31 March 2007

Books Update: Sex, Lies and Computronium

Well, I don't seem to have had much luck today getting on with writing my own book. So here's what I've been reading recently, when I've had the time...

Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews is the belated followup to The Pooh Perplex, which I was discussing nearly a month ago now. It's certainly not just more of the same, though -- where the original poked whimsical fun at the eccentricities of literary criticism up to the 1960s, critical theory has moved on, as has Crews himself. As I noted before, the satire here is cruel, harsh and very much in earnest. And frankly, modern academia deserves it.

Accelerando by Charles Stross is roughly as interesting as I hoped before I started reading it. This makes it both more interesting than I thought after the first chapter, and less interesting than I thought after the third.

It's the story of a 21st-century family over a hundred years, the conceit being that -- as the title suggests -- Stross' 21st century quickly becomes most S.F.'s very distant future. That first chapter shows the 2010s as a familiar (though well-drawn) post-cyberpunk milieu, with mind-computer interfaces, AIs and other bleeding-edge technologies just beginning to take effect as agents of countercultural social change. By the eighth chapter, set in the 2080s, most of the planetary solar system has been dismantled to create a colossal solar-powered computer on which humanity's incomprehensibly posthuman descendants can run their software personas, while those who choose to remain merely superhuman are using wormhole technology to construct interstellar habitats for their immortal selves, their descendants and their reincarnated ancestors.

Accelerando's scope and vision are breathtaking, and during the first two-thirds there's a constant sense of exhilaration as the future history speeds us through different genres of S.F. -- from cyberpunk into space-opera, from evolutionary speculation into eschatology -- while various familiar contemporary icons, brands and philosophies remain almost recognisable. Stross is a smart writer, and one with a soul as well (I loved his sympathetic liberal imam), a quality which is sometimes lacking in cerebral S.F. But ultimately the narrative slows once more as the focus slides away from the strictly unimaginable subjectivity of his posthumans to the cultural backwaters of those whose weak transhumanisms mean they remain fundamentally recognisable to us.

It's difficult, of course -- many would say impossible -- to write sympathetically about truly alien characters. But in sidestepping the attempt, Accelerando seems to be ducking the challenge its own bravado has set it -- meaning that ultimately (despite having easily five times as much imagination as many S.F. book series five times its length) it disappoints slightly. It's highly recommended, nonetheless, for what it does achieve.

A Pocketful of Lies by J-P Stacey is the self-published pamphlet of short stories I was plugging back in December, and which I've reprehensibly only just got round to reading. It's good, though, both as individual stories and in assembled form. Given the constraints on length, most of the stories are more by way of vignettes than actual narratives, though there are exceptions (and in fact the shortest pieces are the some of the best, the mock lonely hearts ads in particular). The best piece is the last, the distinctly Dickian paranoia-fantasy "Stay Calm", but I also liked the quieter, more lyrical "She Watched Television", a description of how someone spent her evening. A couple of the stories are less successful, but given that the book's free (and available as a PDF just over here) I don't see how you can go wrong.

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls has received a certain amount of notoriety for its rewriting of out-of-copyright children's fantasy as unashamed erotica (or pornography, which is the term Moore and Gebbie prefer). Complaining that the constant, admittedly highly inventive sex makes the book feel rather one-note throughout would clearly be missing the point, on a par with moaning that the characters in Neuromancer keep banging on about computers. But still, it didn't do much for me on an erotic level.

The really clever stuff lies in the reinterpretation of the experiences of the three main characters -- Alice, Dorothy and Wendy. The women, who range in age from early twenties (Dorothy) to late fifties (Alice), meet in a Swiss hotel in 1913, where they tell each other stories and shag a lot, both other people and each other, in a fin de siècle kind of a way. It turns out that each as a girl created an elaborate fantasy-world in response to her early sexual awakening -- whether to romanticise it, to escape from it or (one suspects) a bit of both.

The book seems confused in its approach to the imagination: on the one hand celebrating it, on another it seems to see its main function as the construction of strictly sexual fantasies. Whatever evolutionary biologists may tell us, I find the idea of world-creating fantasy as an outworking of the libido depressingly reductionist. Furthermore, telling each other their true stories (and shagging a lot) appears to allow each woman to face up to her past, suggesting that fantasy is something you grow out of when you discover sex. I can't imagine that this is the message which the author of Promethea and V for Vendetta intended me to take away, but it's in this confusion that I feel the book falls down.

