29 January 2007

Cylon of Cyrene

Urgh. No time to post properly at the moment, for reasons I'd describe in detail if I had time to post properly at the moment.

I certainly haven't had time to write my column for Surefish about giant space mirrors. However, here's one I prepared earlier.

27 January 2007

Flogging Jehovah

Is it wrong to be polite to Jehovah's Witnesses?

I answered the door to two of them -- a mother and son, I think -- in my dressing-gown this morning, in the hope that they might be delivering my Doctor Who: New Beginnings DVD boxed set. (They weren't, but it's a tactic they might want to consider in future.) They were a little nonplussed by my déshabille, but launched gamely into their spiel before I cut them off, politely, and told them, politely, that I wasn't really able to discuss the Lord Jesus with them right now.

The thing is, I'm not a particularly tolerant person, where intrusions into my privacy are concerned. I have no difficulty being rude to cold-callers who phone up trying to sell me double glazing or new kitchens: they took the job, they're being paid for it (badly, but that's a matter between them and their employer), and they knew full well that my being bloody rude to them was a risk they were accepting along with the position. Also, they're bastards.

I can't bring myself to take that attitude with J.W.s. I doubt my beliefs have more in common with theirs than perhaps a third of the Nicene Creed, I think they show some worryingly cultish tendencies and they most certainly get the christian community (of which they're fairly marginal members) a bad name. But still, I can't help looking at it from their point of view.

As far as they're concerned, their calling from door to door is a desperate attempt to save their neighbours from eternal damnation. Out of sheer charitable love for people who they've never met, and are very likely to tell them to fuck off, they brave rejection, insult and physical violence on a regular basis as a working-out of their faith. That faith isn't mine, and I can't see any way it ever could be. But if I was in their position, I very much doubt I'd have that degree of commitment or moral courage.

Oddly, this isn't a respect I extend to evangelical "missions", Alpha Course organisers, or people who stand in the street shouting through megaphones that I'm going to Hell. They can fuck off, with their bullying rhetoric, their unchallengeable certainties and their smug middle-class haircuts.

The J.W.s, though, I can't help respecting even while I think they're deluded fools.

So... should I continue to be polite to them, and to tell them (as I did today) that although I don't want to talk to them I do appreciate their kindness? Or should I tell them to fuck off, on the grounds that this will discourage them from intruding into people's lives, risking their own safety and bringing religious people (slightly further) into disrepute?

...Actually, I think I know the answer to that. In most cases it wouldn't discourage them at all -- it would just confirm them in their belief that the world is fundamentally corrupt and deaf to their preaching of the truth.

It's difficult to know how you can affect a mindset like that, short of engaging them in actual argument. And sadly that's something I haven't the time or energy -- or commitment, or moral courage -- to do.

A Time for Reflection

It seems the U.S. will shortly be unveiling its strategy to combat global warming (you know, just in case it turns out that it's actually happening after all), and it's:

Giant Space Mirrors!

That's my next Surefish column sorted, then.

24 January 2007

Books Update: Demolishing Our Holmes

(Hmm. I think I may have used that one before. Never mind, it was a while ago now and I doubt anyone will notice.)

In accordance with this mini-resolution, here's a brief writeup of the latest book I've finished reading:

Erasing Sherlock by the remarkable Kelly Hale, is the fifth Faction Paradox novel: the story of a modern woman set loose, thanks to some dodgy pirated time-travel technology, in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The narrator -- an academic posing as a maid -- is a delight to read, a brilliant, utterly alive creation, while Holmes and Watson are more vibrant and textured than I can remember them being in any Conan Doyle story, whilst still being perfectly true to his conception. I rather prefer the first half of the book, which is essentially an intellectual-game-turned-romance between the narrator and Holmes on the latter's home turf, to the later chapters where both are having to improvise in unfamiliar territory.

The prose is gorgeous, rich and creamy, and the period detail is excellent, erudite but executed with a light touch. On the whole, a fantastic novel with some marvellous character work, an addictive story and a surprising amount of shagging. I've no hesitation in calling it the best -- just as, sadly, it's the last -- of Mad Norwegian's Faction Paradox range.

Not Chuffed

I can't say I approve of the recent protest by my fellow commuters in Bristol and Bath against First Great Western. Apart from anything else, making sure that your consumer action group gets as much publicity as possible on the very day it's breaking the law by using a publicly-funded service without paying for it, isn't a terribly impressive way of claiming the moral high ground.

