31 July 2006

That Will be All

Damn. I was going to post a blog update today, ahead of the midweek weddings I'm attending tomorrow and Friday.

However, I was then asked to write an article for a national newspaper [*]. Quickly. And I'm away all day tomorrow for the aforementioned wedding. So I'm afraid this blog's going to have to wait.

On the plus side, though -- woohoo!

[*] OK, so the small print is that they want to see it before they commit to publishing. Or indeed paying. Still, I believe the "woohoo" stands.

28 July 2006


I've just finished Emmanuel Carrère's I Am Alive and You Are Dead: a Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K. Dick. It's an excellent study, engagingly-written and wry, of one of the most fucked-up human beings ever to have carved out a successful career in any artistic field.

It's perfectly clear that Dick was, by any standards (and his own admission), a drug-addled delusionist who manipulated his way through five wives and numerous girlfriends in his search for God... but this book brought it home to me in a way which neither Dick's own highly critical autobiographical writings (thinly fictionalised in Valis and Radio Free Albemuth), nor Lawrence Sutin's more scholarly Divine Invasions had been able to do.

Carrère tracks Dick's intellectual and imaginative development through his science fiction as much as through his life, tracing some fascinating connections between the two and demonstrating a rich insight into both.

Dick's personal religion (or rather, the extensive sequence of mutually contradictory personal religions through which he ran on an almost daily basis in his obsessive quest for the truth) was one that only an S.F. author could possibly have come up with, but even having written a chapter of my thesis on the man I'd never realised the extent to which he seems to have equated the two. Not only the late, and obviously religious, novels (Albemuth, Valis, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), but even such secular-seeming works as Ubik (from which Carrère takes his subtitle) The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said were incorporated into Dick's canon of personal sacred significance.

It helps that Carrère's approach -- combining a sincere affection and admiration for Dick with despair at his atrocious personal behaviour -- is very similar to my own. What makes the book especially delicious to read is the author's terse Gallic cynicism, which allows some devastating deconstructions of its subject:
Linda's ordeal came to an end when one evening Phil met Tessa Busby, who consented to sleep with him. She moved into his apartment the next day. Her agreeableness convinced Phil that she was in the pay of his enemies. [p210]
This is, however, always tempered with a humanism which sympathises deeply with Dick's own, quite genuine, torments. I ended the book moved to tears by the account of Phil's final passing.

I'd recommend this book highly to anybody who's ever read a Philip K. Dick novel and wondered what kind of twisted mind could possibly have come up with that.

Still on a Dickian note, I'm indebted to Colin for pointing out that the BBC reserves the right to edit your memories.

Reviewing Random Bits of Media Tat

I've not yet blogged a summary of the epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer rewatch, and now the experience has receded from my head rather.

It seems to have taken us around nine months, from rather earlier than this post to shortly before this one. It's been fascinating, watching seven years of televisual evolution compressed into that short a time. As the aesthetic of the show shifts and changes there's often a sense that the plot is being made up as they go along (notably with Angel's swiftly-undone death at the end of Season Two), but still there are character stories (such as Willow's sexual development and the Buffy-Spike romance) which show every sign of having been planned years in advance.

The episodes do show a certain tendency to settle into formula as time passes, and the plot emphasis shifts seismically from the individual episode to the season-long story arc. Nevertheless, Season Seven remains as good as (the admittedly rather patchy) Season One. Both are mindblowingly excellent in certain episodes (e.g. Angel and Conversations with Dead People), but distinctly ropy in others (Teacher's Pet, First Date). Both have strong character-driven climaxes which explore the personal consequences of Buffy's calling... although thinking on it, that's true for all the other seasons as well.

It's true that, in that final year, some of the regular characters are sidelined in favour of newcomers like Andrew and Kennedy... but introducing new faces and making us care about them has been a staple of the series from very early on. (And the only one who's actively annoying is Molly, whose brutal murder by Caleb is just retribution for her atrocious attempt at a cockney accent.)

Certainly I see no sign that the series went into decline after Season Three -- as stated on fansites passim with regard to this and, oddly, every other series ever. It's true that there's a sustained peak between Seasons Two and Four, and in particular from Halloween (The One With The Halloween Costumes) to Restless (The One Where They're All Asleep), but the only sustained trough is in Season Six, with the unfortunate treatment of Willow's magic addiction compounded by the dismal Doublemeat Palace. And that same season offers not only the greatest episode ever in Once More, with Feeling, but also the surprisingly brave Normal Again.

So pfah.

