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.

Prophecy Girl

Somewhat less cerebrally, B. and I have started rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the beginning. In the absence of The West Wing (we're waiting for our usual suppliers to finish with their Season 6 box set so that they can lend it to us), we've been getting through it rather quickly. We finished Season One over the weekend, have already worked our way through the first appearances of Spike, Drusilla, Oz and Jonathan, and last night completed a rather unenviable double-bill of Inca Mummy Girl and Reptile Boy.

I'm enjoying revisiting these old episodes, and particularly seeing the younger versions of the characters with the knowledge of what they'll grow into later. There's either a lot of incredibly clever foreshadowing, or else the later production teams were constantly rewatching old episodes in search of good lines to follow up on. It's bringing home to me, however, how much of the respect generally paid to the early seasons is based on nostalgia, rather than on a sober assessment of worth.

Many fans will tell you that this series -- like The X-Files, Babylon 5 et al -- was never as good again after Season Three. Most of these early episodes, however, suffer from serious problems of pacing, tone and in some cases acting. The later seasons may never have quite recaptured the same engaging spark, but they were a hell of a lot more polished and professional at almost every level. It isn't just the characters who mature.

18 October 2005


Anyone who's been obsessively checking www.infinitarian.com despite the lack of updates during the past three months will have noticed that I've put up a blurbette for my Doctor Who short story "The Long Midwinter", to accompany the new cover image for Short Trips: The History of Christmas.

To save the rest of you the trouble of clicking on that link, here's the text:
The Doctor’s TARDIS has brought him to celebrate Christmas in many strange times and places, but few have been more alien than Yesod – a brown dwarf world orbiting the double sun of Kether-Tiphereth, where limbless children dance in the gas-currents and many-armed elders tell stories of a vanished past.

Yet the Yesodites have their own midwinter rituals, even though the Long Midwinter comes only once in five generations. The Doctor and his friends will soon discover that millions of years in the future, trees and gifts and midwinter fires have taken on a very different significance...

This story features the eighth Doctor, Gemma and Samson.
This one isn't a villanelle or anything clever, it's just the label which tells you what's inside the tin. If it makes the contents sound intriguing, then for heaven's sake buy the book.

Come Clean

Today I am entirely brain-dead, having spent the entirety of Saturday, Sunday and Monday tidying the house, filing away or shredding huge piles of paper, recycling newspapers and magazines, scrubbing surfaces, polishing sinks, mopping the kitchen floor, dusting and hoovering, and washing any piece of fabric which isn't actually nailed down.

For various reasons, the time and energy B. and I have available for cleaning activities never remotely approaches our limitless capacity to leave stuff lying about the place, shed dead skin cells and accumulate random pieces of paper. And the cats discard fur almost constantly, and never seem at all interested in running a hoover around after themselves.

For this reason, under normal circumstances, our house is neither the tidiest nor the cleanest I've ever seen. Today it's up there with the best of them, which makes me feel both proud and immensely knackered.

The occasion for this unprecedented housepride is the forthcoming visit of our very old friends (in the sense of the chronological duration of our friendship, not of their actual age) H. and M., presently of Southern California, whom I mentioned seeing at a recent wedding, whom we haven't spent time with properly in two years and who bring with them to Bristol a serious dust allergy and a rather-less-than-two-year-old daughter, both of which we felt warranted a certain amount of concern on our part.

Very much looking forward to seeing them, now that that somewhat nightmarish aspect of the preparation's out of the way.

14 October 2005

Advent and Arrival

Big Finish have released the cover and short story details for Short Trips: The History of Christmas, which includes my story "The Long Midwinter". It should be out for the beginning of December, and will make an ideal Christmas present (for, you know, anyone who enjoys reading Doctor Who fiction). You may spot from the contents list that there are 25 stories -- why not use it as an Advent calendar[1]?

In surprisingly related news, I've also managed to obtain a copy of the recording of my Greenbelt talk on The Spirituality of Doctor Who, which means that it's now only a matter of time (and a fair bit of work, but don't worry yourselves about that) until I have a transcript available to put with last year's talks at my website. No promises, but it should be up within a couple of weeks.

[1] If, you know, you enjoy reading Doctor Who fiction.

12 October 2005

"Don't Touch the Ring, Vic!"

