30 June 2006

Rheumatic Puns

Much of today was spent aggravating my periodical back issues, by carrying around heavy boxes of periodical back-issues.

Well, I thought it was ironic.

26 June 2006

Search Me, Mate

The Amazon.com pages for Of the City of the Saved... now contain, it seems, the entire contents of the novel, from copyright notice to back blurb. (WARNING: not every page of same is necessarily work-safe or child-friendly. Nor was it ever meant to be, frankly.)

The same is true of The Book of the War and the other Faction Paradox novels.

"Surprise Me!", it says. Well, yes, now you come to mention it.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. From a legal point of view it's unassailable, since it's evidently been done with the permission of Mad Norwegian Press, who in accordance with normal U.S. practice for shared-universe novels hold the copyright in the text. On the other hand, I have grave reservations about any online content provider archiving entire scanned texts of in-copyright works (I'm equally dubious about Google Book Search), and I can't help feeling even more so when the text in question is one I spent a year writing.

I can't currently see that there'd be any impediment in place to a sufficiently dedicated reader doing repeated searches until they'd managed to access, and thus read, every page in the book without paying for it. It would be a lot of hassle, but it would be free -- and while my browser at least refuses to cache or print the pages in question, I know too much about computer geekdom to suppose that workarounds for these restrictions don't exist.

And, while free access to information may well be very admirable and demotic in an anarchist sort of way, somebody doing such a thing would be depriving Mad Norwegian of revenue, and thus slightly reducing the likelihood of the Faction Paradox line of novels continuing -- as well as my (admittedly remote) chances of ever seeing any royalties from the book.

Still, the facility's there if you want it. Use it wisely.

[Edit to add: The initial link is to an excerpt only. However, if you search on a character name (like "Urbanus") or a reasonably common word (like, say, "city"), you'll find it links you to occurrences throughout the book.]

South-West's Thesps in Vests on Nests

On Saturday B. and I went with young goddaughter E. to see Seussical the Musical at the Tobacco Factory. Despite the fantastic-sounding premise, it turned out to be a bit of a mess -- though E. thoroughly enjoyed it, which is obviously the main thing.

It was difficult to see quite who the script was pitched at. It was lengthy and slow-moving for a kids' show, with a tendency to make the liberal-humanist ethic underpinning most of Dr Seuss's work more overt than was absolutely necessary -- yet the rambling plot, free-associating seemingly at random between a score or more Seuss books, seemed altogether too incoherent for an adult attention span.

The lyrics themselves were obviously great, being mostly derived directly from the books, and the music was catchy enough. My favourite moment was the throwaway gag of having General Ghengis Khan Schmitz's platoon of conscript Whos use Green Eggs and Ham as a marching-chant, Full Metal Jacket style:
"I do not like green eggs and ham..."
"I do not like them, Sam-I-am..."

Script aside, though, this particular production had its own problems. It turned out to be mounted by drama students from the Bristol Academy of Performing Arts, which in itself is unexceptionable... but in this case seemed to have burdened the production with an overwhelmingly female-dominated cast, a minimal budget, some indifferent performances (including extremely variable American accents) and set-pieces geared a little too obviously towards conferring appropriate course credits on all the cast-members.

The biggest difficulty, sadly, was in actually hearing the lyrics -- some performers were better at projecting their voices than others, but all of them could have benefited from being miked up. The omission was particularly odd given that the band was already playing over a loudspeaker system from the lobby.

The other big letdown was the design work. The designers had decided that their best approach would be an all-white set with a handful of generic props and items of furniture (representing beds, nests and the like), and the cast in white boiler suits... rather than, say, making any effort to imitate Seuss's illustrations, which are surely around 50% of the books' appeal -- or, of course, 100%, in the event of the words being for some reason inaccessible. The only exceptions were the Cat in the Hat (dressed in black, with a tail and red-and-white striped hat and cuffs) and the bird characters (who were festooned with admittedly Seussian pink fluff. One of them had a feathered bra underneath her open-to-the-waist boiler suit, which I found strangely mesmerising.)

Perhaps there are separate licensing issues with respect to Seuss's illustrations and words, but it seems faintly insane for a production to use one but not the other.

Never mind. Young E. pronounced it "lovely", and that's what counts.

Anyway, inspired by this I've been doing some background reading on Theodore Seuss Geisel, and discovered somewhat to my surprise that he went to Lincoln College -- the alma mater of such other distinguished men of letters as Tom Paulin, John le Carré and John Wesley.

