21 December 2007

If It Wasn't for December, I Wouldn't Have Any Embers

Inevitably, this month has been spent largely in preparing for the forthcoming santaic rituals, and I've had very little time for blogging, or indeed for writing anything other than our Christmas cards. (I have managed another Surefish column, but that won't be up till January.)

I trust that "Sol Invictus" will partially remedy this lack, although a few of you will have seen it already last year. Those of you I send cards to should be receiving this year's story, "Polarity", shortly -- the rest of you will have to wait till December 2008.

Much of today has been spent rushing around manically, distributing presents and buying supplies for the forthcoming jollities. (I've never actually visited the Bristol Beer Factory before, but it turns out to be the only place one can actually buy kegs of their beer. Not that there's a brewery shop or anything -- I wandered in and found a chap in overalls, who was kind enough to stop putting mash into vats with a great big scoop and sell me some.)

In other, unrelated Christmas news... look, Kylie with a Dalek! Her dress may be minimal in scope, but at least she kept it on, unlike certain 1970s Doctor Who companions I could mention (and who'll appear fairly swiftly if you type "katy manning dalek" into Google Images).

Forgetting Christmas for the moment (as if such a thing were possible)... Elizabeth II may now be Britain's oldest monarch, but she won't be our longest-lived head of state for a few years yet. That honour goes to, of all people, Richard Cromwell, who succeeded his father as Lord Protector when he was 31, ruled for a disastrous eight months in 1658-59, then lived on in obscurity until the age of 85. If longevity in our rulers is a thing to be celebrated, than All Hail Tumbledown Dick.

Finally, the new word for worldbuilding an alternative history is whatification. Pass it on, and use it at all available opportunities.

And a Merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Sol Invictus

A cheerily pagan Midwinter's tale for you all. This is the one which went out with last year's Christmas cards. You can also read it on my website.


The card read: To Dick and Mel – Yuletide Greetings from Jez and Sandy. The design on the front depicted a trestle-table garishly laden with seasonal delicacies, a giant log burning in a grate behind.

The painted food’s profusion and glazed stickiness made Melissa feel faintly queasy.

‘Who on earth are Jez and Sandy?’ she asked her husband at breakfast, as she passed him the marmalade. ‘And do they really call you Dick?’

‘Never heard of them,’ said Richard, accepting the jar. He glanced from his newspaper to his watch. He was always wary of being drawn into a conversation when he had to catch the train. Apparently reassured, he added, ‘And no, not if they’ve got any sense. No-one’s called me Dick since school.’

‘Well, they know our name and address. We’ll have to send them one back. Did we meet them in Marrakech?’

Their overfed labrador, Boris, trundled into the room. He lay down heavily beside Richard, who absently tickled the dog’s ears as he bit into his toast.

‘Don’t think so,’ he said. ‘Wasn’t that Gerry and Alex?’

Melissa was relieved. ‘Well, there you are, then. Jez must be short for Gerry, and Alex and Sandy are both short for Alexander. Or do I mean Alexandra? Which one of them was which?’

‘No idea,’ Richard replied, immersed again in his newspaper. He didn’t seem remotely curious as to why Gerry/Jez and/or Sandy/Alex might address Melissa as ‘Mel’. She was ‘Lissa’ to close friends, and ‘Lizzie’ to her parents and sister. Only Richard himself ever called his wife ‘Mel’, and that was in the same abstracted tone in which he called Boris ‘boy’.

‘I think we’ve got a new postman,’ she murmured.

Richard glanced at his watch again. Boris began to snore. Melissa put the card up on the mantelpiece.

* * *

She caught a glimpse of him the next morning, in the early cold-and-grey of late December. He looked very young, and wore a uniform she hadn’t seen before. She wasn’t sure whether his red cap was part of the outfit or something more festive. It didn’t look like a Father Christmas hat, but she knew that folklore and traditions changed from generation to generation.

‘Yo! Saturnalia,’ read Richard reluctantly, when she showed him the card she’d picked out of the pile. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Saturnalia? It was a Roman festival, I think,’ Melissa answered. She flipped the card closed to show a pile of traditional-looking carved toys – dice, tops, wooden soldiers. ‘What they used to have at midwinter, instead of Christmas.’

Melissa read a lot. It was one of the few things there were to do while all the commuters were at work. Their Kent village might be quiet, the station unmanned and the post office about to close, but somehow they still warranted a little rural library. Melissa suspected an elderly, wealthy relative’s influence on some county councillor or other.

‘Bloody funny thing to say,’ Richard grumbled, collecting a fresh slice from the toaster. ‘Who’s it from?’

‘Marcus, apparently.’

‘Mark at work?’ He cast around for the butter, which Melissa passed to him.

‘I thought he was just Mark,’ she said. ‘But darling, it’s addressed to “Richard and Debbie”.’

Richard dropped his butter-knife on the floor. Boris, startled from his torpor by the clatter, gave a reproachful yelp.

‘Debbie’s your secretary, isn’t she?’ Melissa felt slightly aggrieved.

‘Mark must have got the two of you mixed up,’ said Richard, busying himself with the hunt for a fresh knife. ‘Head in the clouds, that one.’

‘I remember,’ Melissa said. ‘I worked for him for two years. You’d think he’d remember my name.’

When they’d been married, she and Richard had agreed there wasn’t a lot of point in her carrying on at the office. Richard could support them both on an accountant’s salary: she’d benefit from the leisure time. Melissa had never been particularly bright or gifted, and the arrangement had seemed to make reasonable sense at the time.

Of course, she’d had some expectations then which life, and Richard, had never quite fulfilled. Still, she couldn’t complain. It would have been rather churlish under the circumstances.

‘Oh, don’t mind him,’ said Richard. ‘Dopy as hell, Mark. Marcus. Whatever his name is.’

Melissa put the card in the middle of the mantelpiece, next to Jez and Sandy’s Yuletide greetings.

* * *

On the Friday, the postman brought the biggest pile of Christmas cards yet.

They were predictable enough for the most part: trees and stars, robins and lambs, Santas and Jesuses. All the usual reminders of hope, of birth and well-filled bonhomie amidst the bleak and hungry emptiness of winter. All except one were from the same familiar names.

The picture on the front of the exception was a stylised diagram of earth and sun, indicating exactly how midwinter solstice happened in the northern hemisphere. Citizens! the printed matter read. Fraternal Greetings on the occasion of the Hibernal Festival.

‘Must be a joke,’ said Richard, when she showed him. ‘You know, “Happy Politically Correct Christmas” sort of thing.’ He sounded doubtful.

‘It isn’t very funny,’ she said.

‘No.’ He peered uneasily at his watch, then out of the window at the driving rain. ‘It’ll take me longer to get to the station today.’

The postman had been just a smudge that morning, black coat and scarlet cap against the sleety dawn.

‘Hang on,’ said Richard, his early-morning synapses catching up with him. ‘Let me see that one again.’

Melissa passed it over. She was surprised he’d been paying that much attention.

‘To Lissa and Guy,’ read Richard. ‘Who the bloody hell’s Guy?’ He sounded quite cross.

‘I’ve no idea,’ Melissa said quietly.

Guy was an old, old boyfriend. He’d been her first really serious crush, and some years later her first lover. The two of them had talked for a while about settling down together, but then he’d gone away to university and found somebody on his newly-acquired intellectual level.

They’d both been very young. She still thought of him sometimes.

Staring at the signature Richard added, ‘And who’s Britannica?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ she repeated, truthfully. She was sure she’d have remembered someone called that. ‘Like you said, darling, it must be a joke.’

‘Well, it’s not bloody funny,’ he repeated. ‘If I find out who’s sending these damn things…’

‘You’d better hurry,’ said Melissa. ‘Your train’s nearly due.’

She put the card up later, after he left. The tiny golden sun shone brightly, between the polished toys of Saturnalia and the glazed meats of Yule.

