30 April 2004


Well, I'm over a third of the way through Pacific Edge, and enjoying it enormously. It seems to be a feature of Kim Stanley Robinson's books that any concerns are small-scale and personal, and that his (always impressive) worldbuilding goes on in the gaps between people behaving like people. It's a lovely approach, and rare in SF.

Here, the people are all muscular and healthy, enjoy softball and cycling and hard physical labour, and use video phones instead of the internet. I've mentioned before that I was ambivalent about Robinson's supposed dystopian novel in the same trilogy, The Gold Coast, on the grounds that its urbanised future of ubiquitous car use and designer drugs didn't actually seem all that bad to me. Well, I can see his utopia is an awful lot more wholesome and happy and generally good for the world... but Christ, it would be a nightmare if you didn't like sport. Even the token character-who-doesn't-like-sport secretly does really.

This isn't a pure pastoral, back-to-basics future, though -- there's a lot of discreet technology, including space engineering going on behind the scenes, and the decisions made are shown to be reliant on the advanced state of the ecological sciences. It was a smart move opening the Orange County trilogy with a novel, The Wild Coast, which shows a thoroughly rural, low-tech future, in a post-apocalyptic setting, and demonstrates exactly how grim and unpleasant such a thing would be, because otherwise those would be exactly the accusations one would aim against this novel. In fact, the three volumes of the trilogy equate to "Now, I'm not saying this would be a good thing -- but surely we need to get away from this. Wouldn't this be better?

As this bald summary suggests, there's a lot of dialectic going on in the novels -- The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast operate as thesis and antithesis in a lot of ways (pastoral / urban, isolationist / imperialist etc), and Pacific Edge rather cleverly takes the less horrible elements of both and synthesises them into something very appealing (unless you don't like sport).

So far, there seem to be a lot of useful practical tips on how to run a utopia, but Robinson himself (in one character's diary entries dating back to the generation when the utopia was established) makes the point that any utopia divorced from the history-to-date of human civilisation is fundamentally useless.

Unfortunately, from what I've been able to gather so far (and of course I will know better when I've actually finished the book), the establishment of said utopia seems to rely on everybody suddenly coming to their senses sometime in the 2010s, and adopting the broadly socialist and environmentalist principles around which the new social structures are based. Those structures are extremely interesting (although there's rather a lot of material about the practicalities of water distribution), but the initial premise there seems currently unlikely. I'm sure these events will be fleshed out later in the novel, but Robinson has his work cut out to convince me that such a change of heart is at all likely.

What is worrying is that, of the three books in the trilogy, the utopia and the post-apocalyptic novel depend for their future history on specific anomalous events happening which cause the course of history to diverge from the predicted. The dystopia just relies on things carrying on the way they are. Perhaps this is just in the nature of dystopias, which Kingsley Amis once described as "an instrument of social diagnosis and warning". Still... brr.


Very pleasant weekend. After a really good Italian meal out for a friend's pre-nuptial bash on Friday night (she's getting married in Mauritius, so it's the nearest we'll come to the actual wedding), we headed over to the other side of the country on Saturday morning, to meet up with other friends for the East Anglian Beer Festival in Bury St Edmunds.

This was a smaller affair than the Bristol equivalent, and what's more had been going on since Wednesday, such that a number of the more interesting-sounding beers were sold out by the Saturday. Nevertheless, we got to sample some decent beerish substances, including Iceni's Ported Porter, which was very dark and complex, and Buffy's Roger's Ruin, a mild-tasting and extremely drinkable golden beer which just happens to be 6.5% strength and capable of putting you under the table.

We followed this up in the evening with a visit to the Old Cannon in BSE, a pub-cum-brewery which does two excellent beers of its own, Gunner's Daughter and Powder Monkey, as well as some nice guest ales. On Sunday we visited some other friends in Cambridgeshire, ate a very nice Thai meal and looked around their lovely house before heading home.

OK, so it's not what you'd call thrilling, but I'm 32. Frankly, anything which gets me out of the house and / or my slippers is something to be thankful for.


There's relatively little news on the writing front at the moment: I've finished the short story (title now cropped to "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants" -- still ironic but rather less overblown, I feel), sent it off and got paid for it, all in the last couple of days. I'm faintly stunned by this -- the fact that I have a life where this sort of thing can happen still bewilders me somewhat.

Of the City of the Saved... is still due out sometime very soon -- the latest I've heard is still "early May", so we'll have to see. I have some goodies ready to put up on the website once it's out, although I may not have time to complete the "Commentary" segment I was hoping to manage.

Finally, I now own the thoroughly impressive "Timebeast Assault" artwork from The Book of the War, by comics artist Jim Calafiore. If you've seen the piece in question, you'll know it's great. If not, I believe it's being reprinted as the frontispiece to Of the City of the Saved..., so there's another incentive for you to buy the thing.

22 April 2004

Really Not My Field

Yesterday I got horribly lost within a few minutes' walk of my work.

