31 August 2004

Heretics for Jesus

Returned from Greenbelt last night, tired but spiritually refreshed. As of today I'm back at work enrolling students into the library by rote, which I'm trying not to let dampen my post-Festival enthusiasm.

Greenbelt -- which, when I was a teenager in the '80s, would tread a careful line between evangelical and liberal spirituality -- has grown and matured with those of my generation who've continued to attend it. (The other big advantage of the modern Festival over the old days is that it's held half indoors, and close to some handy and relatively cheap student accommodation, rather than being entirely confined to tents in a sea of mud.) Greenbelt is now one of the most radical-minded collections of Christians in Britain, as well as one of the largest. It prides itself on its political and charitable activism, as well as its commitment to genuinely good art (including music, the visual arts and theatre) and to experimental worship.

The talks I went to included one on the theology of comedy and one which argued (fascinatingly and rather compellingly) that Christians must also be atheists. (The speaker at the latter -- or rather his worship group, Ikon -- later led a worship session on the death of God which was equally fantastic, and one on embracing heresy which I'm sorry I had to miss.) I had a great time soaking up atmosphere, listening to music in the background and chatting with people I hadn't seen for ages.

A particular high point, as always, was the communion service on the Sunday morning, with 20,000 or more like-minded Christians crowded into a field to pray and sing. The prayers and songs were political, dealing with liberation and justice, and managed the impressive feat of being genuinely stirring without being trite. It's a fantastic experience, hearing counter-cultural radical politics preached as a necessary conclusion from the Gospels, while the Archbishop of Canterbury beams benevolently from inside his beard.

My talks on SF and the Bible in the literary venue, "Between the Lines", went very well, too. I was really pleased, as these were my first real foray into public speaking and I was frantically nervous beforehand. But we crowded out the (admittedly small) venue with audiences of 100+, all of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves. The stuff I was expounding was mildly heretical, but Greenbelt thrives on such things.

I also read an abridged version of the "Voces Populi" chapter from Of the City of the Saved... at the Subway Writers' Café on Sunday night. I did the characters in different voices, giving the Viking my best Brian Blessed. This, too, seemed to go down fairly well.

I should be updating the website in the next few days with a reading list to accompany the talks (as requested by some of the audience); and also with the short story I contributed to the anthology which the "Between the Lines" organisers produced on-site. With luck I'll be speaking again next year, perhaps in a bigger venue. I'm also seriously considering pitching a book to some Christian publisher or other off the back of my talks.

Not quite as relaxing a time as I'm used to having at Greenbelt, then, but an inspiring, renewing and nourishing experience all round. I'm already missing the smell of joss sticks.

26 August 2004

Final Greenbelt Plug

Well, I probably won't get another opportunity to update before the weekend, so here's a reminder that I'm delivering two talks at the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse.

My talks are on "Science Fiction as the Bible" (5pm on Sunday 29 August) and "The Bible as Science Fiction" (12noon on Monday 30 August), and are taking place in Greenbelt's literary venue, Between the Lines. I now have the talks in a form I'm reasonably happy with (having practiced them at my very patient friends R & M the other night).

They're not quite as radical as the deliberately contentious titles would suggest: the first is talking in general terms about reading SF as a Christian, the latter about reading the Bible as an SF reader. I'm probably saying some reasonably unexpected things, though -- at least, I hope so -- and for anyone interested in the idea of SF as it relates to faith in general, I would hope they'd be, er, of general interest.

I'll also be reading from Of the City of the Saved... at the open-mike Writer's Cafe organised by the Subway Writer's Collective, starting at 8pm on Sunday evening. (I'm an "invited reader", so I don't think they could actually stop me now even if they wanted to.)

Day tickets are available at £25 for adults, £16 concessions. Do come along, if you're in the vague area and interested.

20 August 2004

Wittering Again

I'm mercifully unblocked as far as the short story goes. Which is nice.

This isn't unmitigatedly good news, however, as I also have to finish off the Greenbelt talks before the end of next week, and I'm back at work on Wednesday doing bloody arsing student enrolment. Hey ho.

