29 October 2004


Some of you reading this may be aware -- or could work out from the information available to you -- that I'll be 33 years of age on Monday (and therefore precisely a third of a century old come 1 March 2005). Probably everybody reading this who isn't related to me by blood or marriage can safely ignore this fact; but on the offchance that those of you who are might be thinking of getting me a present, I'll mention that my Amazon wishlist is located here.

28 October 2004

Hard Hats Must Be Worn

There are three stages to writing fiction. (At least, the way I do it. There are, of course, sundry approaches.) They go like this:

1. Planning. In many respects, the most fun part of the whole process. This involves assembling characters and concepts from the random disconnected scraps your brain has been accumulating and setting aside in storage, and piecing together a narrative in which they can interact with / discover / create one another. Do this right, and the various strands come together like some fantastically intricate wire sculpture. It can be beautiful to watch.

(I tend to produce disproportionately long planning documents which go into great detail about the characters and their setting, provide scene-by-scene breakdowns of the action and the like. The proposal -- which I may get round to posting on the web at some point -- for what was originally called "Lost Souls of the City of the Saved" was just under 30,000 words long, a staggering quarter of the length of the full novel. Of course, that did include a lot of material which made it to the final draft in some form or other, so I saved myself time later.)

2. Composing. This is the bit where you actually sit in front of your bloody computer and bang away at the keyboard, translating the sparking of the neurons in your brain into actual words on (what will ultimately be) a piece of paper. This is the horribly painful and unpleasant bit -- as Douglas Adams once said, "Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds" ["On Writing Humour", 1984]. (Mags Halliday recently put this equally succinctly: "All writing boils down to someone sat alone at a keyboard, swearing.")

Of course, when it goes well, this part of the writing process -- using a God-given talent to its fullest expression -- is one of the most gloriously satisfying activities a human being can undertake (at least alone and with their clothes on). When it goes badly, however -- as it seems to, for most of us, at least half the time -- the frustration and despair can be enormous.

3. Polishing. This is the other fun bit -- taking what you've created and making it better. At this point you can't lose -- you have the necessary raw material (even if extracting it felt like open-cast mining being carried out on your brain) and you can't wreck it by refining it. As you sort, reject, tweak and append, you see the work solidifying and taking on its final form: it's like the moment when, stirring together melted chocolate and cream, the two suddenly combine into one glossy, sleek and dark-brown substance.

The problem at this stage is knowing where to stop -- no work of art is ever perfect, and unfortunately there comes a time when, while the author can see the imperfections, they're too familiar with the text and too involved in it in its extant form to see how to improve it. (A clue is when you find yourself putting things back how they were before the last set of revisions.) At this point, ideally, one puts it in a drawer for a year and forgets about it. In practice, this is usually the point at which things get submitted, rather late, to editors.

...All of which is leading up to explaining that I've recently finished stage 3 on the Shakespeare-themed short story, and now need to return to banging away at stage 2 of the novella.

The story has turned out very pleasing, actually -- it was handed in way overlength and past deadline, but since both of those extensions were cleared with the editor this doesn't seem to constitute a problem. I'll say more about the end product when the anthology is announced, which looks like being sometime next year. And now I need to return to the novella, which is around one-third finished and has a deadline of the end of January.

It's going to be a lot of work, and needs me to immerse myself fully in the experience as soon and as thoroughly as possible. There's no time to lose here.

Hence this second blog update of the day.

Hominid News

I don't often link to random news stories, but this rings too many of my bells for me to pass it up (so thanks to Colin for bringing it to my attention). It's a recently-discovered species of human, apparently extant as recently as 12,000 years ago -- well after the last known Neanderthal remains in Europe, and way way after all other (proto)human species were thought to have been extinct.

It was a dwarf species located on the Indonesian island of Flores, which it shared with pigmy elephants and komodo dragons. (Predictably and tackily, the hominids, who may have been partially arboreal to avoid the dragons, have already been nicknamed "hobbits".) The species is thought to be descended from Homo erectus -- which in itself suggests that erectus were brighter than anyone thinks, as they must presumably have reached Flores using some form of boat.

