30 July 2004

Getting Unnecessarily Sentimental

I spent the weekend at the wedding of an old friend, back in my teenage home town of Worthing (or, if you've read Of the City of the Saved..., Kempes District). At some point I may try and analyse the love-hate relationship I have with the place, but I suspect it may end up being entirely banal and precisely what you'd get from anyone who'd long since moved from a provincial town to a reasonably major city.

The important thing about this weekend was the wedding, and its guests. The wedding itself was lovely, a short and simple ceremony followed by a decent reception. Veggie food was sparse, but we managed to persuade the catering staff to bring us the leftovers from other tables and we ended up doing rather well. The speeches were numerous, but crucially short (the sweepstake winner had plumped for 33 minutes), and the perennial post-reception disco was splendid.

Among those in attendance -- the bride included -- were about three-quarters of the group I bonded with as a teenager, who have remained my closest friends in the time since, including eight years at university (during which I made a whole lot of very excellent new friends), my marriage to B. and our move to Bristol. Most of these guys I hardly ever see these days, but I've known them half my life -- longer in some cases -- and I love them (including the couple of privileged adoptees the group has acquired over the years) more than anyone else on Earth except for B.

(Oh, and my family I suppose. Hi, Dad.)

It's when I'm with these friends that I'm always inspired to write -- a few books late, admittedly -- that Great Autobiographical First Novel with which a marvellous new talent always explodes onto the literary scene, to be greeted with critical acclaim, fame and surprisingly adequate amounts of money.

It would be an epic tale of childhood friendship in the face of adult life, of bonds between people who were once strangers becoming strong enough to persist in the face of everything the world can throw at them. It would be a saga of innocence and experience, of huge parties and remarkable feats of drunkenness, of Wham, Queen, Abba and Enya, of utterly disastrous holidays, of flirtation, sexual awakening and teenage heartbreak, of mature relationships and messy endings, of courtships and separations, of marriage and divorce, of fidelity and lust, of pregnancy, birth and parenthood, of moving apart and staying together, of disability, accident and bereavement, of art and science, of finance and third-world aid, of conversion and loss of faith, of christianity and humanism, of fundamentalism, liberalism and apathy, of angst and comfort, of misery and elation, of mistrust and loyalty, of astounding naiveté and hard-won cynicism, of optimism and disappointment, of triumph and loss, and of abiding love. It would be a vast, bible-thick tome which would contain enough material for a dozen TV miniseries and, basically, set me up for life.

Unfortunately it would also be The One Where None Of Phil's Friends Ever Speak To Him Again, so it'll probably never happen. Still, it sounds pretty good on paper, doesn't it?

Marshall My Thoughts

Finally getting round to replying to Steven K's comments on Michael Marshall [Smith]'s The Lonely Dead -- SPOILERS for which, and for its prequel[*] The Straw Men, will shortly follow.

I actually finished the book a week or so ago, but have, as advertised, been busy.

I do agree that The Lonely Dead was ultimately unsatisfying, and that it fails to live up to the promise of The Straw Men. This is partly because the big revelation towards the end appears relevant only on a local scale, and (despite some vaguely mystical hints) is unlikely to affect the characters in the same way.  Which when compared with "Human society has always been run from behind the scenes by a secret cabal of serial killers", is bound to come as something of a disappointment.

I actually quite like the grounding of the fantastic in reality in both these novels -- to start off small-scale and ordinary and then build up to that revelation in TSM was a pretty bold move, and one that I did feel worked for me. Given the usual expectations of a crime thriller, it's an interesting experiment with generic slipstreaming -- TSM can just about be accommodated within the crime genre, but TLD's frankly SF revelation definitely slips the moorings, like an X-Files episode smuggled into a series of an ordinary cop show.