The book (which comes in three volumes and a slipcase) is a very beautiful object, and Moore's writing and Gebbie's art create some wonderful moments. It's full of trademark Moore tricks, including inventive tricks of layout, visual puns and some very clever pastiche. If it's an experiment which ultimately fails, then it's one which comes up with some very interesting results along the way. It's surely telling, though, that -- reading it so soon after Postmodern Pooh -- I found myself wishing for a parody where the elderly Christopher Robin recalls his youthful homosexual encounters with a predatory older "bear", while helping a melancholy classmate come to terms with his own "tail" and discovering one particularly memorable "pole".


Since finishing these various volumes, I've been (and still am) reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale -- which, to someone who's read all of Iain Banks's work to date, feels terribly familiar. I've also, rather unexpectedly, embarked on Spirit Mirror by Stephen Marley, which I picked off the shelf in a vague search for something a bit different. It's an orientalist fantasy about Chinese lesbian vampires in the second century A.D., so it certainly qualifies. So far I'm rather enjoying it.

30 March 2007

The Shape of Kingdoms to Come

My latest column's up at Surefish now. It's a bit more abstract and faffy this time, probably due to my having to squeeze it out in a gap between writing "Nursery Politics". I'm pleased with the title, though.

I'm not getting much feedback on these columns via Surefish, so I'm always interested to know what people here think of them. How many of you are actually reading them, for a start? Is the fact that they're about religion / written from a broadly christian perspective / hosted by Christian Aid putting people off, or is it generally true that if you're interested enough to read my witterings here then you'll have a look at them somewhere else as well?

(The previous columns are linked to from the current one, if anyone feels like catching up. I have to say I like the different artwork they've been using for the mastheads.)

25 March 2007

Feeling the Draft

Well, now my first complete draft of the Benny novella's finished, which is nice. Not unrelatedly, I'm knackered.

For those of you who enjoy statistics... this draft is 28,970 words long (and that will probably grow during rewrites), over a quarter of which is written in the character of Jason Kane, with a further seven characters getting some first-person narration. It's in eight chapters,with a prologue and an epilogue. And the word "murder" and its conjugates appear 19 times.

My contribution's entitled "Nursery Politics", and we're probably not calling the volume War Stories any more. I'm not sure I'm allowed to say what we are calling it.

[Edit 27-3-7: Ah yes, it looks like I am. It's called Nobody's Children.]

And now I have: a) the week off work for rewrites, and b) a rapidly-encroaching stinking cold. Given that the last time I took leave I ended up with a bout of food poisoning, I'm beginning to suspect that my employers are dosing me with biological agents whenever I take time off, to condition me against it and make me a more productive employee. It's particularly galling given that I've been feeling a bit ill, but not enough to actually take a day off, for most of 2007 so far.

Otherwise, I've been reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale, watching Blackadder and taking the occasional photo when I've had the chance. I took lots of the view of the city and Suspension Bridge from Bedminster Down when I walked up to the chemist there the other day, but the visibility was hopeless and they all turned out rubbish.

More later in the week, assuming I'm not bedridden or dead or anything by then.

22 March 2007

Top Tip

Chocolate Cheesecake Fans! For a tasty snack, simply spread cream cheese on milk chocolate HobNobs. Hey presto -- instant mini chocolate cheesecake bites!

Work's going slowly. I should be finishing the novella, but I've got bogged down in my latest Surefish column. (I was hoping I'd be able to write some articles on the 200th anniversary of slavery, as well, but time hasn't allowed.)

I owe this blog mini-reviews of Postmodern Pooh, Accelerando, A Pocketful of Lies and -- as soon as I finish it, which will probably be tonight -- Lost Girls.

I'm still reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale, but that's likely to keep me occupied for a while. It's debatable how much Banks has improved as a writer since his early days, but one admirable quality he's lost is that of concision.

20 March 2007

When Commuters Snap

Parson Street 1
Parson Street 1,
originally uploaded by Phil PH.
I'm testing Flickr's blogging interface. I took this photo this morning, from the really rather grotty station where I take the train to work.

I'm rather pleased with how it came out -- the church looks gothic and ominous underneath the clouds. Less so when you know it's now converted into a clothing factory, but never mind.

