30 July 2005

Three Cheers for Iris

I recently finished reading Wildthyme on Top, and overall it's rather fine -- not flawless, but enormously enjoyable.

I'm not going to review all the stories, because that would be far too much effort, and would also run up rather obviously against my complete inability to be objective about a volume I appear in. But one fascinating aspect of the volume is to see how different authors' takes on the same batty, cheerfully self-centred time-traveller can be. Wisely, Paul Magrs hasn't attempted to force them into consistency together, so that the individual interpretations shine through clearly.

Two of my favourite stories in the book are extreme in their differences. Craig Hinton's "Came to Believe" is the very personal tale of Barry, an alcoholic whom Iris helps through his early days in rehab. It's emotionally the most powerful story in the book, just edging out Jon Blum's finale (which I'll come to shortly). The only metafictional element is that Barry is a writer, and in the story Iris is entirely sincere and effectual in what she does.

Lance Parkin's "The Mancunian Candidate", by contrast, is rooted in Iris's habit of barging in on other characters' fictional universes, and relies on her being far too lazy to solve even the most transparent mystery. It's probably the funniest story in the book, being a satire on children's fantasy and the Narnia books in particular, full of metafictional pyrotechnics and political irony, and with a splendidly nasty final twist.

I also particularly enjoyed Stephen Cole's "Beguine" -- a story in the style of Paul Magrs' mainstream fiction, which dances cleverly between future dystopia, horror and a rather touching love story -- and Jon Blum's "The Evil Little Mother and the Tragic Old Bat", a fascinating study of fictional archetypes and the real people who underlie them, whose ending provides the volume with its perfect finale.

It's a shame that Paul Magrs wasn't able to contribute a story himself, but I found Wildthyme on Top fascinating to read, and so should you.

And having said that, I'm going to shut up about it.

28 July 2005

Live and Let Diet

So, then. This diet I mentioned, way back in April. I'm well aware of how dull diet blogs can get, so I've been avoiding mentioning it generally, but I do feel the need for a quick self-congratulatory indulgence.

You see, it's going really well -- rather more so for me than for B., but I think it's a truth universally acknowledged that when men can be arsed to diet the weight loss comes easier for us than it does for women.

The plan, as you may recall, was to eat seven equally-spaced meals of roughly 200 calories each throughout the day, meaning that we never felt unbearably hungry, and that if we got up feeling unsatisfied from a particular meal, well, at least we were going to be getting another one in two or three hours' time.

Also to get a lot of exercise, which we haven't quite managed.

But as for the eating we've been, for the most part, remarkably disciplined -- so much so that when the weather started getting hot we cut back from seven to six snacks, allowing ourselves two a day of 250 rather than 200 calories, to make up a fairly strict weight-loss regime of 1300 calories per diem.

And, fantastically, it works. I certainly miss the satisfying feeling of having my stomach stretched by a large and heavy meal, but the marvellous thing is that -- within reason -- one can eat any food as long as it's in appropriately small quantities. A small glass of port and a thinnish slice of a really good cheese, for instance, is around 200 calories, as is a snack-sized Snickers bar, or half a pint of beer and half a packet of crisps. There are very few things that it's impractical to eat in sufficiently tiny quantities.

When I started the diet I was, frankly, fat. I weighed in at something over 14 stone -- I'm not exactly sure how much over, because I'd found it too alarming to check for quite a while. Since then, I've lost at least a seventh of my body-weight, and am now, if not exactly thin, certainly pretty trim at 12 stone.

This, I feel bound to point out, is a hell of a difference. My mother certainly thought so when I went home for my brother's wedding -- and if pleasing one's mother shouldn't really be what life is all about, it's certainly a happy bonus. All my trousers are now far too large, I've had to put extra holes in my belt, and my XL T-shirts hang like baggy shrouds about my skeletal frame.

I still have a bit of a paunch, which I want to lose. This, along with uxorial solidarity, is why I'm still sticking to the diet. It's looking, though, as if further weight loss is going to have to come through exercise, which will probably be a lot less enjoyable.

Still -- not bad going so far, eh?

27 July 2005


I'm having a frustratingly unproductive week, despite the number of things I've been hoping to get done. I always seem to need a stupidly long run-up to get working properly during the college holidays, which is infuriating as I know I'll be longing for this much available time once term has started again.

So far I seem to have mostly spent the time posting to Doctor Who mailing lists, although a portion of that is arguably productive towards my Greenbelt talk. (I may update Parrinium Mines shortly with some insights from my recent all-day Christopher Eccleton marathon. [Edit: Now done.]) The only concrete thing I've achieved is to finish the synopsis for Ossian's Reach, which could be a stormingly good S.F. novel if I ever manage to get off my bottom and sell it to somebody.

