27 November 2004

Break Out The Party Hats

Wow. 1600 words today -- written (for good reasons) in a completely different narrative voice from the rest of the novella. This comes as a welcome break in the flow, for me and probably the readers too. Now all I need to do is write... er, about twice that tomorrow, and I should reach my target for the weekend.

Anyway. What I wanted to say was "Good grief, it seems that Peculiar Lives is a year old today." The first entry I posted -- in which I referred to the blog as "Currently in its infancy, if not its embryohood" -- was on 27 November 2004. This is my 113th post since then.

I see that I've managed to achieve most of the goals I listed on that occasion: my website's up and advertising my novel, it has material relating to my thesis on it, and I have indeed used this blog as a venue for "wittering [...] about Reading, Writing, Art, Politics, Religion and my Life".

Would it be appropriate to name some goals for the coming year? I think it would. So...

1. Get this bloody novella finished. Publication to be followed by gushing reviews and general critical adulation.
2. Finish the talk transcripts and add them to the website. Hypertextualise the reading list that's already there. (These are probably going to need a rewrite before they're presentable, in fact -- my speaking style is just too rambling and vague for readability. It should only take a single pass of my Coherentron™ to firm them up.)
3. Put some more original fiction on the site, preferably including at least one piece which uses hypertext to its advantage rather than sitting there like a shopping list.
4. Watch new Doctor Who and enjoy it.
5. Get commissioned for a second round of talks at Greenbelt, and deliver them to rapturous applause and offers of lucrative book contracts.
6. Get at least one more full-length fiction commission, and some short ones. Oh, and possibly an agent.
8. Spend more time with B. / the cats / our goddaughter / our friends / my parents / my books / the television. (This one requires said time to be created ex nihilo, and may therefore necessitate a deal with the arcane powers lurking within the very architecture of space-time itself, or possibly quitting my job.)
9. Win the lottery and buy a large mansion on the edge of the city. Acquire a butler, plenty of electronic gadgets and a cool car. Dress up as a gigantic bat and fight crime. Start dating Kim Basinger and/or Michelle Pfeiffer.
10. Lose some weight. (OK, we're probably drifting into the realms of fantasy with that one.)

Check back in a year's time for a progress report on these.

26 November 2004

Another Review...

Good Heavens above. The second review I've seen of A Life Worth Living also cites my story as the reviewer's favourite. Well, almost:

Arguably my favourite story in this anthology is Philip Purser-Halland's [sic] 'Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants', which concentrates on the oft-forgotten writing career of one Jason Kane. [...] This is an hilarious and very entertaining story written by someone who obviously has an excellent grasp of the central characters.
I'm so delighted with this that I'm going to forgive Noel Warham for getting my name wrong.

23 November 2004

Pizza and Swedes

Grr. Frustratingly unproductive weekend, caused partly by the momentary glimmerings of a social life and partly by my own hopelessness and indolence.

Friday night through to Saturday afternoon were taken up with sister-in-law, friends, goddaughter, pizza and beer... thanks to the last of which, the remainder of Saturday was also thoroughly unproductive. Sister-in-law's visit was very pleasant altogether, though, and I'm not complaining. Friday night we explored an as-yet-unvisited pub near to the new house, which had a parrot. Lunch on Saturday, with all the items on the above list, was also very enjoyable. It turns out that, as I rather suspected, Zerodegrees do damn good food as well as damn good beer. The bastards.

Since then, I've written around 1000 words, realised that some of my chapters would work better a different way round, clarified some plot points and made a few notes towards the epilogue; all of which is rather less achievement than it might sound, and certainly doesn't match my chapter-a-weekend target. Never mind, I'm sure I can catch up.

Meanwhile, a couple of worthwhile snippets relating to stuff that's already safely written and published. Mags L. Halliday, the author of the forthcoming Faction Paradox novel Warring States, has written a pendant to her novel, set in the City of the Saved after her characters' deaths. (That's not a spoiler, incidentally, as the City happens after everybody's deaths.) The piece, which is called "The Night Is Long and Dreams are Legion" (and which is great), is being published in issue 15 of the Mythmakers fanzine. [Edit: Actually issue 14.]

