29 September 2005


At some point during the night before last, B. and I must have decided to adopt some more cats, because several came to stay with us in the hope of being chosen, including the Evil Cat belonging to one of our neighbours (who keeps invading our house in real life and eating all our cats' food). One of them had avocado-coloured fur and was called Kiwi, presumably after the fruit. Another was a tortoiseshell cat, with an actual tortoise-shell.

Last night, two students were asking my permission to have sex in the library. I explained that, while a bit of discreet fumbling might be allowable, they were under no circumstances to get naked, which they seemed to feel was an acceptable compromise.

Other parts of me may not be working so well since I put the coffee-drinking on hold, but I'm sleeping an awful lot better.

28 September 2005

Bath Night

B. and I had a very pleasant evening in Bath last Thursday, going for the first time in absolute ages both to one of our favourite restaurants and to the theatre.

Demuth's is, I'm fairly sure, the best purely vegetarian restaurant I've ever been to, with a marvellous selection of mouth-watering foods assembled from all over the place. There's art on the walls (including, on this occasion, something which appeared to have once been an aeroplane door, but was now painted to look rather like a rug), the staff are lovely and there's a calming no-mobiles policy.

Admittedly it's not cheap, but fortunately our recent diet has succeeded in reducing our joint appetites sufficiently that we were able to share the amount of food which one of us would once have eaten. (Of course, we don't then get the variety of being able to share two dishes in each course, but you can't have everything.)

We chose the "sunshine mediterranean mezze", which included some extremely good houmous and a wonderful feta-and-sesame pie. This we accompanied with some excellent sweet potato and halloumi kebabs (a starter which doesn't appear to be on that version of the menu), good organic beer, three-seed bread and a bowl of green olives (the only component which was disappointing, being a bit bland and oddly watery). We finished with Demuths' famous vegan chocolate fudge cake, served with soya ice cream, which is, frankly, incredibly gorgeous.

We then hurried to the Theatre Royal to see Otherwise Engaged by Simon Gray -- a playwright who I knew almost nothing about, but who evidently knows his stuff.

Otherwise Engaged appears for the first hour or so to be a light comedy of a pretty familiar pattern, as the mildly put-upon but terribly witty hero (here even called Simon -- a bit of a giveaway as far as being the writer's mouthpiece is concerned) copes with the comic incursions of various friends and relatives into his planned evening alone with Wagner. The first act ends with an unsettling revelation, and the second then proceeds to deconstruct the whole setup, demonstrating that behind his imperturbable façade Simon is actually a complete shit, whose life is in the process of going hopelessly and irrecovably off the rails. It's elegantly disturbing, and has at best a mitigatedly miserable ending as Simon condescends to share his Wagner with his old friend Geoff, suggesting some hope of feeling his way towards an actual connection with another human being.

Again, the two of us were constrained by budget, and had picked the cheapest seats in the house... which, in an interesting sidelight on the way society's changed during the past couple of centuries, are actually located in the private boxes at the very front of the theatre. The very adequate reason for their cheapness is that they were designed with the visibility of the occupants in mind rather than that of the stage, so that the angle obliges one to lean over the balustrade like a gargoyle in order to see anything at all... which I think Richard E. Grant found offputting on occasion.

My neck ached for all the next day, but while our stork's-eye view may not have been quite what the director had in mind, we were unusually close to the actors -- the tops of their heads, at least -- and got the full benefit of their performance while they were actually in view. (I particularly appreciated this during the scene where one of the characters spends several minutes with her top off. Certain establishments would have made me pay good money for that alone.)

Simon was played splendidly by Grant, on form throughout -- being a drily charming but terribly reserved upper-class scoundrel is, of course, the thing he does best, but here he did it very well indeed. His comic delivery was impeccable, with many of the jokes riding on his inflection alone. (He had the two of us in stitches just folding up a handkerchief, although admittedly this was because he made Simon do it in exactly the same way I always do, and appear just as neurotic as a result.)

Anthony Stewart Head was somewhat less good as Geoff; but as a foul-mouthed, drunken newspaper reporter (albeit one who went to Oxford and enjoys Wagner) he was playing rather beyond his usual character range. He was still very entertaining, and the rest of the cast (none of whose names I have to hand, unfortunately) all turned in respectable performances.