(Oh, and I'm moving house in September... throughout pretty much all of September actually, or that's the way it's looking at the moment.)

I can't go into much detail about this particular short story, partly because the premise is convoluted and bizarre, and partly because the anthology it's for hasn't been announced yet. I've had to spend some time researching Elizabethan alchemy, though. And I've just written a scene with a manticore.

Annoyingly as well, the anthology in which "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants" (the short story I was writing back in April) is due to appear still hasn't had its details announced, meaning that I still can't tell you what it is. The book is nominally publishing next month, but I'm beginning to suspect we'll be lucky to see it before November. (A handful of you may be able to guess from this which volume I'm talking about, of course, but that's not something I propose to fret about.)

Still... loosening of the verbal constipation which has had me in its grip since July is definitely something to be thankful for, and so I am. Hurrah.

17 August 2004


In what may well be divine judgement for my previous posting, our toilet cistern just exploded, sending jets of water spraying all over the bathroom until I managed to cut off the water supply from downstairs. I would like it known that I recant all my previous Gnostic and Izzardite heresies.

Knowledge (in the Biblical Sense)

In researching my talk on The Bible as Science Fiction, I've been looking into Genesis in more detail than I have for quite a while. I'm intrigued by how readily it seems to lend itself to Gnostic interpretation... which is presumably how Christian Gnosticism managed to survive for a millennium or so, before being finally snuffed out in the Albigensian Crusades.

Personally, although I'm interested in Gnosticism as a concept, I'm also very fond of the material world, so have no desire to explain it away as a prison for the soul created by a vengeful and flawed God. Still, I can't help feeling that some of the people who contributed to Genesis may have felt otherwise. Consider...

Genesis contains two separate and mildly incompatible Creation narratives, firstly from I.1 to II.3 and then from II.4 to II.25. These narratives use different names for God -- the plural "Eloi" ["God" in the KJB] and the singular YHWH ["Lord"] respectively. YHWH, who makes Adam and Eve (the Eloi just make a generalised humanity), later becomes the vengeful God of Israel, who's fond of ordering the occasional genocide and striking people down for disobeying Him.

The creations of the Eloi include "every thing that creepeth upon the earth" [I.25], whereas YHWH just creates mammals and birds [II.19]. When a creature comes to tempt Adam and Eve to disobey YHWH's injunction not to eat of the fruit of the tree, the creature is a snake -- "more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (emphasis mine). The apparent implication being that YHWH didn't create the Serpent...

YHWH's injunction to Adam and Eve not to eat the tree is ostensibly ordained because "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [II.17] -- which sounds less like a threat than a statement of cause and effect. The Serpent, on the other hand, points out that "Ye shall not surely die" [III.4], and it's quite right -- they don't. God was, apparently, lying to them.

What YHWH says in III.22 seems to confirm the Serpent's story that he forbade A&E the fruit because knowing good and evil would make them like Gods -- like Him, in fact. After this, it's only their mortality that seems to keep them separate from Him.

(It was a popular idea -- see Paradise Lost, for example -- that Death entered the world as a result of the Fall, but it clearly doesn't. The other tree in Eden would confer eternal life, which is what YHWH doesn't want. This makes it pretty clear that Adam and Eve weren't created immortal.)

All of which makes the Gnostic schema -- where a tyrannical God creates an already-fallen world order which the servants of a higher Godhead must work to redeem -- fit strangely well with the myth. (Not being a biblical literalist, of course, I'm not obliged to worry about all this... and don't you worry either, I won't be talking about any of this at Greenbelt. My talks are unorthodox, but not that unorthodox.)

Complementarily, I've also recently read Revelation all the way through for the first time in years. I know it's a cliché to say so, but I'm truly impressed by how utterly barking it is. (I'm also impressed by the early exhortations to the seven churches, where the angel conveniently tells John to tell them to stop doing the things which he, John, happens not to like them doing.)