* * *

The next morning, the Saturday, she was waiting for him.

He was no more than a boy, fifteen or sixteen at most. He wore a tunic, and a cloak against the midwinter cold. Its black, fur-trimmed interior sparkled with stars.

His face was Mediterranean with a hint of the Middle East, and his red cap was buoyed up on a tide of dark curls.

Grinning, he showed her two stiff envelopes. She took the one addressed to her, and opened it.

Dear Lissa, Guy and Felix, it began. It wished the three of them a happy Lux Arturi, and expressed the hope that Brigida would make their lands and family fertile during the coming year.

Melissa had always liked the name Felix. Richard hated it. It had been one of the last things the two of them had disagreed about with any degree of joy or passion. That had been a year or so after their wedding, before the miscarriage.

She read the signature. Though not the name of anyone she knew, it was a name she recognised. She looked up into the postman’s grinning face, ruddy and glowing in the leaden English winter.

‘Thank you,’ she told him. ‘I’m ready now.’

Taking the second card, she closed the door behind her, and slid it in softly through the letterbox. Inside the house Boris growled gently, then subsided into sleep.

The young man spread his cloak wide, welcoming her into its summer warmth.

* * *

When Richard got up later, hungry, craving coffee, Melissa was gone. Probably to the shops, he thought. Typical. Why hadn’t she gone yesterday, when he was at work?

He needed breakfast. The doormat held a single card, addressed to him alone. He opened it with a butter-knife he found on the kitchen floor.

The picture was of a young boy hatching out of an egg, although it might perhaps have been a rock. Sunbeams poured from the child like honey. He wore a red cap, and a cloak the colour of the summer night.

Hail Richard (and Boris), he read. A very merry Mithras-tide to you and your household. All the best, Guy, Lissa and Felix. He stared at it for a while.

Then he threw it in the bin, and started looking for the frying-pan.

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2006.

06 December 2007

Bard Humbug

I've spent some of today writing a short story for B. and me to send out with our Christmas cards. I started this tradition in 2006, and last year's story (a midwinter fantasy called "Sol Invictus") should be appearing at my website at some point between now and Christmas itself. I may as well post it here as well.

If you need entertaining in the meantime, you can always read my latest column about dystopias at Surefish.

Today I've also been scouting out Christmas presents online, including the latest Arden Shakespeare for our goddaughter E.'s collection. We've been giving her a play every birthday and Christmas since she was born, making (Antony and Cleopatra) her thirteenth (and E. herself, of course, six). We calculate that, including the poems and sonnets, there's an adequate supply of Shakespeare to last her until her twentieth birthday, following which we can make the whole library redundant by giving her the Complete Shakespeare for Christmas 2021.

Obviously we're having to be judicious about this. On the one hand, we want to be able to give her some of the interesting plays when she's old enough to appreciate them. On the other hand, when she reaches an age to take an interest in a long-dead verse playwright, we don't want her to look through the selection she's got and realise that most of them are frankly rubbish.

With the best Will in the world (ho ho), not many teenagers these days read Timon of Athens or Pericles, Prince of Tyre for pleasure, and the few who do are probably as disturbed by the obsession with father-daughter incest as amused by Pericles' Pythonesque description of fish as "the finny subject of the sea".

So, we've been trying to alternate the interesting (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra) and less-interesting (Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Pericles, The Comedy of Errors) plays, as well as keeping up a vaguely even balance of the genres.

We have two lists, of Good and Not Good plays, each title colour-coded according to whether it's a Tragedy, a Comedy, a History or the one of difficult-to-categorise Last Plays. (Identifying Good Histories has been a bit of a challenge, of course. Once you've done Henry V and Richard III you're a bit stuck.)

She may, of course, have to study some of the plays at school or college, which might mean we have to alter our plans. Some plays we're keeping back for specific life-stages: Hamlet is obviously an ideal gift for a moody teenager who hates their parents, while Titus Andronicus -- a cheerful tale of murder, rape, revenge, mutilation and cannibalism -- seems ideal for her Goth phase.

I wonder slightly whether I should be revealing future plans for presents on a blog which is archived indefinitely. While a six-year-old is unlikely to be browsing the web in search of people she knows, a sixteen-year-old might well be.

On the other hand, I rather suspect E. will have better things to do in 2017 than reading ten-year-old blog posts by her 46-year-old godfather. As for 415-year-old plays by a 450-year-old playwright... well, the jury's still out on that one.

25 November 2007

But Scully's the Sceptic...

Last night, while B. and I were playing a board game, our cat Scully leapt suddenly and violently out of her basket, looking terrified. We assumed she'd had a nightmare (we're fairly sure that both cats experience something like dreaming, although at what level it's difficult to tell), but she spent the rest of the evening very unhappy.

This morning she was still spooked, refusing to be stroked, cowering when she walked and hiding behind things. She's started calming down a bit now (and a phone call to the vet established that there's probably nothing physically wrong), but she's still quite nervous.

This spontaneous reaction of terror to something non-existent sounds a lot like the behaviour of animals which pet-owners describe when they suspect their houses are haunted. I'm not a believer in ghosts (see footnote [1] for a more nuanced statement about this), and we've lived here for over three years without encountering anything else out of the ordinary. In any case, Mulder remains completely at ease. Which makes me suspect what these owners are describing is, in fact, an unusual but mundane cat behaviour.

What's odd -- and might well strike a cat-owner as evidence of something quite out of the ordinary -- is that it's so out of character. Scully doesn't get this upset when something traumatic has actually happened, like going to the vet's. She's normally self-confident, vocal and demanding of attention to an extent that borders on the tyrannical. Whatever it was the poor love thinks happened, it must have been terribly distressing.

[1] When I say I don't believe in ghosts, I'm not professing a strong disbelief in them. I do disbelieve, on theological as well as common-sense grounds, that spirits of the dead wander the Earth seeking closure with their children or hiding other people's socks, but I'm open to the idea that some of the phenomena which have been labelled as ghosts have an objective existence.

They may be as-yet-unrealised products of known scientific laws, or result from causes science has yet to categorise. There's an outside chance they may be symptoms of a large-scale seam of irrationality in the universe which science as currently constituted wouldn't be equipped to cover. However, Occam's Razor means I'm hardly going to adduce as-yet-unknown phenomena to explain something which, however unexpected, is explicable by a known and loved cat suddenly going a bit dappy.

24 November 2007

Three Things about The Prisoner


One of the three non-fiction books I didn't have time to review last time I posted book-related stuff here was Fall Out: the unofficial and unauthorised guide to The Prisoner, by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore, which I read... er, back in Septemberish, I think.

I said then that, of the three, one was good, one very good and one quite stunningly good. This was the good one.

Despite my evident obsession with The Prisoner I don't claim to have read all the available factual books about the series... but excepting the Scriptbooks (which are a special case, obviously) this is probably the best of the ones I've read.

(It's certainly deeper than The Prisoner: a television masterpiece by Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald, the first book about the series I ever read, which is pretty, glossy and almost entirely uninformative. Most of it consists of a detailed summary of the episodes, with occasional script extracts. I can only assume the French didn't have video recorders in 1992.)

I'd heard great things about Stevens' and Moore's Blake's Seven guide (which, being almost entirely unfamiliar with and indifferent to Blake's Seven, I haven't read myself), and may accordingly have set my expectations a little high. I'd have preferred rather more analysis and less of a summary of the (undeniably entertaining) behind-the-scenes soap opera of McGoohan's single-handed struggle against everybody else who worked on the series ever, but never mind -- it's a fine treatment of the subject matter.

As well as the in-depth episode guides and analyses, there are some good (if short) essays on aspects of the series: the vexed question of the "correct" episode order, a piece on the series' treatment of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, some analysis of the baffling figure of Number 1 and the like. There's also some excellent introductory material, setting The Prisoner in its cultural context rather in the manner of the About Time series. It also gets points for dealing with the Prisoner apocrypha: the original novels (including the recent, and excellent, The Prisoner's Dilemma, the 1980s comics (whose late-Cold-War peculiarities it has some fun with), and the unmade scripts and story pitches included in the Scriptbooks.

