21 December 2006

As The Days Get Shorter, There's More And More To Do

Sorry about the distinct lack of communication on this blog in the last couple of weeks. You know (or perhaps, if you're remarkably lucky, you don't) how things can get during December.

Since last we spoke, dear readers, I've:
  • Written my December column for Surefish (not up at the site yet -- I'll flag it here when it is);
  • Spent five days on a pre-seasonal visit to my parents;
  • Additionally visited various friends and their charming offspring (no, no, that wasn't ironic, the offspring in question really was charming);
  • Contracted food poisoning (from a meal unlikely now ever to be determined) and spent several days and nights feeling like, not to put too fine a point on it, shit;
  • Done every single last bit (oh please dear God) of my Christmas shopping;
  • Revised my opinion of Torchwood slightly upward again in the light of the thoroughly competent Out of Time;
  • Gone to the very pleasant and tasteful Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at St Mary Redcliffe;
  • Written a celebratory midwinter story and distributed it to friends in lieu of Christmas cards;
  • Done two and a half days at work;
  • Had lunch with a random university friend I haven't seen for years, who I now seem to be working in the same building with;
  • Played host to a miserable bloody cold that's still showing no signs of departing after nearly a week together.
And currently we're only about halfway through this oh-so-very festive season.

I may have more to say on some or all of these at some point soon, but I wouldn't bank on it. Happy Midwinter to you all, though, and a thoroughly Merry Christmas if I don't manage to update further before then.

08 December 2006

Traditional Yuletide Celebrations

The lead article in this month's Fortean Times reminds me, oddly enough, of our recent discussion of shared themes in The Wicker Man and The Prisoner. There J-P suggests that both Summerisle and the Village represent countercultures become mainstream, rebellion becoming authority -- a familiar idea to anyone with a passing interest in Soviet history.

FT's article on Hitler's attempts to replace the German Christmas with an all-Aryan patriotic winter festival, with rituals based loosely on the Norse winter festivities, reminds me that the Nazis, like the Summerisle family, had a yen for neo-pagan reconstructionism. It may be that Summerisle's attempts to replicate "the old religion", and the twentieth-century totalitarian states of which the Village is a microcosm, might not have seemed that far apart to scriptwriters who'd been paying attention during the 1930s.

(I don't have any further conclusions to draw from that, I just thought it was interesting.)

FT's editorial, taking its cue from the lead article, concerns recent campaigns by groups such as the Christian-Muslim Forum to counter the insidious liberal-secular conspiracy to "abolish Christmas" for fear of offending other faiths. By a weird coincidence, it arrived the same day as both The Guardian and Andrew Rilstone ran lengthy articles refuting the idea that any such conspiracy exists, and pointing out that the "evidence" for it is, by and large, absolute bollocks. Both pieces are worth reading.

I've sent a letter to the editors expressing surprise that Fortean Times, of all publications, is unable to spot an urban myth when it sees one.

05 December 2006

Good News, Bad News

I'm having a bit of an insane week, so I don't have the space to do this post justice, but are were two things that can't really wait.

Firstly, I see Big Finish have rather uncharacteristically spoiled the suspense over my recent oblique hints at a new writing commission -- by announcing War Stories, the collection of three novellas to which I'm contributing alongside the frighteningly talented writing team of Kate Orman and Jon Blum. I'll have to make up a webpage for it, but not today.

Second, I was saddened to learn yesterday that another Doctor Who novelist, Craig Hinton, had died. I never met Craig in the flesh (not for want of trying on one occasion), and even by the standards of people I've only known online he wasn't a particularly close friend.

His online persona gave a vivid impression of the kind of person people always call "larger than life": kind, generous, witty, expansive, outrageously bitchy, warm in both friendship and anger. He wrote Millennial Rites, one of my favourite of Virgin Publishing's 1990s Missing Adventures novels, and one of the best stories in Wildthyme on Top.

His family and his many, many friends have my very sincere sympathies at what must be a very dreadful time.

03 December 2006

I Am Not a Number, I Am the Green Man

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of the Prisoner script book (a birthday present from B.), and watched the director's cut of The Wicker Man (part of the three-disc DVD boxed set, a birthday present from J-P[1]).

Both are really very splendid. It's fascinating to see how the original scripts for the first eight Prisoner episodes changed -- usually for the better, though sometimes not -- generally at the instigation of Patrick McGoohan, who had some very definite ideas about the sorts of thing his character would and wouldn't do[2]. Robert Fairclough's editorial apparatus is somewhat erratic and poorly-formatted, but the actual material is well worth any Prisoner fan's time.

The Wicker Man director's cut is also (mostly) an improvement -- not that the original is in any way shabby, but the extra time gives more opportunity for the tension to mount, and the pre-credits sequence set before Sergeant Howie comes to Summerisle makes more sense of some of the later revelations. It's a phenomenally fine film, as I mentioned here last year when I first got around to experiencing it.

However, reading the T.V. scripts and watching the film so close together made me aware of how extensive the similarities are between the two works' underlying conceptions. In that earlier entryI noted in passing their shared evocation of paranoia, but the parallels seem to go rather deeper than that.

[NB: What follows includes SPOILERS for a 33-year-old film and a 38-year-old television series. If you've somehow managed to avoid learning about the plot of either during your life so far, and you still think you might want to watch them one day, then I suggest you go and look at some kittens.]

Both The Prisoner and The Wicker Man are set in isolated microcultures. Both set a single righteous man against the community as a whole. In each the central character is a representative of authority -- Number 6 is a covert government agent, Sgt Howie a police officer. Each protagonist is pious, self-righteous and unlikeable as well as genuinely heroic, while their antagonists are charismatic and seductive as well as sinister. Like the film, many episodes of the T.V. series centre around a deception played out as a trap for the hero, in which the entire community is complicit, including the apparently innocent victim acting as bait. In both, pageantry, ritual, processions and music play a significant part.

(Also, of course, both villages are populated by middle-aged British character actors of the 1960s and 70s -- including John Sharp and the ever-hammy Aubrey Morris -- but that's perhaps of rather less interest.)

The Wicker Man was made five years after The Prisoner, but belongs identifiably to the same era. It's possible that the TV series was an influence on the film, but if so Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy don't discuss the fact. What's more the script clearly has a lot in common with Shaffer's other work (especially Sleuth) and that of his brother.

I suspect the similarities help to explain why The Wicker Man, like The Prisoner, immediately grabbed my imagination and gave it a good shaking the moment I first saw it. (Quite why these patterns fit the inside of my head so well is another matter.) What's currently interesting me, though, is whether these similarities translate to shared themes at a deeper level.

Clearly the two works belong to different genres and media: The Wicker Man has a horror film's freedom, even in the 70s, to deal overtly with matters of sex and religion, while The Prisoner has its own genre-based concerns of dystopian politics and social satire.

There's little in The Wicker Man to suggest that Sgt Howie's justifiable paranoia has anything of the Cold War about it. The Summerisle villagers are feudal rather than communist, religious rather than secular and reconstructionist rather than revolutionary. What Howie finds awaiting him is a version of the culture which (supposedly) preceded Western christendom, not that which threatened to succeed it.

On one level, however, Lord Summerisle and his subjects, however enthusiastic about their island's past, are clearly nothing but a bunch of hippies. Howie's appalled reaction is in many ways that of a conservative member of the establishment faced with the licentiousness and disrespect for convention of the younger generation. This is particularly obvious when he interrupts the multiple couplings on the village green, but is equally apparent in his appalled reaction to discovering that the island's schoolchildren are not being taught christian values. In the 1970s, neo-paganism was already part of the counterculture.