The imagery is stream-of-consciousness gibberish (although if you listen to some commentators it's also carefully-coded symbolism disguising a satirical attack on the Roman Empire, which is why on the surface it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever). I find myself put irresistibly in mind of an Eddie Izzard routine:

"...Then I saw a man riding on a lizard, and he had five horns and a big sword coming out of his mouth, and his wife had nine heads and was juggling sausages. Then a beast arose from the ocean, like unto an ox or a wallaby or possibly a bat, and it had the head of a penguin and was made out of soup. And the man and the soup-beast fought, and as they fought it rained for ninety years, and lo! it rained jam..."

Er... so, did Mr Izzard ever actually do a routine like this, or did I make it up?

11 August 2004

SF Century

So, here I am finally succumbing to a "meme" -- in the word's corrupted sense of "blog craze". Feel free to comment, imitate etc, according to taste.

"Index of the hundred science fiction books you just have to read", compiled by Phobos

Bold = read
italics = owned and waiting to be read... one of these days
underlined = started but never finished

1. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
2. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, by Frank Herbert
4. Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
5. Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
6. Valis, by Philip K. Dick
7. Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
8. Gateway, by Frederick Pohl
9. Space Merchants, by C.M. Kornbluth & Frederick Pohl
10. Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
11. Cuckoo’s Egg, by C.J. Cherryh
12. Star Surgeon, by James White
13. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick
14. Radix, by A.A. Attanasio
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
16. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
17. A Case of Conscience, by James Blish
18. Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon
19. The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
20. Way Station, by Clifford Simak
21. More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
22. Gray Lensman, by E. E. “Doc” Smith
23. The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
24. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
25. Behold the Man, by Michael Moorcock
26. Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon
27. The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
28. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
29. Heritage of Hastur, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
30. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
31. The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
32. Slan, by A.E. Van Vogt
33. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
34. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
35. In Conquest Born, by C.S. Friedman
36. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
37. Eon, by Greg Bear
38. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
39. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne
40. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
41. Cosm, by Gregory Benford
42. The Voyage of the Space Beagle, by A.E. Van Vogt
43. Blood Music, by Greg Bear
44. Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress
45. Omnivore, by Piers Anthony
46. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
47. Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement
48. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer
49. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
50. The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold
51. Nineteen-Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
52. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
53. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
54. Flesh, by Philip Jose Farmer
55. Cities in Flight, by James Blish
56. Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe
57. Startide Rising, by David Brin
58. Triton, by Samuel R. Delany
59. Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
60. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
61. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
62. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter Miller
63. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
64. No Blade of Grass, by John Christopher
65. The Postman, by David Brin
66. Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany
67. Berserker, by Fred Saberhagen
68. Flatland, by Edwin Abbot
69. Planiverse, by A.K. Dewdney
70. Dragon’s Egg, by Robert L. Forward
71. Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh
72. Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler
73. The Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein
74. The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
75. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
76. Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison
77. Roadside Picnic, by Boris Strugatsky & Arkady Strugatsky
78. The Snow Queen, by Joan Vinge
79. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
80. Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard
81. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
82. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
83. Upanishads, by Various
84. Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
85. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
86. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
87. The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham
88. Mutant, by Henry Kuttner
89. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
90. Ralph 124C41+, by Hugo Gernsback
91. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
92. Timescape, by Gregory Benford
93. The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
94. War with the Newts, by Karl Kapek
95. Mars, by Ben Bova
96. Brain Wave, by Poul Anderson
97. Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
98. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton
99. Camp Concentration, by Thomas Disch
100. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

This tells me that I tend to read the books I buy (eventually), and finish the books I start. I also admit that my experience of women's SF is sadly deficient.

Thanks to Kate for bringing the list to my attention. I have to say I'm far from convinced by some of it, though... some of the books which I have read, I wish I hadn't (I still can't see the point of Jules Verne), and many of those I haven't I have no desire to (I mean, Ralph 124C41+? The Postman?). And what's Alice in Wonderland doing there, or the Upanishads? Why no Brian Aldiss, or Iain Banks?

I may try to compile my own list -- although, given how much I haven't read, that too is going to be highly limited and subjective. At least I know I'll score higher, though.

[Edited 21 October 2004, to reflect the fact that I've since read the two Bester novels. I'll carry on updating this entry indefinitely, probably.]