18 March 2007


Wurgh. By dint of fuelling myself almost constantly with chocolate, coffee, crisps and beer over the past four days, I've fought my way through to roughly 2,000 words from the end of my novella.

Completing a first draft is scarcely the end of the process, of course, but for me it's the end of the really painful bit, so halle-shagging-lujah. I'm really going to need to clean up my diet once this story's finished, though.

To make up for my otherwise terseness here in the blogosphere, here's the final passage of what could have been Chapter One of The Curse of Odin-Hotep. It's, er, not very long.
Some hours later still, and many fathoms above the scurrying Archivists who were now scouring the Vault from top to bottom, a young woman named Arabella Monteith arrived to begin her day’s work at the British Museum.

Her job for that week was to check the engine-catalogue against the public holdings on display in the Egyptian Gallery, and she had high hopes that – if she performed it well, and continued to perform similarly tedious tasks with equal proficiency and without complaint for the rest of her life – she might conceivably find herself promoted to a junior assistant curatorship before she was fifty.

Reflecting that she might as well begin with one of the vaguely interesting artefacts, Arabella turned the knob on her handheld processing engine, and entered the Gallery as the micro-furnace warmed up.

She gazed at the Museum’s most famous exhibit, sitting proudly on its prominent plinth. Something about it troubled her.

Arabella leaned in, under the sightless eyes of the sarcophagi, to examine the display – then gasped in shock.

The sound echoed around the marbled gallery like the first whisper of stale air from a sealed tomb.

[Pax Britannia series elements © Abaddon Press 2005.]
So, there you have it. When I get the time I imagine I'll put up the whole chapter -- along with the chapter breakdown so you can see where the story would have ended up if there'd, you know, actually been a story -- on my website somewhere.

On the Flickr front, I've discovered you can place your photos on a map, which is mildly exciting. If only I could remember where in Horsham I'd taken the three I took there, then, er, I could put them there.

As I say, more photos -- and indeed more blogging generally -- should follow once this book's out of the way.

14 March 2007

Photo Tropism

I mentioned ages ago that my admirable and generous parents had given me a spanking new digital camera for a combined birthday and Christmas present. It's only now, having sped my computer up appreciably by changing my antivirus software, that it's been practical for me to install the software to run the thing, and to actually do stuff with the photos I took in December.

Behold, therefore, my Flickr account. It's not very full as yet, but I have lots of plans for things I want to take photos of in Bristol, next month when it's sunnier and I've less pressing calls on my time.

The bits of reality which I'm really interested in capturing visually are the places where urban spaces go non-linear -- the gaps between the infrastructure, the weird architectural interfaces between radically different styles of construction, sites of sweeping vertical or historical disparity.

Blimey, hark at me. This is why I want to take photos, though, as the sensation these places give me isn't something that's easy to put into words (although Of the City of the Saved... made a stab at it). The shockingly inept photos I took of Manchester using B.'s camera last June should give you some idea of what I'm aiming at conceptually [1].

Horsham in December isn't really the best place in England to observe this kind of stuff, but I rather like this one, taken on my Dad's birthday:

Horsham 1

I've monochromed it because I tend to think buildings look better that way, unless the colours themselves are the interesting aspect.

I've already identified three cardinal rules:

1. Busier is not better.
2. Wait for the people to get the hell out of the way.
3. And the cars.

Given that I'm a blogger, another vital motivation is of course to take photos of my cats and inflict them on the world. Aaah.

1. Edit to add: They also look so much better now, after I've run them through the software that came with the new camera. These ones look better in colour than in monochrome, if only because the light is so bleached. The third one in particular I'd be rather pleased with if only I could get rid of my bloody finger.

11 March 2007

Raiders of the Lost Archive

The hassle I've been having with my computer means I'm behind again on my writing schedule, despite having managed another chapter ("induplicitous", "miffed", "slaughter") this weekend. So, rather than updating here with details of what I've been doing recently (not that there's been a great deal of that), it's time for the next passage of my abortive pulp-steampunk novel, The Curse of Odin-Hotep.

The story so far: in an alternative history where Queen Victoria's British Empire has survived until the turn of the twenty-first century, the Vault is a repository of terrifyingly potent plot-devices which Her Majesty's Government has locked away for the protection of her subjects. However, in an utterly shocking twist, someone's sneaked in and stolen something anyway.