I have, however, managed to replace my scooter -- and what's more, the bike in question is still outside the house six days later (I keep checking). The replacement's another Sym CityTrek, that being the scooter I'm used to driving. I have no interest in getting used to something else at this point -- I suppose sooner or later they'll stop making them and I'll have to learn to work a new model, but I'm not looking forward to it.

(It's actually very reliable, with well-designed controls. I had to drive a Piaggio Zip for a couple of months once, and the controls were terrible -- it was difficult to indicate and apply the rear brake simulataneously, for instance, which was predictably hilarious when trying to turn a corner.)

I ought to attempt a books / media update at some point soon, too -- I'm still very much enjoying Warring States and Wildthyme on Top, and B. and I recently rounded off our watching of Twin Peaks with a viewing of Fire Walk With Me (so that all makes sense to us now, obviously). I've also re-watched the disturbing but rather fine millennial dystopia Strange Days, and the amazing I ♥ Huckabees, both of which deserve comment.

I also want to bore you all about my diet. So, treats in store there.

21 July 2005

Chapter House

Just a quickie, because I have to go out and buy a replacement moped.

Outpost Gallifrey is now hosting a sample chapter of Peculiar Lives online, in its Features section. It's sub-chapter I.1, the first after the Foreword, where Emily encounters Violet for the first time. (The Outpost version retains the policeman's usage of the n-word, which I wasn't sure it was going to.)

So, if you've not yet decided whether Peculiar Lives is the sort of thing you might want to buy (for instance through this Amazon link), then this would seem an ideal opportunity to find out.

20 July 2005

It Came From Planet X-Mas

Well, I guess this counts as an official announcement. The Editor informs me that the story's also carried in this month's Doctor Who Magazine. So...

My short story, "The Long Midwinter", will be published along with 24 others in Short Trips: The History of Christmas, this December's Doctor Who anthology from Big Finish. The volume is edited by Simon Guerrier (the owner of the blog linked to above, who published me previously in A Life Worth Living), and has some marvellous authors writing for it, including Kate Orman, Jon Blum, Marc Platt and Simon Bucher-Jones.

My story has, as the overall title suggests, a Christmas theme, despite being set on another world millions of years in the future. It's the nearest I've yet come to hard S.F. (although to be honest it's not very near), and like "Minions of the Moon" it's a bit of a worldbuilding spree [Weltbauenfest]. It's also a modest milestone for me -- as a fan if not a writer -- as it's my first piece of licensed Doctor Who fiction.

Available details at present are [Edit: entirely forthcoming, actually, so I'll set up a web page of my own here. I'll try to come up with a story blurb at some point soon.]

Go on, though, order a copy. It'll make a splendid Christmas present.

19 July 2005

Wildthyme On Arrival


My contributor's copies of Wildthyme on Top arrived this morning, necessitating my answering the door to the postman in my pyjamas. (Fortunately, my summer pyjamas look enough like [a very weird person's idea of] summer daywear for this not to be too embarrassing, provided I check the status of the fly beforehand. You didn't need to know that, sorry.)

The book is very lovely indeed -- the cover looks even better in situ, and promises good things for the Big Finish New Worlds range as a professional-looking line of small-press S.F. books. I've not had time to read much of it yet, aside from Paul Magrs's wonderful but sadly brief Preface (which is really less a preface than a scene-setting vignette) -- but I'm really looking forward to seeing what the volume's other authors have made of one of my favourite fictional time-travellers.

To celebrate the book's arrival, I've updated my web page with an "Extra" that may also interest Faction Paradox fans: the proposal for "Iris Wildthyme in the City of the Saved", a novel I pitched to Big Finish back in 2001 when it seemed possible that the company would be bringing out a series of regular Iris Wildthyme novels to accompany their Bernice Summerfield line. It is, in retrospect, not enormously good, and the plot ended up being cannibalised for The Book of the War and to a lesser extent Of the City of the Saved... ...but it was my first attempt to develop the concept of the City at any length (as well as my first attempt to write professionally for Iris), and may therefore be of historical interest.

I'm aware that I may have rather over-hyped Wildthyme on Top here, by expressing my own enthusiasm (and, at times, impatience) for the project to you all. I hope I haven't engendered overly high expectations, in myself or anybody else... but stuff Harry Potter, I'm really, really looking forward to reading Iris.

