26 May 2005

Me(me) Again

Wacky LiveJournalists notinventedhere and beckyc have been kind enough to "tag" me to fill in a book-related questionnaire. Just this once, I'm going to, but if it becomes a regular thing, then no.

Quick answers, as I really am supposed to be writing at the moment:

1. Total number of books owned?
Between the two of us, I believe it's somewhere in the region of 2,500. It obviously fluctuates, and B. and I did have a bit of a clear-out before the house move last autumn. I've been diligently building it back up since then, though.

2. The last book I bought?
Er... not entirely sure without checking. Either way, it was two at once. It could have been the Doctor Who books The Monsters Inside and Winner Takes All from Amazon. Alternatively, it might have been Ada or Ardor and Promethea Book Four from Borders here in Bristol.

3. The last book I read?
Oh, now look, you're not being fair. Given that you've asked me today, it was Doctor Who: The Clockwise Man, which I can't particularly recommend. If you'd asked me yesterday it would have been the very much more highbrow-sounding The Memory of Whiteness, and prior to that probably Promethea Book Four again... which, all right, is a comic, but it's one mostly about esoteric kabbalistic mysticism. And a certain amount of shagging. Er.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me?
Only five? Well, it's certainly not going to be an exhaustive list, then...

Assuming for the moment that we're talking about the books' intrinsic worth, and not about ones which mean a lot to me solely because I wrote them, we have:
i. The Pooh Perplex by Frederick C. Crews. The book that taught me to laugh at literary critics, which is a pretty vital skill when you are one.
ii. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. One of the most stylistically original, thematically convoluted and awesomely well-written books I've ever encountered. And Nabokov was writing in his second language, the bastard.
iii. The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany. One of those books that creeps up on you. The first time I read it, I thought: "Mm, yes, that was quite interesting." It's profoundly influenced everything I've written, and probably thought, since.
iv. The Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore. His only non-graphic novel, just because I'm feeling perverse. Weird psychotic psychogeographical tour of history. In Northampton.
v. Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson. I've talked before about the impact this one had on me. I'm still assimilating it.

As I say, not an exhaustive list, and I've deliberately left out any author I wrote about in my thesis, because I go on about them far too much anyway. (Oh bugger, I think I did mention Delany. But only briefly.)

5. Tag some people and have them fill this out on their L.J.s:
Shan't. And the generic term is "weblogs" or "blogs", thank you very much.

Advanced Synoptics

I spent much of last weekend working on the synopsis of Ossian's Reach.

I seem to be cursed with the inability to run off a quick novel proposal, with a summary of the setting, action etc, in the couple of days it ought to take me. Instead, I need to know in enormous detail what the historical background to the novel is going to be (going back some ten thousand years in this case), the central characters' histories and attitudes and precisely what happens in each chapter -- pretty much the entire framework of the novel, in fact -- before I'm capable of summing it up in the pithy few thousand words an agent, publisher or whoever will require.

(Fragile Monsters was easier. I didn't have to set about specifying stuff like: "Christopher and Jessica live in England, a nation with a history of civilisation going back some 1600 years, which in recent centuries boasted a substantial Empire, now largely dismantled...")

My original proposal for Of the City of the Saved was circa 20,000 words long, about a sixth of the final length of the novel, and went into enormous and often redundant detail about the City's history, inhabitants and politics, before it even came to the characters and their actions. (Lawrence Miles, being slightly nervous about my lack of experience in the novel-writing arena, had asked for "everything you've got", and he got it.) The synopsis of the short story I'm going to be embarking on, and hopefully finishing, during half term is a full third of the length I'm supposed to be writing the thing to, which is obviously insane.

I did discover an exciting plotting technique, though. Usually my plot summaries have to be put through multiple, even darwinian iterations, as I look back over them and think, "No, that thing has to happen before this thing does, and this bit's thematically connected to that bit so should go there, and this character can't possibly be there when she has to be here in the next chapter..." and so forth. It usually takes a good number of rewrites of the plot synopsis to get all such issues straight.

This time I charted it in diagram form. I started off with a sprawling spidery diagram of about forty separate events identified by Roman and Greek letters, and then refined it, going through half a pad of paper and most of a pen, and ending up with a very elegant and streamlined schematic which combined all of the major plot points into an order which made perfect sense.

Now I just have to transcribe that into words, which admittedly may take a while. Still, the work which would normally have taken me several days took about an afternoon. I must remember the technique, apply it in future and possibly patent it.

This coming weekend I'm off on holiday for a few days. I don't know where, because B. won't tell me, but I'm told it's likely to be somewhere nice, which is, well, nice.

After that it's half term: seven free days in which I need to write the short story and the sample chapter for Ossian's Reach, a total of ten thousand words of prose or thereabouts. It's the sort of thing that could be enormously satisfying or a total nightmare, depending on how it goes.

I'll be sure to let you know.

22 May 2005

Genuine People Personalities

Sunday's Observer has one of those novelty futurological pieces which occasionally make it into the more relaxed Sunday papers.