Nonetheless, I am most displeased with F.G.W. For weeks now they've been saving money (and raising those all-important shareholder dividends) by running underequipped and overcrowded train services, charging commuters extortionate prices for the privilege of being crammed into carriages like cattle. (Albeit cattle in suits and ties, who instead of being taken to abbatoirs to be electrically stunned and slaughtered will be spending a day behind a desk in an office, staring at computer screens, mooing and chewing the cud in a perplexed kind of way.)

Yesterday my train to work was so crowded it couldn't physically fit me on board. People were standing all the way up the corridors of both carriages, crammed in around the doors and apparently in the toilet as well. (I didn't even know that the service in question had a toilet, but evidently no expense had been spared. Oh, wait.) Of the half-dozen people waiting at our little branch-line station, four managed to squeeze on board after some shoehorning by the guard, while I and one other were turned away. I had to take the bus to Bristol Temple Meads to get a later train, arrive at work an hour late and forego my lunch hour in order to catch up. Grr.

Petty law-breaking and catchily-named pressure groups aren't the way to go, however. Instead, I urge everbody in the South-West to participate fully in the spirit of the free-market philosophy espoused so fervently by this government and their marginally less liberal predecessors, by refusing to give another penny of your money to F.G.W., and instead granting your custom to one of the many comptetitors of theirs who run trains along the same routes.

...Oh, that's right. You can't, in fact, do either of those. Because while the Government passes out marketarian propaganda with one invisible hand, it's using the other to hand over functional monopolies to companies along with millions of pounds of public money, thus effortlessly combining the worst aspects of a state-run monopoly and a profit-driven private company.

That it then makes pathetic excuses for them, instead of enforcing basic standards of customer care, helps to ensure we don't for a moment mistake its sheer corrupt contempt for the public interest for anything so naïve and charming as incompetence.

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are not endorsed by anyone other than me. Even the cats are looking dubious, actually. But honestly. T'ch.]

20 January 2007

Scenes from a 21st-Century Life


[Enter Phil. B. is watching Holby City. On screen, the doctors have just performed a caesarian section.]

PHIL: Can I talk to you a sec?
B.: Just let me pause this.

[She pauses it. The screen is full of open torso and blood-smeared baby.]

PHIL: Erm. Preferably not while looking at that?
B.: Sure.

[She rewinds. The doctors put the baby back inside.]

18 January 2007

Book Depository

I'm aware I've been banging on about routine personal stuff rather a lot here recently, as if this were some ghastly tabloid LiveJournal rather than the altogether better class of broadsheet blogging one's accustomed to finding on Blogspot. As a sort of mini-resolution, I've decided that during 2007 (and ideally beyond) I shall try to record every book I read here at Peculiar Times, and write at least two sentences about each one.

The reason for this is partly the hope that it'll be interesting, partly to keep up the critical writing which is one of the reasons I maintain this blog, but mostly because -- now my memory's passed the halfway point in its deterioration towards senescence -- I find I'm having real trouble remembering what I've actually read.

So, the following are the books I've finished so far this year. Some of them, of course, were begun last year.

The Star Fraction by Ken Macleod. This one was a reread -- it was this book and its sequels which first convinced me that I had to make reading every book Macleod published a high priority for the rest of my life. It's almost embarrassing, in retrospect, how much of an influence on Of the City of the Saved... this was -- the chief difference being that I have none of Macleod's expertise in political theory, so had to write about entirely fictional politics instead. It's still excellent stuff, although there are traces of the awkwardness and completism which afflicts many first novels.

King Rat by China Miéville. This one's more obviously a first novel: evidently Miéville hit his stride with Perdido Street Station (another novel which has a scary amount in common with OtCotS, but which I fortunately hadn't read until well after it came out). King Rat takes place in contemporary London, which allows it to indulge an interest in real-world urban musical styles, but as a setting is surprisingly thin: it's clear that the author is already straining after his own vivid world. The quality of Miéville's reinterpretation of real-world myth and folklore is variable: his take on the Pied Piper is excellent, but his Anansi pales compared with Neil Gaiman's.