It's not the towering work of intellectual analysis the show has been crying out for for throughout the past 40 years, but it's well worth a read.


I'm still enjoying my 40th anniversary Prisoner DVDs. The picture quality is gloriously crisp and sharp, enabling me to read text (on the ID cards Number 6 gets handed in Arrival, for instance) that I never even knew was there.

The extras include a rather splendid documentary full of interviews with writers, behind-the-scenes people and surviving cast members (with the exception, naturally, of Patrick McGoohan, who's always preferred to coast along on a surfboard of enigma rather than tell people what he actually meant by anything).

One thing that stuck in my mind from the documentary was Vincent Tilsley, the scriptwriter of The Chimes of Big Ben, taking about his later, more inglorious Prisoner episode, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, and in particular explaining why it's such rubbish. (You'll note that Jonny Morris, who wrote the BBC episode guide I'm linking to here, disagrees that it's rubbish. This is because, entertaining though his reviews are, every single one of his opinions are deeply wrong. Except about The Girl Who Was Death, which is indeed the best episode of the series.)

I've talked before about -- and speculated, I suspect rather unjustly, about McGoohan's part in -- the alterations which were made to this script between writing and broadcast. There's no denying, though, that the premise is a fundamentally lame one. Tilsley states that his reason for falling back on such a hackneyed plot device as recasting the central character via mind-swap machine was that he was told to write a Prisoner story with neither Patrick McGoohan nor Portmeirion in it, and panicked.

Personally, I'd say there was a much more interesting story to be told with those constraints: invert the premise of the series, to show an outsider attempting to break into the Village.

One of the Prisoner's old adversaries, a spy from the other side of the Iron Curtain, is trying to track him down. This spy has found evidence that his Soviet masters are opearating a secret hidden facility where ex-agents from both sides are held against their will, brainwashed and tortured. The spy is appalled by this treatment of his fellows, but has been warned off any interference by his masters. He now wants to bring this to the attention of the West, and is attempting to locate the most trustworthy and honourable of his opponents, the man we know as Number 6.

However, all his attempts to make contact with the man lead him, inevitably, to the very facility whose existence he's discovered. By now he strongly suspects that East and West are co-operating in order to run the prison camp -- perhaps indeed that there's a high-level conspiracy on both sides to maintain the status quo. Eventually deciding to spring Number 6 from the facility, he locates it in the middle of nowhere and breaks in... only for us to realise that he hasn't found the Village after all, but a completely different-looking facility with the same setup. Now he's there, of course, he can never leave -- except that the agency behind the Village has determined that his personal relationship with Number 6 could be very useful to them, and offer him a turn at being Number 2. We leave him pondering his stark choice: whether to become a warder -- or a prisoner...

Of course, this sort of one-off episode is something culty drama series do all the time these days -- see for instance the highly Prisoneresque Babylon 5 episode The Corps Is Mother, the Corps Is Father -- so I have the advantage of chronology.

But even so -- a mind-swap machine? Give me a break.


Random stream-of-consciousness alert: I've never been convinced by any of the religious readings of The Prisoner, as despite McGoohan's well-documented Catholicism, there's barely any hint at such a reading being remotely plausible. (There's a metaphorical reference in The Chimes of Big Ben to church doors obstructing freedom -- though whether freedom is to be found inside or outside the church is left altogether ambiguous -- and a vaguely crucifixish pose struck by the Prisoner whilst being beaten up in Free for All. That's about it.)

Fall Out (the book), though, makes a halfway decent argument for the idea that Number 1 in Fall Out (the episode) being God. Or something.

If such a reading were to make any sense, it would have to be a Gnostic one, I think, with Number 1 representing the fallen demiurge who's made the Village in his own image and who is confused by the Villagers with the true God of whom the identical-looking Prisoner is a representative. Number 6 himself would therefore be a saviour from outside the created order, come not to bring peace but a machine-gun, liberating the few individuals capable of true enlightenment.

Or something.

On the other hand, this could well be my usual obsessions showing through. After all, pretty much all SF's Gnostic, according to my thesis... and that doesn't seem very likely really, does it?

Orpheus in the Underwear

Apparently, scholars of the life and career of the Parisian composer Jacques Offenbach frequently confess to longing for a really contentious theory to arise about his work -- one that will generate article after article debating its merits -- so that someone can finally refer to "the controversial theory that dogs Offenbach".

...At least, I assume they do. I know I would.

09 November 2007


Meanwhile, my indefatigable attempts to colonise an ever-decreasing percentage of the exponentially widening world Web have resulted in the following:
  • My latest Surefish column, about Future Church History. (I'm predictably pleased with the sub-headings, although I'll admit to stealing one of them from here.)
  • A sympathetic review of Nobody's Children, which ends by imagining me as part of a progenitive parenting threesome along with Jon Blum and Kate Orman. I don't know which of us should be more disturbed at that.

Books Update: Gold and Brown (Baxter likes one)

Let me start by apologising for that truly appalling title. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...

So, what have I been reading in the surprisingly lengthy expanse of time since my last book update? Quite a lot really. Blimey.

Let's get that horrible pun out of the way first:

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold was nice, but not great. I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd read it before, rather than after, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The authors are friends, and their books are engaged in much the same project of reinventing the American adventure novel, but with a contemporary political outlook and vastly increased literary panache.

Both are set in a major U.S. city during specific decades of the 20th century; both deal with issues of love and rivalry and oppression and belonging. Both feature real historical characters and events, but fictionalise them heavily. Both have a stage magician as the central character, and his younger gay relative as a sidekick.

Carter Beats the Devil does all of these things well, but Kavalier and Clay does them consummately. As I seem to remember saying about following David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas with his earlier Ghostwritten, if I'd gone from the latter to the former it would have felt like I was ascending from the heights of excellence to a zenith of genius, whereas doing it the other way round felt like a bit of a letdown, really. Ah well.

Eric Brown's Approaching Omega's been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now, since I found it hanging around in a secondhand bookshop. Unfortunately it was a letdown after the other Telos publishing originals I've read. In particular, coming right after the literary banquet of Daniel O'Mahony's Force Majeure (see below) it tasted of takeaway pizza, competently constructed but to a terribly familiar template.

Approaching Omega is formulaic hard S.F., where the maintenance team aboard a generation starship start to act (and worse still, talk) like hardened space marines the moment danger threatens, because that's how People In Space behave (and talk). It deals with interesting issues -- if you hybridise human beings with A.I., where does the human end and the machine begin? -- but in a facile way, albeit with one mildly interesting twist. Stephen Baxter's quoted on the back cover as saying "Brown is at the height of his powers", which makes me wonder what his earlier books were like. (Reasonably numerous, apparently.)

I love Samuel R. Delany's work, but a little of his intense and densely-textured prose goes a long way. I've only read a few of his books over the years, and I still haven't had the courage to tackle the gargantuan, Finnegans Wake-ish Dhalgren. Babel-17 is one I missed out when I first discovered Delany and have only recently gone back to.

It's less impressive than some of his later works, but not by much. The characters are vivid and their predicament fiendishly clever, but some of the space-opera background -- well-drawn and detailed as it is -- feels a little formulaic. What's more, unlike some of the other Delany books I've read it's simply using the formula rather than (apparently) deconstructing it.

Groundbreakingly for S.F. at the time, the plot revolves around linguistics, which it treats in much the same way as earlier S.F. treats the hard sciences -- taking the then-popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and extrapolating from it an extreme conceptual scenario designed to distort the boundaries of the reader's worldview. Its linguistics feel a little antiquated now, as does its proto-cyberpunk, but that's only because of how things have moved on since then.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is a book I first read when it came out, at which time I was twelve or so. I was surprised how much of it I remembered, and by how well it stood up to my memory of it. In retrospect it's obviously a first novel -- it crams in too many disparate clever things, there are some awkward moments in the writing and the American author never seems quite comfortable with his London milieu -- but there remain some excellent ideas, vivid descriptions and compelling adventure narrative, and a surprisingly coherent magical scheme which works itself out mostly in hints and allusions rather than direct exposition.

