21 December 2005

Season's Shriekings

Some of you will have seen this before -- B. and I used it as a Christmas e-card a couple of years ago -- but it seems appropriate:

Click for a larger image.

I won't have regular web access now until after New Year, so any updates which do materialise before 2006 will be brief ones.

A very happy Christmas, or religious or secular festival of choice, to you all.

Draconian Measures

In a review (not yet online) of this book in the latest Fortean Times, eminent cryptozoologist Dr Karl Shuker uses the magnificent word "dracontological".

I had thought that the Greek for "dragon" was simply "δρακος", as in the constellation Draco, and had deduced that therefore the word for the simple study of dragons ought to be "dracology", leading me to believe that "dracontology" must be the study of the existence of dragons, by analogy with "ontology". Sadly, I then remembered that the constellation names are all Latin, and that the Greek for "dragon" is actually "δρακων", so that "dracontology" is simply the word for dragon-study.

All of which preamble allows me to mention my personal favourite work of dracontology, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons, a marvellously loopy book which weighs all the available mythological evidence (the mask-like face, the flaming breath, the affinity with water), couples it with the crucial fact that dragons as described and depicted would have been too heavy to fly, and comes to the remarkable conclusion that dragons were actually the only examples in nature of lighter-than-air flight. Their biochemistry was geared up to producing hydrogen with which they inflated their flotation chambers to take to the air, steering with their obviously-too-small wings and burning the gas off in huge exhalations of flame when they needed to lose altitude.

Dickinson's theory, in which he charts how the traditional legendary dragon might have evolved from dinosaurs and survived to live contemporaneously with early humanity, is never particularly serious but always completely convincing -- a fabulous combination, which held me utterly entranced when I first read the book at the age of twelve. He even explains how their (evidently highly unstable) biochemistry would have tended to consume their entire bodies after death, explaining the otherwise troubling lack of dragon fossils.

The ex-library hardback copy I now own I acquired about ten years ago, but the edition listed at Amazon is evidently a modern re-release. I'd recommend it highly for any twelve-year-olds you may know who are obsessed with evolution and mythology. There may even still be time to get it as a Christmas present.

20 December 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Hypercritical Audience Member

And so to the main business of this blog today: picking holes in the current disnetic adaptation of C.S. Lewis's children's fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

First things first. It has to be said -- indeed, it probably can't be said emphatically enough -- that this film could have been far, far, far, far, far worse. The real-world sequences are not, for instance, updated to the present day or moved to Illinois. There are no songs. The Pevensie children are permitted to retain their English accents, and even more impressively so are nearly all the Narnian characters they encounter. Much of Lewis' dialogue, and almost all of the incidents the book describes, are transferred to the screen more or less intact (although one wonders, cynically, whether the Father Christmas scene would have made it had it not been such a heaven-sent merchandising opportunity). Even the child actors are rarely painful to watch, although there are occasions.

For those of us who worried that Disney would give us a wisecracking Buddy Aslan dispensing New Age wisdom in the voice of, ooh, let's say Eddie Murphy, this is not the film we dreaded.

In broad brushstrokes it is, in fact, remarkably well-done. Visually it holds up well, evoking a vivid landscape which corresponds with that described in the book. The CGI wavers a little when depicting some of the real-world animals -- the rhinos are particularly unconvincing -- but works very well when evoking mythical creatures such as centaurs or phoenixes. There are more chase-, battle- and general action-scenes than in the book, but that's entirely reasonable given the differing demands of literary and cinematic media, and both the larger rôles for Mr and Mrs Beaver and the complete interpolation of characters such as the brave Fox and the minotaur and centaur generals make perfect scriptic sense.

The updating of the childrens' language, and the strenuous spelling-out of anything (christian symbolism excepted) which threatens to remain a subtext, are a good deal more annoying, but understandable in a film written for contemporary children. Even the battle scenes' obvious indebtedness to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is conscionable, although something new would naturally have been more interesting.

But. Oh dear, but but but.

Opening the film with a sequence featuring Luftwaffe bombers over Finchley may have been intriguing as these things go (and comparable in its way to the brilliant beginning of Wilde, which momentarily fools you into thinking you've walked into a Western screening next door), but it immediately provoked a sinking feeling in me[1]. Had the film proceeded to cut from the skies over London to the four Pevensies in the countryside, as a scene-setting exercise explaining just why children were being evacuated in the first place, then this approach could still have worked. Instead, it segues into the air-raid action-sequence of the family taking refuge in its bomb shelter, and Peter having to rescue the errant Edmund, who has gone back into the house to collect a photo of his father.

This introduces us directly to three of the cardinal errors in the film.

Firstly, it obscures the very clear contrast in the book between the children's dreary, mundane lives as evacuees and their thrilling adventures in Narnia. It's clear, in fact, that 1940s London would be just as capable of providing them with excitment and opportunities for heroism as Narnia is. Later, the film treats rural England as a quaint enchanted kingdom in its own right, with heritage-centre scenery and steam-trains, twee costumes and performances and a general sense that this is a place where anything, up to and including magic wardrobes, might be found. The children's lives in the Professor's house should be as drab and oppressive as those of, say, the children in The Others, but the studio simply can't resist disneying the place up until it resembles Peter Pan.

Secondly, the sequence compromises the way Narnia changes the children, and Peter in particular. Peter isn't a hero until he is called upon to be one: his feeling of responsibility for his brother and sisters is absolutely genuine, but untried by any real adversity or danger. He grows in Narnia, and his slaying of the wolf Maugrim to protect Susan is the point where he becomes an adult, or -- as Lewis would presumably have put it -- a man.

The film attempts to make this point through the entirely cack-handed scene on the iced-over river, where Peter is given an altogether-too-explicit moment of choice, which goes on far too long, and opts for what one might consider a creatively pacifist solution rather than killing Maugrim on the spot. The idea is presumably to demonstrate Peter's growth by showing him dithering here, then decisively killing the wolf later on in the film... but since we've already seen him displaying physical bravery in rescuing his brother, the message ceases to be about taking adult responsibility and becomes "When you're grown-up, you'll realise that sometimes it's necessary to kill people". (Or, I suppose, "wolves", not that I find that very much more palatable.)

Thirdly, Edmund. Edmund is the book's triumph, and one of Lewis's greatest achievements in fiction: a character who freely chooses a petty evil over loyalty to his family, and who pays the price in terms of guilt, if not of blood-sacrifice -- but, crucially, with whom the reader can sympathise throughout. In the book, he's motivated, obviously not by an appetite for Turkish Delight, but by dislike and envy of Peter, and specifically of his brother's popularity and authority among their sibling social circle. In the film this is mangled by hints that he feels the absence of his father more keenly than his siblings, and that all he needs to sort him out is actually a stronger authority figure -- which he finds, as do all the (non-evil) characters, in Aslan. His treachery, for which he should be fully responsible, is trivialised as adolescent confusion brought on by an absent father-figure.

In the book, when Aslan reunites Edmund with his siblings, admonishing them, "there is no need to talk to him about what is past," Edmund apologises solemnly to each of them, and they all shake hands. It's a bit of an English moment, admittedly, but a powerful one. In the film, there's no need for him to apologise. He's just a crazy mixed-up kid.

So far then, the message which has come through in the film might be summarised as follows:
1. England is quaint and magical, and the sort of place you might want to go on vacation, when there isn't a war on.
2. Sometimes you have to slaughter your enemies, and to think otherwise is immature.
3. Kids need their dads, or else they may turn for guidance to unsuitable older women, and who knows where that may lead.

So much for the first ten minutes.

I'm being flippant, naturally, but I have some serious problems with the presentation of the children's characters, and with the underlying politics. Perhaps my biggest issue connects to point 2 above -- the utter lack of any glimpse of blood.

When Peter kills Maugrim in Lewis' book, his sword is "all smeared with the Wolf's hair and blood". When Edmund is injured in the final battle, he is "covered in blood, his mouth was open, and his face a nasty green colour". Lewis is not squeamish about presenting violence, and more importantly its consequences. His Father Christmas has understandable reservations about handing over weapons to children.