Number 6's Village, too, is seen in these terms more often than one might expect. Though natural rebels against the Village's totalitarianism, hippyish characters are shown as being part of its apparatus in A Change of Mind; in the original script for The General, "a fair proportion" of the brainwashed students are said to be "long haired and bearded"[3]; and even in the final episode, Fall Out, where the scruffy, flower-adorned, hip-talking Number 48 appears as an archetypal rebel, his revolt is ultimately subsumed into the Prisoner's paradoxical reassertion of the authoritarian status quo.

One of establishment shibboleths of the time, of course, was precisely that the Soviets were infiltrating Western society through its rebellious youth subcultures. Odd bedfellows though they may have been, Summerisle's neo-pagans and A Change of Mind's Maoist-seeming "Social Group" would have been seen by some as aspects of the same deliberate erosion of traditional (but not too traditional) British values.

More interesting, however, are the themes of faith and sacrifice. While The Prisoner's Village has obvious cultish overtones, the one nod towards making its inhabitants religious is in their obscure use of a salute apparently used by the early church. Where Sgt Howie is explicitly a pious, judgmental, conservative christian, Number 6 is the secular model, espousing similar values without ever commenting on their provenance. Indeed, some explicit references to religion were excised from the script for The Chimes of Big Ben, apparently at the request of the devout McGoohan.

The boundaries between Number 6 and the actor who played him are often difficult to discern, which has led some critics to attempt interpretions of the series as religious allegory. These are rare, though, and tend to be no more convincing than those of secularist critics who see the oppressive Village as representing organised religion.

The ritual with which The Wicker Man culminates sees Howie becoming, in theory "king for a day", allowing him to stand as a sacrifice to propitiate the gods and restore the fruitfulness of the island's crops. The Prisoner's Village shows no interest in agriculture, choosing to replace it with technology. Nevertheless, its rulers never seem to last for very long.

For the most part, each episode of The Prisoner features a different Number 2. Some of them are seen retiring peaceably, or handing over the reins to their predecessors: others, however, are evidently punished for their failure. Of the two who do come back, Colin Gordon's character ends A., B. and C. convinced that he is about to be hauled over the coals by Number 1, before returning for a lucky escape from death in The General[4]. Leo McKern's Number 2 survives The Chimes of Big Ben without mishap, but the events of Once Upon a Time culminate uniquely in his death.

Lord Summerisle's trick, of course, lies in persuading the villagers to sacrifice Howie instead of the true king, his lordship himself: the sacrifice's "kingship" is an entirely notional one. In this respect, the Prisoner episode which comes closest to embodying the same ideas is the election episode, Free for All. At the end of this story, Number 6 has been elected to the position of Number 2, his opponent and predecessor having conceded defeat. A triumphal procession leads him to the Green Dome, where he finally attempts to take charge of the Village.

It's a trick, of course.

Thanks to the Village, Number 6 has become both a king and a fool. He represents the law, being both a covert agent of the British government and the rightfully-elected head of state of the Village. Given his attitude to intimacy, he may even be a virgin. He hasn't, of course, come to the Village of his own free will (although the eventual revelation of Number 1's identity in Fall Out may cast doubt even on that), but in other respects Lord Summerisle would consider him the perfect sacrifice for the continued smooth operation of the Village.

Number 6 isn't burned alive. Instead he's beaten up, more brutally than usual, with his arms held spreadeagled in a crucifix position, before his formerly compliant aide (who seemed, like Rowan Morrison, to be an innocent in all of this) takes the reins of office and returns him ignominiously to his home-from-home. Despite experiencing not-infrequent birth imagery, and being declared dead at least once, Number 6 is never given a death scene of his own.

However, the point about sacrificial godkings -- not that this would have been of much comfort to the late Sgt Howie -- is that their death is seen as a precursor to rebirth. As Miss Rose explains to him, the "life force" of the dead lives on in the form of animals, trees and -- as they hope will happen in Howie's case -- in crops. In the light of this, the fact that McKern's Number 2 is resurrected by technology in Fall Out begins to look rather less like the christian allegory some have painted it as, and more like an S.F. recapitulation of just this type of ritual.

McGoohan's Number 6 and McKern's Number 2 aren't the same person, of course. But Fall Out is, in some readings, a strongly psychoanalytical text, and it certainly presents both men as archetypes of rebellion. Might they -- and Number 48, the Butler, and for that matter anybody else in the Village up to and including "Rover" -- not be aspects of the same person, just as Number 1 is?

If The Prisoner is interested in ancient pagan models of sacrifice and rebirth, then it's evidently in a far less overt way than The Wicker Man. On the other hand, the recurrence of remarkably similar patterns, in a ritual context, suggests that at the very least there's some subconscious referencing going on[5].

Both The Prisoner and The Wicker Man are enormously dense texts, with complex, sometimes apparently contradictory things to say about their subject matter, both overt and hidden. The idea that they might be able to illuminate each other may, I admit, turn out to be slightly mad. Still, I'm reasonably convined that they have more in common than would appear on the face of things.

[1] Lots of people at the party asked me, "Is that the new one?" No, it bloody isn't.

[2] The most egregious example is the nonsensical ending of the otherwise excellent episode Dance of the Dead, which would have ended with Number 6 embracing his Observer, waltzing with the dead-eyed, historically-costumed Villagers in a ritual masque... were it not for McGoohan's insistence that he was only going to dance with Mrs McGoohan. This man was considered for the part of James Bond.

[3] Fairclough's marginal note explains: "A reference to the emerging 'hippy' look that youth culture was beginning to adopt in the mid 1960s. Such a period-specific look was dropped when the scene went before the cameras." It's a shame that nobody thought to do the same when "The General" itself was revealed to be a light-bulb flashing, tape-spooling, punch-card-regurgitating giant metal box of a computer.

[4] Originally these two episodes were intended to be shown together in reverse order, with Gordon's Number 2 barely surviving the events of The General and then spending A., B. and C. on borrowed time. The script of The General was amended to allow him to live.

[5] Not, obviously, to The Wicker Man itself -- but quite possibly to Robert Graves' The White Goddess or James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

02 December 2006

Works in Review

Have I mentioned that I'm a big review slut? And that Richard McGinlay at Sci-Fi Online is one of my favourite reviewers?

Ah, yes, I see that I have.

Richard says of Collected Works:
Though Nick Wallace is named as the editor of this anthology, I suspect that a great deal of credit is also due to Philip Purser-Hallard. He has written five linking interludes, entitled “Perspectives”, which focus upon the Quire - a clan of fascinatingly strange visitors from humanity’s distant future, who crop up throughout this carefully controlled book - and he also co-wrote the final tale, “Future Relations”, with Wallace.
I'm not sure that that's entirely fair to Nick, but it's still pleasing to hear. You can read the whole review here.

01 December 2006

Lies, All Lies

The first half-week of work at the new job went well. For obvious reasons, I won't be going into detail about exactly what I'm doing, where or for whom, but so far my colleagues are friendly, my work reasonably interesting and my journey not too irksome. It does involve a twenty-minute walk at the far end of my twenty-minute train journey, but at least that's potentially good for my waistline.

I am, however, knackered, as much from the pre-job stress as from the job itself, so the Torchwood rant and the film reviews are going to have to wait for a little while.

In the meantime, allow me to plug my friend J-P's fiction at Quiet Little Lies, and in particular his self-published and -distributed collection A Pocketful of Lies. As the blurb says:
An ideal Christmas gift, this handcrafted pamphlet has been lovingly assembled from a dozen complex, thoughtful tales that will vex and puzzle relatives or friends of any stripe! Following your Christmas meal, contemplate what lies beneath the surface of each sinister, questioning story, and thank the stars that your family is indeed relatively well-adjusted after all.
It's free including postage, so you've nothing to lose -- and if you can't be arsed to order it, he'll be putting it online in the New Year anyway. You can sample plenty of J-P's fiction at the site, along with his book reviews, and his blog about frankly incomprehensible computer-related stuff.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and cook pasta.