In unrelated news, one of my fellow-contributors to A Life Worth Living -- Mark "Sin" Deniz, who contributed the story "Welcome to the Machine", has been interviewed in Norrkopings Tidningar. (At least, I think it's an interview.) I mention this solely because it's rather exciting to see a big photo of the book in a major national newspaper, even if it does happen to be a Swedish one I'd never previously heard of.

The book's heroine is referred to as "kultmässiga science fiction-hjältinnan professor Bernice Summerfield". Remember, you heard it here first.


I've also begun transcribing my Greenbelt talks on Science Fiction and the Bible for my website. This is an odd experience, to say the least. I'm working from minidisk recordings of myself talking from notes (and copious rehearsal). There are bits missing: the first recording begins with me saying "-- shambling around going 'ughhhh'" [*].

I want the transcripts to be a reasonably accurate record insofar as that's possible: however, I'm amazed by how incoherent and rambling I appear to have been. I'm obviously not transcribing the occasions when I say "er", "ah" or "um", repeat words, hesitate and the like, but my speaking style is startlingly different from my prose style. I run sentences into one another with "and"s and "but"s, I change direction halfway through a thought and end up with something that actually isn't a sentence at all, and I assert -- embarrassingly often -- that what I'm talking about is "interesting because...", as if I'm desperately hoping to persuade the audience.

Hey ho. It's also a surprisingly long-winded process, given that the two talks together come to a little over an hour and a half, so don't expect to be seeing the web transcriptions any time soon.

One of the reasons why I'm doing this -- and why I had B. record the talks in the first place -- is because I'm very much hoping I can talk again at Greenbelt 2005, perhaps in a larger venue as well as at "Between the Lines". Watch this space for further news as to that.

[*] I go on to say "...is a marvellous cinematic image and I love it, but it isn't the character Mary Shelley wrote."

19 November 2004

'Pedia Studies

I imagine most regular Web users are well familiar with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia run along anarchist lines, with full editing privileges granted to all. If not, The Guardian ran a worthwhile article on the concept a while ago. It's a truly vast and comprehensive resource, and usually a good 90% reliable -- although in the nature of things, at any given time any given article may be utter drivel. It draws on the specialist expertise of a vast population of users -- all of whom know a great deal about something, even if it's only how to type so that nobody knows what the hell you're on about.

Anyway. I've been using Wikipedia for a while -- not least for reference links from this blog -- but I hadn't come across its inventory of "Unusual Articles" until it was brought to my attention by Hatmandu. Since then I've been obsessively livening the drudgery of work by going through the list.

I already knew about a number of the entities referred to -- the Reptilians, for instance, vagina dentata and the recently-discovered Mexican Perforation. Somehow, however, the entire existence of the Voynich Manuscript has previously managed to pass me by. And I was delighted to discover the existence of Mr Optimus Prime, of Exploding Head Syndrome and of the Wilhelm Scream.

The Timeline of Unfulfilled Christian Prophecy is well worth a look, too. But my favourite discovery has to be Heribert Illig, the German historian whose "phantom time hypothesis" insists that most of the Dark Ages were just made up, with 300 spurious years having been inserted into history shortly before the Medieval period.

According to Herr Illig (who believes that this was done at the insistence of one of the Holy Roman Emperors so that he could pretend he was reigning at the turn of the Millennium), the current year should rightfully be 1707. It's one of those fantastically barking-mad ideas which becomes more and more entertaining the more you think about it.

Like Wikipedia itself, it's a splendid example of "thinking outside the box". Admittedly, though, I wouldn't expect it ever to catch on in quite such a big way.

That's Very Pleasing...

In the first review that I've seen for A Life Worth Living , Richard McGinlay has this to say:
My personal favourite, however, is Philip Purser-Hallard’s "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants", which deals with Jason’s latest scheme to boost sales of his xenoporn (inter-species sex) novels through the use of fake literary criticism and android literary critics - with hilarious results!

OK, so that gives slightly more away about the plot than I'd have ideally preferred -- but blimey, you can't buy good press like that.