I'm not suggesting that Lewis was any kind of pacifist -- he definitely wasn't. But he took war seriously, having served in one himself, and did his utmost in his books to teach children that they ought to do likewise.

The film, on the other hand, is positively blithe. We don't see Peter's befouled sword, or Edmund's wound, or even any evidence of the death-blow the Witch has dealt to Aslan. Even the German air raid is merely very loud, rather than harmful to anybody's health. The final battle -- quite unlike the brutal affairs in The Lord of the Rings -- seems to proceed in the manner of a play-fight, without death-blows or gaping wounds or severed limbs or gushing gore: the nearest we get are the positively hygienic (and, in most cases, temporary) demises of those whom the Witch turns to stone. (I'm guessing the shattered griffins might present a problem, but it's not one we ever see.) Here, War is Fun. Even the girls get to join in.

The film is faithful to the text -- remarkably so. But in even a direct reading of any text, one interprets it. The film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brings to its reading of Lewis a 21st-century-American popular agenda about which I can't help but feel profoundly uneasy.

The novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is atypical among the Narnia books, in rather the same way that The Hobbit is an atypical Middle-Earth book. Compared with the later books it's simplistic, lacking in both the creative complexity and the imaginative coherence of the world Lewis later builds up. Stylistically, too, the author's finding his feet, talking down to his readers far more than he will in later volumes. Although Edmund's moral struggle is internalised, it has none of the depth of the dark night of doubt experienced by Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, or the complexities of good faith married to bad religion in The Last Battle.

It is, in a word, the easiest of the Chronicles of Narnia to adapt for children and get right. I have the unpleasant suspicion that, as these film adaptations continue, they'll veer further from the text of each of the books, while parting company ever more definitively from their spirit.

[1] It also got me thinking along the lines of "What if the White Witch got into England through the wardrobe, and teamed up with the Nazis to take over the world?", which I don't think can be what the scriptwriters had in mind.

Ooh, Look...

...I'm being cited in a radical christian site's coverage of the reported anti-war elements in the Christmas Doctor Who special, The Christmas Invasion.

Sentences You Don't Hear Very Often, #47

"I'm glad your trousers dyed your phone purple, so that we can tell the difference."

19 December 2005

The Christmas Anticipation

Urgh. I ate far too much yesterday. "Far too much" these days meaning much less, of course, than it used to -- something I do tend to forget when the opportunity to consume large amounts of food presents itself. B. and I had a very nice pre-Christmas lunch with our goddaughter, her parents and little brother, followed by a kind of open-house thing at our place, with much mulling of wine and fizzing of bucks, and more nibble food than our guests could reasonably be expected to consume by themselves, hence the troubled state of my digestive organs this morning.

Term finished, for me at least, on Friday, which is pleasing as work's been getting rather gruelling just recently. All the inevitable pre-Christmas panicking seems to be reasonably under control, with all the presents for our families covered and only our aforementioned goddaughter and a couple of stray friends still to buy for. Christmas cards are sent, cat-visitors during our visits to parents and in-laws are arranged, and we even seem to have somewhere to go for New Year's Eve, and people to go there with.

I ought really to be getting on with some writing before we go away, but after midweek I'll not be getting much change to access the web until after New Year, so instead I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to catch up with my blogging. Make the most of the next couple of days' updates -- they'll be the last of any substance until 2006.

My head is full of Christmas earworms, but fortunately they're mostly Medieval carols. They were still annoying when I was trying to get to sleep at 6 o'clock this morning, though.

TV Roundup

Of the three TV series I'm in the process of watching or rewatching currently...

Buffy, moving now into the endgame of Season Three, continues to be ace, interspersing some of the series' very best individual episodes (The Zeppo, Doppelgangland, Earshot) with a character-focused arc story (Faith's journey to the dark heart of Slayerhood) just as compelling as that of Season Two -- although, granted, its seriousness is weakened somewhat by the reset-button resolution of that season's aftermath. It helps that Faith is possibly my favourite character in the Buffy universe, ushered by Eliza Dushku's consummate acting through this compellingly believable moral descent and her later redemption. (Plus, of course, she's sex on legs.) But if Buffy tails off (and the matter's arguable), it's certainly hasn't started doing it yet.

The West Wing is a hell of a lot better in Season Six (two more episodes left to go) than in was in Five, although it's achieved this largely by shifting the emphasis altogether away from the Bartlet administration itself and onto the inevitable succession battle. I still miss the era when it was entirely about speech-writing, but there's some very decent stuff on offer here.

I'm finding the programme's attitude to the Republicans particularly intriguing: having fielded an obvious joke candidate against Bartlet in Season Four's second-term elections, this time the writers have decided to pit the Democratic candidate against a Republican nominee who's every bit as implausibly idealised as Bartlet himself -- and is, moreover, played by archetypal counterculture rebel Hawkeye Pierce off M.A.S.H.

This is presumably designed to suggest in Season Seven that Congressman Santos is being given a real run for his money[*], but it's beginning to backfire: as someone who lives on the same planet as the United States, I think I'd prefer to have the capable and honest Vinick in charge, rather than the frankly shambolic Santos. (Either of them, of course, would be far preferable to the chimp chap running the place in the real world, who bears a more than passing resemblance to the aforementioned joke candidate.)

Rome remains utter drivel, relying more and more heavily on implausible coincidence to throw the spurious and unnecessary everyman characters Pullo and Vorenus into the thick of every historical situation, and serving up the same unpleasant splurge of cod-shakespearean diction and 21st-century banality in the dialogue. Apart from the stunning visual texture and a half-decent performance (yes, about half I'd say) by Ciarán Hinds as Caesar, this series has virtually nothing to offer. Even on the most basic level, none of the later sex scenes have lived up to the full-frontal promise of the pilot.

I've been wondering, too, what Rome fanfic is like. I presume there's no shortage of Pullo / Vorenus slash, but has anybody yet written a crossover where they meet Asterix and Obelix?

Come to think of it, a cameo from Gérard Depardieu would liven up the series no end.

[*] OK, so strictly speaking I don't actually know at this point that the Democrat nominee's going to be Santos. But come on.

Sequel Hunter

Telos Publishing have announced that their Time Hunter series of mystery-fantasy-supernatural-S.F.-time-travel-thrillers will be coming to an end next year with the eleventh book in the series, Child of Time by George Mann. I've said before that Time Hunter is an excellent series, with strong central characters, a flexible format and a number of outstanding titles, with my own contribution to the range, Peculiar Lives, being by no means their best[*].

This is a big shame, but of course Telos have to make decisions based on business considerations. Unlike their Doctor Who novellas, though (which were quite simply the best Doctor Who series that there has ever been, in any medium), I don't think the Time Hunter books will be going out of print at any point soon.

Still, you could do a great deal worse than taking advantage of Telos's timely special offer on the first five books in the series, which include my personal favourites The Clockwork Woman and Kitsune.

[*] Although it is, I should emphasise, still bloody good.

Tripping Shortly

I've finally finished reading The History of Christmas, working my way through it a few stories at a time, and it's rather good.

You would, of course, expect me to say that given that I've been encouraging you to buy a copy for months, but I'd recommend you particularly to Simon Bucher-Jones's "The Thousand Years of Christmas" (one of the more overtly S.F. stories in the collection, and a very fine one) Kate Orman's "Nobody's Gift" (Aztec midwinter rituals and psychometry), Joff Brown's "Danse Macabre" (aliens gatecrash a Venetian ball in honour of Lord Nelson), Jonathan Clements' "Ode to Joy" (the Doctor chats to a Japanese fox-spirit) and Matthew Sweet's curtain-raiser "The Lampblack Wars" (distilled Victoriana). Eddie Robson's "Not in My Back Yard" draws on more Doctor Who knowledge (specifically of the New Adventures Virgin Publishing produced during the '90s) than many readers will be bringing to the volume, but is also splendid.

In a cunning Advent-inspired selling-tactic, the book has 24 seasonally-themed stories, and is longer than any previous Doctor Who short story collection from Big Finish. It also finishes with my "The Long Midwinter", a story about midwinter festival celebrations on a brown dwarf in a binary star-system. This is the last time I'm going to tell you to buy the book.