B. and I weekended at a vicarage in Oxford in order to attend the awrc-brightybot wedding, which was very fine.

Saturday started in a bit of a panic, as I'd discovered the night before that absolutely all my posh clothes had been bought originally for a substantially fatter man, including my own wedding suit (which it had at one point been a goal of my diet to be able to fit into again). This meant that our route to Oxford had to take in the Cribbs Causeway shopping mall, in search of an outfit that wouldn't look like it'd been borrowed from an unusually tasteful and stylish clown. I now own a surprisingly outspoken purple-striped shirt, an ironic black corduroy jacket, and a pair of black denim jeans identical to my other pairs of black denim jeans, but designated for partywear. Hurrah.

The service, when we got there, was traditional Anglican, enlivened by well-chosen hymns and some very impressive readings read by their authors. It was the first wedding I'd attended where the officiating priest (our host at the aforementioned vicarage) was a friend of my own generation, which made the event a bit more special... although the fact that both he and the bride had been in our comedy troupe, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, kept giving me the fleeting and surreal impression that I was watching my friends perform a wedding sketch. This was seemingly confirmed when the bride and groom finally processed out to Sousa's "Liberty Bell", better known as the theme from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

There were plenty of people there who I hadn't seen for ages, including two very good friends who vanished off to California a couple of years years ago and appear to have acquired a daughter while out there, whom it was really lovely to see again.

I had a lovely time generally, in fact, although foolishly I got drunk too early at the reception and ended up having to take some time out during it -- apologies to anyone I therefore didn't get to see enough of. It was the first time I'd drunk wine in any quantity since managing to shed nearly a quarter of my body-weight (which I guess is probably an even higher proportion of my squishy-wine-absorbing-bits-weight), and it seems I'm not as familiar with my alcohol capacity as I once was (oh yes I was). I wonder now, vaguely, if this is a problem amputees have as well.

Thoroughly decent wine, though (plus some good beer if I'd only had been able to face it by that point), and the meal was also very nice. Sunday morning was spent pleasantly with various friends at the venerable Oxford institution of George and Davis's Ice Cream Café, progressing to a wander on Port Meadow and a pint in the Perch before coming home.

I'm wearing a black shirt today. I haven't been able to fit into it since 1996.

11 October 2005


Well, it ain't a Western.

That, I think, was my only major disappointment with the film. The way the Firefly TV series demonstrated its renegade ethos and its frontier politics by adopting that particular historical genre's trappings was pretty much the most glorious thing about it (aside from the sheer quality and intelligence of scripts and acting, of course) . Not every episode of Firefly could be counted as a Western, admittedly, but it's as much the dominant mode of the show as space opera is.

Serenity, by contrast, is space-opera pure, albeit an unusually dark and disturbing example. The only Western elements come during the first half hour or so, and mostly in the form of scenery. Which is a loss, I think, especially since it also means it can't use the theme song that was so perfect for the T.V. series: the nearest we get is the rather apologetic instrumental version at the end of the closing credits. It certainly wouldn't have worked as a theme for the kind of movie Serenity turns out to be, but it's still a shame.

Never mind. The film we have may not be everything a Firefly movie could have been, but it is quite marvellous nonetheless.

NB: Specifics follow. If you're trying to avoid spoilers for Serenity (and it's well worth doing -- I knew practically nothing about the film before I watched it, and it certainly gained a hell of a lot of impact from the fact), then you won't want to read the rest of this entry. If you haven't seen the film yet but aren't trying to avoid spoilers particularly, be warned you'll be getting very full ones here...

The movie does an excellent job of reintroducing the setting, characters and as much backstory as necessary for the cinema audience (the friend whom R. and M. had brought with them to our showing was a Firefly virgin, and found the story entirely unconfusing) without this becoming too obtrusive for the seasoned viewers. Clever touches, like the way the opening sequence implies that the Serenity crew were directly involved in springing River from her imprisonment, and the way Book is introduced as an old friend who's sheltered the crew rather than as a former traveller on Serenity, simplify said backstory for the newcomers without actually compromising the series' continuity.

In fact, the opening sequence is enormously clever, segueing between locations and settings as it shifts the focus from one character and narrative strand to another, but linking them all in a succession of reveals: the illustrated history of the Alliance turns out to be a hologram young River's teacher is showing to her class[1]; the lesson itself turns out to be a fugue experienced by the adult River during her conditioning; her subsequent rescue by Simon turns out to be another hologram being watched months later by the Alliance Operative; and finally a classic "I wonder where she is now?" hook leads us to Serenity and her crew, although we don't learn of the fugitives' presence among them until everybody else has been introduced. It's a virtuoso piece of storytelling, and Whedon at his best.