Excitingly, it's plausible at least that this species may have coexisted with modern humanity. Like most communities everywhere, the Floresians have folklore concerning hidden "little people" who were seen at various points by their ancestors -- the difference being that, in the case of Flores's "Ebu Gogo", it now seems very plausible that there was an actual anthropological basis for the stories. While one example obviously doesn't make a generalisation, this does means that global legends of yeti, faeries, elves and orang-pendek have acquired overnight a slightly stronger, and mildly disturbing, call on our respect.

From the point of view of an S.F. author, the really intriguing factor is what has always intrigued me about the other human species (and which I wrote a certain amount about in Of the City of the Saved...). If Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis did meet, what would we have to say to each other? Would our respective ethics, culture, art, craft, religion and ritual show us both how much we had in common, or would they be mutually alien and incomprehensible? How did a floresiensis human think, reason and imagine? What was, or would have been, their understanding of their distant cousins? Could they be integrated into sapiens society, or we into theirs?

It's the ultimate unanswerable question in S.F. -- the subjectivity of an alien. Since floresiensis is clearly extinct now (unless we're very lucky), this question won't get answered any less speculatively, even by scientists, than the equivalent questions relating to Neanderthals. But even so, such a (very nearly) concrete example of interaction, at such a recent point in history, between two such distinct sentient species, can't help but get my imagination running ahead of reality.

25 October 2004


Trivial admin note: My website has moved from web.onetel.com/~purserhallard to www.infinitarian.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk. The redirection from www.infinitarian.com should still work admirably, but any links to the previous site should be updated.

Peculiar Lie-Ins

For what feels like the first time since, ooh, somewhere around puberty, B. and I managed a weekend off this past weekend -- strictly no work, no writing, no unpacking, and no house-related fretting permitted. Instead, relaxing, lying around in bed, going out and eating nice food was the order of the day. Except Saturday morning, when the broadband engineer was coming -- but hey, we coped.

(You can read B.'s own account of the fun on her new LiveJournal, Irregular and Incoherent Musings, which she's just started under the splendid LJ username titaniccapybara.)

So, Saturday was spent lounging around, playing the Settlers of Catan card game (the rather fine Wizards and Dragons expansion which B., of course, won), welcoming the broadband man and keeping him away from the cats, and then playing with the shiny new PC connection. In the evening we watched Wilde, which we'd recorded during the week, and went out for a fantastic meal at Glasnost, a restaurant within only slightly overstretched walking distance of our new house.

Glasnost is fab -- arty in ambience without being painfully trendy, combining a very decent selection of gorgeous veggie food (they also do meat and seafood, which I'm assured are just as adequate) with access to a mindblowing Bailey's and Maltesers cheesecake, and flavoured vodka shots. We came home late, full and somewhat glowing. Very pleasant.

On Sunday, after more lounging around, we headed to Bristol Zoo, via a very nice all-day veggie breakfast at a café (unwebbed, so far as I know, and I can't actually remember the name) in Clifton.

The zoo (once famous for housing a popular elderly elephant, Wendy, who sadly died a couple of years ago) contains numerous excellent animals. We particularly like the colony of penguins (including a gay couple, apparently), the very cute red panda and the lions, who a couple of years ago produced a beautiful cub (now resident somewhere in Germany). The zoo also houses two specimens of that most excellent rodent species, the capybara, who are effectively giant bone-idle guinea-pigs and can't be sufficiently commended for their lifestyle of lying around in straw, eating and taking the occasional dip.

Once we'd left the Zoo, we indulged ourselves with insanely rich hot chocolate and further chocolate cheesecake at the most excellent Bar Chocolat in Clifton, one of B.'s favourite locations in Bristol. The cheesecake was to die for, but I didn't think the dark chocolate pecan slice worked terribly well.

We then went to see Collateral, which was violent but vacuous fun. (It wouldn't have been our first choice, but we couldn't get to either Hero -- B.'s preference -- or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow -- mine -- at a sensible time.) Then home, followed by some decent enough ready-made curries from Tesco's, and bed.

