendid article on early attempts at cyborgisation. Apparently in the nineteeth century snails were thought to be telepathic, communicating through an exchange of "escargotic fluid" in the aether. Fantastic.

When I finish The Clockwork Woman, I intend to start What Does a Martian Look Like?.

We Want Information

B. and I were discussing the ITC television series The Prisoner the other day, and I happened to mention the connection with Patrick McGoohan's previous spy series, Danger Man.

"So is the Prisoner meant to be the same person as Danger Man?" she asked me.

"Well," I said.

I explained to her that the writers of the Prisoner tie-in novels published in the early seventies had certainly referred to Number Six as "Drake", but that it was doubtful whether they had the authority to declare canonically that the two characters were identical. I mentioned Leo McKern's often-misheard line in the episode Once Upon a Time, where he tells Number Six (temporarily regressed to schoolboyhood) "See me in my study during the morning break" -- and not, as some have firmly maintained, "during the morning, Drake". I mused that Number Six's anonymity seems to be so intrinsic to the character of The Prisoner that identifying him as a specific person would be damaging to the text as a whole, adding that the name of McGoohan's production company, "Everyman Films Ltd" seemed to bear this out. Judiciously, however, I added that the makers of The Prisoner didn't actually own the rights to the characters from Danger Man anyway, so it might be that they were pursuing a "neither confirm nor deny" policy, so as to keep Danger Man fans interested while avoiding legal entanglements. On balance, I concluded, Number Six was possibly John Drake, but that any direct confirmation of the point -- as the seventies novels had attempted -- seemed in direct contradiction of the spirit of the series.

There was a bit of a pause then, as it dawned on me that this might have been a fuller answer than B. had been entirely in need of at this point in her life. For a moment my marriage very possibly hung in the balance, then she smiled fondly and said, "Thank you, darling. That was a very thorough answer."

I'm so lucky to have her.

I Am Not a Number...

So -- my surname's ridiculous, according to 56% of the readers of this LiveJournal. Well, possibly.

There are a number of reasons I like it, though. Firstly, it's euphonious. Divorced of the actual connotations of being an English surname, it sounds like the sort of thing you might find in Tolkien (who, speaking of silly surnames...).

Secondly, both elements of it mean "Steward" in some form or other. As far as my family have been able to tell, "Hallard" appears to derive from Anglo-Saxon "Hall-ward", ie the warden of a hall. And a Purser, of course, is in charge of money and valuables on a merchant or passenger ship. If I ever use a pseudonym, it'll probably be "Steward".

Thirdly, being self-constructed, it's unlikely to be duplicated (and certainly doesn't seem to have been so far). We can be fairly sure there aren't any serial killers or conservative politicians going around using it. Even the elements of it are relatively rare, although admittedly there's already a published author named Philip Purser, who once interviewed Philip K Dick. Hallards are rarer, although my bachelor name would sem to have been shared by an American football player and a character married to Faye Dunaway.

There's also a Marta Hallard in Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, and it's Basil Hallward (with a "w") who paints The Picture of Dorian Grey.

14 June 2004

Cosmic Indifference

Hmm. I've recently finished reading Greg Egan's novel Diaspora, and I honestly can't recommend it. It reminded me of why I dislike hard sf so much, in fact.

(NB: For sf novices, "hard sf" is science fiction where the fiction appears to be in service to the science, rather than vice versa. It's a subtle distinction, but a vital one.)

It's not that the ideas in Diaspora aren't remarkable -- they are. By the end of the novel, humanity has discovered an infinite number of universes bordering ours via nanoscopic wormholes whose mouths form subatomic particles. It has fled the destruction of Earth by downloading itself, in software form, into a neighbouring universe with five spatial dimensions. It has discovered alien species including eco-engineering five-dimensional hermit crabs, and a software ecosystem "running" on an accidentally-evolved biological computer. The final sequence sees the protagonists spend ninety billion years exploring an artefact which spans twenty-seven trillion universes, and finaly realising it's a remarkably big statue, which is obviously jolly impressive.

It's just that the way it's presented is so sodding dull. The novel actually does a lot of similar things to Olaf Stapledon's classic novels Last and First Men and Star Maker, which are among the greatest things sf has ever produced. But Stapledon was primarily a writer, aware firstly that many of his readers would be far more interested in the philosophy of his multiple universes than their science, and secondly that incorporating believably human characters (even if they're only rather nebulous narrator-figures) does wonders for the reader's tolerance levels.