Subsequent scenes show us, in short order, the crew's criminal lifestyle, River's telepathy and the ever-present danger of the bestial posthuman Reavers. The only exception to the general smoothness of this quite extensive universe-building is, ironically, the rather clunky introduction of "Mr Universe", the techno-fetishist media savant who seems to have wandered in from the cyberpunk movie next door. It's necessary for him to be mentioned early on so that he doesn't seem quite such a deus ex machina at the climax, but he remains a very obvious plot device.

The film has a strong narrative momentum, as the conflicts with the Operative, River's escalating instability, and even the reintroductions of Book and Inara, lead the crew inexorably towards the Reavers, Miranda and the revelation of just how horribly totalitarian the supposedly benevolent Alliance is capable of being. (All the same, there are plot holes here, too. Why was the whole Miranda experiment apparently being run without any kind of observation, so that the Alliance had to send an investigator later on? Why did the Reavers ever leave Miranda, rather than simply staying there and murdering each other? Why isn't the crew's first thought when cornered by Reavers to find a way to activate River, who is their only possible weapon against them? All of these are mendable by a moment's speculation on the part of a forgiving fan, but irritating nevertheless when they could have been given script fixes.)

On the whole, though, the plot is consistent and thought-through. Indeed, there was rather too much plot for my taste -- it's at character and dialogue that Whedon really excels, and I would have preferred the film to have incorporated some quieter moments, in which both would have had the space to unfurl a little.

As it is, the large ensemble cast which was such a strength of Firefly is rather an impediment to a plot-heavy two-hour movie -- a problem that's often visible (among the many others) in the Star Trek films. Even with the reduction of Book's part to two brief scenes, and the perfectly justified removal of Inara for much of the action, several of the characters remain radically underused.

The antagonist, by contrast, is very well explored (and acted, by the phenomenal Chiwetel Ejiofor). His conviction that in fighting for the Alliance's "better world" he has become "a monster" with no place in that imagined utopia makes him one of the most convincing portraits of fanaticism I've yet seen. As hero, Mal too is drawn in considerable depth (and played to perfection as ever by Nathan Fillion), although the reasons for his hatred of the Alliance are relegated to a minor detail of his background.

It's characters like Kaylee and Inara who, despite Whedon's best attempts to give them functions in the plot, seem like spare appendages. This is unfortunately also true of Wash, which is a desperate shame: those of us who remember his and Zoë's relationship from the TV series will feel her loss so very much harder than the newcomers, who could be forgiven for missing the fact that the two of them are married.

For this reason, Wash's death seems at first to be an arbitrary attention-grabbing move, misjudged because (as with Anya's death in the final episode of Buffy) there's no time for the characters or the audience to react to it. In fact, though, it's a masterstroke: coming after Book's far more obviously heroic death (and in concert with my diligent spoiler-avoidance), it convinced me that any or all the characters might die at any moment -- the kind of trick which can only be pulled off once, but which is essential for the final sequence, where it really looks as if Mal is going to bring down the Alliance only by sacrificing his and his crew's lives[2]. (In the end, of course, he does neither, which is a far more plausible resolution.) And there is emotional response, although delayed, on Zoë's part, in the marvellous subtext to her (I think) final line about Serenity's spaceworthiness: "She's tore up real bad, but she'll fly true."

Indeed, it's in the little touches, the dialogue especially, that the humanity of this movie shines through. Mal's response to the Operative's complaint that innocent people are dying above them, "That's truer than you know," does more to humanise the Reavers and remind us of their horrifying plight than any number of Star Trek befriending-the-enemy episodes could. I also found it enormously moving that, in the very late memorial scene, the crew have set up a fourth plinth, uninscribed, decorated with a Reaver spear, alongside those to their friends. I only wish there could have been room for more such moments among the (undeniably entertaining) fist-, gun- and spaceship-fights.

Serenity isn't everything I hoped for from a Firefly movie, by any means: while it may be by turns as funny, as characterful and as moving as the series, all of these are eventually subsumed in the need to tell a gripping story -- which, to be fair, it also does very well indeed. It is, however, a fantastically entertaining and intelligent couple of hours of S.F. cinema, and frankly the opportunities to say that about something are few and far between.