This is my half-term week -- although it's going to be broken up by a day's course in library computer systems, annoyingly -- so with any luck I ought to be able to finish the short story and get down to some substantial work on the novella. Certainly this weekend has helped prepare me for it.

24 October 2004


...I have broadband connection. A nice man came round yesterday and ran a line all the way from the cable point downstairs up to my study and my computer. It's glorious -- I can even watch webcasts, which I was never able to do with my dial-up account.

Allow me, then, to use my first post made by means of this miraculous portal to bring to your attention Osiris Press, an exciting new publishing venture (and, remarkably, not a vanity press) specifically geared towards seeking out talented new authors and publishing their work. If you think you might be such a person, then have a look at their Authors' Guide. This is a venture that deserves to succeed (so feel free to publicise it further if you like).

19 October 2004

The Lure of Lovecraft

21st October: I have been deciphering this arcane text for weeks now, and already I feel my fragile sanity beginning to crumble. I can scarcely suffer this loathesome torment any longer without going mad -- the eldritch, scarcely human prose style; the degenerate plotting, lacking all form or structure; the hideous relentless pacing!

Yes indeed, I've been reading the short stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and now I really, really want it to stop. Lovecraft may be one of the most widely-read horror writers of all time, and an enormous influence on authors in many genres -- but he really (and this must be whispered for fear of angering the Elder Gods) isn't all that good.

It's actually something of an accomplishment to reach adulthood as an S.F. geek without reading any H.P. Lovecraft at all: awareness of his work has infiltrated fandom at all levels, like a maismic taint creeping insidiously out of the slimy (You've done this bit - Ed).

On the other hand, his pervasiveness makes a familiarity with him remarkably easy to fake, and I've been bluffing a basic knowledge of Lovecraft for years now. B. and I even bought a cuddly Cthulhu doll for the recently-hatched spawn of the friends to whom I dedicated Of the City of the Saved... .

I could have carried on with life quite happily without ever dipping my toe in those stygian depths. Still, to say that Lovecraft has an impressive reputation is something of an understatement, and I've always felt I'm insufficiently versed in horror fiction. So I borrowed the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories from the library, to read through during the move. (Note to self: when selecting calming, fluffy reading matter to tide oneself through a time of stress, apter choices do exist than either Lovecraft or Nabokov.)

I'm now much better versed in Lovecraft's work, having read slightly more than half of the material in the book. I've read most of the really famous stories -- "The Outsider", "The Rats in the Walls", "Nyarlathotep", "The Colour Out of Space" and, obviously "The Call of Cthulhu". I've even read "Herbert West -- Reanimator". And I honestly can't take any more.

It's not that Lovecraft is bad, exactly. Certainly his prose style is grotesquely overblown and heavily-burdened with adjectives; and he has a predilection not only for using deliberately obscurantist vocabulary, but for revisiting it time and time again, often in the same story. He can, however, conjure up an atmosphere with the best of them, and his use of gothic techniques -- nested narratives, gradual revelations and the like -- can be interesting.

He has more profound faults, though, which, in a writer of his tendencies, are too significant to be overlooked. He flags his surprise endings far too far in advance, for one thing. He also has an imagination which, while impressive in its scope, is very very limited in anything resembling variety. Pretty much everything comes back to slime in the end -- slime, and madness.

(In fact, I found the information that his father died in obscurity of syphilis rather interesting, as the themes of inherited madness and appalling family secrets seem to crop up very frequently indeed. The annotator[1] maintains that Lovecraft was unaware of this, but I can't help feeling he must have suspected something.)

Most disastrously of all, though, Lovecraft simply doesn't understand his strengths. He's the living counterexample to that clichéd dictum of editors: "Show, don't tell". He's a master at evoking creeping unease, a gradually increasing sense of horror which mounts up during the story. He's really, really bad at bringing this to a climax in a satisfying way. He always ends up dragging his horrors out into the open, where mere hints would have been far more effective.

Great Cthulhu sleeping beneath the ocean at ancient R'lyeh, and sending men mad in their dreams, is pretty frightening. Great Cthulhu getting up and going for a swim -- and failing even to catch the sailors who have intruded upon his resting-place -- is just silly.

