29 September 2006

The Marcion Invasion

(What follows is a little bit of a rant, and a little bit of a sermon, and a quite a lot of a party political broadcast for the For Christ's Sake Get Some Perspective party. It starts off fulminating topically about events of the first few centuries A.D., but does become rather more relevant thereafter.

I'm sorry about that. A lot of this has been fermenting in my brain for quite some time now.

Over the last few Wednesdays, B. and I have been attending our vicar and another vicar's course entitled A Bluffer's Guide to Heresy. So far we've covered Gnosticism, Marcionism and Pelagianism, and are due to be finishing off next week with the Donatists.

It's all good fun -- pop-theology done in an engaging, entertaining way without being in any sense dumbed down. Gnosticism is a subject I know something about, having written in my thesis about science fiction as a modern expression of Gnostic thought, and I enjoyed Simon and Paul's presentation on the subject.

I have some sympathy, to varying degrees, with all of these "heretical" positions. I suspect that Pelagius, in particular, is only considered a heretic because his opponent, Augustine, managed to convince the church he wasn't one. Of their two positions, Pelagius' idea that human beings are created capable of moral perfection seems merely over-optimistic, while Augustine's Manichean-influenced ideas of a fallen world and original sin -- and in particular his negativity towards sex and women -- have caused great harm to the later development of the church. It seems to me that the only reason Pelagius was a heretic and Augustine a saint is the familiar one of history being written by the victors.

Gnosticism I can see good arguments for in that the material world is clearly very imperfect, but have to reject insofar as my own religious experiences have been necessarily mediated through that same created world. Marcionism has a point in that some aspects of the Old Testament are, to say the least, questionable, but makes the mistake (an all too familiar one in a modern context, but rare at the time) of assuming that such scriptures are to be read as historical fact rather than as pointers towards spiritual truth.

Even as pointers towards spiritual truth, some aspects of the Old Testament are, in fact, questionable, which is why I believe that the Bible consists of a progressive series of variously imperfect revelations of God, rather than anything you could sensibly call "fact".

And yet...

Today I read this piece by Stephen Unwin in The Guardian. I haven't read Unwin's book, and I haven't read Richard Dawkins' book to which he's responding (although given that this seems to be the one where the good Professor finally comes out and says that I and all people of faith are delusional and dangerous, I should probably get round to it sooner or later).

This whole area is -- thanks to the indefatigable efforts of fundamentalists of all stripes in the politics of the the U.S., the Middle East, and increasingly here in the U.K. -- a blood-soaked, bomb-strewn minefield.

For the record, I see any kind of theocratic government by scriptural fiat as dangerous, deeply immoral and -- I'm a liberal christian, so I get to swear -- quite astoundingly fuckwitted.

What's more I fully agree with Dawkins, as quoted by Joan Bakewell, that the Bible is "a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents", that "sucking up to God" is a poor rationale for moral behaviour and that Unwin's supposed proof of God's probable existence is "quite agreeably funny".

What dismays me is the polarisation expressed in the debate, visible not only in Dawkins' frequent fulminations but in the comments appended to that piece of Unwin's. Despite the visible and vocal presence -- in the U.K., the U.S. and indeed the Middle East -- of christians, jews, muslims and other people of faith who do not reject the truths of science, do not wish to see their particular interpretation of divine ethics enshrined in law, and in particular do not believe that the killing of innocents is an act which any sane form of faith can justify... despite the continual protests of these people against the sickening excesses of their co-religionists, Dawkins and his sympathisers persist in speaking and acting as if all religion, all faith is the enemy of humanity, rather than merely the religion and faith of unbearable mindless fuckwits.

I find this, to be frank, incredibly painful.

I also, needless to say, find painful the fact that apparently American christian fundamentalists are now training their children to believe themselves participants in a global religious war in which they may be called upon to give their lives for Jesus.

Great move, guys. Because what the world really needs just at this precise moment are more fanatical religious zealots prepared to die for their beliefs.