If there's a sequel, though, they need to make it a proper space Western. With cows.

[1] I actually found the spelling-out of the historical backstory, which in Firefly was only ever implied, fascinating in itself. Somehow, despite talk of "Inner Planets" and "Outer Moons", it had never really struck me that all of this was taking place in a single gigantic solar system, rather than on an interstellar scale. Of course, eschewing faster-than-light travel along with aliens, robots, time-travel, parallel universes, subspace beacons, beings of pure energy and spatial anomalies is perfectly in keeping with the series' scaled-back approach to its S.F. fundamentals, and this realisation adds something to the series for me.

[2] Whedon seems to have a point he wants to make about the futility and arbitrariness of death. For every Spike, Wesley or Book who goes out in a predictable blaze of glory, there's a Tara, Fred or Wash who dies shockingly and pointlessly. This may be true to life, but it's a terribly bleak thing to watch. Which isn't actually a contradiction, of course.

04 October 2005

Drink, Food and Games Update

These last two weekends I've continued my investigation of your human concept of "free time".

B. and I spent the last weekend of September in Guildford for a friend's birthday, which allowed for a visit to a rather nice pub where we drank a very decent range of Fuller's beers; a brief gawp at the gloriously ugly cathedral used for young Damien's abortive baptism scene in The Omen (thanks to Simon for bringing that connection to my attention); and a couple of rounds of Lupus in Tabula, a game requiring large numbers of players (and which could very easily be played without cards), which basically involves werewolves murdering innocent villagers and villagers lynching suspected werewolves in retaliation, thus demonstrating pack mentality very effectively.

Friday evening we celebrated B.'s passing of her Ph.D. viva with a trip to Glasnost, another of our favourite restaurants, which was recently bought up by its own chefs (and whose own website seems at the moment sadly defunct). When we first visited Glasnost five years or so ago, we were most impressed by the equitable balance between meat and vegetarian dishes. Slightly annoyingly this shortly changed to a three-way split between meat, vegetarian and fish, which means that the choice for proper vegetarians isn't nearly as wide as it used to be... but the food itself remains outstanding, as do the drinks, service, atmosphere and so on. What's more, the restaurant is within feasible walking-distance (if slightly challenging post-meal).

I had the camembert fondant for a starter, followed by a roasted red pepper lasagne and a blue poppyseed, lemon and lime cake. Lasagne is, of course, pretty much the most predictable thing a restaurant can offer a vegetarian, but this one was gorgeous. Glasnost also specialises in flavoured vodkas, so B. and I sampled the iced mint (delicious), the vanilla cream (creamy) and the pear drop (vile, as I should have remembered from last time. Oops.)

Then the weekend saw a reprise of our trip to the nice local pub with the Hopback beers and the cheeseboard, and a rematch at Risk Godstorm with R. and M. Some of the game's flaws mentioned in this review become more apparent on a second playing: namely, the Underworld isn't nearly as cool a game element as it thinks it is, and the gods themselves don't have sufficient incentive to get involved in fights with one another. We may need to tweak the rules accordingly on future occasions. Still remarkably good fun, though.

Tonight it's Serenity, which I'm looking forward to enormously, and then we're off to Oxford for the weekend to help consecrate the union of awrc and brightybot. I'm sure drink and food will flow plentifully, although perhaps there won't be quite so many games. (Mind you, we do need to give them a wedding present...)

03 October 2005

Reading Update

I'm still working my way through The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong -- consistently interesting and informative, but also plain bloody long. Possibly I'm just out of practice as far as reading non-fiction goes, but I find it's taking up most of my reading energy.

Armstrong spends pretty much the first half of the book grounding the various late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Islam and Christianity in those religions' intellectual histories since 1492. Which is amazingly thorough of her, but it does mean that it's quite some time before the book gets on to its supposed substance: I'm halfway through now, and it's only in the current chapter that she's started to talk about the christian movement from which "fundamentalism" takes its name. Mind you, it's told me a lot more about the history of post-Persian Iran, early settlement-era Israel / Palestine, and come to that christianity in the early United States, than I ever knew before.