Now read on...
Some hours later, Private Percy Hoskins of the Royal Archivists was feeling terribly uncomfortable.

Unlike most of his fellows, Percy found that the Vault made him nervous at the best of times. The rumours about the stuff hidden away down here were lurid, colourful and almost universally derided. Of course Percy, like his mates, affected to pooh-pooh them all, but sometimes, when he walked these crated alleys late at night, he couldn’t help thinking he heard things.

Things like a whistling sound, that could have been a distant voice or flute. Or a quiet ticking, as of some machinery whose timer had been accidentally activated by the self-immolation of a curious insect. Or the frantic scrabbling of claws or fingernails...

Percy had come to realise that he might, just possibly, have too much imagination for this job.

As an enlisted Archivist he had no choice but to take his monthly turn of duty in the Vault, of course, but for some time now Percy had seriously been considering applying for a transfer to another unit. Of course his mates would have a field day taking the pee, and Doris would – at the very least – look at him scornfully, but still, for the sake of his peace of mind, it had to be done.

It would have to be as far away as possible, of course. Even without him having to patrol the place personally, he’d know the Vault was still there. Some posting in the Colonial Police would do, somewhere hot. Venus would do him nicely, or perhaps Mercury.

The Moon, he thought, would feel a little close for comfort.

‘Are you still with us, Private?’ Lieutenant Flackson’s tone was curt and sarcastic.

‘Yes sir,’ said Percy, coming back to reality with a jolt. ‘Still here, sir.’

‘Perhaps, then,’ Flackson drawled, ‘you might comply with Sir Malcolm’s very reasonable request, and tell him what happened? If it isn’t too much trouble for you, Private.’

Percy was bright enough to see that the Lieutenant was scared witless – not that there was too much wit to lose, in Flogger Flackson’s case – and making up for it as best he knew, by taking it out on Percy. Shoot the messenger, that was old Flogger.

If he was honest – and Percy’s honesty was one of many things that held him back in his chosen career – he could hardly blame his superior for having the wind up. Sir Malcolm Myers was not a reassuring person. The civil servant’s high forehead was liver-spotted, and his black eyes glittered with impatience. His beaky nose jutted forward from his face as if he fancied pecking Percy’s eyes out. He reminded Percy of the ravens they’d seen when he took Doris on a day out to the Tower.

‘Well, sir,’ Percy began. ‘I was on routine patrol with Ginge –’ (he looked across at Private ‘Ginger’ Grainger, but received no support there) ‘– with Private Grainger, sir, when I hears this... creaking noise. Like...’ Like a coffin lid being lifted from the inside, he wanted to say. Like a door opening onto an ever-descending staircase down to Hell. He settled for something less controversial: ‘...like nails being levered out of a crate, sir.’

‘And this was when?’

‘Five, six hours ago now, sir. Round eleven o’clock.’

‘I see. And what did you do?’

‘Well, sir,’ said Percy again. He shifted uncomfortably and tried again to catch Ginge’s eye. As before, he failed. ‘At first, sir, I just sort of ignored it.’

‘Ignored it,’ Sir Malcolm repeated, without any special emphasis.

‘That’s right, sir. Sometimes, down here, you... hear things. Crates settling, I expect. Or... the ventilators going on the blink. Sometimes it’s the other blokes mucking around, trying to scare you.’

‘I see.’ Sir Malcolm’s voice was grim. ‘Go on.’

‘Yes, sir. I didn’t do nothing about it for a bit, for the reasons I just outlined, sir. But it went on, so I says to Gin– to Private Grainger, “Do you hear that?” And he says, “Hear what?” and I says –’

‘Sir Malcolm doesn’t require the minutes of your conversation,’ Flackson snapped.

‘No, sir. So he says, “No, I can’t hear nothing,” sir. So we went and looked. It sounded like it came from the next aisle –’

‘The aisle we’re in now?’ Sir Malcolm indicated the double-wall of crates surrounding them.

‘Yes, sir. We couldn’t see nothing amiss, though, so we reckoned it was just my ears playing tricks on me.’ Ginge had taken the pee out of him for it, obviously, but this bigwig didn’t need to hear about that. ‘It was only later, when I come back this way again with Bedford –’ (‘Beggar’ Bedford, who up to this point had been listening intently to Percy’s account, now shifted his focus abruptly to the same piece of middle distance as was occupying Ginger’s attention) ‘– that I noticed.’