26 November 2006

Angels, Fairies and Invaders from Magrs

It really is time I caught up with my media reviews. I've been to see a number of films recently, read rather more comics than I'd normally have expected to, and been to the circus. I've also changed my mind about Torchwood.

All of these deserve blogging at some point soon. First, though, here's the update on the most interesting books I've read since... well actually only since September, but for some reason it feels like a lot longer.

I finally finished Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor back in October. That one felt by then as if I'd been reading it since early adolescence, but in fact I only started it in August. Nabokov's writing is great, but Ada is one of his "difficult" novels (correction, one of his more "difficult" novels). I found it awkward to get into -- the prose style is mannered and dense, and doubled names and characters abound, as do confusing family relationships and complex, playful high-culture in-jokes. Nearly all of which passed me by, thanks to my ignorance of French, Russian and indeed any non-Anglo-American literature.

Even so, the story -- of the incestuous passion between aristocratic siblings overendowed with money, breeding, intelligence and prowess (both sexual and otherwise), set on an anti-Earth where the Tartars rule Asia and the name "Russia" refers to a patchwork of colonial territories in the Americas -- was startling enough to keep my attention over the 400-odd pages, and the prose, thick and richly-textured as it is, made for gorgeous reading when I had the energy for it.

Ada refers to S.F. tropes, themes and individual texts, but it's fundamentally not interested in the same ideas as S.F. Indeed, there's a hint that the alternative-universe setting may come from the fantasies of the lead character in his nonagenarian dotage. It's a splendid book, and I doubt I understood more than a quarter of it. I still prefer Pale Fire.

Most of the time I was working my way through Ada I was also reading British Summertime by Paul Cornell -- a really enjoyable book, and an excellent example of S.F. used for explicit theological speculation. Cornell is an alumnus of the Doctor Who novels, who passed through mainstream S.F. and T.V. soaps before ending up writing Doctor Who again. I probably would have found British Summertime more effective, and its content more original, if hadn't previously read Cornell's nine Who-and-related books and his first standalone novel Something More, some of which cover rather similar ground.

British Summertime is essentially the story of time-travelling capitalist angels who corrupt the whole of human history in an effort to avert a socialist utopia, and how to stop them. Jesus and Judas are characters, as is a thinly-disguised Dan Dare. Despite the reprising of familiar Cornellian themes it's conceptually hugely inventive, and politically and theologically challenging. At the moment I think it's the best explicitly christian S.F. I've read that hasn't been by Lewis or Smith or Dick, which is quite a compliment.

I first read Keith Roberts' Pavane when I was about thirteen, and again when I was seventeen or so. I loved it then for its harshly romantic presentation of a backward history where he Spanish Armada prevailed against Protestant England and the twentieth century is a technological backwater still dominated by a monolithic, repressive Church. A weird subplot suggests that this is somehow the second iteration of history, time having been rebooted by some truly devastating weapon discovered in our own timeline. Weirder still, only the fairies seem to remember this fact.

Given that I fell in love with this novel at an impressionable age, some degree of disillusionment is probably inevitable when revisiting it now, so it's to Pavane's credit that I was only mildly disappointed when rereading it a few weeks ago. One passage in particular, where the imagery of Christ's crucifixion is conflated epically with the death and rebirth of Baldur, moved me greatly at an age when I was discovering both my own faith and a lifelong passion for pagan mythology. This time round I find it dulled by familiarity, my interpretation of it having formed part of my mental furniture over the decades since my first reading. (Amusingly, I'm now not at all sure it means what I thought it did.) Still, Pavane remains a very strong book, defiantly part of the English literary S.F. tradition's 1960s resurgence, and well worth any S.F. reader's time.

And speaking of Baldur, Neil Gaiman's short-story collection Fragile Things includes a follow-up to Gaiman's American Gods which reveals the first name of the central character, Shadow. It is, as we might have guessed, "Balder". It's very fine, and a rather better sequel to American Gods than Anansi Boys is.

Most of the other stories in the volume are also pretty strong. The short form seems to suit Gaiman's mercurial imagination, which I've a feeling has trouble sustaining novel-length narratives without getting sidetracked. A few tend unfortunately towards the glib or twee (two qualities Gaiman's writing is accused of more often than it deserves), but most are good and some are outstandingly so, such as the Holmes-in-Lovecraftland "A Study in Emerald", still available to read online. I also enjoyed "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", whose teenage protagonist discovers that the girls at the party he's visiting really are from another planet, and "The Problem of Susan" -- Gaiman's response to the disquieting treatment of women in Lewis' Narnia books, which I've been wanting to read for ages (and which turns out to be, in its way, equally disturbing). There are a couple of rather lovely poems, too. Highly recommended.

Finally, just the other day I finished Never the Bride by Paul Magrs -- a lovely fantasia where nineteenth-century horror and S.F. characters (mostly in their twentieth-century cinematic manifestations) come home to roost in, for some reason, Whitby. It's reminiscent of some of Paul's other novels (notably Verdigris, where alien invaders diguise themselves, for perfectly adequate reasons, as characters from nineteenth-century literature), but it has a freshness and zest which puts it among the best of his work.

Like "A Study in Emerald", Never the Bride belongs to the increasingly popular genre of "massively multitextual crossover fiction", where vast numbers of fictional works -- and sometimes implicitly all of them -- are envisaged as taking place in the same universe. Magrs' treatment is more Alan Bennett than Alan Moore, gently spoofing and camping up his source texts even as he draws on them with genuine respect. If I mention that the central character is the Bride of Frankenstein, now quietly running a B. and B. in Yorkshire, then that should give you some idea.

Never the Bride seems deliberately conceived around a series format -- the episodic structure, and indeed the climax, are knowingly indebted to Buffy -- and indeed a sequel is planned for next year. I'm hoping this fictional world is going to continue for some time. Another "highly recommended" from me.

And if all of this sounds a little upbeat and cheerleading... well, I've read a lot of very good books lately. Wait till you hear what I think about Torchwood.

25 November 2006

My Mighty Column

If I've been lax about posting here recently -- which I have -- it's because things have been moving swiftly in various directions at once.

On the writing front, I've been given a fiction commission which (as usual) I can't talk about yet. It's a longish piece, though, longer than the short fiction I've had published recently, and it involves working with two authors I respect enormously. At present it's all secret planning and secure online fora, but I'm impressed with what we've come up with so far. More on that when an announcement's made.

What with this and the imminent job (starting the day after tomorrow now, rather terrifyingly), my attempt at an S.F. spy novel, A Fetter for the Mind, is having to go on the back-burner for a bit.

In more immediate news: for ages now, all the cool kids I know (well, Helen and Andrew, anyway) have had monthly columns with Christian Aid's webzine, Surefish. Now so do I.

I wanted to call it "Divine Invasions", but they've gone with the rather more self-explanatory "Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world". As in the Greenbelt festival blogs I've written for Surefish in the past, I will be banging on about religion a bit, so if that sort of thing annoys you you may prefer to stay away.

Here's the first instalment. I've promised them I won't write about Philip K. Dick every month.

I'll be linking to future updates from Peculiar Times, so expect a great many double-entendres involving the word "column" in future.

15 November 2006

Unsuccessful Meme

I wrote this months ago for one of Memetherapy's S.F. author vox pops -- specifically their "Speculative Reviews of Imaginary Books" series.

It's overlong and, unless you're aware of one particular historic text of science fiction, needlessly obscure. This would very likely be why they didn't publish it.

Since it's based on a story idea I've had in my head for years, though, and this is the nearest I've to come to getting it down (and, to be honest, rather more than it probably deserves), I thought I might as well archive it here.