I've heard of British Telecom's Futurology and Foresight unit before: they're cited in Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: A Final Odyssey among other places, and they crop up from time to time making the kinds of absurdly wild claims that history generally proves to have been, if anything, rampantly conservative. ("I can see the time when every city will have one," as the impressed mayor of a nineteenth-century U.S. city gushed after his first experience of using the telephone.)

While the Observer story has that inevitable "What have those wacky scientists been saying now?" tone which always accompanies these stories, the predictions Dr Ian Pearson makes in the piece do, indeed, seem perfectly reasonable. They certainly fit the consensus future which Science Fiction has been developing for the last couple of decades: prototype Artificial Intelligences by 2020, ubiquitous virtual environments, distributed processing so that virtually every product is "smart" to some degree, brain / computer interfaces allowing for personality downloads and thus for prolonged, if profoundly altered, life. (The article sensibly observes that this last facility may be a preserve of the extremely rich, leading to horrific visions of an eternally-youthful Rupert Murdoch avatar heading News International in perpetuity from his cyberspace penthouse.)

I'm certainly not decrying such research -- if there weren't professionals prepared to undertake thorough and careful extrapolations from all the available data, then S.F. authors would have to do it for themselves, and that would be far less interesting than taking other people's ideas and running with them. But whether from lack of imagination on Pearson's part or flippancy on The Observer's, the article betrays a significant lack of three-dimensional thinking about this possible future.

One of Pearson's suggestions, a reason why he thinks it will be useful to make A.I.s with emotions, seems particularly worthy of comment: "If I'm on an aeroplane," he says, "I want the computer to be more terrified of crashing than I am so it does everything to stay in the air until it's supposed to be on the ground."

This raises one very obvious question. If this hypothetical A.I. is an autonomous agent, then what is its incentive to be for leaving the ground in the first place? For the "terror" to work, it clearly won't have the option of escaping (which it could presumably do by remote download to an external mainframe), so it will be even more at risk than a human pilot in the event of a crash. Why on earth would an A.I.-piloted plane ever take off?

What Pearson appears to be rather blithely suggesting here is the coercion of a sentient individual, to say nothing of the fact that that individual has been created to be "terrified" while performing its expected function. The ethical problems this raises are substantial -- but to address them one would, of course, be required to take the premise seriously, which is something The Observer for one is not prepared to do, choosing instead to smirk about talking yoghurt.

If Pearson is right, though, then sooner or later someone is going to have to take the rights of software sentiences very seriously indeed -- if for no other reason than because some very influential people are going to become them once their bodies have died. Some legal fudge whereby human downloads are considered persons but artificial sentiences are not seems almost inevitable, but will scarcely last long in the face of A.I. enhancements to living brains, multiple downloads of the same person, biological-analogue reproduction on the part of the downloads with attendant hybridisation, and the like. Our present categories of "person" and "machine" will simply fall over in the face of rational scrutiny.

Certainly to create a truly sentient artificial underclass with what Pearson speculates will be "superhuman levels of intelligence" is a pretty obvious recipe for disaster. In the face of the bloody rebellions which have been started over the years by underclasses of purely human intelligence, this observation seems nothing more than common sense -- but it does, of course, evoke the image of Robot Revolt!, which is a concept belonging to S.F. rather than to the real world, and therefore not to be taken seriously by sensible people.

The idea that, if you're actually considering developing a particular technology, it might be a worthwhile idea to take a careful look at previous views of the likely consequences of such technology, is evidently too outlandish for an Observer reader to be expected to cope with at breakfast on a Sunday morning. Hey ho.

20 May 2005

This Sith

Now, look.

My review of the Hitchhiker film notwithstanding, I'm really not the kind of S.F. fan who's forever complaining about how much better things used to be in the good old days. I firmly believe that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is as mythical as the Garden of Eden, and that the works of contemporary S.F. novelists like Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling are enormously superior to the likes of Heinlein and Asimov. I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, and didn't think they were an insulting travesty at all. And, while I may have criticised the new series of Doctor Who on a number of counts, the one thing you will most certainly not find me saying in that connection is that the programme isn't as good as it used to be, that being quite patently not the case.

So, when I mention that, having seen Revenge of the Sith, I now consider that all three of the Star Wars prequels are, in comparison with the original trilogy, utter pants, you know that it's not because I was secretly hoping that they would be. I really wanted them to be good. In fact, up till 12:40am on Thursday (which is when my friend R. and I went to see Revenge of the Sith -- and yes, by now we really should have both known better) I was still nurturing a tiny spark of hope that Episode III would break the run of pappy drivel, finally proving with its glorious portrayal of the Republic's downfall and the corruption of Anakin Skywalker that George Lucas could still tell an epic tale worthy of that gorgeously faux-futurist '70s logo.

Sadly not. Revenge of the Sith is a sterile and joyless exercise in dot-joining, whose sole cinematic function is to take the pieces Lucas had in play at the end of Attack of the Clones and position them ready for Star Wars. For this I wasted several hours I could have spent asleep.

The story is... well, I don't think there's anything in it which is likely to come as a surprise, but be warned that there will be SPOILERS in what follows.

