26 November 2006

Angels, Fairies and Invaders from Magrs

It really is time I caught up with my media reviews. I've been to see a number of films recently, read rather more comics than I'd normally have expected to, and been to the circus. I've also changed my mind about Torchwood.

All of these deserve blogging at some point soon. First, though, here's the update on the most interesting books I've read since... well actually only since September, but for some reason it feels like a lot longer.

I finally finished Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor back in October. That one felt by then as if I'd been reading it since early adolescence, but in fact I only started it in August. Nabokov's writing is great, but Ada is one of his "difficult" novels (correction, one of his more "difficult" novels). I found it awkward to get into -- the prose style is mannered and dense, and doubled names and characters abound, as do confusing family relationships and complex, playful high-culture in-jokes. Nearly all of which passed me by, thanks to my ignorance of French, Russian and indeed any non-Anglo-American literature.

Even so, the story -- of the incestuous passion between aristocratic siblings overendowed with money, breeding, intelligence and prowess (both sexual and otherwise), set on an anti-Earth where the Tartars rule Asia and the name "Russia" refers to a patchwork of colonial territories in the Americas -- was startling enough to keep my attention over the 400-odd pages, and the prose, thick and richly-textured as it is, made for gorgeous reading when I had the energy for it.

Ada refers to S.F. tropes, themes and individual texts, but it's fundamentally not interested in the same ideas as S.F. Indeed, there's a hint that the alternative-universe setting may come from the fantasies of the lead character in his nonagenarian dotage. It's a splendid book, and I doubt I understood more than a quarter of it. I still prefer Pale Fire.

Most of the time I was working my way through Ada I was also reading British Summertime by Paul Cornell -- a really enjoyable book, and an excellent example of S.F. used for explicit theological speculation. Cornell is an alumnus of the Doctor Who novels, who passed through mainstream S.F. and T.V. soaps before ending up writing Doctor Who again. I probably would have found British Summertime more effective, and its content more original, if hadn't previously read Cornell's nine Who-and-related books and his first standalone novel Something More, some of which cover rather similar ground.

British Summertime is essentially the story of time-travelling capitalist angels who corrupt the whole of human history in an effort to avert a socialist utopia, and how to stop them. Jesus and Judas are characters, as is a thinly-disguised Dan Dare. Despite the reprising of familiar Cornellian themes it's conceptually hugely inventive, and politically and theologically challenging. At the moment I think it's the best explicitly christian S.F. I've read that hasn't been by Lewis or Smith or Dick, which is quite a compliment.

I first read Keith Roberts' Pavane when I was about thirteen, and again when I was seventeen or so. I loved it then for its harshly romantic presentation of a backward history where he Spanish Armada prevailed against Protestant England and the twentieth century is a technological backwater still dominated by a monolithic, repressive Church. A weird subplot suggests that this is somehow the second iteration of history, time having been rebooted by some truly devastating weapon discovered in our own timeline. Weirder still, only the fairies seem to remember this fact.

Given that I fell in love with this novel at an impressionable age, some degree of disillusionment is probably inevitable when revisiting it now, so it's to Pavane's credit that I was only mildly disappointed when rereading it a few weeks ago. One passage in particular, where the imagery of Christ's crucifixion is conflated epically with the death and rebirth of Baldur, moved me greatly at an age when I was discovering both my own faith and a lifelong passion for pagan mythology. This time round I find it dulled by familiarity, my interpretation of it having formed part of my mental furniture over the decades since my first reading. (Amusingly, I'm now not at all sure it means what I thought it did.) Still, Pavane remains a very strong book, defiantly part of the English literary S.F. tradition's 1960s resurgence, and well worth any S.F. reader's time.

And speaking of Baldur, Neil Gaiman's short-story collection Fragile Things includes a follow-up to Gaiman's American Gods which reveals the first name of the central character, Shadow. It is, as we might have guessed, "Balder". It's very fine, and a rather better sequel to American Gods than Anansi Boys is.

Most of the other stories in the volume are also pretty strong. The short form seems to suit Gaiman's mercurial imagination, which I've a feeling has trouble sustaining novel-length narratives without getting sidetracked. A few tend unfortunately towards the glib or twee (two qualities Gaiman's writing is accused of more often than it deserves), but most are good and some are outstandingly so, such as the Holmes-in-Lovecraftland "A Study in Emerald", still available to read online. I also enjoyed "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", whose teenage protagonist discovers that the girls at the party he's visiting really are from another planet, and "The Problem of Susan" -- Gaiman's response to the disquieting treatment of women in Lewis' Narnia books, which I've been wanting to read for ages (and which turns out to be, in its way, equally disturbing). There are a couple of rather lovely poems, too. Highly recommended.

Finally, just the other day I finished Never the Bride by Paul Magrs -- a lovely fantasia where nineteenth-century horror and S.F. characters (mostly in their twentieth-century cinematic manifestations) come home to roost in, for some reason, Whitby. It's reminiscent of some of Paul's other novels (notably Verdigris, where alien invaders diguise themselves, for perfectly adequate reasons, as characters from nineteenth-century literature), but it has a freshness and zest which puts it among the best of his work.