My scooter had packed up on the way to work in the morning, and I had had to leave it in a quiet cul-de-sac and return for it later. Since I was supposed to be working, I tried to minimise the time I took to collect it by taking what the Bristol A to Z suggested would be a brisk short cut.

The route I'd deduced from the map took me first through an industrial estate, which was easy enough. It then entered a field. Given the lack of buildings on the map I had been expecting some kind of parkish sort of area, or possibly an industrial waste ground. But this was definitely a field, which made me nervous. Parks count as City, but fields are definitely Countryside as far as I'm concerned. Someone had planted a huge chunk of countryside right in the middle of my city.

(Well, that's how it felt. In fact, work is on the South-East outskirts of Bristol, but these days it makes more sense to consider Bristol and Bath as a single conurbation, rather than than as separate entities. Certainly everything around the afflicted area consists of city -- industrial estates, garages, schools, police stations, lots of houses, all that sort of thing.)

On the other hand, the field had a huge electricity pylon in it, which was a clear sign that there must be further civilisation on the other side of it. I climbed a stile, stepped onto uneven turf and followed what I thought must be the route of the footpath I identified.

I usually have a pretty good sense of direction -- but then I usually operate in humanity's natural habitat, where there are grids of roads, walls, lamp-posts, street signs, offices and shops to act as clear direction markers. In the countryside the best you have are trees, fences and mud, and those aren't laid out with any kind of planning or consistency. It wasn't long before I had lost sight of the comforting pylon, and had no idea where I was.

Now, I wouldn't like you to misunderstand me here -- I do like the countryside. I approve of its being there. I like to look at it from motorways and trains. It's definitely a Good Thing.

I've even been known to walk in it voluntarily, using a map to navigate between pleasant country pubs. However, when I do this voluntarily, I don't usually do it in: a) April, b) the rain, or c) my work shoes. Now I was doing all three. The area of countryside was surprisingly large once you were in it, and had nothing you could reasonably call a path, although occasional stiles in the fences implied directions in which notional paths might be considered as existing. Otherwise, mud, trees, fences and grass were about it.

It became clear that I'd lost myself badly when I eventually came to the point where jungle turned into city again, and I couldn't find any way through. One field skirted the edge of a primary school, which was fenced off with barbed wire and guard posts. (I exaggerate, but only slightly). There seemed to be no access there. The next field held cows.

I'm very fond of animals, and I have nothing against cows usually, but these ones were malignant. I'm a vegetarian, but I consume dairy products, and I'm convinced that these cows somehow knew. Their moist brown eyes said to me "You have colluded in our imprisonment, and you will pay. One day we will rise, heffer and bullock, Jersey and Friesian, down to the tiniest newborn veal calf, and we will take this planet back. Our children will roam the ruins of your primate cities in vast herds, munching gently at the uncultivated remnants of your lawns and bushes. On that day your hypocrisy will not protect you, vegetarian. MMMRRRROOOOO!"

I'll be honest. I felt cowed.

Braving the bovine gaze, I eventually reached the other side of the field, and found a stile through into an alley. This was grassed over, but it sat behind a terrace of houses: it therefore counted as city, not as untamed wilderness. If I looked over the fences of the houses, I could even see down a driveway to a relief-ridden view of tarmac. Fighting the urge to hurdle the fence, run down the driveway and throw myself joyfully into the path of any oncoming car, I walked along the terraces until I found a route back to a street.

I was nowhere near where I'd intended to emerge, nowhere near my scooter and perhaps three minutes' walk from work. There was no conceivable way I could have walked in the direction I had walked and ended up where I was. I had passed through some kind of space-warping trap for the unwary city-dweller, or perhaps been a victim of the trickery of the wild god Pan.

Chastened, I walked the rest of the way on pavement, as nature intended.

The moped was fine, oddly enough.

A Librarian Writes

I'm happy, to an extent, when our (16 to 18 year old) students re-shelve the books they've been using when they're finished. It makes my job very slightly easier, provided:
a) they take the alphabet into account;
b) they take the Dewey Decimal system into account;
c) they accept that books on a shelf go a particular way up;
d) they accept that books on a shelf should have their spines facing outward and their pages facing inward;
e) they agree with me that shelved books should be fitted between other books, and not on top of them, underneath them, around them, inside them, slumped horizontally at the end of the shelf or some ghastly combination of all of the above.

If a student doesn't feel able to go along with all of the above, then frankly I'd really rather do it myself.

Hello, Good Evening and...

Bollocks. I seem to have let this weblog lie dormant for over two weeks, again. I must be more diligently, clearly, or else decide to call this a fortnightly weblog rather than a weekly one.

(Interesting fact: When I tutored American exchange students in Oxford, "fortnight" was the standard English word which they most frequently failed to understand. I don't mean just because of my accent -- the English they were used to simply didn't include the item of vocabulary. The second most common was "bollocks".)

In the past fortnight, Mad Norwegian Press have announced that Of the City of the Saved... is likely to be available in early May, which is frighteningly soon now. Unfortunately, the promised hardback copies will not be materialising, as they've proved (with The Book of the War and This Town Will Never Let Us Go) to be uneconomical.