To get the obvious point out of the way: yes, it looks good. If what you're going for is motion-picture-as-spectacle, big fights involving lightsabers and battle-droids, impressive-looking aliens and spectacular planetscapes, then this film delivers the goods. (It delivers them late and cold and then hangs around waiting for a tip, but even so.) There's actually only one spaceship battle, and it's over before you've really got your popcorn organised, but to make up for that fighting happens on a dozen different planets, with occasional glimpses of spaceships as the characters shuttle between them. If what you want from a film is to be able to turn off every part of your brain except your visual centres and have it satisfy what remains, then yes, this is a film you will enjoy enormously.

For this reason, it may well impress young boys, in much the same way and to the same extent that Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi impressed the six-, nine- and twelve-year-old me. What it won't do is continue impressing those boys when they're thirty-three, in the same way that the first three films continue to impress me today.

Obviously the fixed end-point of these films was always going to cause supply problems in the Surprise Department, but there were ways in which the prequels could have ticked the necessary boxes while interestingly elaborating upon, or even obscuring, the things we learn in the original trilogy. Instead, it is apparently important that the job be done without any kind of ambiguity or deviation from the original plan, and consequently without a trace of inventiveness.

There has been some talk of how the prequels have "subverted" the mythic loss-of-innocence backstory to which the originals refer, by showing the Republic not as an idyllic utopia which the Empire has brutally overthrown, but as a politicking and factional society drawn into fascism by the corruption at its core. It's even been suggested that this is a metaphor -- a prescient one, given that its earliest appearance was in The Phantom Menace in 1999 -- for the precarious state of liberty in the modern United States. As with everything in these prequels, this sounds a lot more interesting on paper than it's ever allowed to be on screen.

The problem is that the tone and conventions of these films, as well as many of their characters, were determined decades ago by the originals, whose cleanly archetypal plots and characters made things nominally simpler, yet whole dimensions more significant. (To take a trivial detail by way of an example, Yoda's sentence structure may be ideal for expounding manichean mysticism, but becomes first hilarious and then incredibly annoying when he's trying to have a sensible conversation about military strategy.)

The same fairytale approach which worked perfectly when dealing with Luke Skywalker's oedipal struggle and mephistopholean temptation becomes absurdly -- in fact offensively -- simplistic when applied to this more realistic world's political manoeuvrings and ideologies. If Revenge warns modern Americans of anything, it's that if at any point George W. Bush suddenly turns wrinkly and grey and starts shooting lightning-bolts from his fingers, then they should definitely think very carefully before appointing him dictator for life.

A tale of the fall of the Republic which kept both the suggested outline and the mythic storytelling style of the first three films could have been a modern-day retelling of the death of Arthur and the breaking of the Round Table, and myths don't come much more subtle, nuanced and overwhelmingly tragic than that. Anakin as Lancelot, trying to live up to his knightly ideals and in despair at his failure, would have been an awful lot more interesting than Anakin as Zach from Desperate Housewives, complaining that his Dad the Jedi Council won't let him date the girl he wants to.

This is helped neither by the dialogue (which rarely rises above the literacy level of a daytime soap, and certainly not to that of Desperate Housewives) nor, unfortunately, the acting. Ian McDiarmid's wily, machiavellian Senator-turned-Chancellor-turning-Emperor Palpatine was the thing most consistently worth watching throughout Episodes I and II: he remains so in Episode III right up to the aforementioned wrinkly-grey transformation, at which point he abandons all subtlety in favour of becoming the cackling pantomime megalomaniac that the Emperor in Return of the Jedi so signally wasn't.

Hayden Christiansen, on the other hand, becomes interesting only when entirely encased in black plastic and voiced by James Earl Jones. (It's an approach I can't help feeling a number of other actors would benefit from -- Richard Gere, for instance, or Jennifer Lopez.) The script does a surprising amount of work to try and ground Anakin's acceptance of the Dark Side in emotions which, while self-centred and annoyingly adolescent, are nevertheless perfectly in keeping with what we have seen of the lad's previous behaviour. Unfortunately, unlike Mark Hamill in Jedi, Christiansen has all the empathy and charisma of a puff-adder, and he entirely fails to make the audience sympathise or identify with Anakin's temptation and downfall.

Throughout the film, good actors turn in terrible performances. Ewan McGregor seems to be constantly wishing he was down the pub, while Natalie Portman apparently loses the will to live long before her character does. Even Samuel L. Jackson is terrible in this, which says something fairly remarkable concerning the director's abilities. The scene where he and McDiarmid vie to out-ham each other with the aid of lightsabers feels like a parody scene from The Simpsons.

I don't want to waste too much of my life slamming this film, and I think it's fair to say that its quality isn't exactly going to come as a shock to anyone who's seen Episodes I and II. As with those films, what significance Revenge of the Sith has beyond its banal action-movie storyline is borrowed wholly from its predecessors, and it wastes virtually all of that.

I would guess that most of us who've seen Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have imagined our own versions of the epic of Anakin Skywalker. Sadly, it seems now that most of us made a substantially better job of it than George Lucas.