Like "A Study in Emerald", Never the Bride belongs to the increasingly popular genre of "massively multitextual crossover fiction", where vast numbers of fictional works -- and sometimes implicitly all of them -- are envisaged as taking place in the same universe. Magrs' treatment is more Alan Bennett than Alan Moore, gently spoofing and camping up his source texts even as he draws on them with genuine respect. If I mention that the central character is the Bride of Frankenstein, now quietly running a B. and B. in Yorkshire, then that should give you some idea.

Never the Bride seems deliberately conceived around a series format -- the episodic structure, and indeed the climax, are knowingly indebted to Buffy -- and indeed a sequel is planned for next year. I'm hoping this fictional world is going to continue for some time. Another "highly recommended" from me.

And if all of this sounds a little upbeat and cheerleading... well, I've read a lot of very good books lately. Wait till you hear what I think about Torchwood.

25 November 2006

My Mighty Column

If I've been lax about posting here recently -- which I have -- it's because things have been moving swiftly in various directions at once.

On the writing front, I've been given a fiction commission which (as usual) I can't talk about yet. It's a longish piece, though, longer than the short fiction I've had published recently, and it involves working with two authors I respect enormously. At present it's all secret planning and secure online fora, but I'm impressed with what we've come up with so far. More on that when an announcement's made.

What with this and the imminent job (starting the day after tomorrow now, rather terrifyingly), my attempt at an S.F. spy novel, A Fetter for the Mind, is having to go on the back-burner for a bit.

In more immediate news: for ages now, all the cool kids I know (well, Helen and Andrew, anyway) have had monthly columns with Christian Aid's webzine, Surefish. Now so do I.

I wanted to call it "Divine Invasions", but they've gone with the rather more self-explanatory "Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world". As in the Greenbelt festival blogs I've written for Surefish in the past, I will be banging on about religion a bit, so if that sort of thing annoys you you may prefer to stay away.

Here's the first instalment. I've promised them I won't write about Philip K. Dick every month.

I'll be linking to future updates from Peculiar Times, so expect a great many double-entendres involving the word "column" in future.

15 November 2006

Unsuccessful Meme

I wrote this months ago for one of Memetherapy's S.F. author vox pops -- specifically their "Speculative Reviews of Imaginary Books" series.

It's overlong and, unless you're aware of one particular historic text of science fiction, needlessly obscure. This would very likely be why they didn't publish it.

Since it's based on a story idea I've had in my head for years, though, and this is the nearest I've to come to getting it down (and, to be honest, rather more than it probably deserves), I thought I might as well archive it here.

It is, as you might have gathered, a review of an imaginary S.F. book.
Dave @1i8∑π: A Romance of the Year 2006
by Noah Grubgecks

The cumbersomely-titled Dave @1i8∑π, Noah Grubgecks' early-20th-century classic of "scientifiction", has not aged well.

Rereading it in 2006, the year of its notional setting, the modern reader will scarcely be able to resist a wry smile at its outlandish technological predictions, which history has proved so laughably inaccurate.

The profession of the titular Dave -- manning an "Information Technology support help-line" for the users of "personal computers" -- may have seemed convincingly futuristic in 1911, but readers in the real 2006 will surely be unable to contain their mirth at the idea of human beings still struggling to communicate with primitive "cell telephones" and the supposedly revolutionary "inter-net".

As I will hardly need to remind the readers of this review, since the discovery and widespread exploitation of the science of ethermatics, direct brain-to-brain telepathy has become the staple of all human interaction, rendering all such clumsy "net-working" devices forever useless.

Similarly the "P.C."s -- a kind of electronic calculating machine -- which Dave is supposedly servicing would be of little use in a 2006 where every man, woman and child is taught from birth to carry out complex mathematical operations at near-instantaneous speed thanks to the rigorous application of pharmacotic drugs and transcendronic conditioning.

Grubgecks' other howlers include his suggestion that fixed-wing heavier-than-air aircraft, rather than atomonic anti-gravity platforms, might be used to transport freight and passengers across the world, and his unaccountable failure to predict the total worldwide elimination of poverty and war, the human race’s victories over the native populations of Venus, Mars and Pluto, and the conquest and colonisation of all fifteen planets of the solar system by 1952.

Nevertheless, if you can suspend your disbelief over Grubgecks' "reality television talent shows" and his sinister global "Micro-Soft Corporation", there is much to appreciate in this quaint, nostalgic journey into a whimsical world which some might fleetingly have believed to have been humanity’s 21st-century destiny... but which was never likely to remain convincing for long.
So there you go.

Whereas the surname of Hugo Gernsback's hero, Mr 124C 41+, was intended to be pronounced "One to foresee for one" (or possibly "One to foresee for one more"), Dave's is pronounced "At one I ate some pie". Which pretty much sums up the quality of the enterprise, I fear.