Plus there was organic ice cream, on the rather dubious grounds that we probably hadn't had too many calories yet. We've decided that, if these are the delights Bath has to offer, we really must try to sample them more often.

The Secret Masonic Handbag

OK, so this isn't the post I intended to make next -- that ought to be arriving later this evening. But it is something that struck me as rather intriguing.

I catalogue all the theology-related books here at the library, which is sometimes interesting and sometimes very much not. It does, however, mean that I'm the catch-all cataloguer for those very few books we order in relating to religions other than christianity,which is why earlier today I was flicking through Nevill Drury's Magic and Witchcraft: From Shamanism to the Technopagans, a broad history of magical theory and practice in human civilisation.

(A brief digression at this point: I don't, sadly, believe in the actual efficacy of magic -- let alone "magick" -- but I do find the theory fascinating. The symbolic schemas which people have constructed to interpret the world with the intention of influencing it can be enormously revealing about the way the human mind itself is made. I don't exclude science from this, although obviously I have opinions as to its effectiveness as compared with those of these rival systems.

This is why, as its readers can't have failed to notice, my short story "Minions of the Moon" draws extensively on medieval and renaissance alchemy and astrology: it's also why those who pay attention when The History of Christmas comes out -- or, of course, who've read this blog entry in the meantime -- may well spot names and ideas drawn from the Kabbalah in "The Long Midwinter". Give me time, and I'll almost certainly end up writing something based on the Tarot as well.)

Anyway. Flicking through the book, and specifically the chapter on Freemasonry, I was immediately struck by reproductions of three masonic "tracing boards" from 1819. (Tracing boards, as I've discovered since, are used as some kind of visual aid in masonic initiation rites. For some reason Drury calls them "training boards", which doesn't give me huge confidence in his scholarship, but I digress again.)

After some diligent work-avoidance I've managed to track down images of these same three boards on the web (click to see larger versions):

Now, the reason these caught my eye is because as a student -- in common with a great many students -- I was a big fan of the work of René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter. (Yes, that's right, with the apples and the bowler hats.)

My immediate reaction on seeing the images out of context was that they had to be Magrittes: the po-faced illustrative style used to depict bizarre and eclectic assortments of objects, thus imbuing them with portentous significance, seemed like the work of no other artist I know (with the possible exception of Paul Delvaux). Compare the masonic images with Magritte's Personal Values, The Difficult Crossing or especially The Reckless Sleeper.

They're nothing to do with him, of course, as I discovered when I read the caption -- they come from Britain and predate him by eighty years.

Now, I'm no art historian, and I certainly haven't made a study of Magritte specifically, but I'm not aware of any suggestion that he had masonic connections. I seem to remember that it was part of the surrealists' approach to take the style of earlier Symbolist painters and strip it of content, replacing the supposedly meaningful symbols with random junk or the flotsam of the subconscious, as an absurdist or psychoanalytic statement... but I've never been aware of any suggestion that the symbology of Freemasonry played any part in inspiring this.

The similarity, though, is irresistible. Is it possible that Magritte, or someone in his family, had been a Freemason, and that his visual style was influenced by coming across some of these tracing boards early on in his career? Or is this just the kind of meaningless coincidence he would have loved?

It's enabled me to waste most of today fairly effectively, anyway.

26 September 2005

Momentary Hiatus

Things have gone even more busy than usual here just at present, even more so as I was away over the weekend. There are some definite things I want to say going back as far as Thursday, but I'm not going to be able to get them posted for a little while yet. The same goes for giving well-deserved replies to recent comments.

Apologies for the delay, and watch this space...

23 September 2005

More Thought, More Play

I know I'm developing a slightly farcical habit of plugging every new venture by Thoughtplay, but What Should I Read Next? is a very clever and elegant idea. It's essentially a huge database of books which have been enjoyed by people, on the basis of which it recommends titles to other people. If you tell it you've liked something from (say) the list of books I've entered, it assumes you're more likely to enjoy the other things on my list... which, since mine is somewhat eclectic, may be a little rash, but fortunately it has everybody else's lists to work from as well.