He was also a political cartoonist before he became a children's author, which is really weird. (His caricatures of Japanese people in particular are disturbingly of-their-time, although this one is grimly hilarious.)

And finally (and predictably)... we are, I'm sure, all long since familiar with this. My Doctor Who mailing-list compatriot John Seavey has come up with the shorter but equally clever this. And this and this go some way towards resolving a problem that's been troubling me for years.


Further to earlier musings about predictive-text messaging... this may well come as old news to many, but I was quietly amused today to discover that "pint" and "shot" are numerically isomorphic.

12 June 2006


Since our trip away, life's gone back to being very busy, as easily as if I'd never left Bristol. I've been training teachers at work -- if you see me offline, do feel free to ask me how much fun that was -- and doing post-submission work on the recent stories. This is rather more complicated than usual in the case of Collected Works, because of the need to keep straight my background material for the anthology as a whole. (Keen-eyed readers who are also familiar with the common themes in my work -- I'm looking at you, Stuart -- may be able to spot the elements I contributed in the blurb.)

Other than that, while B. was in London on Friday I spent a very hot evening in the pub with goddaughter E.'s parents R. and M. and brother L. (though not E. herself, as she was round at a friend's house), and discovered that in addition to Bath Ales, the Wellington fantastically now does heavenly Dark Budvar. Also a rather nice peppers-in-pastry thing, and chips. My post-Manchester diet didn't go so well that day.

Last night B. and I went round to said goddaughter's family and watched her doing her violin practice. This was lovely, touching and caused us both to swell with pride at her skill -- yet was also, oddly, as excruciating as listening to a five-year-old attempting to play the violin. Possibly a bit of cognitive dissonance going on there. We played a couple of rather interesting Italian games that R. and M. picked up in Verona, and investigated another -- Inkognito, about spies in Venice -- which looked terribly complicated.

Today I'm all sticky and sweaty, but not for any enjoyable reason. Never mind.


So at the end of half term B. and I went to Manchester for a three-day weekend, having settled on it as a city we hadn't visited before (or for about fifteen years, in my case) which looked as if it would bear exploration.

This turned out to be an excellent choice. The sunshine helped of course, but the city is gorgeous -- lots of old (mostly Victorian, but some older) architecture mixed in with really interesting modern stuff:

The vast glass pylon at the top there is apparently the tallest residential block in the U.K. Or possibly Europe. I forget.

OK, so there are presumably grotty bits of Manchester as well, but fortunately as tourists we weren't required to visit those. It's just a shame our (cheap) camera is quite so rubbish at colours when there's bright sunlight. Also that I can't take a straightforward photo without sticking my idiotic finger in the way.

But the city was great in so many ways -- frequent free buses, a tram service (no photos of the trams, but I think my friend Patsy may have been involved in designing them, unless I'm thinking of Sheffield), lots of open green areas and trees and exciting bits of waterway just lying about the place. Also a gigantic BBC-sponsored TV screen opposite the major shopping centre.

Our hotel was located close to Castlefield, a district which counts as an urban heritage park in its own right, and more excitingly featured in several episodes of Queer as Folk. It also contains the Industrial Museum, where we learned the fantastic fact that Manchester used to have a network of pipes which delivered high-pressure steam around the city for purposes of hydraulic power. Apparently they're now used for fibre-optic cable networking. We also got accidentally locked inside the Power Hall at closing time on the Friday, which was less diverting.

Most of Friday we spent exploring the city, scouting out interesting locations and sampling therather disappointing Samuel Smith's beer at Sinclair's Oyster Bar. Oh, and briefly meeting up with B.'s aunt, who was inexplicably in town at the time.

For a great deal of Saturday we were at the city Art Gallery, famous for its Pre-Raphaelites but also playing host to an exhibition of artwork from the Miffy books. Then some more wandering around before going out to a stunningly posh restaurant where we were served with gorgeous food (the sweet potato chips were particularly to die for) and some startlingly expensive wine. Which was wonderful, even though I had to curtail my sampling of the cheeseboard to head off to...

...a very peculiar piece of open-air "industrial theatre" called Insect, which involved gigantic animated sculptures of insects, men dressed as ants, crickets and what may have been dung-beetles, copious fireworks and a great big crane. This review gives rather more detail of the story than was apparent to those of us in the audience at the time -- and these photos show rather more of the action than B. and I could actually see. But it was thoroughly spectacular nevertheless.