Reginald Hill's The Death of Dalziel is a well-written police procedural, relying (perhaps slightly too heavily) on the charm of the characters he's created in his 20-odd previous Dalziel and Pascoe novels. This one revolves somewhat fantastically around a British anti-Islamic terrorist organisation known as "the Templars", which I thought at first was a cop-out allowing the liberal Hill to deal with contemporary issues without offending Islamic sensibilities. Actually, though, it works as a rather clever way of engaging the reader's sympathy with the terrorist mindset, suggesting that terrorists are people whose understandable, rather mundane concerns are radicalised by their extreme life-experiences.

I noted approvingly some months ago that the range of Doctor Who tie-in novels was showing some hints of returning to its former impressive heights, with the announcement of works by Paul Magrs and Mark Michalowski, among others. Subsequent commissions have called this trend into some doubt, but it's still splendid that we have Magrs's whimsically Ballardian Sick Building and Michalowski's biological hard-S.F. novel Wetworld in the range.

Sick Building combines some familiar Magrsian tropes -- a wintry landscape full of fantastical beasts, a young man's troubled relationship with his parents, a villain motivated by possessive love who talks like someone's auntie -- with a take on The Tempest which makes Forbidden Planet look conventional. It's at the lightweight end of Magrs's output, which has certainly included more serious and meatier fare. The eructation-driven climax read almost like a self-consciously silly embracing of New Who's occasional CBeebie-ish excesses -- which, being written by Magrs, it very likely was.

Wetworld's a maturer piece, and one which pays some real interest to the science underpinning its SF world. Where Sick Building, by an author who's written children's books as well as (sometimes very) adult ones, could have been accused of talking down to its readers, Wetworld takes it for granted that they'll be interested in adult stuff like xenobiology and the politics of survival. It's still enormous fun, though, with Michalowski's sympathy for his characters and sometimes wicked wit fleshing out the sturdy framework into one of the best new-series novels yet.

Both authors nail the characters of the tenth Doctor and Martha right through the ears, which I appreciated greatly. I'm not a huge fan of David Tennant's portrayal of the Doctor, but divorced from his actual presence, the three-year-old's attention span and manic logorrhoea are rather endearing. And Martha's fab, of course.

The best work of fiction I've read recently, though, was Force Majeure by Daniel O'Mahony -- an alumnus of the Doctor Who novel ranges from back when they were good. Despite the terribly generic cover, this short novel (or maybe it's a longish novella) reads like a hybrid of Jorge Luis Borges and Christopher Priest, presenting a beautifully-envisaged, yet clearly unreal, Latin American city apparently founded in prehistory by dragons, intersecting with the forces of 21st-century capitalism.

As with some of O'Mahony's earlier works, it's not entirely clear what happens in the book and what doesn't, but the descriptions of what may or may not have happened are beautiful and disturbing. His knack of making us sympathise with unlikeable characters is also to the fore.

It's not O'Mahony's best work -- that would still be his Doctor Who novella The Cabinet of Light -- but it's a brilliant excursion, and it makes me positively salivate for his forthcoming Faction Paradox novel, Newtons Sleep.

Finally (for now), Ken MacLeod's The Human Front is a fun alternative-history novella about a post-WWII world where the U.S.A.F.'s experimental flying saucer didn't crash at Roswell in 1947, but gave rise to a whole new generation of anti-gravity bombers with which America attempts, disastrously, to win the Cold War. As usual with MacLeod's books it's full of left-wing political theory, humanised by a questionable yet sympathetic central character, and ends in a firework-burst of S.F. cleverness. It's even published back-to-back with another novella, so (if I was feeling exceptionally optimistic) I could even give Eric Brown another try.

That's the fiction I've read since August. The non-fiction is another story (as it were), but in the interests of keeping the blog up-to-date (and not having this post fester in my blogspot directory for further months) I'll cover those books later. Suffice it to say that I've read three of them recently, one of which was good, one very good and one quite stunningly good. To find out what they were, watch this space.

Wye, O Wye

Since my last update here I've had a birthday (my 36th, although I prefer to think of it as two eighteenth birthdays rolled into one) and a weekend away wallowing in second-hand bookshops at Hay-on-Wye. I've also read any number of books, reviews of which should be arriving shortly in a mammoth update of more or less everything I've read since August.

The birthday was happy, as these things are traditionally supposed to be, with presents of DVDs from parents and spouse and an Amnesty International T-shirt from my in-laws (which is more welcome than you might imagine, especially since they're holding on to my real present until Christmas). The DVDs from B. included Edge of Darkness, which I've heard a lot about but never seen, so I'm looking forward to a great deal.

Mum and Dad gave me the 40th anniversary Prisoner DVD boxed set, a welcome upgrade to the rather dog-eared 25th anniversary VHS boxed set which I've been watching on and off for the past one-and-a-half decades. The picture quality is gorgeously crisp, there's an hour and a half documentary full of interviews (Peter Wyngarde seems to be the only surviving Number 2 who hasn't turned fat, having opted instead to look astonishingly like Ben Kingsley), PDFs of the scripts, commentaries and all kinds of goodies including the original edit of Arrival. I'm thrilled with the whole thing.

The weekend in Hay was really lovely: relaxing insofar as we were staying in a lovely B&B and had nothing more strenuous to do than wander aimlessly round bookshops and cafés; tiring in that there were -- as you may have gathered -- rather a lot of bookshops to be wandered aimlessly around in our two days there. I believe we visited 20, and came back with some 42 books, not counting presents:
Hay on Wye book hoard

(The top row's mine, the bottom row B.'s. The ones in between we agreed to buy between us.)

Some of these are titles I'd been looking for for a while; some I'd vaguely heard of and looked interesting; some just caught my eye serendipitously in the shops. Some will be useful for reference purposes; some will tell me profound things about the human condition; some will be fun.

Of the bookshops, by far the most impressive is the colossal Hay Cinema Bookshop, filling four enormous warehouse-like rooms (well, former cinema screens, but it amounts to the same thing) on two floors with all the literature, history, cultural studies, theology and the like you could possibly dream of seeing assembled in one place (though they're admittedly a bit thin on the sciences). S.F. alone (or rather S.F. and Fantasy, because in reality you're never allowed to browse S.F. alone) takes up half a dozen sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves. Equally huge is the stock of the older and more rambling (but also rather smellier and less well-organised) Richard Booth's Bookshop.

The ones where I bought the most stock were probably (if I'm identifying them correctly from the map) The Sensible Bookshop, which had S.F. and mainstream fiction trailing up and down its staircase like a comet's tail, and the optimistically-named The Bookshop, a Bookends subsidiary which combines decent-quality secondhand stuff with remaindered copies of books you actually want to buy, at very reasonable prices. (Admittedly, the staff there have never heard of feminism. Quite literally, as B. discovered when asking after a Germaine Greer she was wanting.) The most pleasant bookshop to be in -- just in case you're wanting further recommendations -- was probably Addyman's Annexe.

Browsing in secondhand bookshops is, I think, one of the closest approaches one can make to Heaven in this life. Or perhaps I just need to get out more. Either way, it was a gloriously relaxing way to spend a weekend.

I've already read the tenth book from the left in my row above (and will be blogging about it shortly -- it's Ken MacLeod's The Human Front, which is one of the ones I'd been looking for for ages), and got stuck well in to the fourth and eleventh, Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate and Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon. Both are set in San Francisco, oddly enough, but in rather different time periods. They're otherwise staggeringly different. I'll tell you more about them later.