11 November 2006


This came to me while I was trying to get to sleep last night, probably inspired by Chris Morris' Jam monologues:
When in the sea your mother's brother falls,
and floats inert at mercy of the tides,
rising and falling as the currents bid,
          then bobs your uncle.
Hmm. I think it needs a second stanza.

09 November 2006

I'm a Big Review Slut...

...and on these grounds I thoroughly approve of Sci-Fi Online's Richard McGinlay. Especially when he says things like:
Best of all is "The Ruins of Time", in which Philip Purser-Hallard brilliantly captures the essence of the original TARDIS team. His story also features a cliffhanging end-of-scene moment on practically every other page, which makes it a real page-turner.
I remember he was rather flattering about my story in A Life Worth Living a couple of years ago as well... although his review of Peculiar Lives was a little odd.

I've been revamping the reviews pages at www.infinitarian.com, incidentally, with quotes from the reviews in question:If you know of any reviews I've missed, do let me know. I've seen none for Collected Works as yet, but it's only recently out.

08 November 2006

Oh, and Also...

...I've got a new job, working half the week as an Administrator for an H.E. funding body. I had the interview last Thursday, and the job offer on Friday. I said "Yes" on Monday, had the contract through the post yesterday and start in two and a half weeks' time.

I'd better get cracking on finishing this novel proposal, hadn't I?

Middle of the Road

Well, I've now more or less recovered from my 35th birthday party at the weekend, which celebrated the halfway point in my biblically mandated lifespan with appropriate gravity. I'm still rather pleased with the grim and forbidding invitation I designed for the occasion, so I've webbed it here for those of you who haven't seen it already.

In practice, of course, the day was happy, fun and thoroughly enjoyable. Lunch at Zerodegrees (in my case caramelised pear and gorgonzola pizza, accompanied by black lager and pale ale) was followed by a cake which B. had bought and iced for the occasion. We then led a party to Bristol Zoo to observe the various fine animals on display there.

It was the first time I'd visited the new Monkey Jungle, where red-ruffed lemurs scamper freely around the visitors' paths and handrails without intervening bars or glass. The lions, penguins and gorillas were as entertaining as ever, although for some reason the capybara were nowhere to be seen.

In the evening we went on to the Portwall Tavern, which had kindly reserved us all space and got a chef in specially to provide Pieminister pies. They sold us Doombar, Barnstormer and various other beers that I was having too good a time to pay sufficently close attention to.

B. had kindly ensured that it wouldn't matter if I got drunk and embarrassed myself by assembling an activity that would provide a whole different order of embarrassment: a pub quiz based on my life, which she'd compiled by consulting friends, relatives and, apparently, pretty much everyone I'd ever met.

Subjects ranged from my first words and reaction to the birth of my baby brother, to my recent writing and participation in mailing-list controversies. The final round looked like this (click for enlarged image):

and involved identifying the contents of my DVD and video shelves.

My wife's devotion, and her creativity, never cease to amaze me. I'm so very lucky to have her.

It was lovely to see the nearly 40 people from different eras and aspects of my life, including university contemporaries, fellow authors, sisters-in-law, friends' children including my goddaughter, and various teenage and childhood companions, including some who've known me getting on for three decades now.

Too many of these are people I don't see nearly often enough these days, so it was wonderful to catch up with so many of them. People drifted in and out during the different phases of the day, but still there were only a few who I didn't manage to chat to properly.

Thanks to the extreme generosity of family and friends, I now have altogether more new books than I'm likely to get around to reading, which is just the way I like it. Titles I was particularly happy to be given included:If I haven't listed your present, it's not because I don't appreciate it, just because I have altogether too many to list without becoming boring.

Other rather splendid things from generous people included the DVDs of Mirrormask (from B. again) and the 3-disc edition of The Wicker Man, a case of fair trade wine and a similar number of bottles of exciting beer, and (from goddaughter E. and family) the adoption papers for a two-toed sloth.

It was the kind of weekend which leaves you replete, slightly hungover, full of love for humanity in general and your friends in particular, and mildly dazed by the sensory overload of it all. In short, utterly lovely.

It's just a shame I can't justify having another one until I'm halfway to 80.

03 November 2006

Sample Signature

This week has turned out extraordinarily manic. Some of this was expected (birthday on Wednesday, birthday party tomorrow), some of it less so, but it's all got in the way of updating this blog.

Nor do I have time for a long entry now -- I'll be back early next week with more detail as to what's been going on, and probably also a roundup of birthday presents.

In the meantime... I know I said I'd stop plugging Time Signature. However, those of you who are wavering about buying the book -- or indeed who've decided not to buy it at all -- may be interested to know that Big Finish have put my story, "The Ruins of Time", online in its entirety as a sample.

Assuming your computer can read Adobe PDF documents, you can get the story by going here and clicking where it says "Download and read 'The Ruins of Time' by Philip Purser-Hallard."

Share and enjoy.