It is, as you might have gathered, a review of an imaginary S.F. book.
Dave @1i8∑π: A Romance of the Year 2006
by Noah Grubgecks

The cumbersomely-titled Dave @1i8∑π, Noah Grubgecks' early-20th-century classic of "scientifiction", has not aged well.

Rereading it in 2006, the year of its notional setting, the modern reader will scarcely be able to resist a wry smile at its outlandish technological predictions, which history has proved so laughably inaccurate.

The profession of the titular Dave -- manning an "Information Technology support help-line" for the users of "personal computers" -- may have seemed convincingly futuristic in 1911, but readers in the real 2006 will surely be unable to contain their mirth at the idea of human beings still struggling to communicate with primitive "cell telephones" and the supposedly revolutionary "inter-net".

As I will hardly need to remind the readers of this review, since the discovery and widespread exploitation of the science of ethermatics, direct brain-to-brain telepathy has become the staple of all human interaction, rendering all such clumsy "net-working" devices forever useless.

Similarly the "P.C."s -- a kind of electronic calculating machine -- which Dave is supposedly servicing would be of little use in a 2006 where every man, woman and child is taught from birth to carry out complex mathematical operations at near-instantaneous speed thanks to the rigorous application of pharmacotic drugs and transcendronic conditioning.

Grubgecks' other howlers include his suggestion that fixed-wing heavier-than-air aircraft, rather than atomonic anti-gravity platforms, might be used to transport freight and passengers across the world, and his unaccountable failure to predict the total worldwide elimination of poverty and war, the human race’s victories over the native populations of Venus, Mars and Pluto, and the conquest and colonisation of all fifteen planets of the solar system by 1952.

Nevertheless, if you can suspend your disbelief over Grubgecks' "reality television talent shows" and his sinister global "Micro-Soft Corporation", there is much to appreciate in this quaint, nostalgic journey into a whimsical world which some might fleetingly have believed to have been humanity’s 21st-century destiny... but which was never likely to remain convincing for long.
So there you go.

Whereas the surname of Hugo Gernsback's hero, Mr 124C 41+, was intended to be pronounced "One to foresee for one" (or possibly "One to foresee for one more"), Dave's is pronounced "At one I ate some pie". Which pretty much sums up the quality of the enterprise, I fear.

11 November 2006


This came to me while I was trying to get to sleep last night, probably inspired by Chris Morris' Jam monologues:
When in the sea your mother's brother falls,
and floats inert at mercy of the tides,
rising and falling as the currents bid,
          then bobs your uncle.
Hmm. I think it needs a second stanza.

09 November 2006

I'm a Big Review Slut...

...and on these grounds I thoroughly approve of Sci-Fi Online's Richard McGinlay. Especially when he says things like:
Best of all is "The Ruins of Time", in which Philip Purser-Hallard brilliantly captures the essence of the original TARDIS team. His story also features a cliffhanging end-of-scene moment on practically every other page, which makes it a real page-turner.
I remember he was rather flattering about my story in A Life Worth Living a couple of years ago as well... although his review of Peculiar Lives was a little odd.

I've been revamping the reviews pages at www.infinitarian.com, incidentally, with quotes from the reviews in question:If you know of any reviews I've missed, do let me know. I've seen none for Collected Works as yet, but it's only recently out.

08 November 2006

Oh, and Also...

...I've got a new job, working half the week as an Administrator for an H.E. funding body. I had the interview last Thursday, and the job offer on Friday. I said "Yes" on Monday, had the contract through the post yesterday and start in two and a half weeks' time.

I'd better get cracking on finishing this novel proposal, hadn't I?

Middle of the Road

Well, I've now more or less recovered from my 35th birthday party at the weekend, which celebrated the halfway point in my biblically mandated lifespan with appropriate gravity. I'm still rather pleased with the grim and forbidding invitation I designed for the occasion, so I've webbed it here for those of you who haven't seen it already.

In practice, of course, the day was happy, fun and thoroughly enjoyable. Lunch at Zerodegrees (in my case caramelised pear and gorgonzola pizza, accompanied by black lager and pale ale) was followed by a cake which B. had bought and iced for the occasion. We then led a party to Bristol Zoo to observe the various fine animals on display there.

It was the first time I'd visited the new Monkey Jungle, where red-ruffed lemurs scamper freely around the visitors' paths and handrails without intervening bars or glass. The lions, penguins and gorillas were as entertaining as ever, although for some reason the capybara were nowhere to be seen.

In the evening we went on to the Portwall Tavern, which had kindly reserved us all space and got a chef in specially to provide Pieminister pies. They sold us Doombar, Barnstormer and various other beers that I was having too good a time to pay sufficently close attention to.

B. had kindly ensured that it wouldn't matter if I got drunk and embarrassed myself by assembling an activity that would provide a whole different order of embarrassment: a pub quiz based on my life, which she'd compiled by consulting friends, relatives and, apparently, pretty much everyone I'd ever met.

Subjects ranged from my first words and reaction to the birth of my baby brother, to my recent writing and participation in mailing-list controversies. The final round looked like this (click for enlarged image):

and involved identifying the contents of my DVD and video shelves.

My wife's devotion, and her creativity, never cease to amaze me. I'm so very lucky to have her.

It was lovely to see the nearly 40 people from different eras and aspects of my life, including university contemporaries, fellow authors, sisters-in-law, friends' children including my goddaughter, and various teenage and childhood companions, including some who've known me getting on for three decades now.

Too many of these are people I don't see nearly often enough these days, so it was wonderful to catch up with so many of them. People drifted in and out during the different phases of the day, but still there were only a few who I didn't manage to chat to properly.

Thanks to the extreme generosity of family and friends, I now have altogether more new books than I'm likely to get around to reading, which is just the way I like it. Titles I was particularly happy to be given included:If I haven't listed your present, it's not because I don't appreciate it, just because I have altogether too many to list without becoming boring.

Other rather splendid things from generous people included the DVDs of Mirrormask (from B. again) and the 3-disc edition of The Wicker Man, a case of fair trade wine and a similar number of bottles of exciting beer, and (from goddaughter E. and family) the adoption papers for a two-toed sloth.

It was the kind of weekend which leaves you replete, slightly hungover, full of love for humanity in general and your friends in particular, and mildly dazed by the sensory overload of it all. In short, utterly lovely.

It's just a shame I can't justify having another one until I'm halfway to 80.

03 November 2006

Sample Signature

This week has turned out extraordinarily manic. Some of this was expected (birthday on Wednesday, birthday party tomorrow), some of it less so, but it's all got in the way of updating this blog.

Nor do I have time for a long entry now -- I'll be back early next week with more detail as to what's been going on, and probably also a roundup of birthday presents.

In the meantime... I know I said I'd stop plugging Time Signature. However, those of you who are wavering about buying the book -- or indeed who've decided not to buy it at all -- may be interested to know that Big Finish have put my story, "The Ruins of Time", online in its entirety as a sample.

Assuming your computer can read Adobe PDF documents, you can get the story by going here and clicking where it says "Download and read 'The Ruins of Time' by Philip Purser-Hallard."

Share and enjoy.

26 October 2006

How Cod Rot

I've been meaning for a while to do a full-scale media update here, giving my opinions on Ada or Ardor (which I finally finished), Children of Men (which B. and I went to see a couple of weeks ago), The Netherlands National Circus (who we took goddaughter E. to see the other weekend), Robin Hood (which, after three episodes, I've now seen as much of as I'll ever need to, thanks), and the like.

But I've got stuff to write. Specifically, this novel proposal I'm working on, and an article on Philip K. Dick (obviously) for Movement magazine. So it'll have to wait, or if we're unlucky possibly never happen.

I can't, though, let the first two episodes of the first ever Doctor Who spinoff series in T.V. form go past without some form of comment. Those of you who frequent the same mailing lists as me may have seen this in part already -- and those of you who, through digital disenfranchisement, haven't yet seen the episodes in question may wish to avert your eyes for fear of spoilers -- but...