(Bizarrely, Hay-on-Wye is now twinned with Timbuktu. I wish I could tell you more about this, but I can't. I approve on general principles, though.)

24 October 2007

Yaroo! Cave! Etc

You won't see me getting nostalgic here about my old alma mater, the minor-with-pretensions-to-major public school Lancing College.

This is because, while my all-fees-paid scholarship placement there certainly benefitted me in the long run, it's only on balance over my five years of attendance there that I could say I enjoyed it more than I hated it. I made some good friends (all of whom I then lost touch with completely), and I owe a great deal to certain teachers, but the school as a whole... pfft.

Boarding-schools (not that I ever boarded, thank God, or I would have gone mental) are hermetic subcultures, geographically isolated, with limited channels to the outside world. Considered as speech-communities, their language can evolve in some peculiar and baroque ways.

For a while I've been thinking that it might be a service to philology (albeit a minor service, probably performed in a tiny rural church at 11 o'clock at night according to a scandalously misprinted prayer-book all copies of which were supposedly burned in 1762) if I documented some of the weirder slang that was in currency at the school between 1985 and 1990. Preferably before it all falls out of my head, as much of it has done already.

What follows, then, is a brief dictionary of (what I remember of) Lancing College slang of the late 1980s, with notes.

Some of this language was doubtless transitory, some perennial enough that I'm sure it must survive today. A lot of it's also self-evidently ridiculous, which is why it's hilarious to remember my contemporaries (and, to be scrupulously fair, me) using it in all seriousness as part of our adolescent dominance-rituals. What knobs we were.
  • amphi, n. The school amphitheatre, used for open-air drama and illicit smoking.
  • dodds, n. A clumsy person. (An eponym, obviously. During my time at Lancing it was gradually giving way to barclay, n., after a particularly unfortunate classmate of mine.)
  • dossage, n. Relaxation, laziness. (Etymology obvious, and I'm surprised it isn't in wider use.)
  • foetus, n. A stupid or useless person. (Used as a general all-purpose insult with truly astonishing ubiquity. Quite how this state of affairs first arose, I couldn't even begin to speculate.)
  • glip, v. Masturbate (of a male). n. (Male) masturbation, semen. (Onomatopoeic, presumably, although to be honest I'd rather not think about it. I don't think the possibility of female masturbation really figured as a concept for any of us, except presumably the sixth-form girls.)
  • glip-rag, n. Handkerchief etc used to clean up after masturbation.
  • grove, n. Toilet. (This one was historic -- none of my contemporaries actually used it. The only people who did were a few nostalgically-minded masters who found the equally pastoral-sounding "bog" aesthetically troubling.)
  • Head Man, n. Headmaster (or school principal, for those of you who were born after 1980 / in the United States and have never read The Beano. This is another one the masters used more than the pupils.)
  • herman, n. Person with ginger hair. (As clear an illustration of metonymy as I've ever seen. The word originally applied to a boy nicknamed "Herman" because of his close physical resemblance to Herman Munster -- a resemblance which his ginger hair marred only slightly. Before long, however, it was assumed that gingerness was the defining characteristic of a "herman", and the Munster connection was forgotten entirely. I heard this applied to petite, pretty redheaded girls.)
  • irrelevant, adj. Keeping a low profile, and therefore unlikely to be widely recognised. (Not knowing someone in your year was usually a major social faux pas, so I suspect the cool kids made this one up to mean it wasn't bad when they did it.)
  • juvie, n., adj. (Person showing signs of being) marginally more immature than oneself at a particular moment.
  • pitt, n. Study-bedroom. (This one was in official use, and had probably been so since the first such rooms were adopted at the school. It was always spelt with the double "t", suggesting that the etymology wasn't the obvious one.)
  • prole (also proll), n. Member of the working classes, particularly the support staff. (This wasn't, of course, unique to Lancing, but it was shockingly universal among the pupils there. More interesting than the simple fact of its use were the limits of the same: the school librarian, for example, an educated, clearly patrician man, was never a "prole" -- although nor was the School Marshal, a distinctly working-class ex-army N.C.O. dragooned into instilling some semblance of discipline into the pupils[1]. That may just be because we were too scared of him, though. Groundskeepers, cleaners, kitchen staff, people who served you in shops, students at state schools -- all of these were "proles".)
  • rip, v. Mock, tease, ridicule. (For some reason outsiders were always surprised to discover that our use of "ripping" differed from that current at Malory Towers in the 1940s.)
  • ronnie, n. Short person. (A somewhat less extreme parallel to herman (q. v.), since being short was at least one of the characteristics which the history master nicknamed "Ronnie" shared with Ronnie Corbett, rather than one of the few which distinguished them.)
  • smeggy, adj. Smelly, disinclined to wash. (Derivation obvious, and deeply unpleasant.)
  • square, n., adj. (One who is) hard-working and clever, and thus not cool. (I can only assume that "square" had been applied to overly conformist pupils in the late 60s, and had shifted its focus since then.)
  • twos, n. See below.
  • vegetable, n. One who fails to enjoy, or does very little, exercise. (This, like "square", was usually applied to me.)
  • wicked, adj. Ugly. (Used of boys who were considered hideously, fantastically grotesque, and any girl who wasn't a potential supermodel.)
This is an incomplete list -- in particular, I can no longer remember (except as euphemistic and faintly ridiculous) the name of the rota whereby the younger boys were allocated mundane menial tasks like picking up litter, presumably in an effort to teach us not to be so fucking rude about the people who were doing all the hard work in our vicinity. [Edit 6/12/2007: As John has now reminded me, it was "twos".]

I may well add to this as more words come to me. If you were at Lancing during the relevant period and have (somehow) found your way here, do feel free to comment with further examples.

[Edit 6/12/2007 to add "rip" and "twos".]

[1] The School Marshal during my early years at Lancing was a huge, terrifying man who died tragically and heroically on holiday, saving his fellow-passengers from the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise. I couldn't stand him, but that's scarcely the point.

23 October 2007


I saw an advert today for a digital imaging firm called picselation. There's such a thing as trying just a little bit too hard.

12 October 2007

Confound their Knavish Tricks

One of the things I've spent the past couple of weeks doing has been "researching" (in that very specialist 2000s sense of "reading stuff on Wikipedia about"[1]) the British royal family, in service of an as-yet-unrevealed project.

Vaguely interesting things I've stumbled across (none of which are in any sense revelatory, and many of which you may know already, but which were either news to me or things I'd never fully realised before) include the following...If you think any of that sounds complicated, you should see the family tree. The current heir to the throne is:I want the House of Wessex back.

[1] And while I'm rambling on pretty much at random -- we all know that "1960s", "1970s" etc denote particular decades, but is there any simple term that refers specifically to the first decade of the 21st century, rather than potentially to the entire century or indeed millennium? The nearest I can get is "twenty-noughties", but that manages to be simultaneously ugly and twee. ("1900s" has a similar problem, but at least you can only go 90 years wrong with that one.)

10 October 2007


I see it's been nearly a month since I last posted here. A combination of two weekends spent away seeing family and friends, and starting a more senior job at work, have left me playing catch-up during my spare time. (And all the Facebook Scrabble probably hasn't helped either.)

Proper updates should be emerging in the forthcoming days. In the meantime, my latest Surefish column continues some of the musings from nearly a month ago, especially those here.


14 September 2007

Nanite to Remember

Monday evening B. and I went to the Bath Science Café to hear a talk on nanotechnology given by a real-life nanotechnologist.

The "café" actually meets in a pub -- the very pleasant Raven, which sells its own custom-brewed beer and Pieminister pies -- so the atmosphere and surroundings were convivial. (Rather amusingly, the Raven's website claims that "No-one does vegetarian pies like we do". Well, only every other pub who Pieminister have a contract with, dear.)