The more books you tell it you like, the more astute its recommendations will, in theory, become. They should also get more accurate as more people use it, so do go and enter some titles and see what it comes up with.

It seems rather keen that I should read Timothy Mo.

17 September 2005

Lettuce Prey

Somebody or something appears to have stolen four small lettuces from our back garden. They were the only thing that was planted there, as opposed to growing wild and unfettered and alarmingly tangled-together... but they were in clear sight, and now they've gone.

The cats don't eat lettuce, and I'd rather not have to imagine our neighbours sneaking into our garden in search of salad ingredients while we're out, so if anyone knows of any urban wildlife or other city-based phenomenon that can remove all above-ground traces of a leafy vegetable without a trace, then I'd be grateful to hear about it.

Fandom and Fundamentalism

I promised some comments on The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, which I haven't yet supplied despite finishing the thing a week ago. I plead caffeine deprivation.

It's actually a really good introduction to the critical study of science fiction, although it wasn't entirely clear to me whether it was intended for readers versed in critical theory but ignorant of the genre, or vice versa, or neither. Of the chapter-length essays (20 of them altogether, contributed by a pleasing mix of academics and practicing S.F. authors), some spray critical jargon all about the place while others don't. Some assume complete ignorance of S.F. texts and tropes, others don't. I'm not entirely sure who the target audience is, but in a "something for everyone" way, the book probably works.

I do take issue with the central assumption of the (otherwise rather good) historical chapters -- that S.F. only really existed once it had been formulated as a genre, and that the tradition of authors not usually identified as S.F. authors (such as Shelley, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Atwood, Niffeneger) writing books with recognisably S.F. elements has been marginal to its development at best. This seems to me to place altogether too much emphasis on issues of form (including those imposed by marketing considerations) rather than content.

It's a position that tends to be taken by readers and fans of the American school, who like to locate the genre's origins in the pulp magazines of the 1920s through to '40s... a theory which is, frankly, wrong. Those magazines formulated a particular perception of the genre, one which has been heavily influential in U.S. criticism (and has, I have to say, been immeasurably damaging to S.F.'s public image), but no more than that.

S.F. is, at root, a European and specifically a British phenomenon: as Brian Aldiss argues in Trillion Year Spree, the basic conceptualisation was present as early as Frankenstein, and the ideas and images of S.F. continued for some time to receive their fullest development in the tradition of the British intellectual novel, specifically the "scientific romance". This idea -- that we invented the class of fiction, loaned it to the Americans for a while, then claimed it back some time in the late '60s after they'd made a complete balls-up of it -- makes for a far more satisfying grand narrative, I feel.

But back to the book. Most of the essays have a number of very interesting things to say, and many of them (particularly Wendy Pierson's "Science Fiction and Queer Theory" and Joan Slonczewski and Michael Levy's "Science Fiction and the Life Sciences") succeeded in both recommending some very worthwhile-sounding texts I hadn't heard about before, and getting me thinking seriously about things I might want to do in my own S.F.

Ken Macleod is particularly interesting on "Politics and Science Fiction", and wins the award for the most humble S.F. author among the contributors for mentioning that...
Communal utopias are paradoxically, and endemically, deficient in their provision for public debate. My own [...] is no exception.
...before going on to spend half a paragraph in explaining what his Fall Revolution novels were trying to do. Prize for the contributor who succeeds in appearing the most egotistical has to go to Slonczewski, who I hadn't even heard of previously, but whose co-written chapter mentions her own S.F. no fewer than six times in eleven pages, lengthily discussing one novel in particular as a counterpart to Dune. (An honorable mention goes to Gwyneth Jones, who in "The Icons of Science Fiction" refers to S.F. published since her debut novel as "post-Divine Endurance print fiction".)

One thing I didn't appreciate was seeing John Clute -- a critic I admire greatly -- disparaging T.V. tie-in fiction in terms which betray the kind of snobbery many mainstream literary critics reserve for S.F. itself [1]. O.K., so in many cases Clute isn't wrong, but some acknowledgement that this is, in most cases, a marketing decision rather than something intrinsically and inherently true of all spin-off fiction, wouldn't have gone amiss.