18 May 2005

Cover My Back

I've just updated www.infinitarian.com with Stuart Manning's cover to Wildthyme on Top. (I've somewhat redesigned the pages as well, to fit in with the new colour scheme.)

I wanted to title this post "Cover My Arse", but I thought that sounded rather dismissive of the work involved. I know my record of judging these things isn't particularly impressive, but for what it's worth I think it's a nice piece of design, and a lovely illustration of Big Finish's Katy Manning as Iris.

17 May 2005


Further to this post, back in March, complaining about predictive-text clashes... I'm intrigued to discover that my phone knows neither the word "amoral" nor the word "anorak".

Mostly Charmless

B. and I went to see the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film on Friday. I haven't commented on it yet, because its effect was really rather difficult to express in words.

It is, frankly, pretty miserable. Given the scintillating brilliance of the source material, to make a film which is not only not a good adaptation but also not a good film takes that special blend of crass stupidity and arrogant disrespect for talent which is Hollywood's peculiar genius. Not that I'm saying it's a bad film -- in fact there are a number of extremely funny bits, mostly in the form of sight gags. There are also some truly awful bits. It's a spectacularly uneven film, as well as a spectacularly average one, in which almost everything that made the other versions of Hitchhiker so distinctive and successful has been painstakingly compressed into formulaic mush.

The Arthur & Trillian love story is obviously the worst offender here, but it's audible in every rewritten line: Adams' neatness of phrasing, his razor-sharp deployment of words, has been scrawled over by what sounds like a committee of accountants. Marvin, formerly a precision-launch system for packages of targeted contempt, has been turned into a moody-but-cute sitcom teenager. It's... eugh.

Now, I realise that this version of the story was never going to be faithful to the original, even if a clear consensus could be achieved on what "the original" is. Each new version of Hitchhiker -- the radio series, the books, the TV series, the game -- has improvised jazzily around the same central themes, tinkering with the story, tweaking the characters, replacing Trillian with a completely new character of the same name, taking out whole episodes and elaborating throwaway lines into entire new subplots to replace them.

Nor was Douglas Adams always in complete control of this process, before his tragically early death in 2001: the novel aside, all of these media are collaborative, and even the novels had editors. The fact that Adams' involvement in the film was prematurely cut short has, I'm sure, affected it adversely -- but Jane Austen died generations before the cinema was even conceived of, and people are making excellent adaptions of her work. There was every potential for the Hitchhiker film to be good.

Instead it's a sorry mess. Some funny, and reasonably Adamsesque, new sequences (the church of the Great Green Arkelseizure, the Magrathean factory floor) jostle for position with truncated and blanded-over versions of familiar material (everything up to the arrival on the Heart of Gold), bog-standard B.B.C.-style sketch-comedy (most of the Vogsphere material), entirely pointless and unfunny material apparently intended to bolt on a sense of danger (Zaphod's psychotic second head, the dimensional transit points on Magrathea), arse-clenchingly dire Hollywood sweetener (Arthur's ghastly speech about how Trillian is his ultimate question), bizarrely overdeveloped surreal throwaways which might have seemed at home in the original radio series but would later have been consigned to deserved oblivion (the idea swatters), inspired visual comedy and a mildly catchy song about fish.

So much about this film is, to quote the literary incarnation of Ford Prefect, "Wrong, wrong, wrong". The whole Arthur-Trillian thing sums it up, really. The keynote, the very cornerstone of Arthur Dent's character is that he is not the kind of man for whom things go right. He can't nip off to the pub without someone demolishing first his house and then his planet. The idea that someone as attractive as the cinematic Trillian would seriously consider a relationship with him is so far out of character for Arthur as to put him in another genre of story altogether... which is presumably what the film-makers were trying, on the sly, to do, the idea of originality (even thirty-year-old originality) being enough to send them into a panic.

I honestly couldn't recommend the film to anybody likely to be reading this. The clever sight-gags are perhaps good enough to make it not a complete waste of two hours for someone who's never previously experienced Hitchhiker in any form. (There are such people, I understand: explorers run across them from time to time in places like Papua New Guinea.) For someone who remembers it from their youth, it's frankly a depressing experience to endure how very poorly it lives up to the spirit of its famed original.

On which note, I'm off to see Revenge of the Sith on Thursday. I'll let you know how that goes.

12 May 2005

Cultural Product

"So, Philip, are you watching any T.V. apart from Doctor Who at the moment? Are you even reading any books?"

I'm glad you asked me that, imaginary reader. Despite my best intentions, I haven't had time to talk here about books or T.V. at any length for a while now -- the last time would have been House of Leaves, well over a month ago. Since then, as you may have gathered, I've read Anno Dracula, The Prestige and Something Rotten, as well as Promethea Book Four, The Masters of Luxor and very possibly some other things which presently escape me. All of them I've enjoyed.