About Time 2 by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood. This is the latest instalment of Lawrence and Tat's ongoing and epic attempt to place the various eras of twentieth-century TV Doctor Who in its cultural context -- expected to run (after the publication of the next and final volume, About Time 6) to a million words, of which this must constitute at least 175,000. As I mentioned on Parrinium Mines, this volume suffers from documenting the relatively dull repetitiveness of the Troughton era (rather than, say, the freeform experimentation of the Hartnell stuff), as well as the authors' inability to keep their verbiage under control. It's still one of the most entertaining books ever written about Doctor Who, though (and believe me, there's a wide field for comparison).

The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction by Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth. This was a weird one, a birthday present from the vicar and family. It's a combination of criticism and theology, but unlike most such studies (well, most that deserve the term "studies", anyway) it's heavily weighted towards the theology end of things. This means that the criticism's rather facile, but there's an awful lot of background concerning things like pre-christian sacrificial cults and the authorship of Revelation.

Nonetheless, the actual conclusions the authors come to are often interesting, if frequently batty. The idea that Doctor Who is about the superseding of sacrificial kingship relies on a very selective reading, and ignores a great many stories which might have been useful to the argument, as well as some which might well have blown it out of the water. There's some confusion about the understanding of the term "science fiction", with the analysis of the cross-genre anthology show The Twilight Zone relying mostly on the episodes where characters make Faustian bargains firmly in the tradition of theological fantasy. Some aspects of the authors' research have been sketchy at best, and there are some bizarre factual errors. (Jon Pertwee's name accumulating an extra "h" is common and understandable, though irritating -- but when exactly did Babylon 5's Mr Morden acquire the first name "Ethan"?)

The fact that it treats Star Trek with moral seriousness gives away the fact that The Truth Is Out There is an American book. Perhaps because of this I found both it surprisingly conservative both in politics and theology -- there is, for instance, a startlingly vehement rant about how television in general is eroding the nation's morals, the six series under advisement being honorable exceptions. More disturbingly still, it seems to assume an even more conservative readership, who need much convincing of the few non-traditional assumptions the authors make. It's a fascinating perspective on TV SF, and I'm glad to have read it, but it's phenomenally wrong on a quite startling number of levels.

Shortly before Christmas I finished Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by anthropologist Kate Fox. I'm not going to go on about it at length, because I've said far more than two sentences about all of the above, especially that last one. Suffice to say that it's brilliant, clever and funny, and that if you're English you need to read it in order to understand yourself. (If you're not English, you still need to read it, in order to understand any English people you might happen to meet.)

Currently I'm reading the second volume of the Prisoner scriptbook; and Erasing Sherlock by Kelly Hale -- the fifth, final and, on its showing so far, very possibly the best of Mad Norwegian Press's Faction Paradox novels.

Finally, it's been ages since I updated my reading list.

Books in bold have been added since the last time. Stuff in square brackets has been reluctantly designated less urgent, which means I'll probably not get around to reading it unless I find myself in bed with spinal injuries for a year or so. Two rather unappealing Doctor Who tie-ins have fallen off the list altogether.

Non-Fiction:Fiction:Goodness -- that is rather a lot of books. I'd better get cracking.

17 January 2007


Brief update today, to catch up on a busy weekend and a busier week.

After getting a few hundred whole words of my novella written during the last couple of days of last week, I disappeared to London with B. for Saturday and Sunday, to visit relatives (or in my case in-laws), attend a birthday party and appreciate the art at the Tate Modern.

After a pleasant lunch with B.'s granny, most of Saturday afternoon was wasted in dithering. The London "hotel" we'd booked online -- which had looked cheap and basic, but perfectly serviceable, in pixel form -- turned out to be a godawful dive of a pub on a rubbish-strewn sink estate, and not at all the sort of place where we'd have been happy walking, or even leaving a taxi, late at night. After much agonising over the possibilities, we eventually settled for the inconvenience (to her and us) of sleeping on B.'s sister's sofa instead. (It was kind and rather heroic of said sister to take us in, considering that she was already putting up her boyfriend and the aforementioned granny, and that her house isn't exactly vast.)

That decision made, we managed to enjoy ourselves on Carsten Höller's masterwork, which was appropriately spectacular and boundary-breaking, but may or may not count as actual art. I can't yet decide whether my considered response is:
Höller's Test Site is a fascinating and vivid demonstration of the tendency of a limited loss of stability and control over one's environment to evoke the most visceral human emotional responses, and a witty and profound exploration of the boundaries between architecture, psychology and child's play.
I liked the Level Four slide best because of the steep bits which were scary! But the Level Five slide was best too because you get to go very very fast! WHEEEEEEEE!