10 August 2004

Blockage => Bloggage

Having given up on the talks in a bit of a panic for the time being, I'm now working on the September-deadlined short story.

Since Friday I've:

1. realised that my plot was in completely the wrong order and rejigged it,
2. found a much better title than the previous one -- still a Shakespeare quote, but a more apt one with some pleasing '50s B-movie resonances into the bargain,
3. realised that the first paragraph was very nearly in iambic pentameter -- and hey, it's a Shakespearian story -- so reworked it so that it actually is, and
4. actually written bugger all.

This is more or less par for the course. Sooner or later my creative plughole will spontaneously unblock itself, and the whole thing will come splurging out. (I can think of other metaphors there, none of them edifying.)

Meanwhile, I may as well update the blog.

Dunst Able

Further to my comments about the lovely Kirsten Dunst: I re-watched Interview with the Vampire the other night, for the first time since about 1995. The film is, for the most part, insufferably humourless, with Messrs Pitt and Cruise lounging around lounging around looking terribly decorative and fin-de-siècle, and a pretentious vampirism-as-AIDS metaphor which was done rather better in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula [*].

However, the young Ms Dunst's performance is absolute genius. She plays the vampire child Claudia, who is "turned" when young and who will therefore never grow older; and she does it with a passion and a tragedy which are simply astonishing. How an eleven-year-old girl (which appears to have been her age at the time, although she's made up to look a good deal younger) could so effectively convey the pain of a forty-year old imprisoned in a pre-pubertal body I can't imagine, but Dunst is utter dynamite in the role.

It's kind of unfortunate, really, that the Spider-Man films use such an impressive talent mostly as decoration... although to be fair the entire point of Mary Jane's character is her reassuring ordinariness, so there's not an awful lot for any actor to work with there.

Incidentally, both Dunst and Winona Ryder (who played the semi-vampirised Mina in Bram Stoker's aforementioned Dracula) appeared as two of the sisters in Little Women. Did any of the other sisters in that film play vampires? (Has Clare Danes, for instance?) Inquiring minds want to know.

[*] Speaking of taking Stoker's name in vain, I was amused by the legend identifying the author of this recent Buffy novel.

The Devil's Microbrew

We commemorated Silk's visit to Bristol on Saturday by taking him (and sundry mad scientists who were attending his gas kinetics conference) to the Smiles Brewery Tap, one of our favourite Bristol pubs.

The evening took a turn for the distinctly weird when we decided to try out the new microbrewery-cum-restaurant, Zerodegrees. Being long-term habitués of brew-pubs like Smiles', we weren't prepared for the achingly trendy, glass-walled, pine-floored and utterly packed establishment we found. The 500-odd people there can't possibly have been real-ale drinkers (the only beard, beer-gut and black T-shirt we could see in the place were located, I'm embarrassed to say, about my own person), so what exactly did they think they were doing?

I'm not totally sure what I think about this. As a CAMRA member, I am of course supposed to applaud any attempt to popularise decent beer, and all this stuff was brewed on the premises. I was particularly seduced by the black lager, an utterly surreal porter/pilsner hybrid I'd never even imagined, let alone seen elsewhere. [Edit to add: It seems this may have been a schwartzbier, a traditional German style which I'd just never come across before.] This sort of good-but-gimmicky approach was reflected in the other beers as well -- including a seasonal mango beer (which doesn't seem to be listed on the website).

They also did pizzas, which looked as if they might be rather good.

On the other hand, Zerodegrees appears to be a chain, with another branch in Blackheath and more planned -- all brewing locally, but to centrally-determined recipes. And certainly a CAMRA purist would look censoriously at a brewery whose repertoire was built around these deliberately wacky beers.

I admit I'm likely to go back there (perhaps not again on a Saturday night, unless we manage to achieve protective coloration by dragging along some of our fashion-victim friends -- and yes, we do have some) but I think I'll feel distinctly Faustian in doing so.