I think another part of the problem is that, after the discoveries they make in TSM, the characters in TLD are less grounded in reality. Instead they're grounded in a paranoid fantasy based loosely on reality, and the sideways slip into a world where Neanderthals live on and are responsible for all of humanity's "hidden people" legends (just as the Straw Men themselves are responsible for all the conspiracy theories) is less shocking and effective than it would have been if it had come in the first novel, or in a non-series novel with new characters.

That said, there's a lot that's effective in TLD -- quite apart from the prose, which is to die for. The meditations on addiction, whether that comes in the form of cigarettes or serial murder, were very chilling indeed. The tracing of the serial-killing impulse to ancient sacrificial ritual was also very fine, and put me closely in mind of Neil Gaiman's excellent American Gods, another novel by a British US resident about how ancient elements of European culture infuse that of the modern-day United States. And the returning characters from TSM, apart from Zandt who's hardly in it, were still as compelling.

As, say, the second book in a trilogy (and I'd hope that would be what it turns out to be, rather than an open-ended series) I think it's very good. Hopefully it forms a brief diversion from the main action, and a prelude to the character development and (again, hopefully) genuinely shocking revelations of the third volume. Perhaps that's the only context in which it can really be judged -- as an individual novel, it suffers from its evident series status.

Generally, though, it's pretty damn good, but -- because of its position in the series -- precisely how good depends on where the story's going next.

[*] OK, so strictly speaking "prequel" was coined to refer to a story which is written and published later than a story which came out before, but which is set earlier -- effectively, a book- (or whatever) length flashback. Thus Prelude to Foundation, The Phantom Menace, The Merry Wives of Windsor etc. So... what is the word which just means "story to which the story currently under discussion is a sequel"?

Writing updates / Blatant plug

Apologies for the silence from Peculiar Lives recently -- I've been sticking my face into my screen and writing instead of updating things here.

The novella's now one-third complete, at least in current draft. That's 11,000-odd words, which isn't actually all that much, but as I've indicated it's rather slow going. I'm enjoying the persona of my novelist-narrator, and I'm enjoying the story he tells, but recreating his style is a laborious process. Apart from anything else, a novelist (a good one, at least) doesn't have a single style: they vary how they write from novel to novel, and from scene to scene, depending on the demands of the story. Trying to mimic that, but remain in character, is tricky. Particularly when the novelist I'm imitating is frankly a better writer than I am. Hey ho.

Anyway, now I've reached my short-term target the novella goes on the back burner for the rest of the summer while I work on the short story and the two talks. The former I'll be telling you all about when the official announcement is made -- when that happens is out of my hands, though, and it could even be sometime next year. (Anthologies seem to require lengthy lead-in times, or perhaps I'm just used to the quick and efficient turnover at Mad Norwegian.) It's another piece which involves research, though. For a start there are pre-existing characters who need to be be written in a manner consistent with their previous appearances (which I'm fairly used to by now, of course, and one of them at least is a character I love). On top of that, the idea I've decided on involves a period setting, with much made of the science of the period, plus even more literary pastiche.

I do sometimes wish that I'd be a little less ambitious at the planning stages. I come up with gloriously complicated ideas which carry me away entirely with their potential -- and then I find myself having to actually live up to that potential in the writing. Hey ho.

So, these talks. They're happening at "Between the Lines", the literary venue at the Greenbelt Arts Festival, which is held at Cheltenham Racecourse on 27-30 August, the Bank Holiday weekend. My talks are on Science Fiction as the Bible (Sunday 29 August at 5pm) and The Bible as Science Fiction (Monday 30 august at 12noon).

As Christian festivals go, Greenbelt is way up the liberal end (frankly, I couldn't stand it any other way), and well worth attending for the bands, drama and visual arts, some of which are of very high quality indeed. Even so, I'm a little nervous about some of the more heterodox things I'm planning to say. For the most part (and when they actually get written) the talks are going to be a distilled and chatty version of my thesis, which looked at how SF writers of all religious persuasions (including some very wacky ones, yes I'm looking at you Mr Dick) use Christian imagery drawn from Paradise Lost via Frankenstein in their work. However, at the end I will be drifting into interpretations of some books of the Bible according to SF paradigms, which may raise a few eyebrows and/or hackles. So, any moral support anyone felt like lending would be good.