The problem -- or at least, a large part of that aspect of "the problem" which gives rise to this zero-tolerance attitude on all sides -- is precisely the inability to separate the realms of spiritual and factual truth which so beset poor Marcion (and to some extent Augustine, although I think his overly literal reading of Genesis arose more from his psychological hangups than vice versa).

Truths about "God" (and even the word is problematic) are allusive, symbolic and obscure, not because God is vague or shifting but because our only tools for discussing or conceptualising the divine have been evolved for talking and thinking about the experiential world which God exists beyond and outside. (Also "throughout", of course, but not in any way which can be physically quantified or even detected.)

All statements made about God, whether by believers or unbelievers, are therefore suspect. "There is no God but God" and "There is no God" both tell us important and valid things about the divine -- but to take either of them as fact is a grievous category error.

The ways in which this expresses itself in the politics of the U.S., Israel and Islamdom are perfectly clear, and reliably appalling. Unfortunately, Dawkins and his supporters, while not yet at the stage of blowing people up who disagree with them, are equally misled.

Dawkins can protest all he likes that (in Bakewell's words) "given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions". His difficulty with faith arises precisely from the fact that God does not exist as part of that realm about which science is better qualified than any to speak. As Dawkins' book presumably attempts to demonstrate, no proof of God's existence (or indeed probability) has yet been produced which was not intellectually flawed, nor can there ever be such a proof. "Proof", as Dawkins and indeed Anselm understand it, is simply not a concept which can apply.

When the divine demonstrates its own existence (which, as I've indicated, I faithfully believe it does), it isn't in a way which can be duplicated or falsified through scientific experiment. If Dawkins underwent a genuine spiritual experience of the kind which has been sufficient to commit so many believers in the history of the world to such diverse faiths, his worldview would force him to dismiss it as a random aberration of his brain chemistry -- ignoring that very qualitative, unquantifiable gap in the rational through which God manifests God's self.

(I sometimes suspect that Dawkins is a very spiritual man. I sometimes think that he longs desperately for God to intervene with a material proof of babelfishesque undeniability, to demonstrate beyond all possible doubt on Richard Dawkins' part that God is real. His berating of God, I sometimes feel, is the lament of a spiritual yearning which can never be satisfied within the material cage which his mind has constructed for itself.

I can't prove this either, of course.)

You may feel that, in arguing against the one group of zealots who aren't currently in control of vast arsenals of tanks, bombs and helicopters, or at least of specially-tailored clothing containing shrapnel and moderate quantities of triacetone triperoxide, I'm going -- like so many of the zealots who are in control of these things -- for the soft target. You would, of course, be quite correct.

Dawkins' confusion is forgivable in a world where the aforementioned unbearable mindless fuckwits persistently declare that God's existence can be proved with science and logic, that Genesis has anything whatsoever to tell us about the biological origin of species, that God regularly intervenes in history, politics and economics to ensure that good people prosper and wicked people founder -- that, not to put too fine a point on it, propositions which are quite evidently false in the real world are or should be part of the belief-systems of those who accept God.

Making God's existence incompatible with the world as our reason and our perception understand it: that, ladies and gentlemen, is one type of doctrine which I'd be very willing to dismiss as heresy.

20 September 2006

Art Works

Speaking of Collected Works, as I just was, the cover has now been released, and can be viewed either here or at the Big Finish site.

(In the absence of Adrian Salmon, Big Finish's regular cover artist for the Bernice Summerfield books, it's been painted by Doctor Who comics artist Lee Sullivan. In general I rather prefer Salmon's heavily stylised artwork, as seen on A Life Worth Living amongst others, but Sullivan's seems better suited to the books' new all-white look. Hmm.)

There's still been no announcement of the story titles and full list of authors (the nine of us who've been listed so far are only half of the names you'll see on the contents page), which means I still can't put up my lovingly-prepared teaser text for my stories. When I can make that public, though, I'll point to it from here.