‘Indeed,’ Sir Malcolm said, turning his beady eyes towards the Travers crate.

Each nail – and there were perhaps a dozen of them to an edge – stood out an inch or so proud of the crate’s closest surface. Thus loosened, the wooden face had slipped to one side very slightly, tracing a narrow line of ominous blackness. ‘And what did you do then?’

‘Orders says we ain’t ever to open up the crates, sir, not under any circumstances, unless there’s a senior officer present. So the Sarge called Lieutenant Flackson, sir, and he got hold of Captain Henshaw. And then the Captain put a call through to the Major, who got in touch with –’

‘Yes, thank you,’ said Sir Malcolm absently, ‘I am familiar with the chain of command.’ The mandarin stared across to where a sizeable proportion of it was standing, from Captain Henshaw right up to a bushy-sideburned General. ‘And during all of this time, it occurred to nobody to look inside the Travers crate and ascertain whether the contents were missing?’

It seemed the officers had all joined Grainger and Bedford in their middle-distance-watching club. Each face – pallid or florid, smooth-cheeked or white-whiskered – held an expression that implied that somebody here was in very serious trouble, and by Gad the face’s owner was glad it wasn’t him.

‘Well, sir,’ said Percy yet again, wondering how it had fallen to him to act as spokesman for the entire British Army, ‘nobody knew what was supposed to be inside, sir. It could have been –’ there didn’t seem to be any more delicate way of putting this ‘– it could have been something really bloody dangerous, sir. Pardon my French.’

Sir Malcolm’s upper lip twitched. ‘Hoskins,’ he said balefully, ‘I think that may well be the first sensible thing anybody’s said to me this morning. The contents of that crate could, indeed, be something bloody dangerous.’

He turned towards the Travers crate. ‘Let’s have a look at them, shall we?’

Percy swallowed.

‘Come on, then, man,’ Flogger barked behind him, ‘we haven’t got all day.’

Percy stepped forward and gripped the side of the crate. He lifted it away, keeping the wood between his body and whatever was inside the box. Behind him, as it came away, he felt Bedford, Grainger and the assembled officers flinch as one man.

He peered across the rim of his improvised shield at the crate’s interior. Some ancient strands of dried-up packing straw wafted free into the light, leaving behind them nothing but a yawning wooden emptiness.

Whatever it was that the Government had confiscated from T G Travers a century before, it seemed that someone else had taken it into their own safe-keeping.

[Pax Britannia series elements © Abaddon Press 2005.]
There's only one more of these, and it isn't very long or particularly exciting. Still, Vivat Regina, eh?


Since 2000 or so I've been using Norton for all my antivirus needs. Recently, however I've found it turning into an elderly prima donna: bloated and slow, demanding of attention, insistent on getting its own way and calling everything else to a halt whenever it deigns to perform.

With my yearly subscription about to expire, I decided I really didn't want to pay any more for the privilege of its company, so I've just been installing the splendidly-named Avast!, a freeware anti-virus application recommended me by friends (thanks chaps).

So far Avast! has been a lot more friendly (I'm running a scan while typing this, which would have been quite excruciating with Norton), though the siren noise it makes when it finds something amiss is a little terrifying.

It's also taken me all bloody afternoon to get it working properly, primarily because Norton simply refuses to work with these amateurs, and deliberately hangs around outstaying its welcome, perhaps in the hope of flowers from the audience. Gah. I think I've got rid of it all now, but it's been a grade-A pain.

And I'm particularly glad I've done it, as I now see from that Wikipedia article that Norton 2007 is completely incompatible with ZoneAlarm, which I'm also using. Bastards.

04 March 2007

All Beer and Skittles

Yesterday afternoon at the Bristol Beer Festival was thoroughly splendid, although I really need to learn that what I need after these things is a nice lie down and a cup of tea, rather than going on to a pub to drink more beer.

I didn't end up listening to Iain Banks in the end on account of being just too bloody tired, and left Silk to make his way home from Bath alone. Then I stayed awake all night anyway. Never mind.

The Festival itself was fantastic, though, with twelve of us (and about 1,500 to 2,000 other people) crammed into the Brunel Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station. 130 beers were there, many of which I had at least a sip of and several of which I quaffed heartily.