I was astonished at how popular the event was -- there must have been 50 or so people crammed into the Raven's upper room. (The chap behind the bar claimed that the science events were more popular than the poetry ones. Quite what that suggests about contemporary British culture, and whether I approve, I'm not sure.) Most of those present seemed, judging by the tenor of the discussion afterwards, to be either professional scientists or enthusiastic amateurs. More on that later.

The speaker was a personable, engaging sort of chap, very knowledgeable and informative about current developments in, and uses of, nanotech. He saw the primary future benefits of the technology as being computational and medical. (He cited a claim by the U.S. National Institute for Health from five or so years ago that nanotech would have eradicated -- not cured, but actually eliminated -- cancer by 2015. They seem to have changed their mind about the timing of this since then, but even so, his point was that this was something nanotech might conceivably one day do.)

It was when he came to the potential dangers of this field of research that his bias became apparent. He suggested that the real threat from nanotech, if any, comes from pollution and potential toxicity, and that these would require further study before any particular instance of nanotech was accepted as safe for general use. He was very dismissive of the so-called "grey goo" scenario -- essentially an epidemic affecting all matter, whereby self-replicating nanobots run out of control and start assimilating everything they encounter.

I'm not an expert, by any means, and I assumed that his basis for dismissing the idea was a sound one, based in his own expertise in the field. But, er no. When challenged, it emerged that his main reasons for rejecting "grey goo" theory were:
  • Prince Charles and Michael Crichton believe in it, so it must be nonsense.
  • It has a silly name.
  • It's part of a general reaction against science on the part of the public which hampers the freedom of government-funded research.
  • Current science is incapable of creating self-replicating machines.
It was that last bit which he seemed to consider his trump card -- and it is, indeed, the only one of those arguments which might be seen to have any bearing on the actual truth of the matter.

Unfortunately, he seemed entirely unwilling to consider that "current science" might be incapable of things which "future science" would do as a matter of routine, despite the fact that the existence of his entire field seemed absurdly visionary a mere 50 years ago.

That utter lack of historical perspective (he admitted that he never read any science fiction) seemed to conspire with a fatal failure of imagination to blind him selectively to any long-term negative implications of his work.

This meant that while, for instance, he was quite capable of using the far-fetched idea of cell-repairing nanites eradicating cancer as propaganda to raise further funding for his field, he utterly rejected the equally fanciful idea that said nanites might be capable of reproducing -- despite the fact that self-replication would surely be the only way of achieving the necessary level of saturation in a human body to achieve that.

Similarly the suggestion that self-replicating nanobots would be capable, like any self-replicating system, of undergoing evolution, and therefore potentially of overcoming their initial programming safeguards, was rejected on the grounds that, er, there's no such thing as a self-replicating nanobot yet. So that's all right then.

(Now, if there's some theoretical reason why all complex systems must be incapable of self-replication, or why such a system would be incapable of spontaneously mutating and evolving so as to grow exponentially in size and influence until eventually it transformed the entire nature of the planetary surface, then I'd have been very interested to be told about it. But I don't honestly think there can be, because after all, it's already happened once.)

I didn't ask him where he stood on the idea of using nanites to dismantle all the non-stellar matter in the solar system and turn it into concentric dyson spheres of computronium, running the uploaded descendants of the human species at oct- or nonillions of times our current joint processing capacity. I guessed his answer would probably be, "Oh no, we couldn't possibly do anything like that at the moment."

Instead I tried to fool him by using a Good Nanotech Prediction -- that medical nanotech might eradicate not only cancer, but all forms of cellular damage including old age -- as the predicate for a Bad Nanotech Prediction -- that said technology would immediately become the preserve of the rich, giving rise to an immortal cast of geronto-plutocrats.

He said, er, no, he didn't think so, not as long as nanotech was funded by the government, because that meant all that stuff would be public property and would go straight onto the N.H.S.


In fact, his main thesis appeared to be that government funding for nanotech was an absolute essential, and that anyone who opposed it -- indeed, anyone who felt the public should have any say whatsoever in how scientists spent their money -- was "anti-science". (He didn't actually use those words, but he did repeatedly call those holding the opposite point of view "pro-science", so I think I'm justified in assuming it.)

Now, I consider myself to be "pro-science". I even consider myself to be "pro-nanotech", in the sense that I think it's really cool and freaky and could achieve some startlingly awesome things. (Admittedly that may not be a very sophisticated "pro-science" position, but just look at the competition.)

However, I do think people are justified in being cautious when events which may be statistically very improbable nonetheless carry enormous penalties if that unlikely roll of the dice comes up. It may, for instance, be very unlikely indeed that C.E.R.N.'s Large Hadron Collider will produce a black hole which will fall to the centre of the Earth and orbit it rapidly, sucking in everything it encounters and causing the extinction of the human race, our culture (including its science) and our entire ecosystem within a matter of hours... but dude, it only needs to happen once.

The speaker (whose blushes I've spared by not naming him, although it shouldn't be difficult to find out his name if you're interested, even if you're coming to this post after the information changes on that first page I linked to) seemed baffled -- hurt even -- that the public have such mistrust for scientists that they'll accuse harmless researchers like himself of possibly destroying the world.

As I say, he was a likeable chap, and it was difficult not to feel for him. But frankly, he -- in his deliberate use of propaganda, his amused rejection of the opinion of non-experts and above all his utter refusal to consider the potential long-term negative effects of his field on an equal footing with the potential positives -- provided a prime example of exactly what it is about scientists which the public finds so difficult to trust.

"We're people, just like them," he said. "We're human beings, too." Because obviously no human being in history has ever been known to do anything whatsoever which might be construed as stupid or unethical. For Christ's sake get a bloody grip, man.

In summary: never trust a scientist who doesn't read S.F. They'll create armies of giant robots which break out from their underground laboratories and destroy your city, then whine that no-one ever warned them that might happen.

Despite the above character assassination, though, I really enjoyed the event. It was refreshing to be part of a crowd who seemed to be actively thinking about important issues, even if most of them did appear to be cheerleading for a clueless loon. Ironically -- or at least, I'm sure many of those present would have found it ironic -- it was the same feeling of communal intellectual engagement I get from the seminars at Greenbelt. I'm going to try to go to more of them.

Indeed, there's also a Bristol Science Café which, it seems, meets just up the road from us. In one of our favourite pubs, in fact. I can't think why we haven't been before.

Expect more of these reports in future.

12 September 2007

Checking Out the Competition

Rejoice! For I now have my contributors' copies of Nobody's Children, and it looks lovely. The various minor issues I had with the proofs have mostly been resolved, and it's a joy to see the thing I've written in its final bound form, with covers and a dust jacket and all.

As if to celebrate, I've uploaded loads of extras to my Nobody's Children webpages, including some quite extensive Notes -- which contain some quite extensive SPOILERS, so do be careful if you haven't yet read the book -- and an exclusive short story, "Making a Collection", which deals with elements from Nobody's Children and Collected Works, and offers a glimpse of what's to come in the Bernice Summerfield universe. (Don't worry, though -- it deliberately does so so obscurely that you shouldn't be able to derive any actual plot details from it. Read it again in four months' time and go "ooh".)

I was under the impression that I'd mentioned before, on more than one occasion, how splendid Kate Orman's and Jon Blum's novellas for this book are, and how I'm pretty pleased with mine as well. However, looking back over this blog, among all the things I've said about writing the book I don't think I've ever actually mentioned how much I like our finished product.

So let me say it now: between us I think we've come up with a pretty damn decent story. Do buy it.

As you can read here, Jon thinks so too, and he's promoting the book with a competition for the best review posted either to his LiveJournal or to the book's thread at Outpost Gallifrey. As he says, you don't even need to like the book to enter -- just to be able to say intelligent and insightful things about it.

And you could win a signed copies of one of Jon and Kate's books. Hell, I'll even throw in a signed copy of Emerge as well, since I still seem to have a stack of them sitting around and it contains my earliest professionally published short story (assuming for the sake of argument that the entries in The Book of the War don't count as a "story"). It's a bona fide rarity, with work from SF author Simon Morden (The Lost Art, Another War) and performance poet Jude Simpson among others.