In only slightly related news, I'm reviewing Back in Time: a Thinking Fan's Guide to Doctor Who for surefish: it's a critical book on (mostly) the 2005 series from a christian perspective, although a rather different one from mine. I'm not going to say what I think of the book, mostly because I haven't finished it yet, but I'll let you know when the review appears.

13 December 2005

In Passing...

A bunch of schoolgirls on the bus this morning were ostracising one of their number for not knowing who Bob Marley was.

Sometimes, I think there might be hope for the world.

11 December 2005

Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control...

Because of various extrinsic factors with which I won't bore you, I'm going to have to scale down activity on this blog, at least for a while. I'll still be posting, but almost certainly less often. Which is a shame, probably more for me than it is for you.

The reviews of Anansi Boys and Pattern Recognition are going to have to be put on hold for a while.

I'm going to be away for a couple of weeks or so over Christmas anyway, mind you, so this may not make all that much difference at first. I'm not sure how long the situation will persist, but it's clearly not ideal and I'm hoping it's susceptible to resolution at some point.

Sorry to be so opaque about this. (And no, it's not another writing commission, unfortunately.)

07 December 2005

Books: Interim Report

Short Trips: The History of Christmas has now arrived. It's a lovely rich cranberry colour, and has stories by some splendid people. Mine, "The Long Midwinter", is a kabalistic hard-S.F. Doctor Who piece with a seasonal twist. Buy, read and enjoy.

No time as yet for a proper review of Anansi Boys or Pattern Recognition... but I'm now reading Perdido Street Station, and bugger me if China Miéville isn't every bit as implausibly good as everybody always says he is. (I must admit I was confused in that I thought he was a science-fiction writer, whereas Perdido Street Station -- and, apparently, his other works -- is clearly urbanised, industrialised fantasy. But still, astonishing stuff.) So that's another one I'll need to try and do justice to when I've finished it, although at 867 pages that's not going to be any time soon either.

Aliens of London

A couple of days mostly off work have dispelled the snot in my brain to the extent that I can now think straight, or at least put words in an order that somewhat resembles a legible sentence. So, here's the (mammoth and exhaustive) critical write-up I promised following B.'s and my weekend in London:

Thursday: Left work and headed for Bristol Temple Meads, whence to London Paddington, Tottenham Court Road Tube station and The Fitzroy Tavern, the Bloomsbury pub where, for reasons long since vanished in the shiny metal corridors of history, London-based Doctor Who fans traditionally meet on the first Thursday of each month.

This was the first time I'd been, and I had a splendid, if bewildering, time meeting large numbers of people with whom I'd only ever corresponded by email, including such editors of mine as Simon and Lawrence. (Actually, Lawrence and I had met before about six years ago, but he was being a bit vague at the time and doesn't seem to have formed any memories of the event.) Talked writing, Doctor Who and S.F. in general with various people and generally had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I'm likely to go back the next time work (specifically, work in Bristol on Friday mornings) allows.

At closing time I proceeded from the Tavern to my sisters-in-law's flat in Borough, where B. was staying, and joined her in their spare bed.

Friday: We got up late and went to the riotous assembly of food-and-drink stallage that is Borough Market. There we breakfasted lavishly in an all-you-can-eat bread-and-jam café (very possibly, now I come to think of it, the only all-you-can-eat bread-and-jam café) then wandered around saying "Mmmm" at various things. We bought chocolate truffles, exciting dried fruit and (predictably) an exciting selection of bottled real ales from Utobeer, which I'm looking forward to trying once I'm able to taste things again. The only reason we didn't buy any, or indeed all, of the cheese on offer was that we had no way to keep it cool until we got back to Bristol.

Friday and Saturday nights we were staying at a hotel (the Ramada Hyde Park, if you're desperate to know), courtesy of Tesco's iniquitous but helpful customer-bribery tokens. The hotel was decent enough -- big bed, OK shower, adequate breakfast -- but getting our bags across London was considerably less fun. Still, that afternoon we checked in, wandered around the immediate area a little and then headed for The Victoria, a Fuller's pub which had been recommended to us by, and where we'd arranged to meet, various ex-DougSoc types including dogrando, Juliet and Silk.

The pub itself was nice enough, with some interesting Victorian prints (including a very sentimental one of Victoria, Albert and the kids in some kind of bower), standard city-pub food including nachos, and a strangely curtailed range of beer including, absurdly, no London Pride. Still, we had a splendid time chatting and drinking, so hurrah again for vaguely S.F.-inspired social groupings.

Saturday: After consuming large quantities of hotel breakfast (always important when it's all been paid for beforehand), we headed out to two exhibitions we'd particularly wanted to see whilst in the metropolis: The Science of Aliens at the Science Museum and Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia at the British Museum.

The former was rather disappointing -- for the most part, it recycled stuff which could be found in any documentary or "young adult" factual book on Outer Space and / or Science Fiction Films (the only thing it was rather fun to be up close to was a life-size model of the Alien Queen, which kept roaring loudly).

By far the most interesting section -- which we'd read about in a Fortean Times article -- was a room devoted to speculative xenoecology, where scientists had extrapolated alien ecosystems for a pair of theoretical planets, Blue Moon and Aurelia. (The results are apparently also available in glorious CGI-vision in a Channel 4 documentary, which we missed entirely when it was on telly and which, idiotically, the museum shop wasn't selling.) This room was spectacular, with vast horizontal touchscreen-benches simulating the ecosystems in dynamic real-time, tappable icons and menus providing further information about the organisms and their interaction. It wasn't really worth the entrance price, though, especially when the DVD exists.

Forgotten Empire was altogether classier, with a vast number of artefacts from ancient Persia, one of those cultures which modern history tends to ignore and which always fascinate me. (One piece of text made the important point that, while relations with the Persian Empire were an ongoing and defining concern in the history of the ancient Greeks, to the Persians Greece was merely a barbaric and not-very-interesting land somewhere on their borders. Until that Alexander chap came along, of course.) At its height, the Empire stretched from Thessalonika to Pakistan, Khazakstan to Libya, incorporating dozens if not hundreds of peoples and cultures and -- obviously -- nicking all their gold to build great big palaces in Persepolis.

It's the kind of thing I love to learn about, but there's a limit to how much you can understand through even the most well-captioned artifacts. (I probably need to read a book.) There was very little about Zoroastrianism, for instance, although in its influence on later monotheistic religions it may well be Persia's most enduring legacy in the world. (I was fascinated to learn that, when he "liberated" Babylon, Cyrus the Great paid his respects to the local creation deity Marduk, rather in the manner of the Romans appeasing the Gallic gods. Not as monotheistic as all that, then.)

Probably the most impressive objects were the huge chunks of architecture from the royal palaces, including a great big segment of pillar, a couple of giant stone friezes which easily rivalled the Elgin Marbles, and a gold paw the size of a microwave oven, originally part of a lion on the same scale.

Once we'd finished with the Persians, we paid a desultory visit to the Aztec and Bronze Age sections of the Museum -- before heading back into S.F. geek mode for a visit to the huge new Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, where we admired my books and bought several other people's.

By that point we were knackered, so we finished the day with a quiet meal at the Mahal Restaurant just round the corner from the hotel. Delicious Indian-fusion food, quite different from the one-size-fits-all menus you get in most Indian restaurants (in Bristol, at least -- perhaps the typical London palate is more sophisticated). Being a cheese freak I particularly enjoyed the feta samosas and paneer dopiaza, while B. had a kind of curry tortilla thing called a "frankie". The onion bhajis were also particularly good.

Sunday: Again, we got up late and ate too much breakfast. We didn't have all that much time left in London, but we managed a wander through Kensington Gardens, visiting the ducks and Peter Pan, and spent a while at the Serpentine Gallery. They had a fairly weird exhibition themed around sleep and dreams, which had the big advantage of providing beds to lie on, assuming you didn't mind being treated as a work of art by the other punters.