(Well, all right, you probably can, but on this occasion I didn't.)

17 November 2004

Two Novels, with Vampires

As a diversion from banging on about my own books, here are some thoughts about some other people's.

Firstly, To the Devil - a Diva! by Paul Magrs, which I've mentioned previously, and which I finished over the weekend. This is quite lovely, although the acerbic treatment of SF fans may give some of Paul's readers pause. (Possibly Magrs, as a successful mainstream writer who's also produced Doctor Who novels, had some things he wanted to get off his chest.)

Given that the whole novel reeks of intellectual nerddom, though, I don't think it can have been too heartfelt. Magrs has described Doctor Who as a vehicle for trans-genre migration, opening up doors between all kinds of normally isolated fictive spaces and allowing them to meet. Since his ultimate deconstruction of Who itself in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, his own work (which started off in a rather restrained and gritty magic realism) has turned this meeting-space into a cross-genre particle accelerator, throwing together radically different elements and combining them, in order to see what exotic kinds of matter are created.

The present-day story of TtD-AD! (and don't you love titles with that much punctuation?) incorporates elements from Hammer horror films, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Queer as Folk, as well as what I suspect are gay soap operas I don't even know about. Throughout the novel there's a devoted (and, yes, fannish) love for all that's camp and schlocky in British horror: there are even flashback sequences which take the pulp-horror motif back to its mid-twentieth century roots in the work of Dennis Wheatley; with a guest appearance by the C.S. Lewis character Magrs created for Mad Dogs, Professor Cleavis, who of course is not at all in favour of all the satanic goings-on.

On top of all this -- and perhaps most importantly, as it would be very easy to get lost in all these pomo-porno-pyrotechnics -- TtD-aD! is a novel that deals with human feelings, with love and family and with the very real phenomenon of the emotional vampire: a "friend" whose parasitic love does nothing but drain their victim dry. On this point incidentally (if few others), Magrs and the original Lewis would have been entirely in agreement.

Since finishing the Magrs novel, I've embarked on The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, a retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III in a fantasy setting. This also has vampires in it, and wizards, but that's not so much the aspect that interests me.

The Dragon Waiting is also an alternative history, one where (by the convention of these things) things such as the Wars of the Roses and the geneaology of the English royal family are much the same as in our familiar history, but where Christianity never became the official faith of the Roman Empire, and as a consequence Byzantium still rules the majority of an entirely pagan Europe. There are even brief hints (if I'm not misreading certain references to a god of carpentry named "Esus") that Christianity was simply assimilated into the Religio Romana.

The novel's well-written and involving, but it's the setting that I'm really enjoying. (It makes up for the wizardry, which to be honest I often find a bit tedious in fiction.) I love alternative histories, especially ones which have been thoroughly thought through, and it's the little details that make this novel such a joy: the pagan Pantheons taking the place of the cathedrals in Byzantium and Florence, Dante's poem of descent into the Underworld, the Commedia dell'Uomo, throwaway references to the early discoveries of the New World and Copernican cosmology, and the revelation that Richard the Lionheart fought side-by-side with a Zoroastrian Saladin as brothers in arms.

I'm not far into this novel yet, so there's a great deal still to discover about the world it's set in. But it's a fantastically detailed and layered construction, set with glittering jewels, and it's quite beautful.

16 November 2004

Sharing My Solipsism

Work on The Novella continues to progress reasonably well. I managed to write around 4,000 words this weekend, which hits the chapter-a-week target rather well... except that one of the other things I did over the weekend was to overhaul the book's structure entirely, such that what used to be a whole chapter is now, in most cases, half of one.

Still, I'm on course, all my protagonists are where they need to be, know the things they need to know and so on. More pleasingly, I'm past the halfway stage: some 21,000 words are now written, with only circa 17,000 (five weekends' work, with luck) remaining. This makes a big difference, psychologically: it's all downhill from here.

I've also written an Afterword, putting The Novella in the context of the work of the Great British SF Novelist whom I'm ripping off critiquing metatextually. Today I've used my work's subscription to the online OED to confirm the 1950s period authenticity of half-a-dozen words, including "poltergeist", "ecological niche" and "Cro-Magnon".