For the first two episodes of a new SF series, I thought Torchwood was pretty damn good. Not up to the standard of Ultraviolet -- which to me has become the quality bar which all telefantasy, British or otherwise, should aim to match [1] -- but pretty damn good nonetheless.

I enjoyed the way that the early structure of the first episode, Everything Changes, closely echoed that of Rose before heading off in its own quite different direction after the halfway mark. I also enjoyed they way Captain Jack's words to Gwen in the second episode, Day One, echoed the Doctor's to Rose in that same episode -- except that Jack tells Gwen to go home and live her normal life in parallel with working at Torchwood. It was a nice way of establishing the similarities and differences from the parent programme.

The direct Who continuity, on the other hand -- references to recent alien invasions and to the Cybermen, and indeed the guest appearance of the Doctor's missing hand -- seemed annoyingly superfluous (and, as Andrew suggests, rather out of place). I'm assuming at this stage, from the coy references to "the right kind of Doctor" and the like, that Torchwood itself, rather than the parent series, won't see any direct payoff to these elements. This seems to be shortchanging Torchwood, which really needs to develop as its own entity.

Russell Davies' writing on Everything Changes was good, better than Chris Chibnall's on Day One (unfortunate, given that Chibnall seems to have written four episodes of the season and RTD just the one). There were some sharp dialogue and good jokes in both, though. The degree of horror is a big improvement on the sanitised kiddie-violence seen in New Who. I also welcome the shagging (not least because the character involved in most of it was rather cute), but feel that this element needs to become less self-consciously adult in order not to seem adolescent.

I also greatly enjoyed the twist at the end of the first episode -- coming out of nowhere but making perfect sense, as all the best twists do. I was less happy that it wrote out one of the supposed regular characters -- not just because it leaves the cast down one attractive woman, but also because I found her more interesting than any of the others except Jack [2].

I had a problem with Gwen in particular. The character's a waterfall -- nice to look at, but awfully wet. Eve Myles puts in the same performance as she did for Gwyneth the psychic maid in The Unquiet Dead, which doesn't work -- Gwen needs to be a lot more hard-edged (and it's difficult enough as it is to manage that in a lilting Welsh accent). As a viewpoint character she's going to need an awful lot of slapping into shape.

Toshiko, who first appeared (as a medic, at least purportedly -- now the character's a computer genius for no obvious reason) in Aliens of London, has yet to be as interesting as she was in those five minutes. Owen is obnoxious (and a borderline-rapist, but that's causing all kinds of "discussion" on various fansites and I don't want to go there), which is at least interesting, but the character has yet to do anything to layer that characteristic into three-dimensionality. Ianto is a little baffling -- the character seems to be written as Alfred to Jack's Batman, but the actor isn't playing him that way. The pterodactyl's great, though.

I wasn't keen on the suggestion that none of these people apart from Gwen have lives outside work -- it makes them much less interesting at a stroke. Given that we've already seen that what Owen and Suzie get up to outside Torchwood is as interesting as what happens within it, I'm hoping that this is going to be gradually exposed as a polite fiction (although that would make nonsense of Day One's already rather feeble "humanising the alien-hunters" theme).

Jack himself is, as ever, very very cool. I liked the way the first episode was themed around resurrection, and that his experiences in that area are shown to have changed him. (It may be awkward later on to have a hero who can't die, mind you, but that's superhero fiction for you.)

That said... I'm not so keen on the Angelic broody angst he was displaying. It's possibly true that "gung-ho omnisexual action hero" isn't a three-dimensional enough concept for a central character rather than a hero's foil... but I'd rather see him still acting gung-ho with hidden depths of despair (as per Christopher Eccleston's Doctor) than simply becoming more subdued, as he appears to have done. The whole appeal of the character is that he's larger than life, and his newfound status as a magical vessel of life should enhance that (as it did, rather halfheartedly, when he snogged the alien-sex-parasite-girl). I'd like to see more of that going on as the series progresses.

Overall... yes, it's very derivative, never more so than during the aerial shots of Jack brooding on rooftops while in the background Cardiff does its sporting best to look like Los Angeles. I did enjoy it massively, though... and if it follows the trajectories of a good many first seasons of telefantasy shows, it could end up being rather excellent. Watch this space [3].

[1] I'm told that there are personal reasons why Joe Ahearne, Ultraviolet's writer-director, has never written or directed Doctor Who (or indeed Torchwood) after directing several of the best episodes of Season One. I can't help wishing that the show-runners would sort them out, whatever they are, because he's surely needed.

[2] Come to think of it, this was one of the elements which recalled Ultraviolet rather strongly, along with the more obvious "policeperson becomes involved with supernatural covert ops group" plotline. If a late episode doesn't involve Jack being forced to revive Suzie with the technology he himself has interdicted, I shall be very surprised.

[3] Or rather, watch Parrinium Mines, where I'm crossposting this and where any further reviews of Torchwood probably ought to go.

Got Up. Faffed. Updated My Blog.

Thanks to hatmandu for pointing me towards these six-word stories by various authors. I particularly like Charles Stross's Bin Laden story, but Bruce Sterling, Stephen Baxter and Alan Moore also manage some impressive work in the space available.

A morning of prevaricating, as usual, has led to me posting various six-fics of my own as comments to Hat's blog entry above. I might as well archive them here for general interest:

"Her dying wish," sighed King Albert.


"Hi. Meet my wife and husbands."

My other head plots against me.

Nanoterrorism is so passé these days.

IN THE beginning, Satan created God.

And, moving uncharacteristically away from SF and religion:

Jane Errs: "Reader, I shagged him."

Oulipo, fixing wilful limits, cramps author.

Accurate haiku
need heptasyllables and

(NB: Those last two I've altered slightly to stand independent of their original context. Which makes the whole "archiving" pretext rather flimsy, really.)

Returning to more traditionally constructed fiction... my copies of Collected Works and Time Signature arrived this morning, for which many thanks to the nice people at Big Finish. They look, as I've mentioned, really rather neat with their minimalist white covers. (Not that that's the nicest thing I can think of to say about them, it's just the first thing that occurs to me as I look at them now.)

I'm pleased with my work in both, but also with the company I'm keeping between -- as it were -- the covers. Time Signature includes work from Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel and Marc Platt -- three of the best of the Doctor Who novelists of the 1990s, and indeed of the original T.V. programme's scriptwriters during its last years -- as well as from some of the most interesting short-story writers to emerge from Big Finish's Short Trips anthologies. Collected Works similarly includes work from an impressive number of the most impressive Doctor Who novelists to emerge during the 2000s, all of whom I admire greatly.

I'd read most of Collected Works before publication, and it's a really strong collection, with a coherent through-story and some outstanding individual pieces. Nick Wallace (one of those emerging novelists, and indeed the last to slip under the bar before the new T.V. series made the Doctor Who novels a closed shop) has done an excellent job, his first as a editor. I'm also very pleased with my own contributions -- five short pieces (though these are more like six pages each than six words), and one longer one co-written with Nick, all based around a group of visitors from the far future.

Time Signature I've yet to read all of, but I know that Simon Guerrier had an equally strong ongoing story in mind and made some excellent editorial choices, so I anticipate being impressed by that one as well. Certainly I'm just as happy with my story, a "condensed novel" about William Hartnell's original Doctor exploring a world where time is rather literally in short supply.

Ah, well. I'm going to stop plugging these here now, doubtless to the relief of most of you (although I reserve the right to link to reviews, if there are any). You know where you can get your own copies if you want to.

25 October 2006

Love Is Blind. It's Also Cupboard.

Blogspot isn't letting me access my account at present, so I'm composing this in Word on Wednesday afternoon. Heaven knows when I'll be allowed to post it...