07 August 2004

Reading for Comprehension

I'll leave skin soft and smooth
I'll help keen skin dry
I'm hypoallergenic

I'll leave baby's delicate skin feeling soft and smooth. Use me after each bath or nappy change to help keep baby's skin dry. I'll form a comfortable layer to help prevent friction and avoid skin irritations.
I'm ideal for use by all the family.
[Directions for Use, Warning, Ingredients etc]

Never mind for the moment why I have this in the house -- who is the speaker in this passage? Does the powder have a baby it's referring to as "my"? Is the parent of the baby hypoallergenic? What?

(Hmm? No, I'm not getting much work done today, as it happens. Why do you ask?)

06 August 2004

Talking Drivel

You know you've been spending too much time alone in the house with the cats when human faces start looking surprisingly bald, and lacking in triangular ears.

Anyway. It seems that writing talks is surprisingly difficult -- particularly talks to a lay audience about your academic research. Who would have imagined?

I read my first attempt to B. last night, and after ten minutes she pointed out the following:

1. It isn't a lecture.
2. The audience aren't going to be examining me.
3. They won't have been supplied beforehand with a comprehensive bibliography from which to arm themselves with counterarguments against which I need to defend myself pre-emptively.
4. They're likely to respond better to someone talking to them in a friendly, informal manner than to someone who constructs a full and watertight argument with plenty of citations and supporting evidence.

...all of which would seem, rather irritatingly, to be true, and means I've wasted a week's work.

For God's sake, Why does nobody ever TELL me these COMPLETELY OBVIOUS, COMMON-SENSE FACTS?


For the past year or so, I've been re-watching all nine seasons of The X-Files, in order from the beginning through to the end. Altogether, this comes to 201 TV episodes and a film, roughly 146 hours of television.

I obviously can't do this much material critical justice in a blog entry, but there are a couple of comments I feel the need to share.

Gillian Anderson is at better actor than David Duchovny, by at least an order of magnitude. She's also a surprisingly gifted director (see the episode all things), although a less-than-fantastic scriptwriter. Duchovny is insufferably twee in both these capacities.

William B Davies (Cancer Man) appears to have structured his episode as a writer-director, En Ami, entirely around close-ups of Scully's cleavage, which I can't really argue with.

The series actually improves enormously in the final three seasons, as characters start developing and being affected by their experiences (something that hasn't happened... well, before, really). New characters arrive, the whole thing becomes an ensemble drama rather than a two-handed anthology series, and it all picks up splendidly just in time for the cancellation.

This does follow a disastrous nadir around the middle of Season 5 -- which is where I got up and left the first time around. Campy self-aware humour worked well in the first three seasons, where it formed a welcome contrast to the po-faced (but in its own way wonderful) horror-mystery material surrounding it -- but this was precisely because it cropped up only in very occasional episodes. Seasons 5 and 6 are almost exclusively camp, twee drivel, with the occasional redeeming gem like William Gibson's fantastic Kill Switch.

Unfortunately, things do get a bit cramped towards the end of Season 9, as the creative team attempts to provide closure for many of the ongoing plotlines, and succeeds only in failing to satisfy with respect to any of them.

SPOILERS now for the final two-parter, The Truth:

Despite everything I'd been promised, the end of the series resolves pretty much bugger all, and doesn't even reveal much that you couldn't have picked up from the earlier arc episodes if you'd been paying attention. The final scene, with Mulder and Scully contemplating the coming alien invasion and trusting to God to help them avert it, is rather sweet, but the rest of the thing is pretty much a waste of time.

Particularly when it reveals -- oh so very surprisingly -- that the series' arch-villain isn't in fact dead, but has survived his terminal cancer and precipitate wheelchair journey down a flight of stairs, as inexplicably as he previously survived being shot in the head and losing all his blood. It obviously runs in the family, as Mulder also frequently comes back from the dead -- in one case after burial and considerable decomposition -- and Cancer Man's other son, Spender, makes a similarly impressive comeback from being shot in the head and set fire to.

In The Truth, a helicopter fires an air-to-surface missile directly at Cancer Man's knees, and we are graphically shown its impact and the subsequent comprehensive detonation of his flesh and skeleton. Fifty quid says they bring him back for the second film, if there ever is one.