Putting the Cartography Before the Horse

I've spent most of this past week worldbuilding -- creating a setting for a potential novel (not one I've actually got anyone interested in yet, I hasten to add), in painstaking geographical, historical, political and social detail.

I'm told this is one of my big strengths as a writer... and I'm inclined to agree that Of the City of the Saved... would be a considerably lesser work without the 20,000-odd words of notes I'd made on the City before I started writing it. I've tried to do similar work (to a lesser degree, obviously) for my various short stories, "Minions of the Moon" particularly, and I think it's paid off. It certainly led to my being asked by Nick Wallace, the editor of Collected Works, to design some background for that book.

I don't want to go into detail about this new setting, because it's a neat idea and I don't want people being "inspired" by it. But for most of the past week I've been painstakingly constructing (in Microsoft Paint, perversely enough) a map of Britain in the 22nd century, after some serious changes to the political landscape. It's not an approach I've used before, but I've found that as I've filled in the changed place-names and coloured in the various political entities, I've found a whole history unfolding in my head.

Of course, I don't actually have a story, plot or characters yet. But I've got a very exciting world to put them into when I manage to come up with some.

And -- if it should happen to become a bestselling sequence of novels and spawn a series of blockbusting films -- I'll have the licensed tie-in Risk board all worked out ready.

My Top 5 DVDs of All Time

I wrote the following as a sample for a job I didn't get. It's the sort of thing many people seem to post on their blogs, so I thought I might as well offer it up for your edification.

It is, admittedly, somewhat constrained by the limited number of DVDs I've actually watched, and in particular bothered with the extras for.

My Top 5 DVDs of All Time
(in 50 words each)

Firefly: The Complete Series (4-disc boxed set)
Tragically cancelled before its time, Joss ‘Buffy’ Whedon’s space-opera Western was the cleverest, funniest, most stylish TV sci-fi in years. Experience all 14 episodes along with featurettes, deleted scenes, an outtakes reel that’s actually funny, and commentaries from actors and crew so witty, warm and articulate you’ll hate them. Glorious.

I Claudius (5-disc boxed set)
Roll over Rome – Derek Jacobi stars as the Emperor Claudius in ten hours of the greatest BBC drama ever made. Where else would you see Blackadder’s Nursie as a poisoner, or Christopher Biggins playing Nero? Features include documentaries, actors’ favourite scenes and an interactive genealogy of that nice Caesar family.

Jam (2-disc set)
Christopher Morris’ unnerving sketch comedy of dead babies and psychotic doctors comes complete with its fuzzier late-night remix, Jaaaaam. Each episode plays in yet another alternative format, such as a ‘ffwd version’ or ‘quadrilateral lava lamp version’. If you missed the day Kilroy lost his mind, then welcome… in Jam.

Minority Report (2-disc set)
Tom Cruise stars as a ‘pre-crime’ cop on the run, after being fingered as a future murderer. The extras disc goes overboard with design sketches, storyboards, biographies and no fewer than 17 featurettes, with menus in the film’s own hands-on interactive graphics style. The movie’s not at all bad, either.

Doctor Who: The Beginning (3-disc boxed set)
Sinister, giggling William Hartnell abducts two of his granddaughter’s teachers in his time-machine, in Doctor Who the way it was meant to be. These first three stories bring us cavemen, insanity and eerie machine-people called ‘Daleks’. The best of many bonuses brings long-deleted historical story Marco Polo to partial life.

14 September 2006

A Replicant or a Lesbian

I don't usually do news-story posts, but two items today have been so splendid I couldn't resist.

Firstly, the robotic head of Philip K. Dick has gone missing. The story's an absolute gift for a reporter who knows their stuff, as the Guardian journalist, who draws some lovely parallels with Dick's fiction, clearly does.

And the celestial body formerly known as Xena has been officially named Eris, after the Greek goddess of discord. The satellite previously called Gabrielle has been named after Eris' daughter, Dysnomia. "Δυσνομια" in Greek means, loosely, "lawlessness".