In the afternoon we lugged our luggage all the way to Richmond -- which again wasn't nearly so much fun -- visited B.'s Granny and picked up the car which B. had left there. Thence back to Bristol via the M4.

Fun, manic, sociable, comfortable, intellectual, romantic, beery, foody, geeky, arty, sleepy: almost everything I look for in a weekend away. We need to do it all again sometime.

05 December 2005

In Summary, Unsummery

Went to London. Had a nice time. Returned with hideous cold, which is currently preventing the effective operation of my brain and which it's been pointed out may well have been contracted by standing outside a pub in the freezing rain with a decreasing number of dogged Doctor Who fans.

Will go into more detail about the first two sentences of the above when the effects of the third have receded.

01 December 2005


My geek concealant's wearing thin.
MY BOSS: I'm just going down to Admin, to fold these leaflets into three with the machine-that-folds-things-into-three.

ME: [Quite sincerely] Does it really? How exciting!

[Long pause.]

MY BOSS: Right then. [Goes.]
I'm off to London until Sunday now, to meet with sundry people and do the sight-seeing thing with B. I'll tell you all about it when I get back, but in the meantime I probably won't be reading my email, and certainly won't be updating here.

Be good while I'm gone.

29 November 2005

A Number of Entirely Disparate Things

My self-enforced caffeine fast is nearly at an end now. Come Thursday I will once again be permitted tea (which I almost certainly won't bother with, in the normal run of things), chocolate (which I most certainly shall) and, of course, coffee, which at present the jury's still out on. If it turns out that I still can't write without the stuff, then obviously it's a necessity. If it turns out that I now can (and I'm going to give it a good try), then I shall reserve it for special occasions, like when I'm having to stay up late or be socially vivacious beyond the call of duty, and subsist for the rest of the time on decaff.

I need, of course, to make the experiment in the first place. So far -- apart from these blog entries, which I realise aren't necessarily evidence of anything -- I've managed an idea and a page-long plot synopsis for a novel. I clearly need to attempt something more substantially creative than that, involving the extensive manufacturing of actual prose. Still, there's no shortage of speculative projects (plus one rather more definite thing) which I've been meaning to get round to for ages now.

One thing I have discovered over the past three months is that ginseng, ginkgo biloba and omega-3 oils, while quite possibly splendid and healthful things in themselves, do not in any capacity substitute for caffeine. The only thing which substitutes for caffeine, so my contact at the local health food shop tells me, is something else with caffeine in it, which isn't a terribly useful piece of information.

This morning I came into work by bus and train, as the Met Office was warning of severely icy roads in, among many, many other places, Bristol. Since being here I've been phoned by our burglar alarm to let me know it's been set off. This is almost certainly the result of a cat fight (as it has been on the previous 20 or 30 times this has happened), but on this occasion I can't moped home to check, which is distressing me at present. Still, never mind.

Had a very pleasant weekend with B., taking advantage of the fact that after her nightmarish November she no longer has to work on Sundays. We scouted out the route of a pub crawl we're thinking of holding around the pub-rich Hotwells district of Bristol. We easily found five hostelries within short walking distance of one another which offer a fine selection of real ales, including The Bag O'Nails which boasts up to seven guest ales (and whose name, fabulously, is supposed to be derived from "bacchanalia"), and Bath Ales's The Merchant's Arms, where I lingered lovingly over a pint of Festivity, their gorgeously flavoursome dark rum porter.

(And from researching those links, I now see that the 2006 Bristol Beer Festival has finally been scheduled. Hurrah. Right, I'm going to get organised about inviting people down for that as well.)

We followed our beer with the Advent Service at St Mary Redcliffe, the church which seems to serve Bristol in the capacity of a cathedral (in terms of being big, popular and resolutely High Anglican) despite the fact that Bristol has a perfectly decent Church of England cathedral at its disposal. My taste in worship is fairly eclectic, but for an Advent service, complete with minor-key hymns and candles against the dark and cold of a winter night, it's difficult to beat high-church Anglicanism. I'm going to make a real effort to go back there for their Nine Lessons and Carols on the 18th.

Meanwhile, I've started -- and, because it's so bloody good, something like nearly finished -- Pattern Recognition, William Gibson's non-SF thriller. It's absolutely enthralling, and also conceptually astonhishing as Gibson's cyberpunk aesthetic -- originally intended as a metaphor for the disorientation and alienation of commodified modern living -- is applied directly, and without imaginative prophylaxis, to the real world.

I'm surprised to see most of the reviews at Amazon being so negative about it (although I suppose it might yet turn out anticlimactic). A full review may well follow at some point, although Anansi Boys is still ahead of it in the queue.

No sign of The History of Christmas as yet.


There is an itch: somewhere on your body, on your skin, a nagging twinge in need of the attention of an abrasive fingernail. It might be on your shoulder, or your hip, or in the pit of your knee. It could be anywhere. It sits in the shadow of your awareness, but as soon as your attention is drawn to it, the knowledge of it becomes inescapable.

Give it a good scratch. That's right. There, that's better, isn't it?


...Except that you have started thinking now about itches, and they never come alone. As soon as one is worried away by scratching, you become conscious of another, somewhere else. Your earlobe, perhaps, your ankle, or your instep. Insteps are the worst. You have to take your foot right out of your shoe to scratch them, and then you have the agony of tickling yourself with every grating nail-stroke.

But this itch, too, is susceptible to easy resolution. Scratch it away. Mm, yes, that's good.


At any time -- at every moment of the day and night -- your skin is sending you these itches from a dozen or more sites across your body: nose, ankle, nipple, wrist, the crevice of your armpit, the small of your back, each with their own unique niggling sensations. They slip beneath the threshold of your consciousness. Sometimes they provoke unaware responses from your fingers, sometimes not. They are no trouble to you at all.

Unless, of course, something calls your particular attention to them.

25 November 2005

Weathering It

I was up at bloody 6:15 am this morning, aware that there'd been some severe weather warnings for nearby counties, and worried (despite the fact that the worst the Met Office had predicted for us here in Bristol was light rain) that there might be overnight snow or ice which would make it distinctly unsafe to take the moped to work.

It's generally a really bad idea to propel yourself along wet, slippery, unstable surfaces at speed on two wheels, and when the weather gets untenable I generally take the 7:01 train from our nearby branchline station to Bristol Temple Meads, then a bus to work. This morning there was no need to do that: when I checked outside the house at 6:50 there was no ice or frost and it clearly hadn't snowed overnight. What's more, the Met Office was now claiming that Bristol could expect happy sunny skies throughout the day.

Hurrah, I thought, aware that this meant I had another twenty-five minutes before I needed to take the bike to work.

Twenty minutes later -- and thus nine minutes after the local train had left -- I stepped out of the house into a bloody snowstorm. The damn stuff was coming down out of the sky in huge weltering blobs, lathering the ground like the runoff from some Olympian shampooing session.

This is England (I thought) for God's sake, not Newfoundland! It doesn't snow in November. Snow threatens to come during the last two weeks of December, actually arrives in the first week of January in time for everyone to say what a shame it was that we didn't have a white Christmas, and then buggers off again for the year apart from two freak flurries in the middle of February.

Now this had happened I didn't know what to think any more.

I had to get the bus into town -- which involved standing in an open-plan bus "shelter" next to a snogging couple and getting fresh snow blown in my face -- and then another bus out to St Brad's -- which involved sitting directly in front of a man who was ranting with disturbing eloquence at his ex-girlfriend over the phone and occasionally thumping the window -- and arrive later than usual at work -- which involved running around and panicking to get everything sorted out in time for the library to open at 8:30.

By that time, of course, the snow had stopped, and the clear and sunny skies which we've been enjoying since then had set in. In fact the adverse weather lasted for precisely the duration of my usual motorcycle journey to work.

I could have got here sooner if I'd just waited for the damn snow-shower to finish, and then left on the bloody moped.

Although admittedly I would have then skidded and died on the recently snow-greased roads, so it mightn't have been such a good plan.