(That said, I'm about halfway through Warring States now, and it's fab. Mags has a real knack for setting, conjuring up a vivid, detailed historical world. This must be so much more difficult to do than pulling a completely new setting out of one's own head, since at every stage there's the requirement to be accurate rather than to invent any old detail which happens to fit. I'm not at all sure I could manage it, so much kudos to Ms Halliday for carrying it off so effortlessly.)

17 July 2005

Summer is Icumen In

Until Friday, despite having been an adolescent male in Britain post-1973, I'd never seen The Wicker Man. One of the things I did during my Day Off was to remedy this deficit.

It's bloody good, isn't it? And I don't just mean Britt Ekland's erotic dancing. There are a great many "cult" films, particularly from the 70s, which turn out on actual viewing to have been almost completely pants. But The Wicker Man is excellent, combining an intelligent and lucid script with cleverly ominous direction and mostly fine performances (particularly from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee). Even the songs are fantastic. (Has anyone ever turned it into a West End musical? Why on earth not? If they can do it for The Witches of Eastwick, then this one seems a natural.)

I don't know anything about Anthony Shaffer's other work -- I've never seen or read Sleuth, for instance -- but I studied his twin brother Peter Shaffer's plays as an undergraduate, and I was struck by the similarity. Peter Shaffer's work is notable for its use of music and pageant (see Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun respectively), and for its awareness of drama as ritual, including its use in religious liturgy and psychotherapy (see particularly Equus). The same kind of sensibility permeates The Wicker Man.

I suspect that most modern neo-pagans find the film either hilarious or deeply offensive (depending on where on the po spectrum their faces happen to reside), but I thought the drama's analysis and use of the trappings of ancient paganisms was extremely well done, particularly in its drawing of the parallels as well as the contradictions between paganism and christianity. I was impressed, too, with the sympathetic treatment of the straitlaced Sgt Howie, who despite the repressiveness of his views is seen as a good man striving to do the right thing. I was particularly pleased to see his faith survive his martyrdom intact -- it would have been so easy, and so cheap, to show it falling apart as soon as he was certain of his death. (I don't hold out much hope for the Hollywood remake in that regard, sadly.)

I have only three reservations, and they're all fairly minor:

1. It's very short -- not even an hour and a half. If the film was running under-length, surely some additional footage of -- for instance -- Britt Ekland dancing naked whilst singing in an extremely sexy Scottish accent could have been found to pad it out a bit[1]?

2. Aubrey Morris, who's beginning to become something of a bête noir of mine. He's fine in rôles which require gurning, fruity-voiced theatricality (the Town Crier in The Prisoner, for example), but such rôles do not -- unless written by Shakespeare -- include rural gravediggers. (He was ludicrous in Babylon 5, as well.)

3. The ending -- not the wonderfully bleak martyrdom scene, but the revelation that Lord Summerisle and the islanders have been working to entrap Howie from the beginning, and thus that the whole trail which led him to Rowan Morrison and the sacrificial ritual was a false one. It's straight from the school of seventies paranoia which brought us, well, The Prisoner for a start, but it tends to cheapen the rigour of what's gone before. One presumes that the islanders' rituals as witnessed by Howie are genuine, but ultimately the only reason to believe that is that Summerisle seems like the kind of man who'd be honest about his religion even while deceiving somebody. The film would work better if we were more certain at the end of what we'd seen.

Overall though, a damn good film, and one I'm already feeling the urge to watch again. There's scope for a fantastic prequel, as well (probably scuppered by the remake, but never mind), starring the current incarnation of Christopher Lee as the first Lord Summerisle, the Victorian patriarch and freethinker, introducing his pagan religion to the island in the 1860s. The 1970s Summerisle tells Howie that the island's minister ended up leaving for the mainland, but I can't help suspecting that that may have been a euphemism for something rather more... festive.

[1] Yes, yes, I know it's not actually her singing. Or dancing either, apparently. It's her most famous scene, and she's hardly in it... but nevertheless, my point stands. If you'll forgive my mentioning the fact.

14 July 2005

Ms Wildthyme and Mr Carnelian (and others)

I've now finished both Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time and --by dint of dedication and extensive train commuting -- Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Dancers was exceedingly good. It pulls off the remarkably difficult trick, endemic to far-future narratives which take their futures seriously, of making the characters sympathetic and human whilst still showing them so changed by time that many aspects of their characters are alien to us. (Other books which manage it well are Brian Aldiss' Hothouse and Bruce Sterling's not-that-far-in-the-future-actually Schismatrix) There's much about the inhabitants of Moorcock's End of Time which is unfamiliar, from their easy and direct control over matter to their disturbing indifference in the face of oncoming catastrophe; and yet their naivete, their joie-de-vivre and their eclectic inventiveness makes them seem richly, warmly human -- particularly, of course, in the case of the protagonist, Jherek Carnelian.