Anno Dracula was pretty much what I'd expected, having read its splendid second-sequel Dracula Cha Cha Cha: a massively multitextual crossover novel set in a Victorian multiverse where (to take an example at random) Bill Sykes' son belongs to a crime cartel with Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty, the Invisible Man, Captain Macheath (from Brecht's Threepenny Opera), and Raffles -- most of whom are vampires because Dracula has married Queen Victoria and infected half of London's high society. As you do. As with Alan Moore's equally excellent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Kim Newman's vastly superior reading in the period means that a large number of the references in the novel passed me by, but it's both a massively erudite and a pulpily hilarious book, which ranges from making serious political points about England under Victoria to dissecting the Jack the Ripper murders. And it has a truly inspired use of the quotation "How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen".

Book Four of Alan Moore's Promethea was also much as I expected from the previous volumes, being an extremely well-written but ultimately uninvolving exposition of kabalistic philosophy, thinly disguised as a superhero comic. Moore is a fine writer, and his skill at manipulating and reworking the iconography of comic books is truly extraordinary; but since it moved from being a reinvention of the superhero comic to a philosophical treatise, I've found Promethea a lot less exciting than it ought to be. What Moore has to say about magic, mysticism and their symbols is really quite interesting, but the narrative it's embedded in feels like an arid intellectual exercise where the characters, despite mouthing appropriate emotional responses as they travel, are simply cyphers for the expository prose. Part of the problem may be that presenting credible human reactions in the face of the transcendent is actually extraordinarily difficult, and since the end of Book Two the Promethea storyline has consisted of virtually nothing else. I much prefer The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which has a sense of fun to it. Still, Moore has yet to write anything that's not worth reading -- or at least if he has I've yet to read it.

I've talked a little about Something Rotten already. I feel slightly guilty about the fact, but I have ambivalent feelings towards Jasper Fforde. On the one hand, his books are wonderful entertainment, creative and funny and exiting and all the things you'd wish for. On the other hand, they seem... superficial. Given that one of his themes is the relationship and interaction between the real world and the world of fiction, I can't help feeling that his so-called "real" world, inventive and clever as it is, lacks the depth required to sustain the distinction -- especially when the works of fiction under discussion (Dickens, Shakespeare, Brontë, Bester, Carroll) display considerably more profundity. I know it's only meant to be a bit of fun -- and it is -- and perhaps I'm being a terrible old sportspoiling snob, but all the same, it just seems a bit too... easy. God, I don't know. Perhaps I really am just jealous.

Now I've discovered Christopher Priest (having started with The Separation back in December), I'm going to have to find most of his backlist and read it, because his work really is excellent. The Prestige is the equal of The Separation (which was actually published later, but Gollancz have recently rereleased the earlier novel in a smart new edition to match the recent one) in every way, including the weird and allusive deployment of S.F. tropes within a firmly-grounded historical tale, the dreamlike prose and the obsession with twins and dual identity. Despite the Victorian setting and the plot device of the electrical matter-transmitter invented by Nikola Tesla, this isn't really steampunk. The ethos has little in common with that of S.F. -- rather it's a rhapsody on the miraculous benefits the Victorians were expecting their harnessing of electricity to bring to them. I've shelved it tentatively under fantasy, but I have some doubts on that score -- the fact that the chief user of the device is a stage magician, as is the other central character, may be "problematising the aesthetic", as we pretentious gits say.

More recently -- in fact too recently to have an opinion on them yet -- I've embarked on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Memory of Whiteness, thus completing the collection for which I asked you to recommend a reading order back here. Both seem very promising so far, although Mr Norrell is huge, even worse for reading in bed or taking to work than The Algebraist. I should have waited for the paperback.

On a televisual front, I'm still watching Desperate Housewives... and very little else that's current, actually, beside the obvious. On video B. and I have been working through The West Wing for the first time, and have recently finished a grand re-watch of Angel.

I still haven't seen last night's episode, but Housewives I've found a bit meandery recently, without the unifying drive which the quest to discover Mary Alice's terrible secret gave the early episodes. Given the almost entirely casual way in which a very salient fact about this hidden past was revealed early on in last week's episode, it does seem almost as if the writers have lost interest in this aspect of the show, concentrating instead on the (more soap-operatic and less crime-dramatic) events in the lives of the other housewives. Unfortunately this puts them in danger of losing my interest too. Last week's introduction of Susan's equally wet mother (who they felt the need to point out might well be responsible for Susan being the way she is -- thanks for that) annoyed me more than I liked, as well. However, Bree continues to be effortlessly wonderful, as does Lynette, and the programme's worth watching for their performances alone.

The West Wing is a show I've been meaning to get into for ages now, having heard persistently wonderful reports of it -- generally in the same breath as those for Six Feet Under, which I love, and The Sopranos, which I've never actually got around to catching. It's good. In fact, it's bloody good. At first it took all my concentration to follow it, but recently I've got the hang of the trancelike state required to enjoy the actual drama whilst letting the U.S. political jargon wash gently over me. It's quite clearly a liberal wish-fulfilment fantasy (and why the hell not, when reality is so ghastly?), and it seems to this Brit at least that it invests altogether too much and too worshipful a respect in the office and functions of the President; but this is overpainted by a broad streak of cynicism about the political process which sees the good guys constantly having to compromise, lie and betray in the name of the greater good. B. considers that the series is still too sentimental: I feel it's just about right. Whether this makes me more pro-American than her or just more of a romantic, I'm not sure.