(Less obviously amusing is the news that Neanderthals seem to have died out a lot more recently than previously thought. I don't expect you to find that interesting particularly, but I do.)

12 September 2006

Words and Pictures

Quick roundup of books and other media I've been experiencing in the last couple of weeks...


I've now finished Pete Rollins' book How (Not) to Speak of God, which I'd recommend highly to anyone with a sincere interest in christian mysticism and how it relates to a contemporary urban context. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's changed my life, but it's furthered some of the changes which were taking place there anyway.

I also finished James Chapman's Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, which was more of a disappointment. Chapman's forays into television history are very interesting (he's gleaned a lot of information about Doctor Who from the BBC archives, as well as biographical and other material relating to the main players in its development), but his criticism is rather pedestrian. It's not tainted by fan politics in the way I felt Kim Newman's was, but the comments on the individual stories rarely rise above the level of received opinion. I'd have preferred to read a full-length history of the TV programme, without the kind of commentary I can read by the bucketload on the web.

I'm still working my way through Something More and Ada or Ardor. Good though they both are (particular in the case of the Nabokov), I am rather hoping that I finish one of them soon, so I can move onto something a bit more lively.


B. and I have been watching the first season of Frasier, after she found the videos going cheap on eBay. Despite the distracting laughter track (not present on the British broadcast unless I'm very much mistaken) I've been enjoying it a lot. There are occasional juddery episodes this season as the scriptwriters commit the Friends error of thinking that we care about the characters when they're not making jokes, but it remains by far the best U.S. sitcom I've ever seen.

The remarkable thing is how appalling the whole concept sounds on paper. It's a spinoff from Cheers, you see, with this neurotic psychiatrist -- and his brother, who's also a psychiatrist, and even more neurotic than he is! And their father's crusty and cantankerous, but keeps the family together with his homespun blue-collar wisdom. Plus there's a comedy English nurse! And a funny dog!

It ought to be absolutely dismal. Somehow, though, it ended up with scalpel-sharp, witty, character-driven scripts and some brilliant comedy performances.

Kelsey Grammar is uneven as Frasier himself -- good when the material's subtle, but pretty terrible when it requires him to ham it up. But Jane Leeves completely salvages Daphne by playing her entirely straight, as a working-class Mancunian whose naturalism anchors even the weirdest things the character's required to say and do. And David Hyde Pearce is incapable of opening his mouth as Niles -- in fact, it's rare to see him twitch a muscle -- without being chest-hurtingly hilarious. Even Moose the dog as Eddie the dog is impressively well-trained.


The less said about M Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water the better, really. I actually rather enjoyed The Village and (until the last ten minutes) Signs, despite their being clearly not in the same class as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable... but dear, oh dear.

The plot's arbitrary and free-associating (Shyamalan seriously seems to think that, because it's fantasy, he can make it up as he goes along, rather than having to state his ground-rules early on and stick to them), the characters are cardboard cutouts (and as for casting himself as the tortured, neglected genius whose writing will one day usher in a new era of peace and enlightenment...) and the ending abandons Shyamalan's trademark "Ooh, that's clever" (or, in the case of Signs, "Good grief, does he really think that's clever?") in favour of a resounding "Er... so is that it?".

There are two good ideas in the film: the monster that can lie completely flat and has grass growing from its back, and the bodybuilder (played by a thoroughly wasted Rico from Six Feet Under) who's developing only one side of his body. The former is swiftly abandoned in favour of generic evil-dog action, the latter is a throwaway with no relevance to the plot or anything else.

Very much not recommended.

What else? ...Oh yes, I watched Pitch Black for the first time the other day, and was favourably impressed.

It has a reputation as a rather dire no-brain action flick, which I don't think is warranted at all. Vin Diesel is intrinsically ridiculous, it's true, but his character has more than the standard one dimension, and some of the others even aspire to three. The cinematography's clever and textured, and the setting appears to have been worked out by someone with both a modicum of intelligence and an interest in serious S.F. (This may be explained, if Wikipedia's any guide, by the story being loosely based on Asimov's short story "Nightfall".)