I made some tasting notes, which -- my memory being what it is after a Beer Festival -- are my best clue now as to which ones I tried and how I thought they tasted. Based on these, I seem to have sampled at least 27 beers, and there were probably others I failed to write down.

I won't list all of them here, but these were a few of the more notable. (They're mostly stouts or porters because those are the beers whose flavours I find most interesting, though for actual drinking I generally favour the lighter stuff.)

Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout: I think I voted for this one as Beer of the Festival. My tasting notes read "Wow. Mm. Bacony. Refreshing," and it was indeed smoky yet surprisingly drinkable. I may have somewhat swayed by loyalty to a local brewery, but the beer was genuinely special.

Downton's Chimera I.P.A.: Interestingly, the CAMRA leaflet calls this "a proper I.P.A. at more like the strength that they were intended to be" -- that being, in this case, an imposing 6.8%. The flavour was gorgeous ("chewy & crunchy" according to my notes). We liked.

Fuller's Golden Pride: Rare in pubs, this was another strong golden beer, very complex in flavour, which we all agreed was "Really decent," and also "Brandyy". Good stuff.

Garton's Liquid Lobotomy Stout: A deep black stout apparently derived from a Victorian recipe (though presumably renamed). My notes read "Molasses & stuff", and I remember it being very smoky and treacly.

Hambleton Nightmare Porter: Rightly described in the leaflet as "One of the great dark beers of Britain", and by me as "Complex and confusing. Good with Maltesers."

Isle of Arran's Arran Sunset: A lovely fresh-tasting summer beer, for which my tasting notes read "Refreshing hoppy boing."

Orkney Skullsplitter: A barley wine which was so flavoursome and sweet I actually found it quite difficult to drink. Possibly because it was living up to its name, I failed to make any tasting notes about it at all.

Valhalla Sjolmet Stout: A Shetland stout, surly and sinister but with a surprising fruitiness which made it very drinkable. My verdict: "Smoky".

Others we were less keen on included Keynsham's Stockwood Stout, which was just too sweet for me, Farmer's Ales' A Drop of Nelson's Blood, which CAMRA seem to like but which had an unpleasant brussels-sprouty aftertaste, and Hidden Depths, which we thought must have been named ironically. (It was perfectly decent, but generic. The Hidden Brewery have recently taken over the Cornubia pub in central Bristol, though, saving it from closing, and therefore deserve support.)

Rather nice pasties and utterly bog-standard crisps were on sale as well, to soak up the beer. That Beer Festival comedy staple, the queue for the Gents', was much in evidence, and caused the usual hiliarity among the women popping in and out of the almost empty Ladies'. I enjoyed a startling freak success at the table skittles, and won a smart new Young's bar-towel to replace the ratty old Guinness towel the cats sit on.

B. and I also made a drunken clothing-buying decision, as a result of which I'm now wearing a T-shirt with an parody Intel logo reading "real ale inside". This seems inexplicably less hilarious and witty than it did yesterday afternoon.

A damn good day out, all told, and one I shall try to repeat next year, with appropriate variations.

Signature Recognition

The latest Doctor Who Magazine has a very pleasing review by Matt Michael of Short Trips: Time Signature. I've been ambivalent about a previous review of Matt's, but this one lavishes Simon's anthology with well-deserved praise.

My favourite sentences are, predictably, these two:
"The Ruins of Time" by Philip Purser-Hallard has the First Doctor and his companions materialise on the planet Torcaldi, where time can be stolen as though it's a commodity, leaving burgled individuals frozen eternally. Purser-Hallard skilfully evokes the atmosphere of the early Hartnell episodes, where each new world is a dangerous and mysterious environment, and the result is quietly masterful.
Let's just read that last bit again, shall we?
...and the result is quietly masterful.
Yes, lets.

Matt is equally fulsome about some other stories in the collection, notably Ben Aaronivitch's "Gone Fishing", Jonathan Clements' "Second Contact" and Joff Brown's "Walking City Blues", all of which I too thought were excellent.

In the same issue Vanessa Bishop is also very positive about Collected Works, although at less length and with no direct mention of my quiet masterfulness. She seems to have liked the Quire, though.

01 March 2007

Books Update: Eligible Spatula

In the past three weeks, I've finished three books. Reading, unfortunately, not writing. Two of these have been rereads, which is unusual.