So don't just buy Nobody's Children -- review it!


08 September 2007

Babel-17 Is Missing

Various random and unconnected book-related things follow.

You may have noticed that I've been rather quiet recently about Nobody's Children, the novella triptych I spent much of the end of last year and the beginning of this writing in conjunction with Kate Orman and Jon Blum.

Officially -- insofar as such things are ever announced officially -- the book's been out for several weeks now. Some customers certainly have their copies, and have read it. I'm still waiting for my author's complimetaries, though, and none of the bookshops I have access to have it in either.

This is perfectly routine, but quite frustrating, especially since I've had a bunch of extras ready for weeks now, which I'd really rather not add to my website until I've actually had sight of the book. Oh well.

Instead I've put online, with Paul "Brax" Castle's permission, a copy of the interview he carried out with me for the Summer issue of his splendid Doctor Who fanzine, Shooty Dog Thing. If you've unaccountably missed out on my opinions on the various Doctor Who spinoff ranges, the genius of Philip K. Dick and the precise nature of my own literary talents, then do hurry over and read them here.

Meanwhile, as well as banging away at this enigmatic Doctor Who reference book I mentioned some time ago, there's every sign that I'll be writing another Doctor Who short story... er, shortly. Which is good news, as it's useful to keep one's creative head in practice while writing non-fiction.

As a consumer rather than a creator, I'm pleased to note that two of the latest batch of Doctor Who tie-in novels are by the rather excellent Mark Michalowski and the exceedingly excellent Paul Magrs, both of whom would have been high on my own list of people to commission if -- due to some hilarious sitcomesque misunderstanding -- I'd been installed in the BBC Books editor's chair. Having moaned about the poor quality of some of the recent commissions, I'm looking forward very much to reading Wetworld and Sick Building -- although I'm disappointed that the latter was inexplicably deprived of its original title of "The Wicked Bungalow".

Amazon also tell me that they've dispatched in my direction Daniel O'Mahony's Force Majeure -- not a Who novel, but a standalone magic-realist-fantasy thing from Telos, birthed from the brain of one of the best of the Who authors. So that'll be nice too.

Meanwhile, I've started rereading The Anubis Gates, finished Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (and not Glengarry Glen Ross, as I keep wanting to call him), and realised that I accidentally left Samuel Delany's Babel-17 out of my last books roundup.

Plus there are all those comics to review, and they're swiftly falling out of my brain. I must do that soon.

06 September 2007

Final Greenbelt Roundup

I'm not away any more. In fact I've been back for over a week, but things have been a bit busy. Sorry about that.

Greenbelt was enormous fun, and surprisingly relaxing this year -- in previous years when I've been doing stuff I've ended up getting rather stressed, but this time around I was able to incorporate my Surefish blogging into my daily routine quite happily.

I just want to tidy up by mentioning a few things which that reportage didn't have the space to cover...

Daliso Chiponda's comedy slot (which I went to after filing my last day's copy) was good in parts, but lacked structural unity. Despite the "Attack of the Colonies" title, and although some of his best material was political ("There are good things about living in a dictatorship. When you have phone sex, it's always a threesome."), the show as a whole was a stream-of-consciousness ramble through jokes about relationships, family life and -- rather archaically -- how white men can't dance, which never really came together.

I didn't blog about how much time I spent in the beer tent, which was rather a lot in the end. There were a couple more beers than last year, which I appreciated, although they could still do with expanding their range for next year. The tent was often very full indeed, I suspect partly because they'd relaxed the "No Under 18s" rule (not for drinking, obviously, but for being physically within the bounds of the licensed area).

I enjoyed a rather spendid worship installation which combined gigantic paintings of Christ's hands with a piece called "Prayer of the Heart" by John Tavener, incorporating multilingual Kyries sung by Björk. It was very powerful, weird and visceral music, which would have had substantial emotional punch without the spiritual content. At first I found the noise of the festival all around the room rather distracting, but after a while I was able to imagine it incorporated into the music itself. Which was also kind of weird. I don't tend to get much time for meditation, and this was a good experience. I went back a couple of times.

That said, visual art at the festival generally had dropped off compared with previous years. The emphasis seemed to be on art as a process, with several visual artists creating artwork around the site, but the gallery-style displays of previous years were prominently lacking, which was a great shame.

I enjoyed visiting the animals. I always miss my cats when we're away, and there's something very comforting about physical contact with other mammals. Plus there was a hen who could fit up to seven chicks under her wings at a time.

I bought Billy Bragg's book and the interesting-looking The Gospel According to Science Fiction. The former was sold to me by a very professional eight-year-old girl, which I found a little unnerving.

I have some photos which I need to upload at some point, although Lord knows when. Some are of some very exciting (and huge) kites being flown in the shapes of fish and lizards and things.

That's about it, really. Next year I really must get organised about speaking again, before everyone forgets who I am.

26 August 2007

Philip Purser-Hallard Is Away

Saturday 25 August: I'm at Greenbelt.

(And I wrote "Arse", not "A*se".)

Sunday 26 August: Still here.

Monday 27 August: And still.

(I'm back now, though.)

22 August 2007

Project Pope

What with one thing and another that's been happening recently, I haven't mentioned how enormously I'm looking forward (as usual) to this year's Greenbelt festival, or to encourage you to read my daily festival blogs when they appear on Surefish.

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here to check out my previous years' enthusings on the subject.)

In the meantime, also at Surefish, my column for this month has appeared (with some subtle editing by Andy to make my predictions about August's weather look less blitheringly idiotic). This one's artfully designed to look lazy and summery and as if it wasn't any work at all. In fact it took me nearly a day to put together... which hopefully won't be the case for the Greenbelt writeups, or I'll have nothing to write up.

As a special bonus feature (exclusive to this blog!) here are the five runners-up for that "Top 5 Science Fiction Popes" list:
6. Innocent XIV (Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling). After experimental rejuvenation treatment, Innocent pioneers the sacramental use of hallucinogens and becomes the figurehead for an artificially youthful global gerontocracy.
7. Hadrian XI ("The Futurological Congress" by Stanislaw Lem). This Hadrian is constantly beset by Catholics -- some armed with specialised "papalshooters" -- hoping to make a martyr of him.
8. Crocodylus I (Futurama by Matt Groening et al). The reptilian Space Pope is known to disapprove of mixed human-robot relationships.
9. Eleanor I (The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton). Eleanor excommunicates all users of biotechnology in 2090, creating an acrimonious rift between human cultures. You see, that's what happens when you let women become pontiffs...
10. Amen I (St Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman by Walter M. Miller Jr.) The former hermit is installed as a puppet Pope by the machiavellian Cardinal Brownpony, in the former U.S.A. a millennium after a nuclear holocaust.
To be honest, some of those are reaching a bit -- I wouldn't recommend St Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman to anybody, particularly not to anybody who'd read A Canticle for Leibowitz and was expecting a worthwhile sequel.

If I hadn't been so fussy about using the Popes' regnal names, I would have included the unnamed Bishop of Rome who sends a young monk out to search for the body of a robot saint in Anthony Boucher's "The Quest for St Aquin" and the clone of Cardinal Richelieu who siezes the Papal See (but whose ex officio name is never revealed) in the Doctor Who novel Managra. It just wouldn't have looked as good.

Books Update: Iron and Clay

Due to various external sources of hassle, it's been over two months since I last updated you on my reading habits.

It feels longer, for some reason -- so long I can barely remember what I thought of some of the following at the time of reading. Nonetheless, I did resolve to write at least two sentences about everything I read this year, even (well, implicitly) if those were trade-paperback comic compilations read in a blatant attempt to bring my reading rate back up to a book a week for 2007.

Roughly in reading order, then...