There's even a positive Islamic character, whose journey of faith we're meant to sympathise with. It's difficult to imagine that happening in a big-budget action film these days.

So... surprisingly better than I expected. Although not good enough to give me any inclination towards watching the sequel.

11 September 2006

Beer and Cards

I seem to end up saying this a lot, but I've been busy recently, despite having very little to show for it.

I've not achieved a great deal on the writing front -- I was rather pleased with the sentence "I am now more fully versed apropos oulipian increases", but that was in an email to a friend, so doesn't actually count. Certainly nobody's about to pay me for it.

The only thing I have been doing is going through the proofs of the rather splendid Collected Works -- more details of which should be appearing (both here and on my website) once Big Finish have announced the stories and the author lineup. It reads very nicely, though.

Otherwise, well...

The Organic Food Festival the Saturday before last was just as yummy as last year's, with the Harbourside entirely taken over by stallholders pressing their free samples of cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, bread, cake &cetera upon us in the hopes that we'd buy some of them. Which, in many cases, we did.

Last year I linked to all the products we'd bought. This year I've already forgotten some of the manufacturers, and for some reason the Soil Association aren't displaying their list of exhibitors as they did last year. But the deliciously creamy Daisy cheeses still succeeded in tempting us, along with cheeses from these and these lovely people. We also stocked up on chocolate and beer. (The Atlantic beers are nicer the darker they get -- the Blue is very tasty, but I wouldn't recommend the Gold unless you're a big fan of root ginger.)

One stallholder was selling zaatar, which we'd only seen / tasted previously on pizzas, at the splendid organic vegetarian pizza tent at Greenbelt. We bought some in order to conduct our own seasoning experiments: on the showing so far, you need to be surprisingly generous with the stuff to achieve the desired effect, but it's worth it. Mm.

We spent a very pleasant day at the festival, anyway, wandering around with our goddaughter E., her parents R. and M. and brother L., sampling food and watching a surreal bungee-dance performed by women in chicken costumes hiding in eggs suspended from a crane. (I think they were advertising eggs -- it wasn't particularly clear.) We headed back to their place (R. and M.'s, I mean, not the bungee chicken-women's) in the evening, for experimental pizza and good beer.

On Sunday B. and I experimented with the Settlers of Catan card game in an attempt to devise a way of simulating the Tournament game (which involves two players constructing their own decks out of the standard pack of cards and the five extension packs) without buying a full set of duplicates.

Obviously this involves randomising to some extent who has access to which cards, and a number of features (such as cards which can only be played by one of the two players) just don't crop up. Still, we managed a fairly satisfying game on that basis (B. won, as it happens, but we weren't playing "properly", so it doesn't count).

The technique needs fine-tuning, but it seems a reasonable substitute until such time as we feel it's worth buying a complete second set. Certainly, on the basis of what we were able to do on Sunday, the Tournament game has astonishingly wide-ranging and complex possibilities.

Other than that... it's mostly been annoying admin-type work, occasional free time to watch stuff on TV and read (see separate media update) and organising my birthday party for November. All frustratingly unproductive, although the party will be fun.

09 September 2006

By Grabthar's Hammer, What a Savings

Not that I'm intending to turn this blog into a running plug[*] or anything, but Amazon.co.uk inform me that "As someone who has purchased books by Simon (ed) Guerrier", I may be interested to know that Time Signature can currently be pre-ordered at a reduced price of £9.89 rather than £14.99.

Just thought I'd pass it on.

[*] "Running plug"? Hmm. Is that a mixed metaphor, or just a contradiction in terms?

04 September 2006

Phil explained abstractedly.

I've been having fun playing with Word's AutoSummarize feature. As the online help explains, this would appear to work by counting which words appear most often and then extracting in their entirety the sentences which contain the highest proportion of high-scoring words. As this response suggests, it's probably a better tool for checking a document's linguistic biases than for actually writing anything resembling an intelligible abstract.