There's also some evidence of slightly sloppy editing, with identical information often being mentioned twice within a few pages. (Gary K. Wolfe, for instance, probably didn't need to mention on p97 of "Science Fiction and its Editors" that the Hugo Awards are named after "editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback", as I'd already assimilated the information when he told me it on p96.)

I'm nitpicking. The book is, as I say, a great introduction to the critical study of S.F., and I enjoyed reading it. I can see why it won a Hugo of its own.

I've moved on now to reading Karen Armstrong's hefty history of fundamentalism, The Battle for God, which has been fascinating so far. She talks about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 as part of the earliest project to construct a recognisably modern state, thus laying the foundations for much of the global political map we see today... and makes the interesting point that:
The Spanish Inquisition was not an archaic attempt to preserve a bygone world; it was a modernising institution, employed by the monarchs [Ferdinand and Isabella] to create national unity.
It was, in fact, an attempt to create a monolithic state of the kind we in the 21st century would describe as totalitarian. Since Armstrong's central thesis is that fundamentalism forms a response to a faith community coming under what it perceives as persecution by modernising, secular forces, it's an interesting starting-point for the book to take.

Does all this sound too highbrow? I've been reading Doctor Who books as well, if that's any help.

[1] I was particularly amused that the language of this claim is irresistibly reminiscent of that of unrepentant T.V. tie-in author Lawrence Miles:
If any form of sf may be said to have become fatally indistinguishable from the media- and consumption-ridden world we live in, and incapable of differing from that world in any useful sense, then the spin-off is that form.
That's Clute, but it could so easily have been a quote from About Time 5. Were they separated at birth? I think we should be told.

12 September 2005

Playing Gods

A number of interesting things happened over the weekend, the least enjoyable of which was being woken up at 2:30am by the fire brigade putting out the fire that somebody had set in our neighbours' car. How charming of them.

One of the most enjoyable things -- in a vengeful, wrathful, blasting-the-infidels kind of way -- was playing Risk Godstorm with R. and M. on Saturday evening. It's a deeply enjoyable game which follows the basic mechanics of Risk 2210 A.D. -- itself a significant updating of classic Risk with its "Slug it out till you're the last one left alive" ethic -- with some intriguing twists. (Enormous fun though the old-fashioned approach, in a mindlessly macho kind of way, was, Godstorm and the modern variants do seem to be a little more... nuanced[1].)

In Godstorm, five of the ancient polytheistic pantheons -- the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Celtic and Norse gods -- do battle alongside armies of their followers, inflicting the lands of Europe and the Mediterranean with plagues and tempests and the like. Pretty much the same dynamic holds as in 2210 A.D., with the gods replacing the various specialist "commander" pieces, but with two glorious departures: firstly, one of the continents it's possible to occupy is Atlantis, which is both more profitable and easier to defend than the other territories but is susceptible, at an undetermined point in the game, to vanishing altogether from the board; and secondly, troops who die are moved onto the separate Underworld board, where they continue to fight for domination and whence they can, potentially, be resurrected. Huzzah for maurauding armies of the dead!

Add to this the fact that some of the "miracle cards" (equivalents of 2210 A.D.'s command cards) can potentially effect enormous changes on the state of play, and Godstorm certainly seems to be the most spectacular of the Risk variants to date.

Unfortunately, the length of time it took us to learn the new rules, together with the necessity of getting R. & M.'s child units into bed before we could start, meant that we only had time to play for three "epochs" (rounds of turns -- a single turn can easily take half an hour), rather than the prescribed five.

We decided that the existence of the afterlife makes things a lot more agreeable for players who are doing badly, as each unit wiped off the face of the Earth is a reinforcement in the battle for the Underworld. There are a few kinks in the gameplay (set out in this rather overcritical review), but the only aspect I found really unsatisfying was the lack of differentiation between the gods. Of course I accept that this would make the game even more complicated, but as things stand there's basically no distinction made apart from the colours of the pieces and the names of the individual gods on each side, and as a huge mythology geek I find this unsatisfying.