By contrast, Diaspora begins with half a chapter describing the mathematical algorithms by which a notionally human software sentience is derived. It's the hard-sf equivalent of a Victorian novel's "I was born", and it's astonishingly tedious. It's twelve pages before the emergent personality even gets to interact with anyone: everything up to this point has been network formation and co-ordinate sets. There's very little of what I would have found interesting -- the subjective experience of being an entity descended from humanity, but with barely even the illusion of physical existence.

Throughout the novel, personalities are seen as far less interesting than ideas (the more abstract the better), and emotions -- while their existence is acknowledged -- seem to be something of a distraction from the vitally important business of doing maths. The only people in the novel I could remotely identify with are the individuals who foolishly choose to live on in their doomed biological bodies, rather than migrating to the welcoming software environments, and they're extinct well before the halfway point.

It's not that I have any ideological objections to extropianism. It's that the lives Egan depicts for his software people are so inhumanly uninvolving. I'd rather die than live that kind of artificial afterlife, and the novel is fairly unequivocal in its view that this makes me profoundly stupid. Hey ho.

"Free Winnie": Rev-Ursine Academic Trends (and Relations)

On a more positive note, though, Postmodern Pooh, which I'm rereading currently, is magnificent. It's the 2001 follow-up to Frederick Crews's The Pooh Perplex, a gentle book of spoof criticism published in 1964 to noises of considerable enjoyment and appreciation. The "authors" of that "anthology" spent their time teasing out the supposed Freudian or Marxist themes, literary or religious allusions, and even evaluations of literary worth, from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, in a thoroughly gentlemanly manner. The only "essay" inflected by critical theory lampooned it by having its author nowhere engage with the actual texts of the books he was supposedly examining.

I utterly love The Pooh Perplex, which got me through some times of disillusionment during my English degree -- but compared with it, Postmodern Pooh is vitriol-soaked dynamite. This time the very much older Crews is on the offensive, and he means it. The various vacuities of deconstructionism, New Historicism and Feminism and Marxism in their modern inflections are unflinchingly laid bare (or possibly "bear"). I (and I suspect Crews) actually have a lot of time for many of the premises and beliefs of these various schools, but like him I simply can't abide the dogma, the impenetrable jargon and the smug self-referentialism of the modern academia they've spawned.

Unlike Crews, however, I would have had neither the skill nor the patience to immerse myself thoroughly in these doctrines in order to produce such acerbic parodies, in which (for instance) the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson is admiringly compared by one of his followers with Mao Zedong, or an Oxford-educated postcolonialist dismisses the vast mass of his fellow Indians as difficult to take seriously thanks to their insufficient background in postcolonial critical theory. While the essays are spoofs, the extensive supporting material adduced by their "authors" is all real: the book apparently took Crews two years to research, and his eye for an inadvertently self-ridiculing quote is utterly merciless.

The disciple of Derrida, who opens the book by emphasising that "After we have registered the fatal instability of our concepts, they still remain our concepts, all the more precious for our awareness that they, and therefore we, fail to intersect with 'reality' at any point", and who ends her paper by degenerating into sub-Joycean gibberish culminating in a heartfelt "HIPY PAPY BTUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY!", is particularly hilarious.

To anyone who's been exposed to modern critical theory, I can't recommend this book highly enough. To anyone who hasn't, admittedly it may be a bit impenetrable.

What Dreams May Come

The promised dream blog has now materialised: I give you Petunias Thrive, at http://alephone.blogspot.com/. It strikes me now that "alephone" would have been a good title to use if I ever decide to shunt off my sporadic tedious comments about beer into a dedicated weblog, but never mind.

B. and I met up for a meal with some friends we hadn't seen for ages, in Bradford-upon-Avon on Saturday. Unfortunately we hadn't arranged to meet until 8pm, their train was delayed, the staff at The Dandy Lion had all their attention taken up by a private party (not that that had stopped them taking bookings), and we ended up having to rush our mains and skip dessert altogether in order to catch our respective last trains home at 10:30ish. This was most frustrating. The vegetarian food was OK, I guess, although rather unimaginative, and the beer (various flavours of Wadworth's) wasn't too bad. Very nice indeed to see the friends in question, though.