Summarising my Guardian article in ten sentences produces the following:
On first reading a Philip K Dick novel, many people wonder what kind of twisted mind could come up with such ideas. The answer is a very twisted mind indeed - even when writing science fiction, Dick wrote from experience. Dick's insights into the true nature of reality were spectacular and varied. A break-in at Dick's house in 1971 – not altogether surprising given the proclivities of his recent house-guests – took on great personal significance. Now, for all we know, Dick might have been predisposed to such delusions whatever his lifestyle, but the drugs can't have helped – and Dick realised this. That March had been an eventful month for Dick. For the rest of his life, Dick was obsessed with explaining these events. Dick based his final novel, The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer, around his extraordinary life.

Dick's interpretation of his visions changed on an almost daily basis. It's not a theology that more conventional Christians would recognise, but Dick worked it through in detail.
The trouble with this is that it's deceptively coherent: it appears to be telling a connected story, but misleads in at least two important respects (The break-in didn't happen in March, and Transmigration is based around Bishop James Pike's life, not Dick's).

The tool isn't very good at avoiding section headings (to get the above I had to cut out the title and the sidebar), and it seems to have a strong bias towards short sentences. Trimming "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants" to 20 sentences comes up with:
Jason frowned. ‘Jason has library books?’ Bernice asked, puzzled. Bernice frowned. This copy must be Jason’s own, she guessed. Benny closed the book and sat down gingerly on Jason’s rumpled, sweaty duvet.

‘I’ll tell you why I ask,’ Benny told Jason later. ‘Benny, I can explain,’ Jason protested weakly. ‘Of course you can explain, Jason,’ she retorted. ‘You faked your academic credentials once,’ said Jason sulkily.

Bernice subsided, fuming.

‘Snotty-nosed cow,’ Jason said now. Benny rolled her eyes. Benny asked him. Jason appeared hurt. Jason told her.

Jason Kane

Jason was standing up. ‘To full Jason Kane standard, natch.’

‘Yeah, well,’ the nearest Jason concluded miserably.
...which is actually surprisingly fair, although I'm not sure how some of those sentences scored as highly as they did.

Annoyingly, the feature seems happy to repeat entire sentences. An attempt to put Of the City of the Saved... through it mostly produced a string of chapter headings reading "The City".

Summarising "The Long Midwinter" in 20 sentences gives us the hauntingly Beckettian:
II. Samson

Samson Griffin’s suit itched.

‘Well then, Kebalau,’ the Doctor said. Samson’s eyes bulged. ‘Happy Midwinter Festival, Kebalau.’

The Doctor crossed his arms. It was my idea, Doctor. The Doctor frowned. Samson muttered.

Gemma frowned. V. The Doctor

The Doctor raised an eyebrow. The Doctor nodded sadly. Heskiu pulsed assent. The Doctor smiled softly. Trees of life, trees of knowledge, trees of good and evil... not to mention a midwinter festival. The Doctor struggled to understand. Heskiu began.

‘Nonsense,’ the Doctor said. Time passes.
Again, I'm not sure why "nimbus", "manyfold" and "Yesod" aren't in there, although at least it's correctly identified the main characters.

My favourite, though, is "The Ruins of Time" in 20 sentences:
Ian considered. ‘Ian!’

Barbara smiled. ‘Barbara!’

Susan asked. Barbara asked.

Ian protested. Ian sighed. Susan?’ said Vedirioi. Susan pouted. Susan looked back. Vedirioi spat. Susan shuddered. Ian groaned. Vedirioi paused. Susan was shocked. Horrified, Susan stood.

Ian demanded. Susan gasped. Ian muttered.
Or even better, in ten:
Ian considered. Susan asked. Ian protested. Ian sighed. Susan pouted. Susan shuddered. Ian groaned. Ian demanded. Susan gasped. Ian muttered.

To read the rest of it, you'll have to wait until the book's released. Suffice it to say there's rather more to it than that.