Even more impressively, Moorcock uses this setting and protagonist as the basis for a love story which is both convincing and touching, with its own pains and setbacks and, eventually, joys -- despite the fact that one of the characters involved is a native of the End of Time and the other (the magnificently characterised Mrs Amelia Underwood) a strait-laced Victorian, two mindsets which are equally alien to his readers. (I suspect that this works in part because Jherek and Amelia represent two contrary sets of impulses, towards licentiousness and self-denial, which are implicit in various concentrations in everybody.)

My only reservation is that I rather wish I'd read the three volumes (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs,) separately, rather than as a collected edition: the unvarying tone and relative lack of incident (until around the middle of the third volume, when the world ends suddenly) did start to get a little wearing after a while. It is, of course, a remarkable accomplishment to portray a decadent society motivated largely by ennui without provoking just such an emotion in the reader, but I don't think the single-volume publication serves the material well in that respect.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell I was less impressed by, overall. There were some lovely ideas in it, including interesting demonstrations of the methodology of magic, the underplayed alternative-history angle (whereby Northern England was ruled by a faerie-changeling king from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries) and (although the deployment of period language was a bit hit-and-miss) the rather well-done Regency setting.

The story itself, perhaps because of its conscious indebtedness to fairy-tale and folklore, was very simple, which makes it a slightly odd decision to have written the book at such considerable length -- it might have been better suited to the smaller size of (for instance) Neil Gaiman's Stardust than to its 782 pages. This makes the majority of the (actually very full) narrative seem like an accumulation of largely disconnected episodes, although the characters and places about which they cluster do come together rather perfunctorily towards the end.

The style, too, is simple, although with some gorgeous turns of phrase. I think I would have preferred a more consistent attempt to recreate the language of the era (Clarke largely confines herself to occasional orthographical oddities like "surprize" and "chuse"), but that's perhaps just me. It was a pretty good book, but I'm not sure it warrants the glowing praise it's been receiving.

Just after I disembarked from the train on which I'd finally finished Strange & Norrell, wondering what I should read next, I came home to find my copy of Mags L. Halliday's Warring States sitting on the floor by the letter-box. Just as excitingly, there are now reports of subscribers actually receiving Wildthyme on Top. Both of these (assuming Wildthyme gets to me soon) bump everything on this list from the next-reading spot.

So... just one chapter into Warring States so far, but the vivid description of an era and culture (1900s China) which is only nebulously familiar to me is already looking very good.

If You Can't Stand the Noise, Get Out of the Library

Last day of term today. There are builders inside the library, drilling things.

Yesterday we had a student charity concert going on directly outside our windows -- which, of course, we couldn't have closed unless we wanted to go down with heat stroke. Fortunately most of the students were at the concert, rather than trying to use the library. I heard it all from the enquiry desk: most of the student bands were delivering generic and rather awful rap, but one -- a girl with an amazing voice -- did a torch-song rendition of Oasis' "Wonderwall", which was very sensual and quite fantastic.

The heat seems to be bringing out the worst in the two high-traffic mailing lists I belong to -- one has been taken up with a rather nastily acrimonious discussion about the merits of pacifism as compared with those of killing Arabs, while the other has been giving undue attention to an attention-seeker, and his cretinous claim that he could "knock up" a publishable novel proposal over a weekend, despite his utter lack of experience of doing any such thing.

(The heat would appear to have put me in a bad mood as well, now I come to think about it.)

Tomorrow I will be spending mostly lounging around, unless any of my seemingly myriad editors or co-authors ask me not to. I know I have work to do, but I'm entitled to one day off, damn it.

12 July 2005


...I'm so bloody tired today. Very little likelihood of managing to get any work done, let alone writing an interesting or entertaining blog entry.

In response to the Government's plans to introducte a law prohibiting incitement to religious hatred, which many feel will end up banning religious-themed jokes (among other things) from the media, the christian website Ship of Fools is holding a competition to find the funniest and the most offensive such jokes. Many of these are well worth taking a look at. Here's my retelling of an old favourite which someone else has already entered:
A group of people brought a woman to Jesus who they said had been caught in the act of adultery. "Shall we stone her, master, as the law commands us?" they asked.

Jesus thought about this for a moment. "Whoever is without sin among you," he said, "let them cast the first stone."

At this, the crowd went very quiet, and began to shuffle away. Then suddenly, a hefty rock came sailing out of the crowd and crashed into the unfortunate woman's head.