* * *

After Buffy, we worked our way very much more quickly through Ultraviolet, which at a beautifully contained six episodes is exactly one twenty-fourth of Buffy's length.

It's just as marvellous, although in quite different ways: where Buffy has extravagant wit, linguistic creativity and supernatural spectacle, Ultraviolet relies on insinuation, misdirection and double meaning. The dialogue may sound mundane in comparison, but almost everything anybody says has multiple meanings depending on the context in which you understand it. Even its vampires (who are smarter, more organised and deadlier than the ones in Buffy, although also more morally ambivalent) exist in a dual context, being seen both as the mirror-defying supernatural impossibilities they traditionally are, and as a scientific phenomenon susceptible to rational investigation.

One strength the series do share is in crafting a strong and sympathetic ensemble of characters with whose conflicts and predicaments we constantly identify. The climax of the final episode, where all four members of the shadowy vampire-killing hit-squad, together with a vampire and his potential victim, act out their individual concerns and tensions in concert through the same simple sequence of events, is a masterwork of ambiguity and shifting perspective.

Having recently seen more of writer-director Joe Ahearne's directing work in various Doctor Who episodes, I also found myself recognising distinctive tricks like the superimposition of faces in partially reflective glass, the almost subliminal use of religious paraphernalia and a peculiar way of lighting faces in semi-darkness which gives them a halo-like luminosity. Now I'm desperate to see what Ahearne could do with a Who script of his own.

* * *

Superman Returns, on the other hand, was a disappointment -- especially coming from Brian Singer, who made such an excellent job of directing the first two X-Men films.

Much has been made of its rather slavish adulation of the 1970s Superman movies, but mostly I just thought it went on too bloody long. Honestly, it could stand to lose a good 45 minutes -- it would tighten up the action sequences enormously and would allow the excision of all the small-cute-child / father-son-bonding business which Hollywood is under the impression it does so well.

The only thing there really should have been more of was Kevin Spacey camping it up as Lex Luthor, but unfortunately we'd already seen all of his best moments in the trailer. Given that the astonishing "bullet bounces from Superman's eye" sequence was also in there, this did leave the film itself with remarkably little to offer for its two-and-a-half-hour duration.

Given the extent to which Singer plays on the parallels between Superman and God (and / or Jesus) -- showing him floating above the world listening to humanity's cries of help, and later falling from the skies in that cruciform pose characteristic of Hollywood heroes who are in the process of sacrificing themselves -- I'd even have welcomed some theological debate, just to liven things up. How does Superman choose which situations He should intervene in, and when He should let nature take its course? Why are the Americans His chosen people? How exactly can He justify buggering off to Krypton for five years and abandoning us to Luthor and, implicitly, 9/11?

Mostly this kind of thing makes me groan in films, but in this particular case it would have livened it up no end.

* * *

And speaking of spurious S.F. theology... B. and I have just started watching Battlestar Galactica on D.V.D. Prior to borrowing the three-hour miniseries from the local vicar last month, I hadn't seen any Galactica since 1980, when it was only just beginning to be regarded as a camp classic rather than a dreadful load of old balls.

So I'm very much behind the curve here, I know... but having watched the miniseries and the first episode proper, this new series is looking really rather good. Military-grade hard-S.F. space-opera has never been my thing in books, but Babylon 5 gave me an appreciation of its potential on T.V., especially when combined with grown-up politics. Beginning the whole story with a crippling defeat for the good guys is a bold move, and seems to be paying off very well.

I imagine a whole season of such grimness will become rather unrelenting -- as indeed the miniseries was -- but I'm actually really enjoying a fictional universe which takes itself as seriously as this. Great stuff.

27 July 2006

Intense Neurological Paint

Substantial chunks of this week have been entailed in painting the bedroom, which prior to Monday looked a lot like this...
a particularly revolting shade of green

...and now, mercifully, looks rather more like this.
a much more bearable beigy sort of colour

I'm a territorial animal, and like the cats I get unhappy at signficant disruptions to my habitat. Having all the bedroom furniture, and in particular the books, stacked up against walls and in crates elsewhere across the house has been distressing for all of us, but now everything is back where it goes, and there's a marvellously restful lack of eye-wrenching disgust involved in looking at the bedroom walls. I thoroughly approve of it.

Unlike B. I'm not someone who sets great store by interior decorating, but it's surprising (or perhaps under the circumstances it's actually not) how much more like part of my home the bedroom now feels. Obviously being reminded of a hideously misjudged decorating decision which I would never under any circumstances have made, every time I opened my eyes in there, has had a subliminal alienating effect whose strength I never realised.