Finally, a worthwhile fact about Angel: the really bad episodes, such as the Pylea ones in Season 2 or The Girl in Question in Season 5, aren't nearly so bad when you watch them again knowing what's coming. The horrifically stereotyped Italians in the latter scarcely made me cringe at all this time round. Angel is often cited as a spinoff series which has successfully broken free from the shadow of its monolithic original, and despite the continued crossover of characters, I think this is fair. The series had its low points, but it built credibility and gravitas as it went along, until in Season 5 it had the courage to turn its lead character into a muppet (er... I mean an actual muppet), and still managed to impress. Sadly, this final season doesn't really live up to the promise of the earlier stuff, or to the promise of its changed premise, where the good guys have to work within the confines of their Faustian bargain with Wolfram and Hart. Unfortunately, the storylines feel cramped, as if the series' infuriating cancellation caused the writing team to squeeze three seasons' worth of character development and history into one. There's still some impressive stuff, of course -- the muppet episode, Smile Time, is a particular triumph, as is the final story, Not Fade Away; while Amy Acker as Illyria is a real revelation. Still, the limitations of time mean that the writers just don't have any room to breathe or move their elbows, with the result that material which should be of the greatest significance, like Spike's return to the flesh, is breezed through in a couple of episodes. It's all very reminiscent of the fourth season of Babylon 5, where much the same thing happened -- except that then the contract was extended, and Season 5 was left with nowhere to go but disastrously downwards. T.V. executives: making the world safe for sport and soap-operas since 1969.

Now B. and I have finished Angel, the plan is to embark on Twin Peaks, a show I unaccountably managed to miss out on altogether when it was broadcast. If it lives up to its reputation (and to David Lynch's films), it should be like my first viewing of The Prisoner all over again. I'm not quite expecting that (I'm not nineteen any more, apart from anything else), but I'm looking forward to it quite a lot.


As you'll all have realised by now, I don't do "memes"... or at least if I do I don't bore everybody by blogging my results. But very, very occasionally, there comes along a result so cool I can't actually resist telling people about it.

I am:
Cordwainer Smith (Paul M.A. Linebarger)
This inimitably unique storyteller created a future with so many deep layers of history that all the world we know is practically lost in it.

Which science fiction writer are you?

So now we know.

11 May 2005

No Cause for Alarm

The burglar alarm at home seems to have a habit of going off at random every two or three months. When I'm at work this is awkward -- partly because of the unscheduled time off needed to get on my moped and scoot home to see what's happened, partly because of the panic instilled until I'm able to confirm that it has, indeed, been a false alarm, and partly because the method it uses for telling me that it's gone off is to call me on my mobile in a roomful of students whom we strictly prohibit from using phones in the library. Oops.

When this happened at Christmas we thought the cold snap was interfering with the electronics. When it happened in March, we thought that the window sensors must be loose and getting slighly dislodged by over-affectionate cats, so we superglued them in place. Now it's happened again, and I've checked carefully that there are no, for instance, spiders in the workings, I don't know what to think.

It comes down to two possibilities, I suspect. Either, being a cheap system, it misfires automatically from time to time (whether because it's a bit rubbish or in a fiendish attempt by the marketing people to prompt us to buy something more expensive), or else the cats, despite our best efforts, have managed to work out a way to trigger the motion sensors. This would involve leaping three or four feet vertically into the air for no reason, but who knows what a cat might decide to do when left alone.

[If you've been waiting, a review of The Long Game should be going up on Parrinium Mines at some point today... with any luck. It's all been a bit busy here. Edit to add: It's up now. Hurrah.]

09 May 2005


Today has been spent mostly in flappy negotiations with people who want me to write things for them. There's been some distinctly good news on that front, though.

Item. Confirmation of my Greenbelt talks on The Spirituality of Doctor Who. Hurrah. This is all very splendid, even though it turns out on closer inspection that only one talk has been scheduled when I proposed two. It's also a shame that it's scheduled for the smaller (but very pleasant) literary venue, rather than the larger spaces they generally give the media / pop-culture talks. (This seems particularly odd to me since I fully intend to speak on Doctor Who in T.V. rather than book form, but that aspect of it's not really my problem.) The big difficulty is that contributors have to deliver two sessions to qualify for a weekend pass to the festival -- I've been rather banking on one of these, as otherwise I would have bought my ticket months ago when they were cheap. I'm flapping at them by email even as we speak.

Item. Confirmation of the commission for the co-written S.F. criticism proposal I've mentioned once or twice recently. Hurrah and huzzah, especially since the publisher's initial threat to give us a deadline of a little under four months has now been amended to the twelve we were rather wanting. Still negotiating the money side of things, though, rather delicately since neither of us has any particular idea of what would be standard for a large academic publisher. This is where an agent would come in really rather handy, of course.

Item. An invitation to contribute to another shared-universe short-story anthology from Big Finish. The themes are right up my street, and there's a chance of final placement in the book, which always makes a story stand out more. The downside -- which I haven't been able to negotiate the volume's editor out of -- is having to use some characters I find frankly uninspiring. He's firm on the point, though, so never mind -- it's a fiction commission, so hurrah and huzzah again.