Collapse was fascinating, an involuted and in-depth attempt at anatomising the process of major societal collapse, as seen in numerous historical and present-day cultures. Like Jared Diamond's earlier Guns, Germs and Steel, it's theoretically a work of history, but one with polemically strong scientific interests and a scope so broad as to be more typical of... well, science fiction.

The most interesting part of the book for me -- and happily also the longest -- was the examination of the fates of the various Norse colonies in the North Atlantic, and in particular that of the Greenlandic Norse, whose demise is in stark contrast to the contemporary (and continued) thriving of the Inuit in the same location.

While learning about other cultures and their history is always fascinating, Diamond's style is abstract and and his descriptions of, say, Polynesian or Maya or Anasazi culture can end up a little alienating. The close connection between Norse history and my own (like most English people I almost certainly have Vikings among my ancestors, the Old English I studied at university was very close to Old Norse, and I've actually visited Iceland) made these chapters feel a lot more vivid.

Diamond assumes throughout that all his readers will be more interested in North America and its neighbours than anywhere else. This and his tendency to focus on the minutiae of agriculture, lead him to start he book with an extensive, rampantly dull exploration of current farming practices in rural Montana, to ease the reader in gently with something reassuringly familiar before heading off and examining scarily exotic cultures like Northern Europe.

Nonetheless, Diamond's central thesis -- which I've summarised briefly here -- is compelling and disturbing, and needs to be heard. I'd recommend the book to anyone who really cares about the future of human civilisation. Although you might want to skip some of the lengthier descriptions of soil degradation that get you there, and just take Diamond's word for it that this is the sort of thing that happens.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the second book I've read by the excellent Michael Chabon, the first being the very fine The Final Solution. His prose has a roomy, open feel to it, his characters have depth and unexpected corners, and their experiences can be deeply affecting. Like The Final Solution, Kavalier and Clay concerns Jewish refugees during the Second World War, but these ones, instead of going to the Home Counties and meeting the octogenarian Sherlock Holmes, end up writing comic books in New York.

There's a great deal about the early history of superhero characters, and about the general theory of comic-writing, which shows that Chabon really knows his stuff. Other metaphors pressed into service include the art of stage magic and the staged escape (Joe Kavalier, who draws the adventures of the superhero, "The Escapist", whom his escapological escapades have inspired, is an escape artist in every sense)... and the Golem of Prague, whose artificial existence is somehow tied up with that of Joe and his oddly-named New York cousin Sammy Clayman.

It's a deceptively complex novel, and one I need to reread to get the nuances. Fortunately it's also an unmitigated joy to read, and I'm keen to follow it up with The Yiddish Policemen's Union when I get hold of a copy.

(My father-in-law liked it, too.)

I've already mentioned the release of the latest, and assumed final, Time Hunter novella, Child of Time by George Mann and David J Howe. I've now read it, and it's a pleasant if inconsequential conclusion to Honoré and Emily's adventures. It is in many ways a homage to the series' inspiration, Daniel O'Mahony's exceptionally fine Doctor Who novella The Cabinet of Light, and on a purely narrative level it nearly succeeds. Unfortunately, it's a far cry from being as well-written as several of the other Time Hunter books, a fact which becomes especially clear when it reprints Cabinet's prologue as an epilogue.

Given the efforts Time Hunter has made to carve a niche out separately from its parent series, it's a little sad that the best thing about Child of Time is a guest appearance by the Doctor himself. Disguised though he is under the cunning and copyright-defying pseudonym "Dr Smith", Mann and Howe do well in recreating O'Mahony's version of the character as seen in Cabinet (and indeed the book's conclusion makes his identity very clear indeed). It's good that the series has come to a definite conclusion rather than petering out, but a shame it couldn't have gone out on a more triumphant high. Ah well.

Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream is a novel that requires some explanation, and a certain amount of apology. It's the epitome of high concept,being the novel Adolf Hitler would have written if he'd given up on radical politics, emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1919 and become a hack author turning out pulp S.F. by the yard.

To be strictly accurate, though, that novel -- Lord of the Swastika -- comprises about 95% of The Iron Dream, the rest being a minimalist framing narrative consisting of a blurb, an author biog and a deliberately fatuous critical essay dissecting "Hitler"'s work. It's the latter which delivers the allohistorical punchline: in the absence of German expansionism, the Greater Soviet Union has risen to unquestioned dominance over Eurasia, and Hitler's novel -- not to mention the colourful eye-catching swastika iconography which he created for it -- has become an inspiration for a generation of Americans desperate to resist the Red menace.

"Hitler"'s narrative is a full-on psychotic foaming-at-the-mouth power-fantasy, where blond, muscular Trueman Feric Jaggar returns from the mongrelised mutant state of Borgravia to his ancestral fatherland of Heldon, siezes power through petty political thuggery (nobly described, of course), and then proceeds to cleanse his post-apocalyptic Earth of every nuclear-spawned mutant (especially the loathsome, insidious psychic parasites known as Dominators) to deviate from the true (and, it implicitly appears, exclusively Aryan) human genome.

Spinrad's aim is to highlight the inherent fascism -- the racism, the sexism, the militaristic fetishism, the sublimated homoeroticism -- of a good deal of ancestral pulp S.F. I certainly found myself overwhelmingly reminded at times of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman heptalogy, whose hero, eugenically bred by the noble godlike Arisians to rid the universe of the loathsome demonic Eddorians, rises to dominance over... well, you can probably fill in the rest.

I admit I found Spinrad's point a little... well, obvious... but that may be down to my having been born at around the time he was writing the thing, and having lived through a generation's worth of deconstruction surrounding these early texts and archetypes.

My real problem with The Iron Dream is that Lord of the Swastika is, of necessity, a very bad book indeed. There's a certain amount of fun to be had with stylistic pastiche, with phallic symbolism and Hitler's leather obsession, but this -- I promise -- palls very, very quickly. The reader gets the joke -- that this is alt-Hitler's fantasy of how his long-abandoned plans for political domination might have played out -- within the first few pages, and is left facing chapter after chapter dealing with a protagonist with no sense of irony or self-doubt, written by a "writer" equally devoid of both qualities, in which violent boorishness and unthinking kneejerk bigotry are elevated to the status of moral absolutes.

Someone with a monomania about racial and genetic purity may be capable of causing far more harm to the world than someone obsessed with train timetables, but they're not noticeably more interesting to read about.

Since Spinrad's "Hitler" controls the narrative, there aren't even any of the setbacks or "unexpected" twists which make a genuinely unironic adventure story palatable. A genuine pulp S.F. novel with this premise would at least have built up to a revelation that -- shock! -- Feric Jaggar, who controls an entire nation of Truemen with the force of his will is in reality (and unbeknownst to himself) not a Trueman at all, but a vile Dominator! ...Or that -- horror! -- despite their beliefs the Helder are not in fact unmutated humans, but are themselves mutants of some eventually-revealed kind, the true True Human Genome having vanished generations earlier.

Any decent pulp S.F. author would have seen the need for these or something similar, but "Hitler"'s utter confidence in Jaggar's divinely-ordained rightness rules out any such possibility. And so we slog through 235 pages of dreary, soul-pounding thuggery and self-aggrandisement to reach the (admittedly clever) punchline. Spinrad's novel could have worked so much better as a short story -- a lengthier critical essay, say, giving more historical and biographical background for the alternative Hitler and his world, and quoting frequent extracts from Lord of the Swastika to back up its points.

The actual existence of those 235 pages achieves nothing whatsoever that couldn't have been achieved by simply telling us about them. By writing them out in full, Spinrad has wasted hours of my time and I dread to think how much of his own.

The central conceit of The Iron Dream is, ultimately, quite a neat one, but it's nowhere near enough to power a novel. The book's also somewhat embarrassing to read on the train, emblazoned as it is with a swastika and the legend "A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL BY ADOLF HITLER!"

(...I should write about comics now, but this is long enough already, and I have a festival to flap about. I'll have to come back to those in a week or so's time.)