24 November 2005


B. and I have been ludicrously tired recently, B. from her current sustained and hectic stint at work and me from looking after her and picking up the slack at home, so last Saturday was reasonably low-key -- a trip to another nice local café (too local to have a website), a return visit to the deli and a trip to the cinema to see The Libertine in the evening.

Never having seen the play, all we knew about the film was that Johnny Depp was playing the Earl of Rochester, famous among Eng. Lit. undergraduates the world over for writing dead rude poems about shagging and stuff, so we were expecting rather more of an hilarious historical romp than we got. There are indeed some funny bits (notably the musical performance of Rochester's satirical poem "Signior Dildo"), but Depp's portrayal of an individual in the progressively degenerate, humiliating and hideous late stages of syphilis -- reconstructed with enthusiastic realism by the makeup artists -- isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. It goes without saying that Depp's performance is mesmerising, and John Malkovitch as Charles II was pretty bloody good as well... but The Libertine is very much not a cheery film, and individuals fixated on Depp's physical beauty go to see it at their own particular risk.

Oh, and there's an awful lot of swearing, too. What with that and reading Cock and Bull I feel as if I've encountered more incidences of the paired c-words this week than during any equivalent prior period.

I think the review of Anansi Boys may have to wait for a time when I'm not so exhausted -- possibly next week sometime, when B.'s hard stint at work has finally ended. In preparation for the much-anticipated The Christmas Invasion, I may also update the recently quiescent Parrinium Mines with reactions to such events in the Doctor Who world as the 2005 season DVD boxed set, the recent Children in Need special and the sad end of the proper Doctor Who novels.

However, all of this needs to wait until I have the time. We'll be spending most of this weekend recovering -- including meeting up for lunch with our goddaughter and her family at the Tobacco Factory on Saturday -- then on Thursday next week we're off for a long weekend in London, consorting (and possibly, depending on circumstances, cavorting) with sundry sisters-in-law, Doctor Who fans and ex-DougSoc members.

Other than all that (and some mild but hardly conclusive expressions of interest in the pseudonymous pulp novel I was talking about a while ago) not a vast amount's been going on here. I do, however, have intelligence that Short Trips: The History of Christmas is now in release, which is good news. I'm looking forward to getting my copies through the post, and if you've pre-ordered it (and if not, why not?) then so should you be.

21 November 2005

Birthday Presents: Final Roundup

From B.: The Doctor Who "First Series" boxed set, finally out today.

From my little brother and sister-in-law: Battery-operated sonic screwdriver, hurrah.

From B.'s parents: The Writer's Handbook 2006 and Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts.

From B.'s granny and my aunt-uncle combo: Money and a book token, which I cannily exchanged at Borders for Anansi Boys and V for Vendetta.

From R., M.(1), E. and L.: 300 Beers To Try Before You Die.

From H., M.(2) and C.: A splendid Earth ball.

From my beloved parents: A smart new denim jacket, ideal for my requirements in all particulars save that of having been designed to fit a moderately buxom woman. It's too small for B., so this one's going to have to be exchanged at Christmas.

Last Monday I went to Neil Gaiman's book-signing at Waterstone's, in order for him to sign a copy of Anansi Boys for me and one as a birthday present for M.(1) (which was exchanged on Friday evening for the compendium of beers mentioned above.) Anansi Boys is wonderful and great fun, and ought to be getting its promised writeup on this blog at some point really soon now.

(Gaiman also signed my copy of Good Omens at last, meaning that the Terry Pratchett signature which it acquired some thirteen years ago now finally has company and a punchline. He's a perfectly charming man, and also one who now owns a copy of Of the City of the Saved..., although if he ever gets the time to read it I'll be astonished.)

300 Beers To Try Before You Die is a thing of beauty, laid out according to beer styles, with a description (and usually a photo) of each beer, a flag to tell you which nation it comes from, and space for your own tasting notes. There are even little tick-boxes next to the entries in the index, so that you can tell which ones you've already tried. You can tell it's designed for CAMRA members: it's difficult to imagine how it could be better laid out to please beer geeks. Needless to say, I love it.

By my reckoning I've tried 43 of the beers in question already, and I'm not dead yet. Of course those are mostly the British ones: there are a surprising number from the U.S. and Australia, as well as the more obvious German, Belgian and Czech offerings. Obviously more foreign travel is indicated, if I'm going to live up to my obligations.

18 November 2005


To add to the climatic absurdity, the heating here at work is turned up so excruciatingly high that I'm developing a headache. There doesn't seem to be such a setting as "Keep things at a comfortable room temperature" on the college thermostat: it evidently switches straight from "No seriously, we like it sub-Arctic" to "Braise on a high heat, turning frequently". If I try to put on my cold-weather clothing before I'm physically passing the threshold of the building I risk heatstroke.

The students keep opening windows and allowing icy gusts to blow through the library, withering all they touch. It's non-ideal.


Bloody hell, it's cold today.

If next week isn't any warmer, I'm probably going to have to stop coming into work by moped. The roads are getting icier, and it becomes extremely dodgy to be navigating them on two wheels at any speed.

Also the wind chill factor resulting from driving into freezing cold air at 30mph is considerable. I'm rather fond of the sensation of having fingers, and tend to get unnerved when I lose it.

This means getting up annoyingly even earlier than I do usually and taking a train from near home to Bristol Temple Meads, and then a bus out to the vicinity of St Brad's, which is not fun. But at least I can do it without (much) danger of frostbite.

16 November 2005

Stuff Update

I'm not ignoring you, I've just been busy. Not with anything of any interest, mind you -- just busy. I have a books-related post (or at least, a mental note to write a books-related post) which I'll be putting up after the weekend so that it doesn't inadvertently reveal a friend's birthday present, but in the meantime...

Food: very nice veggie mezze (also available in vegan) from the café attached to the Tobacco Factory theatre -- a place we need to investigate more thoroughly, in a nearby region of Bristol which we also need to investigate more thoroughly. (It also contains, for instance, at least two other interesting-looking eateries, one of which the manager at Casa Caramba recommended to us, and a decent delicatessen which sold us cheese and beer.)

Beer: Bath Ales's organic Wild Hare from the deli, and at the Tobacco Factory some good and very local stuff from the Bristol Beer Factory, which I'd not tasted before. The Golden ale was good, but the one I liked best with the food was the Red, not listed on the site. (I'm developing something of a partiality for red ales, in fact. Mmm, mellow yet flavoursome.)

Books: Cock and Bull by Will Self. I'm alternating between finding it addictively enjoyable and too appallingly self(ho ho)conscious for words. Less compelling than The Quantity Theory of Insanity, although with more creative deployment of rude words. I was amused by the reference to the protagonist's [highlight whitespace to read, but please not if you're easily offended] "cuntal area". I'm also enjoying Simon's Doctor Who book, The Time Travellers.

1. The West Wing Season Six is a distinct improvement on the dreary Season Five, but it has a way to go before it reaches the heights of Seasons One to Four, and is hampered by having to play (presumably partly actor-directed) games of musical chairs with the White House staff and their posts.
2. Just finished Buffy Season Two -- and yes, the conclusion to Becoming is astonishingly moving and effective, but the two-parter's still not flawless. Too much of the climax relies on the staple fantasy plot device of "Look, that's just how it's fated to be, OK?", while Angel[us]'s motivation for wanting to bring on armageddon needs some exploration in light of Spike's sensible aversion to the idea. Plus Kendra is killed off more because the writers have realised she's a bit hopeless and want to introduce Faith instead, than for any proper narrative reason. Still a bloody good story, though.
3. Good grief, Rome's not much cop, is it?

I think that about covers it.

11 November 2005


Ah well, I guess it was inevitable at some point: somebody's syndicated Peculiar Times as a LiveJournal feed.

As far as I can make out, new posts only appear in part, with a link here, so it's probably not going to deprive this site of readers. One thing I would mention, though, is that I often edit posts heavily in the first half hour or so after I post them here, sometimes adding whole paragraphs as afterthoughts. I believe it's the case that an LJ feed only archives the first version of a post... so if you find the extract on the syndicated feed consists of an apparently complete but shorter-than-usual post, then you may wish to check the link anyway, to make sure that hasn't been supplemented with extra juicy text.