It would have been nice if the various gods were more powerful when on their home turf, for instance, which would have been easy enough to build in. I'd also have preferred to have had some acknowledgement of the gods' distinctive personalities, perhaps via pantheon-specific decks of cards. As it is, the game insists on reducing them into a one-size-fits-all formula of Sky God, War God, Death God and Goddess of Magic. This works well enough with the Greek pantheon from which it's evidently derived, with Zeus, Aries, Hades and Hecate fulfilling the roles (although it's odd to consider Hecate on a par with the Olympians), but it falls down badly when applied to the other pantheons.

The Norse, for instance, have Odin, Thor, Loki and Freya in these slots, none of whom fits even remotely. Not only has Loki nothing to do with death and Freya nothing obvious to do with magic, but Odin is, if anything, more of a war god than Thor, who is associated with thunder and thus with the sky. But the formula says that the head of the pantheon is the Sky God, so what can you do? (In fact assigning areas of patronage to the Aesir in the mode of the Olympians is a fundamentally misconceived endeavour, showing the hegemony of Hellenistic thinking in Western mythography, but never mind.)

Still, it would be churlish to be overcritical of any game which allows you to smite your enemies whilst bellowing "Die, heathen scum, for I am Thor!" or chanting The Ride of the Valkyries, even if you do have to do it quietly to avoid waking the children. Very much recommended.

...then on Sunday B. and I discovered that a local pub does a free cheeseboard at Sunday lunchtime. Life is good.

[1] If you are a classic Risk enthusiast, then under no circumstances should you download [link deleted due to lack of self-discipline], a freeware version with substantially speeded-up gameplay which allows you to play against multiple virtual players with distinctive strategies. It's horrifyingly addictive.

09 September 2005

Abstinence (If Only)

Lord, it's been a busy week. A new academic year, and suddenly the library is swarming with students. Of course their disconcerting enthusiasm will abate before very long, but at the moment they keep pestering us for advice and information, sitting on the furniture, moving the books, and generally causing chaos and disruption to our neat and orderly library. Obviously this isn't the kind of behaviour I want to encourage... but my hands (unlike the grubby little fingers of the students) are tied.

Seriously, it's bedlam. I meant to update this blog at work on Tuesday, but I really haven't had the time all week.

I promised that I'd explain the rationale behind my frankly deranged decision to give up coffee... and, well, it's nothing terribly profound, really: I was drinking too much of it, and wanted to cut down. Unfortunately, too much and too regular caffeine generates a genuine, honest-to-goodness addiction -- with symptoms like mood swings, stress, irritability, excessive tiredness, trembling, headaches and the like -- and the only way to shake this off completely is to go into full-on withdrawal for a period of eight weeks. By the end of that time (or so my medical friend R. assures me) all the effects are expunged, and one can either swear off the noxious brew forever, or once again start taking it in moderation as a stimulant.

In the meantime, of course, one isn't allowed coffee or tea in any form (including decaff, in which enough traces remain to tide the addiction over... I just hope mint tea isn't addictive, fattening or carcinogenic, because at the moment I'm more or less drowning in it). And, of course, one has to deal with the withdrawal symptoms, which (predictably and hilariously) include stress, mood swings, irritability, excessive tiredness, headaches, trembling...

In my case, the problem is compounded by the fact that I can only write with any degree of creativity when I'm caffeinated to the gills, which means my present, temporary, sabbatical from trying to write creatively is my only realistic opportunity to detox. I'm appreciating the downtime -- with any luck I can return to writing in November, refreshed and reinvigorated and brimming over with scintillating ideas. (Mixed metaphor there, unless you envisage the ideas as comprising a fluid which also scintillates. You see the kind of thing I'm up against.)

I'm temporarily back on the diet as well, to purge the pizza and burritos and pasta and sausages and mezze and cooked breakfasts and cookies and doughnuts and beer I consumed at Greenbelt. From this point of view Saturday was somewhat non-optimal, as B. and I visited the Bristol Organic Food Festival.