Now all we need to do is stop the bathroom looking like this...
a vile puce

...and I'll be happy.

22 July 2006

I Will Not Be Pushed, Filed, Stamped, Indexed, Briefed, Debriefed or Numbered. My Life Is My Own.

Well, ish. Because yesterday I resigned from my job at St Brad's.

This has been coming for a while now -- I've been struggling to balance writing and working with jobhunting, which is one of the reasons (as predicted back here) for the sporadic and patchy updating of this blog since then. I'm sorry about this, but I hope it's clear now why I couldn't be more specific about it in a public forum.

Since then I've been applying for a variety of library or information-based jobs, favouring the better-paid, even-more-part-time ones which don't come along all that often anyway. I've had half a dozen interviews, not one of which has resulted in the bouncing joy and celebratory Mexican meals.

I haven't stopped looking, but as it's become increasingly clear that starting another academic year at St Brad's was not going to be good for me, I've been evolving a backup plan. So until an appropriate job manifests itself, I'm going to go full-time with the freelance writing.

I've got the necessary versatility -- as well as my fiction (which has emulated a number of non-fiction styles, particularly in Of the City of the Saved...), and of course a bloody great academic thesis, I've written web-journalism, film and book reviews, vast amounts of stuff for various jobs like a style guide and newsletters and similar, and of course this blog.

I'm not proud -- the only thing I'll draw the line at is sports writing, and that's only because I can't imagine being able to fake the necessary knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject.

On top of this I've done proofreading, copy-editing and editorial consultancy with varying degrees of formality. So convincing a few more publishers to take me on should be a doddle.

To that end, though, if I may make a plea to the regular readers here -- if you know anyone who's in the business of commissioning any kind of writing from freelancers, do please either mention me to them or vice versa.

Tell them I'm cheap, I'm reliable, I work to deadline and do what I'm told, and I have an astonishingly pedantic grasp of English spelling and grammar.

Your help in this matter will be much appreciated.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled wittering about politics, religion and S.F., moaning about the weather and reviewing random bits of media tat.

19 July 2006

Look! Up in the Sky!

I've been sloshing cold water over myself with a flannel every so often, and I don't appear to have spontaneously combusted yet. The Met Office have now changed their tune and are predicting that tonight will be cooler even in the absence of a thunderstorm -- although I see there's one due already in Cornwall, so maybe we're supposed to be getting the benefit of that.

I've been thinking some more about the cats' divergent attitudes to rotary ceiling-fans. It seems odd that Scully should be so afraid of them, since as far as I know (and it would be a little unlikely around these parts) she's never been threatened by an aerial predator. It's particularly odd since she's usually by far the braver of the two: Mulder has a terror of strangers, doors that suddenly open, suits, plastic bags and the like which borders on the existential, while Scully's usually serenely unbothered by anything except (not unreasonably) small children.

Presumably Scully's phobia[1] is a hard-wired instinct that would have been a survival trait in ancient Egypt, where eagles and the like were considerably more common than in modern south-west England. This does, however, raise the question of why Mulder doesn't share it. Surely if it's a survival trait for one individual, it should be generally useful to the whole species?

The answer, I presume, is one of genetic diversity. Certain humans suffer from a fear of spiders or snakes or decay, a healthy range of phobias in the population ensuring that the survival of the species is protected against many different dangers, while leaving most of its members able to deal with everyday occurrences like retrieving spiders from the bath, wrestling anacondas or coping with the compost bin.

I'm not sure of the mechanics of how such a diversity would actually evolve... but it certainly means that Scully will be the better placed to survive should Bristol ever be beset by an infestation of gigantic rotating predatory birds, especially ones which specialise in hovering just underneath ceilings to await their prey.

Mulder, on the other hand, will be much more likely to survive in the event of a heatwave.

In entirely unrelated news, if we're still alive this evening we're going to see Superman Returns[2]. Hurrah!

[1] Possibly rhipiphobia, if this is anything to go by. Although "fan for making it less bleeding hot in your bedroom" isn't listed among the options.
[2] B. and me, that is, not me and the cats. I think the idea of a flying man would traumatise Scully for life.

18 July 2006

Lovely and Temperate, My Arse

It's 33°C today, apparently, and not getting any cooler tomorrow, at least until the scheduled night-time thunderstorm. 35°C is frankly insane: I've been cooler than that at midday in August in Athens.