One comment which has sometimes been made about my novel Of the City of the Saved... (sorry, sudden change of subject here, but it becomes relevant) is that the protagonists don't seem to do all that much -- they mostly just move around from place to place, experiencing things and having revelations made to them.

Which is pretty much true, although it doesn't apply to all the characters -- Godfather Avatar's pretty proactive, for example, as is Gnas Gortine.

However, I'm not convinced that this is actually a problem, unless you enter the novel expecting a conventional S.F. thriller. OtCotS is essentially an S.F. picaresque, a "planetary romance" without the planet[*]; and the experiences of and revelations to the characters, rather than their actions, are what these strands of the storyline are about. This is quite deliberate: all the "action" occurs on the level of the City's various gods and godlike figures, and the humans are pretty much their puppets.

(The one character for whom this does seem anomalous -- at least in terms of how I wanted the novel to work -- is Laura Tobin. As a private eye, she brings certain genre expectations with her to the novel; and the fact that she does little to shape her own plot strand beyond solving the murder mystery -- in what some readers have rightly considered a rather sudden and poorly-grounded flash of inspiration -- is, in her case, rather jarring. This is admittedly unfortunate, as she's OtCotS's chief protagonist.)

The reason I mention all this is because, if this is a flaw, The Novella's going to suffer from it too. It deals with character -- you could even call it a character study -- but the sympathetic viewpoint characters don't drive the action, which instead happens at the whim of the powerful, remote and alien ones.

I say this now purely so as to avoid disappointment.

[*] Well all right, just the one planet.

11 November 2004

Lean Mean Prose Machine

Phew. Having worried enormously last Monday that I hadn't reached my chapter-a weekend target for the novella and was therefore going to crash very slowly but with great inevitability into my end-of-January deadline, I came home from work today and -- with the aid of food and coffee redoubtably provided by the wonderful B. -- wrote nearly 1,100 words straight off. (Admittedly 100 of those words are an H.G. Wells quote, but hey, it all fills up the page.)

Now my head has fallen off, but I'm very happy -- the way I've been performing recently, a thousand words is about what I expect from a full day's work. Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of my narrator's abstruse style. Certainly I should have no trouble in hitting my next chapter-in-a-weekend target, which means I'm hopefully on course to finish a fair draft by New Year and to spend January revising and polishing. Hurrah.

My main concern now is to try and get a decent night's sleep with all that coffee inside me. Whisky may be in order.

(Quick straw poll: When I go on about writing in this much depth, is it irritatingly whingey and solipsistic? Or does it form an invaluable insight into the creative process? Maybe it's just an invaluable insight into how whingey and solipsistic writers are. Do let me know.)

07 November 2004

Media Update

I think The Algebraist is going to take me quite a while to read. Not only is it very long (more than 500 pages, each of them large and closely-typeset) and typically dense (setting up, at present, the premise of a complex "post-civilisation" based within the atmosphere of a gas-giant, which is itself the tiniest mote in a vastly more complicated galactic culture -- although not, as it happens, the Culture), it's also physically a huge object. It doesn't fit inside my motorcycle bag, so I can't take it to work and read it during my breaks there; what's more it's too heavy to hold above my head to read in bed, which leaves me pretty much no opportunity for reading it. I've had to revert to using an older pair of glasses with a less restricted field of vision at bedtime, just so I can rest it on my recumbent chest.

Ahem. The book itself is great fun so far, though -- exuberant, witty and, as ever, astonishingly clever. Justina Robson (whose Natural History is also on my wishlist) suggested in The Guardian that it was under-edited, and sadly I'd have to concur with that so far: there are a number of places where I might have expected an editor to say, "This is all very interesting Iain, but do we actually need it here?" Still, Banks firing on all cylinders is worth watching just for the pyrotechnics, and I'm hoping the book will settle down a little once all the introductory stuff is out of the way. Spotting Banks' obsessions is always part of the fun, and I have a creeping suspicion that the so-far unexplained categories of "aHuman" and "rHuman" are going to turn out to mean "atheist Human" and "religious Human" respectively, the latter having been corrupted from the human "norm" at some point in the distant past.