It's a fantastic, huge event, sprawling along two banks of the harbourside, with stall after stall after stall offering delicious organic goodies and, in many cases, offering free samples to taste. Said samples are, of course, tiny, but wandering around accepting morsels of bread, cheese, oil, vinegar, pate, wine, beer, crisps, chocolate, cake and the like for long enough adds up to a pretty hearty lunch. (There was some gorgeous-smelling organic coffee as well, which naturally was off-limits.) We ended up spending far too much money, and came away with wine, amaretto, cheese, pâté, chocolate, lemon curd and brownies in four varieties (standard, white chocolate, coconut and, fantastically, chilli flavour), all in a big bag.

In the evening we dragged our friend M. out to The Wellington, where we ended up eating reasonably decent veggie chilli and drinking extremely decent Bath Ales. A very satisfactory day in many ways, but not terribly so for the welfare of my waistline.

The rest of the weekend continued to be remarkably relaxing, certainly relative to the hecticness of this week and the week before. I spent most of it just lounging around, and found that I had some time for things like reading, watching DVDs, stroking the cats and the like. OK, some of the DVDs were for research purposes, but still.

It means I'm really looking forward to the forthcoming weekend -- which, thank heavens, will be starting in just under half an hour. Hurrah.

05 September 2005

Excursions in Time

Right, then, yes.

The Time-Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It is, quite honestly, bloody amazing.

It's certainly received it's fair share of hype -- and being nominated by Richard and Judy for their daytime-TV book club is an awful lot for any novel to live down -- but it really is remarkably good.

It's not marketed as S.F., which is one of the things publishers do these days so that S.F. books with not-too-outrageous settings can sold more widely. It is, however, deeply respectful of its basic science-fiction premise (a protagonist whose unusual genetic condition causes him to time-travel involuntarily, apparently under the partial control of his subconscious mind) and follows it through with as much rigorous and careful extrapolation as I've ever found in a work of S.F. (far more than in some). It also works as a "proper" novel, in that the characters are multi-layered, convincing, painfully familiar and shaped by their experiences and relationships even when -- as in the cases of the two protagonists, time-travelling Henry and his lifelong love Clare -- those expeiences are deeply weird and non-realistic in nature.

The book isn't flawless. It is, at times, a little precious, and the passages where Proust and Rilke are quoted in the original languages are frankly pretentious. There's also, tight though the plot-logic is, a papered-over chasm in the book's intellectualism where some philosophical examination of Henry's plight, particularly of the inescapable determinism which his explorations of the past appear to reveal, would seem really to be called for. But, though the romance is one of an unusually cerebral nature, it's clearly the central relationship which the book is truly about.

The core image of the novel comes, in fact, in the epilogue where... [NB: The following has been made invisible to avoid spoiling the book. Highlight the whitespace to read...] ...an elderly woman spends her last years waiting for the promised final visit of her long-dead time-travelling husband. This image alone would have made for a wonderful short story, but that would have lacked the emotional punch which it derives from its novelistic context. Without knowing Clare and Henry as we do by this point in the book, it would have been a clever and reasonably poignant idea, rather than an achingly potent source of longing and grief.

Basically, The Time-Traveler's Wife is the only book I've read in absolute ages which has had me in uncontrollable tears at the end. I could barely see the words to read them, in fact... which was kind of annoying, actually, but still, extremely cathartic.

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman is an altogether different kind of book -- still cerebral, and still about time, but far from being character-focussed. Indeed, it has virtually no named characters: the framing narrative deals with the young Albert Einstein and a colleague of his at the patent office, but that's about it. Instead it's a magic-realist exploration of creatively-imagined worlds where time works differently from our own, the linking idea being that these are the rejected hypotheses, experienced in dreams, which led Einstein to his theory of relativity.

The imagination which has gone into thinking up these worlds is breathtaking in itself. There's a world where the future does not exist and cannot be conceptualised, and a world where there's no such thing as memory; worlds where time cannot be quantified and worlds where it is the ultimate and only absolute; worlds where time works like a stream or like a wheel or like an infinite hall or mirrors; even a determinist world like the one in The Time-Traveler's Wife, where everybody's future is mapped out and where nobody therefore cares about the consequences of their actions.