10 November 2005

...Because Proper Tea is Theft

More in an attempt to keep my hand in than anything else, I've just sent three mini-pitches in to a company that's launching a range of "well-written [...] pulp" SF and fantasy novels set in a quartet of all-new shared universes[1]. I've been having some fun seeing just how pulpy I could make them and remain convinced that I could produce something good. Obviously I don't know whether the publishers will be interested, but if they are... well, the pay's very decent.

I don't want to end up getting inextricably associated with shared-world writing, though, so I'd probably be writing under a pseudonym. Which means there probably won't be any big announcements here.

On the other hand, if I was writing another novel I don't think I could keep the fact quiet on this blog without completely making things up -- which I don't want to do, as one of its purposes is to let friends I rarely see know how I'm getting on. So, if these publishers do want to commission me (and of course they may well not), expect a certain amount of equivocating and vagueness about what I'm writing at the moment.

I do need to get back into writing properly, though. It's been too long since I did anything creative -- not since I finished "The Long Midwinter" back in June, in fact. Lack of coffee hampers me (and God, I hate hate hate hate HATE mint tea[2]), but I need at least to show willing before once again embracing that particular crutch.

[1] Given a certain understanding of "all-new", that is.

[2] On the other hand, Twinings' orange, mango and cinnamon blend is surprisingly decent. Or possibly I'm just cracking up.

07 November 2005

Mitchell, Priest and Mo[o]re

I've been getting more time to read recently with B. at work in the evenings, which means I've now finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Christopher Priest's The Glamour and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as well.

[NB: What follows shall contain spoilers. Not Invented Here and others who don't want to read details about Cloud Atlas may wish to skip this entry.]

Cloud Atlas is a clever, intricate, substantial read, and also thoroughly entertaining. As mentioned previously, it's structured as a series of nested novellas, with multiple connections between and across them; the primary conceit being that the protagonist of each story encounters in some form the story of the previous protagonist. The outermost novella, which starts and closes the book, is therefore the earliest, set in the Pacific islands in the 1840s, whereas the central, undivided narrative is that of the final collapse of what may be civilisation's last remnant, also on a Pacific island hundreds of years hence. The novel's setting thus comes virtually full circle, but only by way of 1930s Belgium, 1970s California, 2000s England and vaguely-2100s Korea.

This allows for some wonderfully effective stylistic pyrotechnics, as each separate narrative is told not only in its own extremely distinctive voice, but also in an identifiable genre: nineteenth-century sea tale, epistolary novel, crime thriller, contemporary satire, futuristic dystopia and finally post-apocalyptic. Each section has its own distinct language and vocabulary, with the two future settings developing their own rich and unique dialects only partially indebted, like the settings themselves, to existing science fiction.

The novel has an indignant and vocal sense of a history where injustice and oppression are rife, from capitalist expoitation by Victorian missionaries, to the enslavement of genetically-engineered "fabricants", to the heartless incarceration of the elderly in contemporary Britain. Mitchell's theme is the urge for power and the self-destructive lengths to which it will drive both individuals and societies -- including, on the largest scale, human civilisation itself. There's a strong suggestion that the individual protagonists are in fact the same reincarnated soul, forging similar relationships and making equivalent choices from one era to another: that said, there's also the suggestion that some of the stories are fictional rather than historical in relation to one another, and in particular that the future segments could be the product of the present-day protagonist's stroke-induced delirium.

It's the kind of book which demands an obsessive (and fannish) nitpicking to tease out the relationships between its stories: what, for instance, is the significance of the comet birthmark? The repeated motif of falls from bridges or balconies? The messy romantic breakups? The Cloud Atlas Quartet? The words "hydra" and "slooshed"? Are characters other than Ewing / Frobisher / Rey / Cavendish / Sonmi / Meronym also reincarnated -- and are those six actually the same person, or is the author playing a trick on us? Who is "fictional" and who is "real"? Is the 1970s crime novel segment deliberately bad, or is this just a product of the voice that Mitchell is pastiching?

Ultimately, the novel functions as a historical thesis drawn from a wide compendium of exploitation and compassion, incarceration and escape -- the contrary urges which underpin all our behaviours, savage and civilised alike. I keep changing my mind as to whether or not it counts as SF.

On which note, The Glamour may have a stab at justifying its central conceit of "naturally invisible" people in terms of hardwired social behaviours, negative hallucination, post-hypnotic suggestion and the like, but in fact it is -- as the climax definitively proves -- a work of magic realism emerging from the SF tradition. Indeed this description seems to cover all the Priest novels I've read so far: The Prestige with its late-Victorian stage magicians using the emergent marvel of electricity to perform the impossibilities it once seemed to promise; The Separation with its dreamlike (and possibly dreamed-into-existence) ambiguities about the true outcome of the Second World War; and A Dream of Wessex with the virtual reality which becomes, thanks to its participants' emotional investment, reality itself.

I also suspect that at some point Mr Priest may have been involved in a love triangle with a nice middle-class young woman and her monstrously manipulative ex-boyfriend, who may just possibly have had the power to bend reality to his will. It's just a hunch.

The novel is compelling and sophisticated, blending the theme of literal invisibility (the "glamour" of the title, with its wide range of potential applications to human social relations) with those of our reconstructed memories of the past, and of our interaction with time and landscape. The final twist, which brings all of these elements together in an unhappy ending which effectively redefines all that we've read so far, is unsettling and beautiful.

All of which was marred for me by the annoyingly half-arsed attempt to bring the text "up to date". The Glamour was published in 1984, yet the copyright page bears the ugly legend "© 1984, 1985, 1996, 2005", suggesting the successive amendments which have managed to turn it into a huge mess. Nominally the characters own computers, spend euros when abroad and have at least heard of mobile phones, but every so often the story's original 1980s reality makes an Ubik-like attempt at reasserting itself with a reference to sending a telegram, or to the "flickering orange digits" on a petrol-pump. More seriously, the characters' actions and decisions take no account of the existence of the internet, mobiles or even answering machines, making a nonsense of, if not the plot, at least many of its constituent events.

This is particularly irritating because it's so utterly unnecessary. Why on earth do the publishers imagine anyone would object to reading a novel set in the '80s?

I see that The Extremes is similarly "© 1998, 2005", which makes me somewhat less eager to read it. At least seven years isn't too huge a gap, but I really hope Gollancz don't do this to all of Priest's older works -- the Soviet-inflected future of A Dream of Wessex, for instance, would end up looking particularly silly.

V for Vendetta is set in 1997-98, and I would really prefer it if that wasn't changed for the forthcoming film version, thank you very much. It's a distinctively Thatcher-era vision of the dystopian future, with a near-miss nuclear apocalypse leading to a fascist takeover of England, where all the gays, blacks and other subversives are neatly expunged in concentration camps, and the barmy neo-christian dictator bears certain startling similarities to Chief Constable James Anderton. (I couldn't help noticing that it had almost exactly the same plot as Frank Miller's supposedly groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns, as well.)

The book suggests that the only way a society like this can be overturned is to tear it all down and begin again from the beginning: an argument with considerable historical justification, but one which makes for deeply uncomfortable reading, as the terrorist protagonist in his Guy Fawkes costume murders his way through the upper echelons of government, blowing up several London landmarks and psychologically brutalising his young female companion along the way.

V for Vendetta was Moore's earliest attempt at an ongoing series, and compared with the flawless virtuosity of a work like Watchmen, his lack of experience does show. Nevertheless, many of his trademark devices are already present: games with the panel layouts; dialogue with double or triple meanings; echoes of previous images and dialogue; songs both original and found which comment chorically upon the action; and extensive use of poetical quotations. Plus of course an unsettling yet charismatic superantihero.

For anyone who's enjoyed Moore's later work (and frankly who's read it and hasn't?), it is an essential read. I'm certainly glad I got round to it at last.

Four of a Kind

A while ago, a LiveJournal friend pointed out (in a friends-only post, sadly, so I can't link to it here) that there should be crossover slash fiction pairing bisexual time-travelling action-hero Captain Jack from Doctor Who (and forthcoming spinoff Torchwood) with camp eyelinered pirate Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribean.