By contrast, I'm racing through To the Devil - a Diva!, which is also enormous fun. Hammer-style satanists and vampires are colliding with modern-day soft-porn soap-operas and gay Mancunians in a spectacularly camp romp. Paul Magrs can do serious when he wants to, but when it comes to camp romps he's difficult to beat. Marvellous stuff.

Finally, the two episodes I've seen so far of Firefly are every bit as good as people say they are. Which, given how good people say they are, is pretty damn astonishing. I love the whole spaceships-and-horses Western styling, particularly the banjo music, and the characters are fantastic. More about this when I've seen more of it.

You'd Better Watch Out...

Our new next-door neighbour put up his Christmas lights yesterday.

A bald statement one the face of it, and one which fails to take into account the full ramifications of the event. For a start, it glides quietly over the fact that yesterday -- as those of you with access to a calendar will be able to confirm -- was the 6th of frigging November for Christ's sake, three clear weeks before the beginning of Advent and a whole seven weeks prior to Christmas itself. Presumably, in our new next-door neighbour's perceptions, the festive season begins just after Bonfire Night, and finishes -- when? Septuagesima? St Valentine's Day? August Bank Holiday?

Again, the sentence above doesn't commit itself concerning the scale of the operation. Our neighbour (a man whom we have incidentally never yet seen outside an Elvis T-shirt, but that's by the by) is apparently well-respected, in those circles which respect people for this kind of thing, for the lavishness of his seasonal light displays. His house has appeared on the local television news two years running. For all I know he's won awards.

The entire front of the house is smothered with flashing lights. A plastic Father Christmas and a snowman jostle on top of the porch. A sled with full reindeer team rushes from right to left above the ground-floor windows, and a whole row of hanged Santas depends from the gutter. A glance through the front window from the street reveals that the entire front room is decked out in the indoor equivalent of these displays.

I realise that I'm speaking as a man with a TARDIS-shaped bookshelf, but this does strike me as just the tiniest bit obsessive.

Our neighbour has even tried -- rather persistently, actually -- to involve us in his great work. Apparently our predecessors in the house were only too pleased to play host to his Jackson-Pollock-meets-Vong-Phaophanit installations. We, by contrast, expressed our gratitude at his willingness to consider our house a worthy canvas for his art, explained that we don't tend to consider reindeers and snowmen the aptest symbols of the Incarnation of Our Lord, and respectfully declined. Three fucking times.

It's going to be very difficult living with this for the next however-many months. Every evening when I come home from work, that string of butchered Santas will greet me like a hideous warning of the summary justice awaiting fat men who offer children sweets.

B. and I have a plan, though. Come Easter, we intend to erect in lights a twenty-foot crucifix, complete with an attractive crown of thorns and flashing droplets of blood; perhaps with an animated spear thrusting in and out of the occupant's side. It will be expensive to commission, but surely worth it.

It might even get us on the local news.

03 November 2004

A Historian Writes...

With hindsight, it is easy to overestimate the importance of the U.S. presidential election of 2004. The closeness of the vote on this occasion frequently leads historians to speak of the result as a “turning-point”, ignoring the equally close contests in 2000 and 2008, not to mention such pivotal events as the assassination of Vice-President Schwarzenegger in December 2013.

If the re-election of George W. Bush for his second term as President has a significance in terms of global history, it is that this, far more than his original accession to power, was the point when certain facts became clear to the traditional allies of the U.S.A. Namely, that not only was the behemothic American hegemony finally at the beginning of its long and agonising decline, but that it was determined to take as much of the rest of the world with it as possible.

Without the draconian restrictions on individuals' rights to freedom of movement, association and speech imposed during Bush II's first and second terms, it is difficult to imagine the American public tolerating the atrocities which would later be inflicted on the Constitution, particularly the abolition of the two-term limit which enabled incumbent Cal Douglas to have the Senate declare him President and Commander-in-Chief for life on 16 March 2041. Certainly the Bush administration's legacy included the makings of a totalitarian infrastructure which Douglas was readily able to devote to his “Bible First” agenda. Douglas's early Bible Education legislation, the Salvation Camps and ultimately the mercifully thwarted Armageddon Program, would all have been impossible without the legacy of the Bush administrations.