Given that I'm supposed to be spending this week broadening my opportunities for freelance writing -- from, naturally, my study -- this is not a welcome fact. The study has a tendency to become preternaturally hot and airless, and yesterday B. got home from work to find me with some kind of mild heatstroke, feeling dizzy and weak and in need of dousing with cold water, despite having had the window open and a fan on all day.

I'm posting this from inside a pair of pants and nothing else, with all the fans, doors and windows I can find upstairs opened and switched on. This is distressing Scully, who is convinced that the shadow of the ceiling fan in the bedroom is a gigantic bird of prey which can get her if she's anywhere within sight of it. (Mulder, on the other hand, is happily sitting underneath it on the bed, in the nice cool draught, proving either that he's more intelligent than her or that he's even dimmer.) The poor love's cowering in the bathroom, but there really isn't anything I can do about it: if I turn off the fan or close the door I'll overheat and collapse.

In the winter, if you feel too cold, you can turn up the heating or put on another jumper. In the summer you have no choice but to swelter, and any measures you take by way of inserting your head into sinksful of water are strictly temporary. I hope it's clear why I prefer the former state of affairs.

16 July 2006

Who is Trevor K Grant?

Intrigue and a degree of hilarity have been ensuing in certain online circles at the emergence into the blogosphere of science-horror writer Trevor K. Grant -- author of pulp classics Hell Lords of the Ninth Oval and The Day the Earth Frazzled. Grant's name has become proverbial in the British horror genre as a master of the ill-chosen cliché; of the awkward, shambling and lurid phrase chosen when a straightforward descriptive adjective would have sufficed, or preferably no words at all.

Despite this folkloric status, however, very few people have ever actually read (or even seen) a Grant book, due to what appears to be a complicated print history encompassing self- (or possibly vanity) publishing, bickering over copyright and (if some of Grant's more febrile outpourings are to be believed) out-and-out industrial espionage. Certainly Amazon refuses to stock them, presumably due to these and associated legal considerations.

This has led certain irresponsible commentators to speculate that Grant's blog -- some zealots have even suggested his entire existence -- may in fact be a hoax, a cynically irresponsible attempt to dupe the readers, and pillory the authors, of a genre whose mainstream respectability should surely now be considered beyond reproach. This despite the existence of a well-developed fansite for Grant's work, and the fact that at least one established S.F. author attests to having known Trevor personally for years.

For my own part, while I have never had any direct personal contact with the Grant juggernaut, I have fond memories (recently recovered under therapy) of breathlessly reading In Which We Scream under the bedclothes with a torch, at the rather strict ecumenical community in Oxford at which I boarded during my postgraduate years.

I, for one, would like to welcome Trevor into our online confederacy of web-journalising auteurs, and look forward to absorbing more of his purple emissions during the weeks and months to come.

10 July 2006

Winning Gaol

Last weekend was rather more interesting than the one just gone. Saturday involved a trip to Oxford, to coincide with the brief return from their Californian exile of the Sybil and Dr Cosmos. Sadly we couldn't manage to see their Cosmic-Sybilline offspring, young C., who was with some grandparents somewhere while her parents visited Brightybot and Hatmandu, but it was still very lovely to see the two of them. It happens all too rarely these days.

We met them (and a stray Fr Maniple) at The Jericho Café, which I remember happily as the site of many fine breakfasts when I lived a short distance up the road. The afternoon was spent happily pottering around secondhand bookshops together, dropping in at Borders and fortifying ourselves at George and Danver before investigating the new development on the site of what was once H.M. Prison Oxford, and before that Oxford Castle.

The castle visitors' centre didn't seem quite as ready for visitors as it presumably will be, but it was fascinating to walk around the intact prison buildings and courtyards. Most of the space is being used for one-size-fits-all eatery chains and an open-air theatre, but there is a rather marvellous hotel which we managed to sneak into.

As some of the images here suggest, it's a bizarre environment -- brutalist metal-and-concrete architecture overlaid with plush upholstery and deep-pile carpets. We didn't get to see inside a guest-cell, but the main staircase area looked as if some mad billionaire had made a home inside the sets of Porridge -- which was, predictably, playing on continuous loop in the lobby.

The publicity material plays up the prison angle for all it's worth ("daring escape destination", indeed), but the leaflets mention one aspect which the website doesn't go into. Apparently there's a "House of Correction", rather more expensive than the standard rooms, which is said to be reserved "for the very very naughty". One can only speculate... but I suppose, if you're going to convert a prison into a hotel, you may as well cater to a specialist clientele while you're at it.