Inevitably, another friend pointed out almost immediately that there is.

Today's challenge is to locate or write a metatextual coupling between shy, closeted episcopalian Father Jack from Six Feet Under and, erm, Father Jack from Father Ted.

06 November 2005

Fungicidal Urges

Biochemically speaking, fungi are closer to animals than they are to plants. I find the squeaking noises mushrooms make whilst frying indescribably disturbing.

Took advantage of B.'s single day off this week yesterday to go into town together and do some shopping. B. finally got round to spending an Oil and Vinegar token left over from leaving her last job, while my birthday money was used very satisfyingly to purchase Anansi Boys, V for Vendetta and Six Feet Under Season Three, which I'm looking forward to reading and / or watching soon. (Revised Amazon wish list here, for anyone reading this who might be planning to buy me a Christmas present.) A very late lunch at the Boston Tea Party was followed by a trip to see The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was almost deserted as nearly everyone else was out watching fireworks.

This classic of lapinthropic terror was highly entertaining, although I felt that stretching a Wallace and Gromit story out to an hour and a half was pushing the limits of the format. (Plus there were rude bits -- belching, nudity and more than one off-colour pun -- which I don't remember from the earlier films in the series.) As ever, the real charm and humour lay in the hugely inventive visual jokes rather than in the dialogue, although there are excellent voice performances from Helena Bonham Carter et al.

(Certainly the film is streets, and arguably whole motorway junctions, ahead of the banal rubbish which the cinema had selected as a supporting feature, presumably on the grounds that people who go to see animated films can't possibly be expected to have any taste.)

Speaking of Six Feet Under...

[OK, hang on, SPOILERS here if you haven't seen it...]

...the final episode, Everyone's Waiting, which aired on E4 last Wednesday, was truly phenomenal right from the opening scene when, instead of the death which has begun every episode so far, we were surprised with a birth. OK, so there's an argument for saying that the story was a little rushed, with the ever-dysfunctional Fisher family sorting out their individual and corporate issues in the space of an hour and a half's screentime, but still... the scene around the family dining-table, where all the surviving Fishers and ex-Fishers, disparate and unconventionally-connected though they are, come together as a family at last to toast the memory of their beloved son / stepson / husband / father / brother / uncle / brother-in-law Nate, moved me more than anything else I've watched for quite a while. And the final montage, where we follow the family into the future, was just phenomenal.

The series has always been about mortality, so it's fitting that it ends by showing us the deaths of all the major characters... but what other mainstream series would finish with tableaux set at various points during the next eighty years, and make a fair stab at appropriately futuristic design-work for all of them, even though most last only a few seconds?

B.'s back at work today, and not expected home till some mad time like 11:30 tonight, so I'm at home frying mushrooms among other things. If you use little enough oil, a huge plateful is only around 50 calories, and the whiny little buggers are delicious.

01 November 2005

Wildthyme on Topic

Well, obviously I chose finishing the web updates over videos and beer. The annotations to my short story "Minions of the Moon" in Wildthyme on Top are now available online, with extensive wittering from me on the subjects of Renaissance alchemy, cosmology and astrology, Elizabethan drama, classical myth, utopian science fiction, transvestitism, nanotechnology and popular music.

As with the annotations to Of the City of the Saved..., they're intended as a bit of fun to flesh out the reading experience, rather than as an essential component of it. As with them, you'll need to beware spoilers if you've not yet read the story itself.


Older Than Jesus...

...Yes, I'm 34 today.

You know you're getting older when the founder of your religion starts looking young. I bet Confucians don't have this problem.

The pre-anniversary meal at Casa Caramba was very nice indeed, although there wasn't the range of veggie food we were used to at Casa Mexicana, and the works of Abba were being played rather more incessantly and indefatigably than we'd ideally have wished. (It turns out that my previous entry was a little misleading: while Casa Caramba was indeed opened by the owners of Casa Mexicana, in much the same way that Cambridge University was founded from Oxford, it seems that both have been under their own management for a few years now.) If you get the chance to try exactly one Mexican restaurant in Bristol, it still has to be the original Casa, I'm afraid.

So far, my birthday has only brought me the present from my parents-in-law, who've very kindly provided the 2006 Writer's Handbook and Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts. Since B.'s promised me the DVD box set when it comes out, and my own parents' present hasn't reached me yet, and most of the other people I know are too jaded by my own hopeless birthday-remembering skills to get me anything, that's probably the lot for now.

Oh, hang on. I did get an inflatable "earth from space" globe, complete with luminescent cityglow, as an early present from H., M. and C. the other weekend. That was rather fab.

B.'s working late tonight, and indeed most of this month, so it'll probably be beer and videos for me this evening. Or I suppose I could finish working on my web updates.

29 October 2005

Stripping Railway Stations of Their Context (and, in Some Cases, Function)

B.'s working this weekend, so I got up early and nabbed a lift into Bath so I could investigate the Surreal Spaces exhibition at the Victoria Gallery, which we saw advertised on Monday.

The reproductions on the website sadly don't do the artist's work justice: the canvases are lucid and fantastically detailed, and the image they've used to headline the exhibition, of curious people peering down at Bath from the height of some colossal imaginary viaduct, is breathtaking when seen up close. Philip Bouchard isn't someone I'd heard of previously (and nor has Wikipedia, although Art.com sells a single poster of a painting which wasn't in the exhibition), but he has an eye for architecture and the way it looks in certain lights which is quite uncanny. In Bath, the viaduct is still lit golden-pink by the setting sun while the city below is in near-darkness, an effect which is outrageously beautiful.

The exhibition was a small one -- apart from Bath there were perhaps ten full-sized pieces (plus a handful of vignettes, which were for sale and looked to have had a lot less care taken over them). My favourites were the fantastical blendings of familiar (yet impressive) architecture with unfamiliar landscape, so that, for instance, St Pancras Station stands in all its gothic glory amidst a rolling countryside of hills and lakes, with a lone steam-train trundling into it from another viaduct.

I found the more self-consciously surrealistic elements of his paintings -- giant chess-pieces, bodies of water becoming curtains, split-level horizons and the like -- pretentious and a little tired, given the kinds of things Magritte was doing back in the 1920s, but still, the man has real talent.

I wandered around Bath for a while in search of second-hand bookshops, but found that they were mostly either pants or priced way out of my range. (I did pick up cheap copies of Justina Robson's Mappa Mundi and Will Self's Cock and Bull , though.) I also scouted out the farmer's market, held on Saturdays in the disused Green Park railway station to the west of the city, which sells all sorts of goodies including Daisy farmhouse cheeses.

The bastard train company had decided not to run any bastard trains today, so I got a bus back to Bristol. Since then I've been having a late lunch and reading more of the incredibly complex, layered and intraconnected Cloud Atlas (over three-quarters of the way through now, so expect a review at some point soonish).

When B. comes back, we'll be going out for yet another meal (probably the last in a while, though, as her workload goes ballistic during the next month), in honour of my imminent birthday (have I mentioned before that it's my birthday this Tuesday? And that my Amazon wish list is here?), at Casa Caramba in Clifton. We've not been there before, but we're well familiar with its parent establishment, Casa Mexicana, which was just five minutes' walk from our previous house and whose food was gorgeous beyond belief. So, looking forward to that.

28 October 2005

Nothing but Talk

Don't say I never do anything for you.

The transcript of my talk for Greenbelt on "The Spirituality of Doctor Who" is now up at www.infinitarian.com. It's taken me several days of listening to the the damn thing on cassette, reaching out with my right hand to press the "stop" switch every twelve words or so and then typing, so forgive me if I'm feeling grimly satisfied rather than delighted. I've included the question-and-answer session (or as much of it as fitted onto the tape, and therefore as much as was actually recorded) on the grounds that it was rather interesting.

As a bonus extra I've redesigned my Greenbelt pages to match the colours of the 2005 logo, and added a copy of the accompanying article which you've probably already read at surefish.co.uk. I've also comprehensively updated the reading list accompanying last year's talks so that all the links go through my Amazon Associates account.