You’ll be thrilled to know, possibly, that both Collected Works and Time Signature quite definitely exist in book form. I've seen them both in Forbidden Planet, and very pretty they look too. Hopefully my contributors' copies will turn up from Big Finish at some point in the not too distant future.

This past week’s been a tad trying, as B. and (latterly) I have been redecorating our kitchen: papering and painting walls, painting and re-handling cupboards, putting in new shelves and blinds and all kinds of faff and fiddle. The results –- still incomplete though they are –- are looking good. Whereas before the kitchen was coloured nasty yellow

with woody brown

cupboards and a big patch of bare icky salmon grey

plaster beneath waist level from when we had a damp course put in, now it's like totally apple white

with cupboards that are all
tasteful dark green

and chrome fittings which are like this much nicer shade of grey

. Only more reflective.

(One day you'll be able to set the reflectiveness of your computer screen to any level you want. We'll have to think of a new word for mirror websites.)

As I've mentioned before, I don't react well to having my habitat mucked about with, so I've found all of this fairly stressful. (On the plus side, though, this has provided an excuse to eat plenty of cheese and chocolate -- which, on the minus side, my waistline hasn't been inclined to accept with any sympathy.) The cats have been very clingy, as well, and are suspicious of the way things smell in there now.

In particular, having the blinds missing for over a week has made me feel surprisingly vulnerable, although I'm quite sure none of our rearward neighbours has any interest in watching me cook, eat, or indeed screw (which I've been doing quite a lot of over the past few days -- there've been a good many fixtures and fittings to attach to things. Ho ho ho, I bet you all thought I meant "screw" in the sense of "copulate".)

Now, though, we have shiny venetian slatted things up instead, which are far nicer than the dangly fabric things we inherited from our predecessors. They're so reflective that they make the room feel daylit even when half-open, which is fantastic.

The whole thing's a big improvement, naturally, but I can't help feeling it's involved an great deal of effort. Still, that's just me -- certainly B.'s very happy with the whole thing, which is good, and she claims it will make the house more saleable when we move. So three cheers for that, even if they're rather weary and stressed cheers.

[Edit 29/10/2006: Better approximations of colours, courtesy of B. Although I'm not sure about the plaster, to be honest.]

20 October 2006

Blooming Cheek

I was interested to find, when I followed a link from a recent blog item by Kate Orman, an online listing of the works of literature which the eminent critic Harold Bloom believes comprise the Western Canon.

Originally for this post, I intended to do as Kate had and simply list the books from the list I'd read or seen performed.

However, the traditional Oxbridge Englit B.A. and Masters made this rather a lengthy task. As my selection from Bloom's listing became longer and longer, and more and more dull, I began to feeel depressed at how many of the books in question I'd read purely from a sense of duty, gaining very little actual enjoyment (I mean honestly, have you tried reading The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia?), and how very small a proportion of Bloom's corpus of essential texts, even the English-language ones, I'd covered despite this.

So, instead of boasting about my erudition and exposing my ignorance in the same breath, I'm going to pick holes in Bloom's selection process. That'll teach him to be so bloody self-important.

Honestly, though -- I approve of including Beowulf, naturally, but it was hardly the only interesting thing to be written in English before Chaucer. Where's The Dream of the Rood, or any of the poems from the Exeter Book? Dickens' later novels are some of the best in the English language, but what possible justification could there be for including such early throwaway nonsense as Nicholas Nickleby among of the seminal works of Western literature? You might as well include the funny newspaper columns Dickens collected as The Pickwick bloody Papers. Which, of course, Bloom also does.

All of Shakespeare, Harold? What, even The Comedy of Errors? Even The Two Noble Kinsmen? Are you sure? What on earth did the Earl of Rochester do to deserve being on the list, apart from use the word "fuck" repeatedly in his poetry?

And honestly -- Gilbert and Sullivan?

I note that Vladimir Nabokov -- a Russian who was resident in the U.S. from the age of 41, became a citizen of the U.S. and did his best work there before retiring to Switzerland 20 years later -- is listed by you, Harold, under "The United States". That's probably fair enough -- but what, then, of T.S. Eliot, who lived in England from the age of 26, did all his best work here and died in London as a British citizen, whom you also list under "The United States"? Can we be quite certain that there's no cultural bias at work here, Harold?

And then there's the S.F.

Large amounts of respect are due, admittedly, for including any at all. There are a good many academics who'd consider even Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World to have been fatally contaminated by their association with such a populist genre. You, Harold, on the other hand, include Cat's Cradle, Riddley Walker and The Left Hand of Darkness, along with Wells's S.F. and something by Disch I've never got round to reading. Kudos for that.

But but but -- A Voyage to Arcturus? That was the best work of post-Wells British S.F. you could come up with? I mean, I know it's a philosophical allegory which uses the planetary-exploration genre to dramatise its a/theological dialectic, finally espousing an uncompromisingly Gnostic cosmogony which affirms the divine origins of life whilst at the same time febrilely rejecting the material world and its creator. It says so in my thesis.

But for God's sake, it's excruciatingly-written rubbish! Even C.S. Lewis thought so, and he was pretty much responsible for the fact that anyone outside the S.F. critical community's even heard of it. For this you pass over everything, S.F. or otherwise, written by Olaf Stapledon, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss (who also thinks it's rubbish, by the way), Christopher Priest or indeed Lewis himself? And that's listing only the British contenders, and thus failing altogether to address the scandalous omission of, to name only the most deserving of the many absent U.S. S.F. authors, Philip K Dick.

Academics, eh. Always obsessing about their own field while entirely ignoring the wider picture. T'sk.

18 October 2006

Collecting Myself

No, this isn't the longer blog post I promised on Monday -- I've got a job interview later today, and the preparation has got in the way of that a bit. Sorry about that.

However, an announcement: with the book due out (I believe) this very week, Big Finish have now released the contributors' list for Collected Works, which you may agree is even more exciting than the selection of authors previously announced.

Accordingly I've updated my own Collected Works page with more information, and a brief teaser for my stories.

...ah, yes, stories. My pieces in Collected Works consist of five themed shorts under the umbrella title "Perspectives", and a finale, co-written with the editor Nick Wallace, which ties up the collection's ongoing storylines. I also created the background for some new characters, the Quire, whose arc story forms one of the backbones of the anthology[1].

I'm immensely pleased with how the book's worked out -- it's a credit to Nick and to the impressively talented list of contributors he put together.

You should all buy it, and while you're at it buy Time Signature too. Hell, why not buy them both at Peculiar Tomes? Go on, treat yourself.

[1] Yes, it has more than one backbone. Shh.

Cognitive Dissonance Update

I spend way too much time on this computer. After B. and I painted our bedroom back in July, I kept worrying that someone would accidentally click "Undo" and rever the colour of the walls to sickly green.

Now I find myself attempting to highlight words on a piece of paper by tapping them twice briefly with my fluorescent pen.

16 October 2006

Introducing Peculiar Tomes

A proper blog post should be forthcoming in the next day or so. In the meantime, come and have a look at this, which I've spent the morning putting together using Amazon's "aStore" technology.

I need to put in some links from the main www.infinitarian.com site.. but in the meantime, if for some reason any of you haven't got all my books yet, or haven't yet got round to preordering Time Signature or Collected Works, you could help test the site by doing it now.

06 October 2006

Space Opus

Last night we finished watching Season 2 of the shiny (or rather, rough and grimy but splendid) new Battlestar Galactica -- courtesy of R. and M.'s DVD box set, which by a strange coincidence we bought them recently as a belated / early joint birthday present.