The really clever thing is the way all of these hypotheticals -- which are treated as springboards for creative thought rather than bases for logical extrapolation -- become metaphors for the real relationship between our human identities and our subjective perceptions of time. The novel as a whole explores disparate imaginative spaces, each with its own rules, and their reciprocal effects upon the human beings who live in them. Comparisons with Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (as luck would have it, the only Calvino I've managed to read, and very fine it is too) are predictable, but worthwhile.

Nameless though the characters are, their internal monologues are often deeply moving -- all the more so since a number of them are clearly altered versions of Einstein's own present, past and future, and his own surroundings in 1905 Berne are generally recognisable, if profoundly changed. (Much of this aspect of the book passed me by, to be honest, as I'm not that clued-up on Einstein's life. I really should read a biography and then reread the novel, as I'm sure it would repay that kind of attention.)

Honestly, this is a fantastically good work of art, which everybody with any interest both in theoretical physics and damn good writing should definitely read.

Meanwhile... I've finished Seven Deadly Sins, which suffers by comparison with the above (but does have a couple of splendid stories by the reliable Paul Magrs and Tara Samms). I've also embarked on Simon Morden's novella Another War, having first reread "A Forgotten Corner of Hell" in the Subway collection Brilliant Things, to which it's a sequel. Where "A Forgotten Corner of Hell" (in which a 1920s country house vanishes to become contiguous with an otherdimensional netherworld) reads rather as if H.P. Lovecraft's been given a rewrite by Agatha Christie, Another War (where the house reappears in present-day Oxfordshire) gives the impression that Tom Clancy's now been allowed to have a go. I'm enjoying it very much so far.

I think I'll hold off commenting on The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction till I've finished it -- I'm a little over halfway through now. It's been a mixture, so far, of nodding along in agreement and disagreeing vociferously, to the bemusement and consternation of my wife and / or colleagues.

Greenbelt Post-Mortem

So... just to return one more time to the subject of Greenbelt. The blog entries at surefish cover most of what I actually did, and much of what I thought: what they don't say is that I spent the whole time stressed out and knackered, having taken on way too much this year.

My talk itself wasn't too bad in terms of stress -- it was written and polished by the time I arrived, and really it only necessitating taking an hour out that morning to practise, and caffeining and sugaring myself up immediately beforehand (and really, coffee and donuts aren't a very grave hardship). Certainly the buzz which came from realising I'd delivered it well, and kept the audience entertained and interested for an hour, more than made up for the work I put in.

The panel discussion was even less hassle, although I didn't feel it was terribly successful. (No reflection on my fellow panellists, Annie and Conrad, nor indeed to host Nick: there were half a dozen blogging-related events at this year's festival, and I don't think there was a great deal of interest or energy left to spare for ours. Nick's comment that "I think we just about got away" with it pretty much sums it up.)

The journalism, however, was exhausting. It wasn't just the couple of hours each day it took away from my time at the festival (that being about how long it took me to compose 600 well-crafted words in the inevitable non-optimum conditions), it was the way I felt obliged to do stuff all the time rather than relaxing, just so that I'd have something to blog about -- and, when I was doing said stuff, to take notes about the stuff I was doing rather than just enjoying it.

Apologies to anyone reading this who enjoyed the blogs, but I don't think I'll be doing that again. Greenbelt is pretty much the only opportunity I get to relax and be calm in spiritually nourishing surroundings, and sadly I had precious little of that this year.

Another thing I didn't mention (and it it turns out I could have done, as surefish themselves have a fairly ambivalent review of the event here) were my reservations about the Sunday morning communion. While I do find the diversity (and the sheer number) of those present thoroughly inspiring, one result of it is that the service is always very awkwardly pitched, aiming to appeal to adults of a wide variety of worship backgrounds as well as children and teenagers (an important consideration, since the service generally lasts an hour and a half at least).

This year in particular, the worship group running the thing seemed to be hopelessly out of their depth, inviting the congregation to join them in responses which many present found deeply bizarre. (Much of this was sexual politics, which I'm aware Greenbelt is more keen on than most christian congregations... but still, you don't need to have a particularly dirty mind to be disturbed by someone asking all the children present to shout "Taste our fruits".)