This legacy also included the network of large-scale overseas protectorates which the United States had been accumulating since the earliest years of the twenty-first century. Most of these puppet states were inspired at some time or other to follow the lead of Britain and Israel and to petition for full status as members of the Union, but America's overseas dominance had been increasingly matched by a virulent xenophobia which led many of its inhabitants to consider the loyalty of San Fransicans or New Yorkers as suspect, let alone Filipinos or Iraqis.

The U.S. empire had spread itself too widely: and with the steadily swelling cultural influence of China over the rest of the globe, and the emergent superstate of Dar-El-Islam, which had after all largely defined itself by its opposition to American ideology, it was inevitable that these foreign territories would fall. What seems more surprising is the subsequent fragmentation of the United States itself, into the balkanised and often competing territories we see today.

The two coasts, always more internationally-minded than the central states, fell under the relatively benign influence of pan-Pacific China and Islamised Europe respectively, and now form moderate buffer zones between the isolationist Southern and Northern United States and the rest of the world. Texas, which had always had hankerings towards independence, and California, which at the beginning of the War in 2053 had been 62% Hispanic, became sovereign nations, a status to which both Britain and Palestine reverted.

Historically speaking, the continental United States had been one of the largest unified territories ever to have existed: its breakup was, in retrospect, inevitable. To trace the current world order back to such a minor event as the re-election of a President who was, at worst, the enthusiastic tool of those more devious and ruthless than himself, is evidently simplistic. Nonetheless, a case can be made...

[From The Road to Disunion by Dorothea Siddiq, Professor of Infidel History at Oxford University (O.U.P., 2104)]

02 November 2004

Post-Birthday Musings

Back at work today, which is a bit of a comedown. Half-term was mind-numbingly unproductive in terms of writing, perhaps because I'm still shagged out after the house move. (Or perhaps because I've been eating too much recently, and have become fat and sluggish -- my metabolism is usually pretty finely balanced between stallion and walrus.) With luck next weekend will be better, since if it's not I'm in severe trouble with my editors.

Oh, but my other editor likes my short story, which is always pleasing. And I had a very pleasant birthday yesterday, and managed not to panic too much about being suddenly 33 years older than I was when I was born. I think some presents are still on their way, but B. gave me To the Devil - a Diva!, the new novel (evidently a 70s Hammer horror spoof) by the ever-wonderful Paul Magrs, and Neil Gaiman's marvellous children's book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.

Various friends, relatives and cats chipped in with other stuff, of which I'm most excited about Iain M Banks's The Algebraist. Not only is Banks one of my favourite authors, but the last time he tackled a posthuman society was the quite wonderful Feersum Endjinn -- not the most highly-regarded of his S.F. novels, I know, but one which I've always admired.

I also have new slippers, which is very nice indeed as the old ones started falling apart quite some time ago, and had very nearly finished the process.

B. and I spent yesterday evening watching Ang Lee's Hulk on DVD -- cinematographically by far the best of the recent crop of Marvel superhero films, and a present from my brother -- and eating the far-too-much elaborate Italian food which B. had bought in specially for the occasion. Mmm.

[3/11/4 -- Edit to Add: My parents' present turned up yesterday -- the entirety of Firefly on DVD. I'm so looking forward to seeing this -- I've heard great things about it from people whose opinion I respect, and I can't see how an S.F. series from Joss Whedon can plausibly fail. (Artistically, that is. Apparently it somehow managed to fail commercially, which is how all the episodes ended up fitting onto one DVD boxed set.)

It's a real treat having an S.F. series to look forward to which is pretty much guaranteed to be excellent, but which I know next to nothing about in advance -- I've deliberately avoided spoilers to the extent that I know considerably more about Doctor Who 2005 than I do about Firefly. So, hurrah, and thanks Mum and Dad.]