I've also been hard at work writing the short story I mentioned here recently, which I still can't tell you anything else about. Well, except that it's called "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants! (and other works)", which gives you some idea.

07 April 2004

Hay Dude

B. and I visited Hay-on-Wye at the weekend, with a long list of books we wanted to find. We came away with a large stack of books. The list and the stack had an overlap of a couple of volumes, which shows equally how fun and how frustrating secondhand-bookshopping can be. On the plus side, I now own Kim Stanley Robinson's A Memory of Whiteness, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Greg Egan's Diaspora, a stack of Pocket Canons and several more books by Paul McAuley. On the minus side, I still don't have Robinson's Mars books, Paul Cornell's British Summertime, Justina Robson's Natural History, any more books by Kim Newman or anything at all by Mark Chadbourn that isn't his Doctor Who novella, Wonderland.

Hay itself is a marvellous place -- an entire town infected by the well-established space-warping properties of large concentrations of secondhand books, so that its streets fail to meet up when they should do and the Bookshop Map (issued at Tourist Information and in the bookshops themselves) appears to bear more or less no resemblance to the layout on the ground. Some of the bookshops themselves go back for miles, taking up far more space than can possibly be there.

I don't know what Hay's history is, but it's clear that, at some point in the distant past, it passed the secondhand book equivalent of Douglas Adams's Shoe Event Horizon, since which it has been more economical to open a secondhand bookshop there than any other kind of business. What's weird is why this would have happened to an obscure, and not enormously accessible, town in the Welsh Marches. There's a short story in there somewhere, I'm sure.

Three Studies In Orange

I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, the second volume in his Orange County Trilogy (also known as Three Californias). The three novels describe alternative futures for Orange County, California, as seen from the vantage point of the mid-to-late 1980s. Broadly speaking, they fall into three different sub-genres of science fiction: post-apocalyptic, dystopia and utopia. I've not read very much Robinson -- The Wild Shore (which is the first of this trilogy) and the fantastic The Years of Rice and Salt being about it -- but I'm impressed by the emotional depth of his writing and his technical skill. I'd be the last to suggest that science fiction as a genre lacks literacy, but voices of Robinson's strength are rare in any genre. His prose occasionally skirts the edges of being portentous, but never passes over it, at least not in anything I've read so far.

Supposedly, The Gold Coast is the dystopia of the triptych, although to be honest I'd prefer to live there than in the frankly grim post-holocaust pastoral world of The Wild Shore. Then again, part of the dystopian message of TGC is that the US has it good at everybody else's expense (the reverse situation to that of TWS, where the UN has quarantined it for everyone else's sake). I've read that TGC is one of Robinson's weaker novels, but I found it excellent. Its present-tense and third-person narrative demonstrate immediacy and impersonality where TWS's first-person voice was reflective and subjective. It's interspersed with poetic fragments which (as they themselves keep reminding us) resemble shopping lists, with the refrain "You live here, too".

I had trouble experiencing TGC as a dystopia, although it has some of the classic hallmarks: its characters if anything seem to lead rather full lives, albeit ones subject to ennui. I am, of course, a big fan of urban settings in science fiction (perhaps why I react so badly to the post-apocalyptic subgenre), and the fact that this dystopia is over-urbanised, car-dependent (the first page refers to it as "autopia") and media-saturated fills me with considerably less horror than it would some. Interestingly this future has a lot in common with that of the cyberpunk novel, particularly of William Gibson's Neuromancer, published three years earlier: corporate businesses run the show, designer drugs are the norm, multi-media streaming has replaced traditional art forms and individuals have lost all sense of focus. Significantly, though, Robinson does not see humanity merging itself with technology, and at one point one of his characters insists forcibly: "Jim, no one gives a fuck about computers". What's more, continuity with the past, rather than disjointed history, is emphasised: Robinson wants us, after all, to believe that this is a possible future for a specific place in southern California.

I'm eagerly anticipating reading the third volume, Pacific Edge (a big thank you to the Bristol City Council Library Service, if they're reading, for tracking down all three novels for me). Given the links and resonances between the first two books -- night swims, excursions to Catalina and to the USSR, a medic dealing with the death of an intimate, betrayal by a supposedly honourable "resistance" -- the scope of Robinson's ambition in the trilogy is clearly wide, and I'm looking forward to appreciating its full range.

In the meantime, though, I'm left contemplating an America effectively run from the Pentagon, embroiled in unnecessary wars for propaganda's sake against opponents it has itself armed, enriching itself at the expense of the rest of the world while it precipitates ecological meltdown at home and abroad. Arguably only a political illiterate would claim that this is the world we're actually living in, sixteen years later -- but I'd like to think most of us would baulk at claiming there was nothing familiar about it.

Admittedly Robinson gets some details entirely wrong -- predictably, America's main adversary is the Soviet bloc, and the characters (who have carphones but no mobiles) still think CDs are a pretty neat idea. Still, given that The Wild Shore saw civilisation falling, not through open war, but from the effects of international terrorism, I'm becoming rather eager to discover how Pacific Edge envisages a utopia coming to pass.