In addition to the talks, I'll be reading from Of the City of the Saved... at the open-mike Writer's Cafe organised in the same venue by the Subway writers' collective, on the Sunday evening from 8pm. Day tickets are available at £25 for adults, £16 concessions. If you turn up, come and say "Hi".

If We Shadows Have Offended...

I'm thinking of wrapping up the experiment that has been Petunias Thrive, on the grounds that I don't have time to update it nearly as often as I wanted to, and that (perhaps as a consequence of not having time to think about it every day) the dreams I'm recording there don't seem to be all that interesting anyway. If there's a public outcry, I'll keep it open, but as things stand I'm not sure it's serving any particularly worthwhile purpose.

20 July 2004

Bits and Pieces

Bit: The reviews page for Of the City of the Saved... at Outpost Gallifrey has been updated with a review by Finn Clark. Finn's a prolific reviewer and a good one, who doesn't hesitate to let negative views be known if he has them. And, despite having had his reservations about the whole City concept from The Book of the War, he gives OtCotS... a qualified thumbs-up. Which comes as something of a relief.

Piece: As you'll see, I've finally worked out how to add a list of links to my sidebar, once again by cribbing off Mags Halliday's blog (eventually she's going to get fed up with me doing this). So far various blogs of interesting people are listed, along with my pages and some other relevant stuff. I'll be adding new links as I refer to them here, or just as I happen to stumble across them.

18 July 2004

Novella Update

Work has now begun in earnest on my novella project (deadline end of January 2005), although it's going to have to share vacation time with a long and convoluted short story for a different publisher (deadline end of September) and two talks on science fiction and the Bible for the Greenbelt arts festival (respective deadlines Sunday 22 and Monday 23 of August at the very, very latest).
Apart from all the usual -- writer's block, inability to settle, a tendency to get distracted by arsing around on the internet and writing weblog entries -- I'm finding it surprisingly difficult.  Its projected length is barely a third that of Of the City of the Saved..., but it's in many ways a more sustained piece.  The narrator is a novelist, closely based on a real-life author I studied for my thesis (but not Philip K. Dick this time), and I'm making an effort to imitate closely his rather sententious period style.  It isn't easy.  Each chapter of OtCotS... had a different voice from the preceding one -- none have "narrators" as such (well, one strand has, but only the one), but the eighteen viewpoint characters' voices inflect the third-person narration seen through their eyes.
Admittedly I sometimes darted ahead along a single character's "thread", writing several sequential chapters in the same voice, but a) I always had alternatives if one voice was getting tricky, and b) even the most prominent such threads only amounted to some 18,000 or so words.  The novella is to be 35,000 to 40,000 in the same style, and that tone is one that isn't coming all that naturally to me.
So... it's all a little tricky.  That said, I've managed to revise the sample chapter, play around with the themes so that they make a little more sense, and complete a second chapter before starting on the third.  That's taken me a week, and there are nine chapters and an epilogue to go. 
At some point I'll talk about pastiche, parody and homage, and what distinguishes a metatextual appraisal in fiction of an author's work by a trained scholar, from a shameless rip-off by an unimaginative hack.  Er, possibly.


Recently watched:
Spider-Man 2, which is great -- I love the romance and the simple heroism it promotes. The morality is no more complex than in the original Star Wars trilogy, although slightly more interesting: Peter Parker's great temptation is not to evil, but to neutrality. The movie makes its moral points in bold strokes -- to do the right thing you must make sacrifices, good people can be corrupted yet remain at heart good people, "With great power comes great responsibility" -- but it does so with such good-natured and childlike earnestness that you can't but love it. Plus it has some great self-aware lines ("Guy called Otto Octavius ends up with eight arms! What are the odds?"), and Kirsten Dunst is lovely.