Moreover, their centrepiece, a story written as a myth / parable around this year's festival theme of "Tree of Life", was awful. Badly-written, confusing drivel where overblown metaphors contended in a Darwinian battle for dominance, and -- quite absurdly, given the fantastical nature of the framing narrative -- a ploddingly literal version of Jesus's institution of the tradition of the Holy Communion had been bolted on as crassly as if Tolkien had decided to sample the crucifixion accounts in The Lord of the Rings. I'm no liturgist, but I've written fantasy, and I'm certain I could have come up with something considerably better.

The service also commenced with an unusually beautiful poem by Stewart Henderson, which was thoroughly ruined by being read in the style of an illiterate rap-artist. Argh. As I say, I was in a critical rather than a spiritual state of mind at the time, but even so, I do hope Greenbelt don't use Revive again.

Still, the service as a whole did what it was supposed to do, and I did enjoy the hymns. The fact that I have some negative opinions (that Paul Cornell's unique position in relation to the new series of Doctor Who was under-used in his session, for instance, much of which could have been delivered by any clued-up fan) doesn't mean that the positive stuff wasn't true as well (and Cornell's session was certainly highly entertaining). Despite not being able to relax, I did enjoy the whole experience -- except during the actual writing of the blogs, when I was just frustrated not to be elsewhere doing something else.

My highlights: Karen Armstrong, an intelligent and lucid speaker; Cole Morton and Gareth Higgins on separating faith and church by erasing the secular / spiritual divide; The Proclaimers; the visual art, oustanding, as ever; the beer and food, which really were heavenly. And, obviously, the intangible atmosphere of the whole place.

And next year I'll get time to appreciate it all properly, so hurrah.

03 September 2005

Reading List (Update)

I really ought to get round to maintaining a proper online books list somewhere like All Consuming, rather than keeping on posting them here. But I still haven't. So for reference (my own, largely), here's the current list of what would be in my "To Read" pile if I had one (which, being anal about shelving all my books in the proper order at all times, I don't).

As you'll see from the following, I haven't managed to read many of the books I intended to over the summer. Getting through About Time 5 was something of a mammoth haul -- it's looking as if the entire six-volume series is going to weigh in at something like a million words. That's the length of Clute and Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, entirely devoted to Doctor Who. But who needs a sense of proportion when you have cultural investigators of the calibre of Messrs Miles and Wood?

I did manage to get through The Dancers at the End of Time, Warring States, The Time Traveler's Wife, Einstein's Dreams and of course Wildthyme on Top, two of which I'm still intending to post about shortly. Bizarrely, it's only now that I realise that every single one of these is about time-travellers, alternative formulations of time or both, and that most of them have "time" (or "thyme") in the title. I'm not as obsessive as this makes me sound, honestly.

Current reading consists of Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins (largely for Paul Magrs' Iris Wildthyme story, "Suitors Inc.") and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, which has somehow become a great deal more difficult since I decided to give up coffee. (Oh yes, I need to post about that at some point too. It's just a temporary thing, with any luck.)

So, here's the revised list (new stuff added since last time in bold):

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God.
Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth.
Mark Chadbourn, World's End.
Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition.
Gwynneth Jones, Bold as Love.
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.
Simon Morden, Another War.
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor.
Christopher Priest, The Space Machine.
Christopher Priest, A Dream of Wessex.

And, once again in the "not sure I can be arsed" category...
Jacqueline Rayner, Winner Takes All.
Gary Russell, Spiral Scratch.

The Morden and the Armstrong were bought at, or arising from, Greenbelt, although the festival bookshop wasn't particularly helpful there. They didn't stock The Battle for God, despite Armstrong's research into fundamentalism being what she was speaking (very interestingly) about; and they very quickly sold out of her more recent book on Islam. Another War they only had in stock because Simon (who spoke on "Christian fiction" and why it's all so awful) had brought along some of his own copies. Stocking Peculiar Lives and Of the City of the Saved... was pretty much out of the question. Never mind.

Some rather more substantial posts about books and stuff should follow over the course of the weekend, with any luck. This past week has all been a bit manic.