Sunday was unusually packed, involving a visit to the cathedral (which was rather surprisingly hosting a display of morris men and owls) and to Urbis, the museum of city living which we found entirely fascinating. (B. in particular remained fascinated by the exhibition of design and advertising long after I wasn't, but fortunately there was lots to do elsewhere.) The building showcases modern urban architecture with its exciting funicular elevator and is full of almost indefinitely interactive displays and exhibits. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject.

Having discharged our intellectual duties, we placated our inner hedonists with a pub crawl, visiting a handful of the pubs recommended in the 2006 Good Beer Guide:

1. The Marble Arch, which we wanted to visit mainly because of its in-house vegan microbrewery. Its products we found very good, especially the Lagonda I.P.A., but rather too similar to one another to sustain our interest. Although they weren't doing the chocolate one, and we didn't dare risk the ginger.

2. The Salisbury -- not recommended by the Guide, but standing in for The Font, which at 7 in the evening we found to be: a) playing louder music than we could comfortably coexist with, and b) nevertheless closed. The Salisbury was a Goth pub (I've no idea why I seem to be gravitating to those recently), but made up for it with Deuchars I.P.A.

3. Peveril of the Peak, a pub which apparently inherited its peculiar name from an old coaching-run.

Apart from the quality, this photo doesn't do justice to the weirdness of finding the Peveril's authentically garish tile facade marooned in its tiny island of antiquity surrounded by office blocks. The interior was equally tiled and enjoyably twee; the atmosphere was friendly, if quiet; the beer was OK, but would have been more exciting if we hadn't already visited the Marble Arch, who had provided the guest ales.

4. The Knott Bar, our favourite of the ones we visited. Architecturally exciting, being located in a reclaimed railway arch, with delicious food, splendid beer and a very convivial atmosphere (except for a half hour when for some reason a bunch of wankers arrived, shouted obnoxiously then buggered off). I have to confess I'm not entirely sure what we drank here, but it was nice. I have a vague memory of the sunset over Stonehenge, but I think that was probably just the tap badge.

5. The Briton's Protection, which because of the extreme niceness of the Knott we only reached when we were already quite tired. The series of small bars were pleasantly cosy, but we found the barman offputting and unhelpful, and the beer so-so. After our first, we went home to bed instead.

Monday morning we came back to Bristol. It's particularly important, when staying at a hotel, to fill up on the breakfast for which you'll be paying anyway -- if necessary to the extent that you don't feel the need for lunch. Vegetarians in particular need to ensure that they get a fair share of the eggs, mushrooms, hash browns, waffles, pastries, toast, marmalade, honey, youghurt and juice as well as the cereal, so as not to end up subsidising the bacon, sausage, black pudding and kipper consumption of the other guests.

For this reason -- and the brace of pizzas on Friday, and the expensive meal out on Saturday night, and the beer complemented with regular helpings of chips on Sunday -- I did appear when I returned from Manchester to have put on half a stone. But God, it was worth it.

11 June 2006

A Noun: "Cement"

Goodness. It's been an unexpectedly hectic week, both at work and in polishing those submitted stories I mentioned recently. With luck I should be able to write up my very pleasant, highly calorific trip to Manchester today or tomorrow, in between other stuff. In the meantime...

Big Finish have announced one of the anthologies in which said stories are appearing -- and this time they've very kindly made me one of the named authors on the blurb, meaning I don't have to keep quiet about it until the list of stories is released. The book in question is Collected Works edited by Nick Wallace, in the same series as A Life Worth Living.

This is the book to which I've contributed a handful of interludes, and a final story co-written with the very gifted Nick. If that doesn't sound sufficiently exciting for you, the other named authors are Mags Halliday, Simon Bucher-Jones, Kate Orman, Jon Blum (whose joint website with Kate seems to have vanished for some reason), Lance Parkin, Dale Smith, Mark Michalowski and Simon Forward. From what I've seen of everybody's contributions, it's going to be fantastic.

I'll be updating the website at some point, but possibly not till after the story list has been announced.

02 June 2006

Imbalance of Power

Yesterday I composed a post about my recent reading, viewing and partygoing, with a few words about the weaknesses in season six of Buffy, and an explanation of my theory concerning alternative world history in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Then my beloved wife started looking for what turned out to be a nonexistent electrical fault, and accidentally cut power to the whole house, including my PC. So, er, that's gone now.