One of Armstrong's more interesting premises is that knowledge in the pre-modern world could be separated into two distinct categories: logos, which was rational, factual truth of the kind science provides, with an immediate practical and progressive application; and mythos, the arena of faith, myth and poetry, where truths incapable of being expressed in factual terms were conveyed through parable, metaphor and story. She believes that we in the modern world have lost sight of mythos altogether, and have become incapable of understanding truth except in terms of logos: the fundamentalists among us are just those who struggle to hold onto religious truths in their entirety, but in a modern context feel obliged to interpret them as logoi -- hence, most blatantly, the reductionist and wilfully ignorant attempts to argue that Genesis is viable as a scientific account, but also any attempt to enact a religion's symbols literally as politics. It's fascinating stuff.

(She also considers that the emergence of revisionist pre-millenialism in late nineteenth-century American christianity -- Rapture prophecies and the like -- forms a religious parallel to the secular European genre of the future-war narrative, as seen in such works as The Battle of Dorking and indeed The War of the Worlds. Which is just fantastic.)

During the rest of my reading time, I've finished If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I enjoyed it for all the postmodern pyrotechnics (the book is about the experience of reading books, and about the book as a dialogue between author and reader, and is therefore told in the second person by a constantly-shifting narrator)... but actually, I found it less satisfying, and certainly less breathtakingly beautiful, than the only other Calvino I've read, Invisible Cities.

I thought at first the translator was different, but no, both books are translated by Wiliam Weaver. It must be the book itself which is, for some reason, rather less to my taste. Perhaps it's just that Invisible Cities, a collection of apparently unrelated descriptions of various fantastical cities as supposedly related by Marco Polo to Genghis Khan, makes only the most cursory of gestures towards having an actual narrative, whereas If on a winter's night a traveler, essentially an anthology of first chapters of novels, attempts to string them together with a coherent plot. The writing succeeds on many levels, and yet the plot reads as a fairly arbitrary mess: this is perhaps what drags it down.

Returning to my to-read list, I embarked last night on A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest -- surely overdue a reissue in the lovely new uniform editions Gollancz are bringing out of the author's work. I started it last night, and enjoyed it enough that I'm already nearly a quarter of the way through: it's a story of time-travel, in a sense, with a vividly-realised future which may or may not be illusory, and it shares with the other work of Priest's that I've read a strong sense of landscape and environment, related closely to the internal life of the protagonist. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, he's an author who creeps up on you and insinuates himself into your mind a favourite before you've really worked out what you consciously think about him.

If I seem to be selecting my favourite S.F. authors these days on the basis of their attitudes to geography... well, I'm just as much surprised by this as anybody else.

Viewing Update

B. and I have recently been rewatching Firefly, in preparation for going to see Serenity this Thursday.

God, that was a good series, or rather the half of it they were allowed to make was. I hope the film is half as good, because if so it's going to be bloody amazing.

We took the unusual step (for us) of bothering to do a second rewatch with the DVD commentaries turned on: most are fun, although more by way of entertaining banter between various series luminaries (Nathan Fillion being particularly highlarious) than of actual critique. The most interesting by far is Joss Whedon's solo commentary on the final episode, Objects in Space, which delves into the writing process and the philosophy underlying the episode. Generally when people start quoting Sartre I remember my nineteen-year-old self and run a mile (not that I actually read Sartre at nineteen, so much as believing that I looked good in black jackets and polo-necks), but Whedon says some very interesting things about Objects in Space as an existentialist text. It's well worth listening to if you have the boxed set.

In unrelated news, people will tell you that The West Wing -- once the smartest, most mature and intelligent thing on American T.V. -- went badly downhill once series creator Aaron Sorkin left under a narcotic cloud. You may well be tempted to dismiss them as televisual snobs: after all, the series has so much going for it. How could it suffer so badly from the absence of one man?

As someone who's now very nearly at the end of season 5, the first after Sorkin's departure, I can tell you that those people, despite their unattractive air of knowing far more than you do about things like film stock and camera angles, are quite correct. Season 5 is, by the standards of what's gone before, really poor. There's still the occasional good episode, but they're only as good as the feebler episodes of the first four seasons (which were still pretty good television, admittedly).

There's a huge reduction in intelligence, both in the scripts and in the presumed audience, and a shift of focus from the politics (which were always fascinating) to the characters' emotional lives (much duller, especially since those lives seem suddenly to have become cliched and soapish). Even the politics begins to tend towards melodrama, with nuance and ambiguity replaced by grand declarative gesture. It's terribly disappointing.

On the plus side, though, I think I now understand Mulholland Drive. It's all about lesbians.