Return of the Living Dad by Kate Orman is classic prose Doctor Who, from the era when the novels were at their strongest -- far outstripping in sophistication and depth, anything a range marketed under the banner of an ongoing T.V. series could possibly be. Return is character-driven S.F., the story of Bernice Summerfield's search for her lost father, and of the rivalry and reconciliation between him, her new husband Jason and her mentor, the seventh Doctor. It deals with love, loss, friendship, betrayal, humanity, alienation, existential terror and a sentient spatula called Graeme, and presents them all with utter conviction (perhaps slightly less so with Graeme). It's my favourite of Kate's Virgin-era novels, and Kate's one of my favourite authors. Read this book! Read Kate's other books! Pre-order the book Kate, Jon and I are writing together!

Pashazade: The First Arabesk was my first exposure to the much-hyped Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and I'm unconvinced. Given the potential richness and complexity of the setting ("El Iskandryia", the German-Allied Alexandria of an Islamic Ottoman Empire in the post-cyberpunk mid-21st century of a history where the 1914 Balkans conflict never escalated into a World War), Grimwood provides remarkably little by way of detailed worldbuilding. A writer can expect a reader to extrapolate a panorama from a miniature -- building up vast imaginary worlds from throwaway lines -- but not vice versa. Grimwood seems more interested in his protagonist, who has the opposite problem of being given so many personal, psychological and technological quirks that he seems scarcely believable either. The detective plot's reasonably clever, however, and the prose, at least, is very slick and shiny. I'll probably read the sequels at some point.

I've written about The Pooh Perplex (1964) by Frederick C Crews here before... and with good reason, as I tend to reread it every couple of years or so. I doubt I own a book I've read more times, except for the Pooh books themselves, which like the Perplex itself I use for comfort reading whenever I'm feeling ill or unhappy. If you love Milne's work, and hold literary critics in a kind of suspension of affection and contempt, then it's one of the funniest books it's possible to read. I've now moved on to Crews' much savager (but equally funny) late sequel, Postmodern Pooh (2001).

In addition to PoPooh, I'm currently reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks (who Silk and I are going, perhaps ill-advisedly, to hear speak after the Beer Festival on Saturday) and Accelerando by Charles Stross. I haven't yet got far enough into the Banks to form an opinion (though it hasn't grabbed me on the first page the way, say, Complicity or The Crow Road did), but the Stross is remarkable. I thought at first that it was just another trendy information-dense post-cyberpunk screed, and wondered whether mightn't actually be enough of those in the world already. A third of the way through, though, it's shaping up to be something altogether more interesting. More on this later.

Force Feeding

Apologies to all of you whose feeds have been spammed by my overenthusiastic tagging last night. Blogger have introduced tag technology, but not the functionality of tagging a previous post without republishing it altogether. This means a lot of posts may have reappeared in people's friends lists or wherever.

I've also been conspicuously overtagging, and seem to have ended up with 42 of the things -- some of them probably more useful than others. This is partly out of an abundance of enthusiasm at discovering exciting new functionality; partly due to a mild case of autism from recent overwork; and partly due to the fact that my posts don't tend to have a single clearly-defined subject, instead banging on about different topics, summarising events and making comparisons between things and other things.

In any case, some of the tags are redundant and some of them probably spurious, but I don't have time to fix that for the moment. At some point when I have a day free I'll go through rationalising the tags for the whole blog, including tagging the early stuff. This will cause another splurge in your feeds, but after that there shouldn't be any more.

Meanwhile, I am Most Displeased with both Sky One and Virgin Media (who weren't even our T.V. providers until they bought out Telewest, the bastards). Thanks to the joint coporate greed of (bloody) Branson and (even bloodier) Murdoch, B. and I won't get to see any more Battlestar Galactica until the Season Three boxed set comes out. Among other things this screws up my vague idea for a talk to pitch to Greenbelt this year.

(Unless, that is, I decide to violate Sky One's intellectual property and compromise my own principles by illegally bittorrenting B.S.G. instead. Which is an option I find sorely tempting right now, I have to say.)

On the plus side, writing's gone well today and I've finished another chapter (sample words: "aqualung", "Neolithic", "plonker", plus three different types of shag). And the day after tomorrow there's beer. So life isn't all bad.