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.