Needless to say, all this has made me more eager than ever to obtain an agent at my earliest convenience, to flap on my behalf. Unfortunately, all the extra work may mean that I have to shelve the proposals I'm working on to wow them with, at least temporarily. Hey ho.

06 May 2005

Same as the Old Boss

Well, I think it's fair to say we were all expecting something of the kind. Hey ho. Perhaps the reduced majority will make Mr Tony think twice before charging, cutlass in teeth, to follow George Bush into Iran or Syria or New Zealand or wherever he's thinking of attacking next. I won't be holding my breath, though.

Bristol South, where I live, was never likely to unseat Blair's Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo. Still, opposition in general is up here (over half the electorate didn't vote for "Red" Dawn, which may sound fairly rubbish but is a genuine improvement), the Lib Dems beat the Tories to second place, and the Greens got a pretty respectable 5% of the vote. (If that last one is repeated all over the country, I'll be deliriously happy. Or possibly just delirious.)

For those of you who have been following its various permutations, the Who Should You Vote For? site is running an exit poll, Who Did You Vote For?, with viewable results. I would have mentioned this yesterday, but the new poll was having some teething troubles.

[Edit to add: I don't know what Steve Bell's on, but I really don't want some of it, ever.]

05 May 2005

Election Special

When I was first old enough to vote, back in the very late '80s and early '90s, I was a firm supporter of the Liberal Democrats -- largely thanks to the influence of my good friend Ben, a party stalwart, who campaigned incessantly for the local party during our late teens and later went on to be a parliamentary researcher.

I lived in West Worthing, the safest Tory seat in the known universe. The local Conservatives ruled the roost, to the extent that the incumbent M.P. once called round to my parents' house to tell me off because I'd written (at Ben's instigation, naturally) a critical letter about him to the local paper. I was out at my Saturday job at the time, and I never did find out how Terence (now Baron) Higgins got hold of my address. In Worthing in those days, the Lib Dem vote reached perhaps a few thousand each year, while the Labour candidates occasionally lost their deposit. In Worthing, a Lib Dem vote is an anti-establishment vote, albeit a very polite one.

I gave up voting Lib Dem as a student, when it became clear that I believed more strongly in the principles that Labour was supposed to stand for than in those the Lib Dems espoused. And I gave up voting Labour after the election of the first Blair government, when it became clear that I believed more strongly in the principles that Labour was supposed to stand for than in those the Labour party espoused.

Since then I've voted Green, partly because they are in some respects the only genuinely radical party left, partly out of a general approval for the underdog, and partly as an enormous "Fuck you" to all the major parties. (Not that I don't still have quite a bit of time for the Lib Dems, but I can see that changing if they were ever to form a government. If there's one thing the past two-and-a-half decades of political history would tend to suggest to me, it's that I don't like governments.)

This year, however, I'm feeling a renewed sense of motivation about my Green vote. I'm not for a moment saying that I want the Green party to form the government, nor even that I think they stand the slightest chance of attaining a Westminster seat. But I do think that only a massive show of support for the Green movements in all countries can end the currently universal political practice of turning a blind eye to the West's pollution and consumption, and confer anything like the moral authority we need to halt the far larger populations of countries like India and China following in our footsteps.

I'm feeling this way largely because of having recently discovered the political and environmentalist science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson, which is among the best-written and most sophisticated S.F. I've ever read. Pacific Edge argues compellingly that a wholesale revolution in Western political thinking is indispensible if our world society is to be bearable a scant few generations from now, while The Gold Coast presents the hideousness to which our current attitudes will carry us if unchecked.

Pacific Edge's qualified utopia is one of localised government, heavily regulated industry and advanced ecological technologies. Its small communities share housing and essential labour in common, and are connected globally via the internet. The Gold Coast, on the other hand, shows an urbanised, industrialised, gas-guzzling West, comprehensively shafting the rest of the planet to the extent of fomenting wars purely in order to sell its own arms. Although I may have complained about the preponderance of team sports in Robinson's utopia, there's no doubt in my mind as to which of these potential futures is more likely to allow our descendants to survive and thrive, both spiritually and bodily.

So... this year I'll casting my Green vote with a renewed belief in what it stands for, which is that very comprehensive revolution in Western thought. As things stand, our governments pay lip service to environmental issues at home, while insisting that stricter controls are needed in the Third World. They compose treaties which are watery half-hearted versions of the most urgent recommendatinos of environmentalists, sign them with broad grins and enormous media attention, and then fail even to attain the minimal targets they've set themselves.

All the main parties of government and opposition in the U.K. and the U.S.A. collude in this, when they should be striving, with all the energy they can muster, to ensure that the whole of humanity has a planet it can live on half a century from now. And that is why I'm voting Green this time around.

You may feel that having read a really good S.F. book isn't such a very impressive validation of a voting intention I already had anyway, but it's a better reason than I had before.

04 May 2005

E.T. Ring Home

I found an article in a recent New Scientist about a "soliton galaxy" named, rather prosaically, Hoag's Object. Here's an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Isn't that gorgeous?