Climbing the castle mound gave an unusual perspective on the city -- except for Nuffield College library there are very few tall buildings southwest of the centre, where the castle / prison / hotel is, so there was a sense of sneaking up on the dreaming spires from behind.

Our train journey back to Bristol was lovely and quiet, apparently because everybody was at home watching some game of soccer or other.

Sunday B. and I mostly spent lounging around in The Coronation, it being too bloody hot to do anything else. Oh, and we also finished our epic rewatch of Buffy, which deserves a post of its own at some point soon. But not today.

We've started on Ultraviolet now.

Problem Tennant

The weekend just gone was spent largely in watching Doctor Who of various vintages while B. was away at a hen party. I've been disappointed by the latest season, and by David Tennant: there's been a lot of good stuff (and Saturday night's season finale was a splendid example, a handful of stupid moments aside) but it's failed, with one glorious exception, to scale the heights of the 2005 season.

I don't know whether I'll be updating Parrinium Mines any more. In theory I should at least set down my overall impressions of the season, but I feel strangely unmoved to do so. There's been much to admire, but it's so overshadowed by its immediate predecessor that much of what I said would turn out negative. In theory, I could keep it up for the sake of commenting on older Doctor Who, in book and TV form, but I'm not sure it's worth it. I'll let you know.

(On the plus side, though, my research for the still-to-be-announced short story I've been periodically banging on about here has got me completely addicted to William Hartnell's era. The Romans is top-notch comedy entertainment, and not in a "so bad it's good" way. It's genuinely brilliant.)

[Crossposted to Parrinium Mines, just in case anybody's reading there but not here.]

Further Reading

It's been a while since I last posted one of these.

Since then, I've managed to read The Battle for God, Pattern Recognition, Perdido Street Station, Cloud Atlas, Another War and A Dream of Wessex, all of which were rather excellent in diverse ways. I've also covered rather a large number of others which I hadn't been anticipating at the time of making that list. Most recently I've been working my way through Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and China Miéville's The Scar.

GG&S is a strange mixture of visionary and plodding, setting out to explain the disparities in technological and political development which allowed the Europeans of the late second millennium to conquer and subjugate most of the population of the rest of the world, rather than (for instance) the Incas getting there first... but ending up talking mostly about the early history of agriculture. Which is fair enough since this would appear to have been the main mechanism whereby the said cultural differences arose, but I'm not sure we entirely need the six chapters devoted to food production when more interesting developments such as the invention of writing just get the one.

Never mind -- most of the chapters about other aspects of world history are quite fascinating.

(It turns out, incidentally, that the ultimate cause -- or the nearest Diamond thinks we can get to one -- is the shape and position of Eurasia: it's bigger than any other continuous continent, quite bumpy but not too bumpy, and runs left-to-right on a map rather than up and down. All of these turn out to be highly significant... although humanity's tendency to go round killing, rather than domesticating, any animals that haven't already evolved to avoid getting killed by people hasn't helped.)

The Scar, which I've still not quite finished, is pretty good but nowhere near as good as Miéville's marvellous Perdido Street Station. This has come as something of a disappointment, given how much I was looking forward to reading more from the same author.

Part of the problem is Miéville's habit of fusing his fantasy-horror with other genres: PSS is Dickensian urban gothic, a type of story which I find relentlessly fascinating, whereas The Scar is a seagoing adventure story, which I find a lot duller. (Iron Council is a western, apparently. I may have to give that one a miss.) More disappointingly, though, what should be an incredibly imaginative setting -- a mobile oceangoing pirate city built across a seascape of tethered-together ships -- is rendered with far less of the lavish sociopolitical, cultural and geographical detail which made PSS such a joy to read.

Be that as it may, the current list of books I've got and want to read soon runs as follows. Books added since last time (which are most of them) appear in bold.

Ben Aaronovitch, Genius Loci.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake.
Emmanuel Carrère, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: a Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K Dick.
Paul Cornell, British Summertime.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade: the First Arabesk.
Frank Herbert, Dune.
Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor.
Kim Newman, The Night Mayor.
Christopher Priest, The Space Machine.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.
Justina Robson, Mappa Mundi.
Norman Spinrad, The Iron Dream.

The following have dropped off the list since last time, or at least been relegated to "less urgent":

Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth.
Mark Chadbourn, World's End.
Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.
Gwynneth Jones, Bold as Love.
Jacqueline Rayner, Winner Takes All.
Gary Russell, Spiral Scratch.

That's quite a list, and it doesn't even take into account the crate of S.F. and fantasy I picked up from my Dad at Christmas. Feel free to make suggestions as to which titles I should tackle first.