No other news of any interest at present. The actual administration of a writing career seems to consist largely of waiting for people to get back to you about things, while other people wait for you to get back to them about different things which you're too busy to get done because of all the waiting. Or maybe that's just Western civilisation I'm thinking of.

04 June 2004

Busy, Busy

Various web-type updates:

1. My website now boasts some additional Extras relating to Of the City of the Saved..., including some extensive Notes on the novel (around 15,000 words' worth, actually) in the Commentary area, and an extra snippet in the Deleted Scenes. There are also some hidden extras, which I'm not going to link to. (Take note, however: the Notes are designed to be read in parallel with the novel. If you read ahead -- and even more so if you read them without reading the novel at all -- you're going to get a lot of stuff spoilered.)

2. I've added a Comments facility to this page, so that you can let me know what you think about, well, anything really. This comes courtesy of the nice people at Haloscan -- many thanks to Mags Halliday for the tip.

3. I've also registered a livejournal account (under the name "infinitarian", imaginatively enough) so that I can comment on other people's livejournals without coming up Anonymous. I don't intend to use it as a weblog: the sole entry there is a link to this blog, and I intend to keep it that way.

4. The Faction Paradox website has also been updated (not that I can take credit for that). There's no information on Of the City of the Saved... that you couldn't find elsewhere -- but still, it's very nicely presented.

Weird Dream

The other night I dreamed that I was watching daytime soap operas, a thing I never do in real life. Flagging ratings meant that the producers had introduced a lot more bonking and nudity, to boost the viewing figures. One topless woman was wearing particularly striking breast decorations in the form of giant spectacles, which framed her breasts as if they were gigantic eyes.

After a while, a pair of kidnappers gained entry to the hero's house by pretending to be murderous zombies (I didn't quite follow that bit, to be honest), and made off with his (nude) girlfriend and his pet chimpanzee. Their big mistake came in allowing the chimp to drive.

This wouldn't have been a problem -- they had the ape at gunpoint, after all -- except that, in a Twin Peaks style twist, the chimp was periodically possessed by a demon, who didn't care about the life of its host, the kidnappers, or the hero's girlfriend. The demon took control of the chimp, the chimp crashed the car, all the occupants died horribly, and then I woke up.

Following March's lucid episode, I'm considering starting a separate blog, to use exclusively as a dream diary. After all, my dream life seems to be more interesting than my waking one a lot of the time.


B. and I spent a few days this week in Oxford: not visiting anyone, just wandering around relaxing and looking at stuff. We were staying at the Randolph, Oxford's biggest, poshest hotel (thanks to a massively cheap special offer on Tesco's part), which we found snooty and intimidating, but we managed to have a good time anyway, with plentiful trips to George and Davis'.

To an extent this was a horribly self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia, revisiting our old student haunts, but they're not wrong when they say you can never visit the same pub twice. Of course some of them had been redecorated (although some not -- this is Oxford, after all), but the main difference is that when I was a student in Oxford I drank Guinness, while B. drank cider. We used to hang around all the good pubs with our friends, but we would have been entirely blind to their attractions in terms of real ale.

This weekend we were able to remedy that, and we discovered that The Lamb and Flag has its own golden ale brewed exclusively, while the Turf's range of good beer outclasses any of the pubs in Bristol. I curse my student self for squandering such opportunities with his callow philistinism.

We also found a smashing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (which appears, peculiarly, not to have a working website), mostly consisting of temporary rooms and buildings buried in sand. Copies of the artist's book were being sold, and I snapped one up -- it's an anthology (mostly science fiction) in which even the title page, contents page etc are taken from other works, which is surpsrisingly disorientating.

It's rare to find art that's unashamedly influenced by SF, but this Mike Nelson chap seems to have absorbed Aldiss, Ballard, Dick et al, as well as some of the more depressing Soviet SF authors, and taken them to heart.

One of the rooms featured a film projector playing back a lecture given by a conspiracy theorist, in which he explained that corporate logos were all symbols of various masonic lodges and illuminati. There isn't enough of that sort of thing in contemporary art, damn it.