After the very tight, very compelling Season 1 there were a couple of bits of Season 2 which were a little less satisfying. A couple of episodes (and at least one major plot point) did seem to be resolved by authorial fiat rather than narrative logic, and there was a standout (and actually quite unnecessary) manifestation of "magic" which deserved, if not explanation, then at least for the characters to speculate about the possibility of one[1].

On the whole, though, I remain resolutely impressed. The final two-parter, in particular, was enormously ambitious (its events could have provided the material for an entire season without much difficulty) and shakes up the status quo like no episode of series television I've seen before. I'm not completely convinced that every aspect of it worked dramatically -- in particular, I think we needed longer to get used to the episode's interim status quo before that, too, was thrown up in the air[2] -- but with this kind of ambition on display I can readily forgive that.

One thing which confused me at first was the appearance of previously-unseen clips during the last few episodes' "Previously" montages. At first I thought they were just being sloppy and not paying attention to what they'd cut, but this happened so often that I'm convinced it was a deliberate dramatic device designed to fill us in on things which had happened offscreen during past episodes. It's a rather clever use of the medium, which after my initial confusion worked rather well.

Unlike the old series of Battlestar Galactica -- which there's a strong consensus was a load of old pants, probably gold lamé ones -- the new series is one which seems to divide S.F. viewers. I've read opinions saying that it's dull or one-note, with inconsistent characterisation.

I only wish I had the time to compose a reasoned and impassioned defence of it like Simon Forward's, but I don't. I can only say that on the whole I think it's great, enjoyed it enormously, and am frustrated to be waiting until -- apparently -- January for the next installment.

Here's hoping Torchwood's good enough to tide me over.

Footnotes contain SPOILERS. Highlight the whitespace to read:

[1] The plot point is, of course, Roslin's cancer, which has been integral to her character and function since the original miniseries, and is brushed aside with some terrible technobollocks about a Cylon donor having an enhanced immune system.

The "magic" scene is the characters' full-immersion consensual VR experience in Athena's Tomb. In fact, since it's fairly clear that there are eventually going to be some major revelations about the nature of the Lords of Kobol -- who will, I suspect, either be the Cylons from a previous historical "cycle" or your standard godlike aliens -- we can presumably put this down to Clarke's (third) Law. But it's so far beyond what we've seen of either Colonial or Cylon technology that it should have shaken the characters' worldview considerably more than it seems to have.

[2] Specifically, we should have seen more of the colonists' harsh but peaceful life on New Caprica before the arrival of the Cylons shook everything up again. Even a full episode would have worked better.

04 October 2006

More Heresy, Vicar?

B. and I went to the final installment of the Bluffer's Guide to Heresy course last night. The topic was Donatism, so B. bought donuts to take along.

The Donatists believed that certain actions on the part of certain priests during the Roman persecutions had called into question their competence to perform the christian sacraments -- especially, in the case of their local bishops, their ability to ordain further priests. The Donatists therefore created their own parallel churches, under the alternative episcopal oversight of bishops whose purity and rectitude they considered beyond reproach.

We had fun speculating how this particular heresy might be of relevance to the church today.

The event -- and particularly the rather decent real ale pub we visited afterwards, which I hadn't encountered before -- was in the general vicinity of the Bristol Hippodrome, which was staging The Rocky Horror Show. The streets, and pub, were dotted with raucous and / or slightly embarrassed people milling around in fishnets, dinner jackets, gold lamé leotards and the like.

While walking back to the car we found ourselves walking behind one young lady wearing fishnets, a basque and some impressively tight latex shorts.
B: It's a shame we didn't know Rocky Horror was on, I'd have liked to have gone.
Me: [Strangely mesmerised] Well never mind, at least we're in the area...
I think I got away with it. Even though we were giving the vicar a lift home at the time.

(I know I should stop finding the fact that Simon -- a university contemporary who I knew years ago through S.C.M. -- is a priest now, quite so amusing. He's hardly the first friend of mine to get ordained. He is, however, the first who's ended up being the priest at a church anywhere near me, and therefore the first who I can refer to as "the vicar". It's amazing how funny almost any anecdote becomes once you insert a vicar into it.)

One the way home, I suddenly flashed back to a recent dream where I was attending a Rocky Horror-style audience-participation performance of The Exorcist. (My dreaming subconscious has been unusually creative recently, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for my rather secluded daily life.)

The only part I remember clearly is the buckets of pea soup which some audience members were getting ready to throw around during the vomiting scene. What they might have been planning to do during the neck-revolving scene, and especially the crucifix scene, I really don't want to speculate.

29 September 2006

The Marcion Invasion

(What follows is a little bit of a rant, and a little bit of a sermon, and a quite a lot of a party political broadcast for the For Christ's Sake Get Some Perspective party. It starts off fulminating topically about events of the first few centuries A.D., but does become rather more relevant thereafter.

I'm sorry about that. A lot of this has been fermenting in my brain for quite some time now.

Over the last few Wednesdays, B. and I have been attending our vicar and another vicar's course entitled A Bluffer's Guide to Heresy. So far we've covered Gnosticism, Marcionism and Pelagianism, and are due to be finishing off next week with the Donatists.

It's all good fun -- pop-theology done in an engaging, entertaining way without being in any sense dumbed down. Gnosticism is a subject I know something about, having written in my thesis about science fiction as a modern expression of Gnostic thought, and I enjoyed Simon and Paul's presentation on the subject.

I have some sympathy, to varying degrees, with all of these "heretical" positions. I suspect that Pelagius, in particular, is only considered a heretic because his opponent, Augustine, managed to convince the church he wasn't one. Of their two positions, Pelagius' idea that human beings are created capable of moral perfection seems merely over-optimistic, while Augustine's Manichean-influenced ideas of a fallen world and original sin -- and in particular his negativity towards sex and women -- have caused great harm to the later development of the church. It seems to me that the only reason Pelagius was a heretic and Augustine a saint is the familiar one of history being written by the victors.

Gnosticism I can see good arguments for in that the material world is clearly very imperfect, but have to reject insofar as my own religious experiences have been necessarily mediated through that same created world. Marcionism has a point in that some aspects of the Old Testament are, to say the least, questionable, but makes the mistake (an all too familiar one in a modern context, but rare at the time) of assuming that such scriptures are to be read as historical fact rather than as pointers towards spiritual truth.

Even as pointers towards spiritual truth, some aspects of the Old Testament are, in fact, questionable, which is why I believe that the Bible consists of a progressive series of variously imperfect revelations of God, rather than anything you could sensibly call "fact".

And yet...

Today I read this piece by Stephen Unwin in The Guardian. I haven't read Unwin's book, and I haven't read Richard Dawkins' book to which he's responding (although given that this seems to be the one where the good Professor finally comes out and says that I and all people of faith are delusional and dangerous, I should probably get round to it sooner or later).

This whole area is -- thanks to the indefatigable efforts of fundamentalists of all stripes in the politics of the the U.S., the Middle East, and increasingly here in the U.K. -- a blood-soaked, bomb-strewn minefield.

For the record, I see any kind of theocratic government by scriptural fiat as dangerous, deeply immoral and -- I'm a liberal christian, so I get to swear -- quite astoundingly fuckwitted.

What's more I fully agree with Dawkins, as quoted by Joan Bakewell, that the Bible is "a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents", that "sucking up to God" is a poor rationale for moral behaviour and that Unwin's supposed proof of God's probable existence is "quite agreeably funny".

What dismays me is the polarisation expressed in the debate, visible not only in Dawkins' frequent fulminations but in the comments appended to that piece of Unwin's. Despite the visible and vocal presence -- in the U.K., the U.S. and indeed the Middle East -- of christians, jews, muslims and other people of faith who do not reject the truths of science, do not wish to see their particular interpretation of divine ethics enshrined in law, and in particular do not believe that the killing of innocents is an act which any sane form of faith can justify... despite the continual protests of these people against the sickening excesses of their co-religionists, Dawkins and his sympathisers persist in speaking and acting as if all religion, all faith is the enemy of humanity, rather than merely the religion and faith of unbearable mindless fuckwits.