Jesus sighed, and said, "You know, Mother, sometimes you really piss me off."
So far, most people have rated that one 4/5 for humour and 1/5 for offensiveness, which gives you some idea.

08 July 2005

Authorial, Intense

On a happier note... the Secret Mystery Project seems to be picking up momentum, although it's still in its early stages yet. My potential co-author tells me he's been having meetings.

It's going to be a while before I can say anything specific about the S.M.P. here (except that it's a co-authored project, but I just let that slip anyway). If it goes ahead, then it's potentially very exciting; if it doesn't, then it's additional writing experience if nothing else. My purported co-author is a person of enormous creative energy, which if I'm lucky means that I can get him to do most of the work, but is more likely to mean I'll have to work like a mad panicking beaver in order to keep up.

Whichever, the next couple of weeks are going to be hectic, rather than being (as from a week today) the leisurely end-of-term break which would have been really rather welcome. Updates to this blog may become somewhat sketchy during that time.

I also need to write my Greenbelt talk, of course. Plus I've promised a new proposal to one of my previous publishers. And I really to get this portfolio-for-agents sorted out.

It's beginning to feel as if the five weeks of the summer vacation are about the only time of the year in which I can "be a writer" properly. For that brief period it feels as if I'm writing as a full-time job, like it's supposed to be. Then I come back to College and have to start being patronising to students again. Hey ho.

At Half-Mast

I don't think I have anything to say about the terrorist attacks in London yesterday that a) isn't completely banal, or b) hasn't been said many times already by better writers than me.

I spent a great deal of yesterday reading online news and feeling extremely sad. Thank God none of the people we know living in London (who include B.'s sisters and numerous friends) seem to have been affected by this, but that's no comfort to the people who have been. I'm thinking of those people a lot today.

It's been a grim week.

04 July 2005

Further Peculiarity

The promised Extras to the Peculiar Lives pages at www.infinitarian.com are now extant and up. They consist of the essays previously mentioned on the novella's literary contexts, and some (entirely spurious) extracts from the notebooks of Erik Clevedon. I've been having fun today writing the latter.

It may take a short while before the mirror site at Thoughtplay registers the latest changes.

A surprising mystery project, which I can't discuss at the moment and which may not come to anything anyway, has emerged from the blue and intervened to mean I've no time to finish the annotations to 'Minions of the Moon' for the moment. There doesn't seem to be any great hurry for these, though, with Wildthyme on Top still to be released.

03 July 2005

Putting on Ayres

OK, yes, I freely admit I'm no judge of poetry. I've never been able to write the stuff, and although I'm capable of enjoying reading it it's a class of writing I've never been able to critique intelligently either.

But honestly... how is this not just doggerel? Apart from a couple of turns of phrase which show the author hasn't simply gone for the most unimaginative cliché that came to mind, I can't see anything whatsoever to recommend it. I was particularly unimpressed by the quatrain rhyming "hostility" / "tea" and "lava" / "forever". It reads like it should be sharing space with Doreen Wentworth in the Milton Keynes Citizen.

...whereas it seems that in fact the poet in question has had three collections published by Chatto and Windus, and been shortlisted for a Whitbread Prize. So, er, possibly I should just shut up.

02 July 2005

Extended Family

I'm back, after having had a very pleasant time at my brother's nuptuals. My reading (which N. and L. chose themselves in the end, none of my suggestions being what they were really after) went O.K., as did my toastmastery at the reception, and I successfully acquired a sister-in-law, a nice bottle of wine and a compilation C.D.

There were old friends and family who I hadn't seen for ages, and friends and family of the happy couple who I'd never met before but were very nice anyway. There was also much champagne, wine, beer, wedding-cake, cigar-smoking, music and dancing. I discovered that my brother's father-in-law (or my sister-in-law's father, if you prefer to look at him that way) looks (but otherwise isn't) frighteningly like George Galloway M.P., and also that I dance like a girl.

Generally a very nice time indeed, and since it happened during the week (although getting the time off has been a bit of a pain) it leaves me the weekend free for writing. Hurrah.

On which note, the first of the promised Extras to Peculiar Lives are now up at the website: two essays on the literary context of the novella, complete with Amazon Associate linkings to the various books mentioned (yes, I finally worked out how to do that). One goes into more detail about the book's roots in the works of Olaf Stapledon and his scientific-romantic contemporaries, while the other goes into some detail about its placement in the Time Hunter range. There will be some extracts from the notebooks of Erik Clevedon to follow, along with some material relating to "Minions of the Moon" once Wildthyme on Top is available.