I imagine Lovecraft's fiction would work better if one read, say, a story every couple of years spread out throughout one's life rather than, as I have, ten stories in a couple of weeks. I also imagine it works a great deal better if you're a fourteen-year-old boy, which of course many of his most enthusiastic readers have been at one time or another. But in the final analysis, I can only put his inexplicable popularity down to the fact that he's such a phenomenally rich source of material to parody...

...and look, I got through that whole post without saying "squamous", "gibbous" or "rugose".

[1] S.T. Joshi's exhaustive annotations are even more po-faced than Lovecraft himself -- a fact which occasionally causes them an entertaining wobble:

35. That is, the First Baptist Church, founded in 1638 by Roger Williams. The present building dates to 1775. Lovecraft remarked after visiting it in 1923, "This is my maternal ancestral church, but I had not been in the main auditorium since 1895, or in the building at all since 1907, when I gave an illustrated astronomical lecture in the vestry to the Boys' Club." On this occasion Lovecraft tried to play "Yes, We Have No Bananas" on the church's organ [...]

Irritable Rant

Ah, splendid -- it seems I can post to the blog from work. I never used to be able to do that -- I.T. must have reconfigured the firewall.

So, let me tell you about my broadband connection.

It isn't, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody working. Or rather, the connection itself is working fine (as I've discovered by lugging the PC and monitor downstairs to the living-room and plugging them in manually) but I can't get the bloody wireless connector to work for love, money or chocolate.

Despite appearances, this is the fault of the providers, at least partially. When their engineer came to install the connection, he advised us that our best option was to have him install the cable modem in the living-room (downstairs, front), rather than in the study (upstairs, back), and to use a wireless router to connect the two. It would, he said, be easy enough.

Like a fool, I assumed he was a professional whose advice could be trusted. In fact -- as every other employee of the company to whom I've since spoken has agreed -- he was fobbing us off in order to get out of doing an awkward, time-consuming job. (It turns out, in fact, that according to company policy if he wasn't able to make the connection directly he should have ordered and installed the wireless equipment himself.)

He probably assumed I had the technical competence to install a router effectively, and would never be any the wiser. Boy, did he pick the wrong person to tangle with there.

Since then -- following a handful of protracted conversations with technical support and customer services -- I've wasted Monday morning waiting for a visit from an engineer who was supposed to finish the installation free of charge, only to find that they'd sent out a service engineer instead of an installation engineer. Now we have to wait until Saturday for the proper engineers to visit, and in the meantime I can't email anyone or access the web, except from work. (I have a nasty feeling this won't be sorted out come the weekend either, but perhaps that's just my paranoia speaking.)

I am officially Unimpressed by this performance, and will be contacting the company's complaints department once all this is over.

Thank you for listening.

17 October 2004

A Quick Note...

...while this connection lasts, to say that A Life Worth Living -- the SF anthology from Big Finish which includes my short story "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants" -- is now available. Which is to say, some people are claiming to have seen copies in bookshops, and even to have bought them.

I haven't done either, because I haven't been into a bookshop for weeks, and nor have I had my complimentary copies through yet (though postal redirection may be something to do with that). But even so, you should be able to order the book now via Big Finish, should you so wish. (Amazon don't seem to have their copies in yet.)

Edit to Add: I now have my copies, and very nice they are too. Amazon.co.uk have also received theirs, although Amazon.com still aren't listing the book at all.

15 October 2004

No, I'm Not Dead

Just taking advantage of a brief period of uninterrupted broadband access to assure everyone that:

1. I'm fine;
2. I haven't given up keeping this blog;
3. the house move went OK (if far from perfectly);
4. a surprising amount of our stuff is now actually unpacked; and
5. my shiny new broadband PC-to-internet connection is, apparently, pretty much totally shagged and I'm having a great deal of trouble unshagging it, hence thetotal lack of updates since the move.

I'm very very hopeless with computers. If I can get this connection working properly in the next few days, I'll update more. If I can't, then as you can probably imagine, I won't.

The cats seem to be settling into the new house, anyway, even if the PC isn't.