A letter to the latest New Scientist suggests that such a colossal anomalous structure may well be evidence of extraterrestrial stellar engineering. I couldn't help recalling the Seven Suns in Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars:

Six of them were arranged in a slightly flattened ellipse, which, Alvin was sure, was in reality a perfect circle, slightly tilted towards the line of vision. Each star was a different colour; he could pick out red, blue, gold, and green, but the other tints eluded his eye. At the precise centre of the formation was a single white giant -- the brightest star in all the visible sky. The whole group looked exactly like a piece of jewellery; it seemed incredible, and beyond all stretching of the laws of chance, that Nature could ever have contrived so perfect a pattern.
[Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars, Corgi edition (1957), p39.]
I can't help wondering what we might find, if we were able to visit a point directly between the nuclei of Hoag's Object and that other, neighbouring soliton galaxy. It'll probably be a while before we have an answer to that one, though.

Even so, I think we can deduce from Hoag's object that, if extraterrestrials exist, they must be utterly sublime visual artists.
"Perhaps it's a signal, so that any strange ship entering our universe will know where to look for life. Perhaps it marks the centre of galactic administration. Or perhaps -- and somehow I feel that this is the real explanation -- it's simply the greatest of all works of art." [Ibid, p194]

03 May 2005

Amazon, and on, and on...

I'm thinking of becoming an Amazon.co.uk Associate. This would mean that the links which currently go from my website to the Amazon pages for my books would become mini-banner adverts like this one:

...and, more significantly, that if anyone purchased a book from Amazon after going through said link, I'd get a small amount of commission on it. I've no idea how frequently people are buying my books as a result of the links on the pages, but if they are it seems a shame to be wasting an opportunity to get the occasional gift certificate out of it.

In other news, I've just finished Something Rotten, the fourth and possibly the best in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. I'm desperately jealous of Fforde's inventiveness and his ability to tell a gripping story. I could wish that it was matched by a more complex prose style, although that's just personal taste... and that his books didn't appear to be written in a hurry and inadequately proof-read. There are some basic contradictions in the book which could so easily have been ironed out -- it feels as if Fforde just can't be bothered, when mentioning a fact, to check what he's said on the subject before, in which case I can't help feeling that somebody ought to be doing it for him.

That said, Fforde in a rush is a better author than most people given the opportunity for slow and mature consideration. So I'm still jealous, and recommend the book highly. The bastard.

Ossian's Eleven

I'm sorry that this blog has been quieter than usual recently, and that promised book reviews, Speculative Cityscapes and the like are still failing to materialise. This is partly due to general busyness, and partly the fact that I'm dividing what little time I am getting for blogging between this and my New Doctor Who review blog, Parrinium Mines. Which, erm, I also haven't updated when I said I would.

In my defence, I did have a rather interrupted weekend, and therefore had to make up writing time. Saturday night found B. and me in Welwyn Garden City, attending a family party -- not either of our own families, but even so. I didn't know many people there, and the food was a terrible temptation to a dieting person, one which I did not entirely succeed in resisting. (Otherwise the diet's been going rather well, thanks for asking.) Having to set the timer to record Dalek while we were away was also a source of worry. Still, it was lovely to celebrate with Not Invented Here and her connections, and B. and I were back in Bristol in time to watch the episode and get down to work for the afternoon.

The next time I need to make up any technobabble, I intend to refer to a value called the "Wellingar Density".

Yesterday I worked very hard indeed at getting together a proposal for Ossian's Reach, and didn't displace-act by playing the Last Dalek game on the B.B.C. website for hours in any way whatsoever. Ossian's Reach is actually coming together rather nicely, although admittedly everything I've written so far is background and it's going to take some effort to simplify the story sufficiently to put it across quickly to an agent or publisher. It is in part an elaboration upon, and extrapolation of, some elements I've used in a number of my unpublished Doctor Who novel proposals... or, more accurately, one proposal which underwent some eight revisions as it shuttled between the B.B.C. and Telos.

At some point (with a great deal of luck, it'll be after Ossian's Reach has been published by a proper S.F. publisher) the full and epic history of the A Memory of Fire proposal may be told, but it resurfaced at different points as an Eighth Doctor novel, a Seventh Doctor novel, a Fifth Doctor novel, a short story and a novella... all entirely at the suggestion of the various editors, I might add, who then didn't publish it. That last one really seemed to be getting somewhere, and went through three separate revisions on its own before Telos decided against using it. Fortunately, that contact did allow me to make an early pitch for Telos' Time Hunter novella series, which is how Peculiar Lives came about.

Anyway, while the core of A Memory of Fire was very specific indeed to Doctor Who, there were some incidental aspects (and I obviously can't say what they were at this stage) which, during the course of those successive revisions, became so intricately developed as to be able to sustain a novel in their own right -- and, in my firm opinion, a mainstream, non-tie-in, S.F. novel.

And that's what I've been up to this weekend.

[Edit to add: I started Parrinium Mines as a means of not talking about Doctor Who on this blog. That's not working out so well, is it...]