I find this, to be frank, incredibly painful.

I also, needless to say, find painful the fact that apparently American christian fundamentalists are now training their children to believe themselves participants in a global religious war in which they may be called upon to give their lives for Jesus.

Great move, guys. Because what the world really needs just at this precise moment are more fanatical religious zealots prepared to die for their beliefs.

The problem -- or at least, a large part of that aspect of "the problem" which gives rise to this zero-tolerance attitude on all sides -- is precisely the inability to separate the realms of spiritual and factual truth which so beset poor Marcion (and to some extent Augustine, although I think his overly literal reading of Genesis arose more from his psychological hangups than vice versa).

Truths about "God" (and even the word is problematic) are allusive, symbolic and obscure, not because God is vague or shifting but because our only tools for discussing or conceptualising the divine have been evolved for talking and thinking about the experiential world which God exists beyond and outside. (Also "throughout", of course, but not in any way which can be physically quantified or even detected.)

All statements made about God, whether by believers or unbelievers, are therefore suspect. "There is no God but God" and "There is no God" both tell us important and valid things about the divine -- but to take either of them as fact is a grievous category error.

The ways in which this expresses itself in the politics of the U.S., Israel and Islamdom are perfectly clear, and reliably appalling. Unfortunately, Dawkins and his supporters, while not yet at the stage of blowing people up who disagree with them, are equally misled.

Dawkins can protest all he likes that (in Bakewell's words) "given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions". His difficulty with faith arises precisely from the fact that God does not exist as part of that realm about which science is better qualified than any to speak. As Dawkins' book presumably attempts to demonstrate, no proof of God's existence (or indeed probability) has yet been produced which was not intellectually flawed, nor can there ever be such a proof. "Proof", as Dawkins and indeed Anselm understand it, is simply not a concept which can apply.

When the divine demonstrates its own existence (which, as I've indicated, I faithfully believe it does), it isn't in a way which can be duplicated or falsified through scientific experiment. If Dawkins underwent a genuine spiritual experience of the kind which has been sufficient to commit so many believers in the history of the world to such diverse faiths, his worldview would force him to dismiss it as a random aberration of his brain chemistry -- ignoring that very qualitative, unquantifiable gap in the rational through which God manifests God's self.

(I sometimes suspect that Dawkins is a very spiritual man. I sometimes think that he longs desperately for God to intervene with a material proof of babelfishesque undeniability, to demonstrate beyond all possible doubt on Richard Dawkins' part that God is real. His berating of God, I sometimes feel, is the lament of a spiritual yearning which can never be satisfied within the material cage which his mind has constructed for itself.

I can't prove this either, of course.)

You may feel that, in arguing against the one group of zealots who aren't currently in control of vast arsenals of tanks, bombs and helicopters, or at least of specially-tailored clothing containing shrapnel and moderate quantities of triacetone triperoxide, I'm going -- like so many of the zealots who are in control of these things -- for the soft target. You would, of course, be quite correct.

Dawkins' confusion is forgivable in a world where the aforementioned unbearable mindless fuckwits persistently declare that God's existence can be proved with science and logic, that Genesis has anything whatsoever to tell us about the biological origin of species, that God regularly intervenes in history, politics and economics to ensure that good people prosper and wicked people founder -- that, not to put too fine a point on it, propositions which are quite evidently false in the real world are or should be part of the belief-systems of those who accept God.

Making God's existence incompatible with the world as our reason and our perception understand it: that, ladies and gentlemen, is one type of doctrine which I'd be very willing to dismiss as heresy.

20 September 2006

Art Works

Speaking of Collected Works, as I just was, the cover has now been released, and can be viewed either here or at the Big Finish site.

(In the absence of Adrian Salmon, Big Finish's regular cover artist for the Bernice Summerfield books, it's been painted by Doctor Who comics artist Lee Sullivan. In general I rather prefer Salmon's heavily stylised artwork, as seen on A Life Worth Living amongst others, but Sullivan's seems better suited to the books' new all-white look. Hmm.)

There's still been no announcement of the story titles and full list of authors (the nine of us who've been listed so far are only half of the names you'll see on the contents page), which means I still can't put up my lovingly-prepared teaser text for my stories. When I can make that public, though, I'll point to it from here.

Putting the Cartography Before the Horse

I've spent most of this past week worldbuilding -- creating a setting for a potential novel (not one I've actually got anyone interested in yet, I hasten to add), in painstaking geographical, historical, political and social detail.

I'm told this is one of my big strengths as a writer... and I'm inclined to agree that Of the City of the Saved... would be a considerably lesser work without the 20,000-odd words of notes I'd made on the City before I started writing it. I've tried to do similar work (to a lesser degree, obviously) for my various short stories, "Minions of the Moon" particularly, and I think it's paid off. It certainly led to my being asked by Nick Wallace, the editor of Collected Works, to design some background for that book.

I don't want to go into detail about this new setting, because it's a neat idea and I don't want people being "inspired" by it. But for most of the past week I've been painstakingly constructing (in Microsoft Paint, perversely enough) a map of Britain in the 22nd century, after some serious changes to the political landscape. It's not an approach I've used before, but I've found that as I've filled in the changed place-names and coloured in the various political entities, I've found a whole history unfolding in my head.

Of course, I don't actually have a story, plot or characters yet. But I've got a very exciting world to put them into when I manage to come up with some.

And -- if it should happen to become a bestselling sequence of novels and spawn a series of blockbusting films -- I'll have the licensed tie-in Risk board all worked out ready.

My Top 5 DVDs of All Time

I wrote the following as a sample for a job I didn't get. It's the sort of thing many people seem to post on their blogs, so I thought I might as well offer it up for your edification.

It is, admittedly, somewhat constrained by the limited number of DVDs I've actually watched, and in particular bothered with the extras for.

My Top 5 DVDs of All Time
(in 50 words each)

Firefly: The Complete Series (4-disc boxed set)
Tragically cancelled before its time, Joss ‘Buffy’ Whedon’s space-opera Western was the cleverest, funniest, most stylish TV sci-fi in years. Experience all 14 episodes along with featurettes, deleted scenes, an outtakes reel that’s actually funny, and commentaries from actors and crew so witty, warm and articulate you’ll hate them. Glorious.

I Claudius (5-disc boxed set)
Roll over Rome – Derek Jacobi stars as the Emperor Claudius in ten hours of the greatest BBC drama ever made. Where else would you see Blackadder’s Nursie as a poisoner, or Christopher Biggins playing Nero? Features include documentaries, actors’ favourite scenes and an interactive genealogy of that nice Caesar family.

Jam (2-disc set)
Christopher Morris’ unnerving sketch comedy of dead babies and psychotic doctors comes complete with its fuzzier late-night remix, Jaaaaam. Each episode plays in yet another alternative format, such as a ‘ffwd version’ or ‘quadrilateral lava lamp version’. If you missed the day Kilroy lost his mind, then welcome… in Jam.

Minority Report (2-disc set)
Tom Cruise stars as a ‘pre-crime’ cop on the run, after being fingered as a future murderer. The extras disc goes overboard with design sketches, storyboards, biographies and no fewer than 17 featurettes, with menus in the film’s own hands-on interactive graphics style. The movie’s not at all bad, either.

Doctor Who: The Beginning (3-disc boxed set)
Sinister, giggling William Hartnell abducts two of his granddaughter’s teachers in his time-machine, in Doctor Who the way it was meant to be. These first three stories bring us cavemen, insanity and eerie machine-people called ‘Daleks’. The best of many bonuses brings long-deleted historical story Marco Polo to partial life.