I'll stick with the observation that makes me look the most intellectual, which is that I'm 40 pages into Jared Diamond's astonishingly ambitious macrohistory, Guns, Germs and Steel: a Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years, which attempts to explain in terms of environmental, geographical, zoological and botanical factors why Europeans ended up throwing their weight around enslaving people and similar all over the rest of the world, rather than, say, Papuans.

It's a fascinating topic, and one I really want to know more about. Unfortunately the book is... well, pretty damn thick, and thus rather intimidating. I very much want to have read it, but going through the the actual reading process is a daunting prospect. It'd be a good candidate for making available via direct cerebral download or RNA memory-extension. I think I may be reading it for quite some time.

Now B. and I are off to Manchester, to stay in a hotel and go to pubs and eat nice food and do such touristy things as we can find to do. I'm overdue a decent city-break, and I'm looking forward to it.

More bloggery next week, with any luck.

01 June 2006

Spiceworld: The Movie

On Monday night I watched David Lynch's Dune for the first time in roughly twenty years. I'd forgotten how bloody good it was.

Wikipedia tells me that Dune made huge losses, and my Encyclopedia of Science Fiction opines moreover that "seldom has a big-budget genre film been so execrated by fans and film critics alike", adding that "its narrative is confused to the point of incoherence" [p357]. Which is odd.

If anything, I thought the film erred on the side of telling us too much -- the access we were given to the characters' secret thoughts in voiceover (an odd approach in itself, when shared across quite so many characters as this) was overdone, to the extent that I wondered if it might have been a late afterthought following studio panic. Very likely Frank Herbert's novel is more coherent (certainly it has the space to be, being over 600 pages long as opposed to just over two hours), but I had no problem following the complex, factionalised politics, the deep and complex history or the technological innnovations.

As for the occasional impressionistic storytelling... well, it's a David Lynch film. Compared with Mulholland Drive or Firewalk with Me it's a masterpiece of lucidity.

What really impressed me, though -- and I know this is exactly what you'd all expect me to say -- was the worldbuilding. In this Lynch is assured, deft and totally coherent, creating a faceted, intricately-etched galactic society where the numerous factions (each with their own cultures, costumes, histories, technologies and in some cases languages) relate to one another as parts of a convincing, utterly vivid whole. He's helped in this, presumably, by the deep and detailed background of the novel -- but he transforms it into something wholly visual, told through architecture and landscape and costume and colour and artwork and (inevitably, this being Lynch) body morphology.

It's a full-immersion world, one which takes you in and, for the space of two hours, allows you to walk around inside somebody else's imagination. There are moments (the personal forcefields, the Spacer Guild control room) when the special effects in retrospect look rather... well, improvable, but the magnificent visual imagination of the film persuades the eye to accept them at face value. The set pieces -- the Sandworm scenes particularly -- can only be described as Star Wars with brains.

(The film's also, as I've only now realised, an enormous visual influence on Babylon 5, and in particular the culture of the Centauri. The palaces, the uniforms, the bald prophetesses -- even the visual content of the latter's prophecies -- are lifted pretty much entire. Well, I suppose Lynch wasn't using them any more, and it does make the culture in question far more convincing than just another set of generic aliens.)

It's the only work of media SF which has truly managed to convince me that long historical millennia have elapsed since everything I was familiar with passed away. That's a magnificent trick to pull off. (The one point on which it sadly falls down is that almost every member of this galactic society -- even those called things like "Shaddam" and "Yueh" -- is noticeably white, whereas the world they live as part of is clearly derived at a great distance from Arabic-Islamic culture.)

In the face of the sheer intelligent spectacle of the film, the achievements of the cast become largely irrelevant -- fortunately, as many of them aren't all that good. It's entertaining to see young Sting ogling young Kyle McLachlan, though, and even more so to see a slightly pre-Next Generation Patrick Stewart with long flowing hair... at the back.

When I first saw Dune I would have been thirteen: I have the January 1985 reprint of the book (with an image from the movie on the front), which I must have bought after watching it for the first time. I can't remember now how far I managed to get into it -- not very far, I imagine, despite how much the film had thrilled me. To the thirteen-year-old me it seemed dull and wordy, and for years I was convinced that this was actually the case.

Seeing the film again -- and having so many of my adult SF-reader buttons pressed by it -- has convinced me to give it another try. I may even seek out the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and see how it measures up.

I may not go as far as reading all the prequels, though.