The usual caveat applies when reading the talk: it will, I hope, be readable by anybody with an interest in Doctor Who, but it was written with a specific audience in mind, hence the references to "we as Christians" and "most of us at Greenbelt", and the assumptions I've made about the listener's own beliefs. Non-woolly-liberal-Guardian-reading Christians and those of non-Christian faith backgrounds alike are going to have to forgive me for this, I'm afraid.

I hope you all find the talk of interest anyway.

25 October 2005

Invasion of the Tiny People

Had a fantastic, if rather child-heavy, weekend, with a visit from our rarely-seen expat friends H. and M. together with their very lovely cosmic / sybilline offspring C.

After their arrival on Saturday afternoon the five of us made a trip to the zoo where we met our equally old (but Bristol-resident) friends M. and R., plus offspring. We saw an (also very appealing) five-month-old baby gorilla, but no lions (they were at the vet's) or penguins -- as, annoyingly, the penguin coast closed half an hour before the zoo did. This was frustrating, but the buddhaesque placidity of the capybara was as calming as ever.

Young C. is nearly two, and very sweet-natured and affectionate, as well as obvoiusly having a very active mental life. Having been put to bed at 7ish she remained entirely silent for the rest of the evening, allowing us adults to get on with a very pleasant meal (including late replacement cheesecake) and a rather staggering amount of bottled beer. Much amicable conversation and general catching-up ensued.

On Sunday eight-ninths of the previous day's complement met up at Zerodegrees for more food and beer, before H. and M. had to be on their way. My goddaughter E.'s little brother L. spilled my beer all over my good jacket, but he's too young for this to be held against him. (I'm planning on waiting till he's about twelve, then lying in wait with a cricket bat.)

On Monday my parents were in Bath, and took B. and me to the rather decent Bathtub Bistro for yet more food and beer, which was extremely kind of them. Admittedly it's not Demuth's, but the veggie food was very good, with the banana, coconut and rum trifle particuarly recommended.

This week I'm off on half-term, and have spent most of today banging my head against much-needed updates to the website. So far these have been mostly invisible (except for the review pages for Peculiar Lives and Wildthyme on Top), but there's been a lot of behind-the-scenes revamping. All the links to my books, for instance, should now go through Amazon associates, and many of the files have changed their names (so if you link to a specific page at www.infinitarian.com, you're probably going to need to check the link and update it).

I've also made a start on transcribing the Greenbelt talk (utterly mind-numbing though the task is), and have given a moment's thought to the annotations I promised ages ago to accompany "Minions of the Moon". So with luck, there may be some more interesting content coming later in the week or at the weekend.

Oh, and Cloud Atlas is very good so far. I think that's everything.

24 October 2005

Lemon and Honey Cheesecake

225g digestive biscuits
115g butter (unsalted)
360 ml clear honey
450g cream cheese (Philadelphia ideally)
280ml double cream
3 lemons

Crush biscuits. Mix together in bowl with butter and 120ml honey. Microwave for 3 minutes at full power, stirring occasionally. Pour and spread out in some kind of receptacle. Place in fridge or freezer to chill.

Mix cream, cream cheese, the remaining 240ml honey and the juice of the 3 lemons (also the zest if you can be bothered) in a bowl. Taste extensively to ensure honey / lemon balance is correct, and adjust as necessary. When base is chilled, spoon mixture over it, spread evenly and refrigerate to set.

Garnish with, I don't know, mint leaves possibly. Serve and eat.

* * *

I can't emphasise enough the extent to which, if you attempt to substitute low fat cream cheese for the Philadelphia, this recipe DOES NOT SODDING WORK.

20 October 2005

Maps and Atlases

I've finished A Dream of Wessex, and very good it is too. The fact that it's an earlier work than the other Christopher Priest novels I've read is reasonably obvious -- the prose isn't quite so polished, and the dialogue in particular sounds at times as if the characters are reciting textbooks -- but it's still outstanding in the depth and texture of its imagination.

It seems that Priest in 1977 still considered himself as a science fiction writer, rather than in the "mainstream with S.F. devices" niche he's come to occupy since. A Dream of Wessex is still fine character-based S.F., with an obvious New Wave influence in its presentation of a future which in many respects resembles the past, has little by way of distinctive or innovative technology, and which while definitively a neurologically-induced consensual hallucination is also very possibly real. My absolute favourite aspect of this future is the titular "Wessex" -- not merely a devolved English region, but actually an island, formerly the Devon and Cornwall peninsula, following the cataclysmic twenty-first-century inundation of most of Dorset and Somerset. The future sequences are set in coastal Dorchester, at the mouth of the Blandford Passage. Which is the kind of imaginative conceit that really appeals to me, I don't know why.

(Speaking of which, I know that when I was very young the local library in Lancing had a truly amazing book of maps of imaginary places. I don't suppose Priest's then recently-created Wessex was among them, but Hardy's may well have been. The book certainly covered Barsoom and Oz and Atlantis and Pern and any number of other fictional places, almost none of which I'd previously heard of (though I imagine Middle-Earth and Narnia must have been in there too), and all of which I found endlessly fascinating. Does anyone recognise the book I'm talking about here?)

Since I recently succumbed to the temptation to buy the uniform editions of The Glamour and The Extremes to go with my The Prestige and The Separation, I'm sure I'll be sampling more Priest in the near future.

I've now embarked upon Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is fascinating so far. The book as a whole is structured as six nested and cross-linked narratives, set in successive historical periods from the mid-nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future, which is a glorious idea. I'm nearing the end of the second half-novella, set in 1931, and have found the historical pastiche every bit as enjoyable as I expect to find the S.F. chapters later on.

Exhausting, But Not Exhaustive

I've also, just this lunchtime, finished The Battle for God. Very, very interesting work on Karen Armstrong's part, which has given me the (probably rather unwise) impression that I understand fundamentalist monotheisms considerably better than I used to. It's obvious that in most respects the book barely scratches the surface, but for an overview of the historical contexts and backgrounds of the modern fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam it's both impressive and weighty. It managed to make me feel rather sympathetic towards Ayatollah Khomeini, which I can't say is something I ever expected to happen.

Armstrong's book draws out a number of patterns in the way fundamentalisms have manifested themselves in various cultures: she observes that fundamentalism usually emerges among groups who feel themselves to be in danger of extinction from the forces of secularism; that it often involves a withdrawal from "the world" into sacred enclaves; but that initially at least it defines itself in opposition, not to that secular world, but to more liberal groups within the same faith who seek to make accommodations with that world. The experience of having suffered repression (and it's "experience" that's important here, not always fact) generates in many fundamentalist movements a desire to repress others in turn. Armstrong makes the further pertinent point that the rise of fundamentalism has in many situations entailed a resounding defeat for the actual values of traditional religion, which are generally rather conscientious about promoting virtues such as peacefulness, compassion and altruistic love.

The book's main flaw is its incompleteness, inevitably so given its publication in 2000. People, movements and events who don't even get a mention include the Taliban, the World Trade Center attacks, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'eda and the London and Bali bombings. A revised and updated edition would seem to be due, but would probably also be disturbingly out of date as soon as it was published.

I remember that in her Greenbelt seminar Armstrong spoke rather surprisingly of the rise in the U.K. of what she called "a fundamentalist secularism", which I'd have been interested to read about. It's a comment I've only heard before from hardline christian conservatives who (in a fine example of experiencing not-necessarily-factual repression) appear to think that secular society's valuing of tolerance is compromised by its refusal to let them live in a theocracy of their own devising. I imagine that Armstrong must have something rather more rigorous in mind, and I'd have liked to know more what she meant by it: certainly one can see how secularist culture in the U.K. might feel itself somewhat embattled by the current wave of christian-flavoured imperialism emanating from the U.S.

This, though, isn't in the book either. Still, what's there is informative and fascinating, and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone (with a month's reading time on their hands) who wants to understand better some of the more disturbing cultural tendencies which the current century has inherited from its predecessor.