Recently finished reading:
What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart (the authors who brought you The Science of Discworld, The Science of Discworld II and, apparently, an original sf novel called Wheelers). It's an entertaining book, and I have a lot I'd like to say about it. At some point I may even do so, here or on the book reviews section I keep meaning to add to my website. Suffice it to say that, while I'm fully convinced that Cohen and Stewart know what they're talking about when it comes to science -- and they can write it clearly and compellingly -- their attempts at cultural analysis, and evaluation of extant works of science fiction in particular, frankly suck.

Their eagerness to promote "correct" science in SF, and deride (as "lazy", "wrong" and at one point even "discourteous") SF which doesn't consider this to be a priority, leads them at times onto distinctly unsteady ground -- which they then stomp around on, throwing their weight about like Godzilla. (Speaking of which, surely you realise that bipedal dinosaurs were nowhere near that big? Godzilla would be far too heavy for its bones to support its weight -- thus rendering the spectacle of a gigantic dinosaur pounding New York or Tokyo into rubble entirely unbelievable.)

Currently reading:
The Lonely Dead by Michael Marshall. I've been a huge fan of this author since he was known as Michael Marshall Smith and wrote SF novels (or -- as some of his less charitable readers aver -- the same SF novel on three separate occasions). The Lonely Dead is a sequel to his earlier horror-thriller The Straw Men, and on first opening it I found myself slightly disconcerted. The first chapter was, somehow, nowhere nearly as involving as his other work. Distressingly, I thought that something must have gone wrong -- and I confess, shamefully jealous non-genius writer that I am, that I felt a moment's schadenfreude at the prospect.

Marshall was just easing us in gently. After the second chapter I was utterly sucked in, and have been having trouble since letting go of the book even when I'm supposed to be asleep, eating or working. Marshall has a deceptively conversational style which keeps sucker-punching you with unexpected jokes and subtle metaphors, even when he's writing about faceless conspiracies of serial killers. It's fantastic stuff -- unfortunately, both for my writerly self-regard and for my various ongoing projects.

12 July 2004


B. and I spent the weekend in London, care of the father-in-law's sixtieth birthday celebration and an entirely separate party thrown by a couple of Oxford-derived friends.

It was a bit of a surreal day altogether, starting off (after we'd driven to Richmond and collected B.'s frail granny) at the RAF Club on Picadilly for lunch, proceeding to the London Eye, then via tea and scones at a hotel and champagne at the Criterion wine bar to the 100 Club, before ending up at a goth-infested house in Bermondsey. (We'd ditched B.'s granny by that point, obviously.) Particularly nice seeing many people we hadn't seen for ages, at both the parties.

Very pleasant day however, if rather packed and tiring. I rediscovered that I like London a lot when I've had enough coffee. When I haven't, it's bewildering and difficult and makes me whimper. It's a good thing I don't live there, or I'd be constantly resorting to chemical stimulants (something I'm quite sure isn't true of most of the rest of the population).

Today has been my last day of term, and I'm knackered. Tomorrow I will be mostly prostrating myself before getting down to writing in a big way, for the rest of the holiday. More bloggery to follow in the next couple of days, I shouldn't wonder.

03 July 2004

Making a Spectacle, Etc.

You may remember my fashionable glasses. Well, while I was cleaning them yesterday the fuckers came apart in my hands. The whole left arm broke off at the welded join.

The opticians were very good about it, immediately offering to order in a replacement frame... but even so, I now have to spend at least a week relying on spectacles which don't correct for my astigmatism. And surely -- I mean, correct me if I'm wrong -- but surely trendy, popular glasses which people are invited to pay a lot of money for, ought at least to have the quality of not falling apart to recommend them? I mean, shouldn't they? Or am I being very naive?

I just hope this happens to bloody David Beckham, too.