We then proceeded to the party, which was great -- plenty of beer and interesting conversation, lots of hardcore dance music (which our hosts, at our drunken insistence, very patiently and painstakingly explained to us), three lovely velvety rats (pet ones who were meant to be there, rather than the less convivial kind we'd have been likely to find near our "hotel"), and several equally lovely velvety single malt whiskies. Mm.

The next morning I was feeling rather delicate, but was soon revived by brunch with other friends, somewhere in Clapham. At least, I think it was Clapham. I was too hungry to notice really. Then we drove back to Bristol in the afternoon, ate too much supper (possibly to line our stomachs retrospectively for the night before), and went to bed.

Since then I've been back at work, wading through acronyms until (as I discovered when trying to read a safety notice on the train home today) I genuinely can't see words printed in capitals without wondering what all the letters stand for.

Oh, and watching the first three episodes of Season Three of Battlestar Galactica, which is ace. More on that anon.

11 January 2007


An update to the website today, in the form of some behind-the-scenes material on Collected Works.

As those of you who've read the book will know, the Quire are a clan of posthuman scholars from the distant future who visit the Braxiatel Collection where the hero, Professor Bernice Summerfield, lives and works. They have to adjust to the ways of their distant ancestors even as the humans of the Collection are adjusting to them -- a relationship which ultimately goes sour in various unpleasant ways.

I created the Quire for the anthology, based on a brief from the editor, Nick Wallace, who believed based on my previous writing that I could do a decent job of posthuman worldbuilding. What's now up on my website is the original briefing document sent to contributors, to introduce the characters and their background. It comes with some scene-setting preamble from me and a lot of footnotes explaining the thinking which went into creating the characters and setup.

You should find it worth a read if you're interested in how short-story anthologies evolve, or if you found the hints of the Quire's background in Collected Works intriguing and want to learn more, or if for some unimaginable reason you're simply fascinated by the way my mind works. (That's why I like it, anyway. But then it is my mind.)

Speaking of the website... over Christmas I became thoroughly sick of Onetel's email service, which utterly fell over for me and many others on 22 December and wasn't fixed until the end of last week. A helpline (whose number was difficult enough to find in the first place) promised "hourly updates" on the problem on another line -- each of which, for weeks at a time , bore a startling similarity to the last.

As a result of this, I've arranged for a full web-hosting and email account with Black Cat Networks. Black Cat have been hosting the redirection for my infinitarian.com domain and email addresses for years now. They're a small company run by computer geeks, which means they're reliable, friendly and cheap, but do have a slight tendency to assume that all their customers know what SMTPs and DNSes are without being told.

Anyway. I'll be moving the website across to my shiny new webspace at some point, which will mean that the www.infinitarian.com address will actually hold its own material rather than redirecting to the webspace which came free with my TV, phone and broadband.

The move shouldn't make any practical difference to anyone approaching the site via its official address -- and I'll probably keep the Blueyonder version as a mirror -- but it may finally make the current mirror site at Thoughtplay redundant. I'll mention it if and when that happens, though.

05 January 2007

Festivity and Christmas Spirit

Well, my last substantial post here was on 21 December. Since then the final panicked stages of Advent have been followed by Christmas, which -- being technically not over until tomorrow -- has also incorporated New Year.

During this time I've:
  • Wrapped my Christmas presents and distributed them to various relatives, friends and a wife.
  • Had people round for pre-Christmas drinks, with much mulling of wine, cracking of nuts and mincing of pies.
  • Spent a lovely Christmas Day here in Bristol, starting with a generous Christmas breakfast and punctuated by a pleasant trip across the city to exchange presents with our goddaughter and family.
  • Jointly prepared a vast and decadent Christmas dinner with B., then found that (very likely due to the aftermath of that bout of food poisoning, or just possibly the generous breakfast) we both had insufficient appetite to do justice to it.
  • Packed in a hurry then headed to B.'s parents for Boxing Day lunch, followed by four days' stay with said in-laws.
  • Received a gratifying number of Christmas presents, including The Prisoner scriptbook volume two from B., The Absolute League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2 from her parents, Revolver and Rubber Soul from her granny, Inferno and Genesis of the Daleks on DVD from her big sister and a Dalek T-shirt from her little sister (plus respective boyfriends).
  • Returned to Bristol to unpack, comfort the cats and watch Godzilla (one of my presents to B., the other being King Kong. We both enjoy gigantic monsters tearing cities apart.)
  • Picked up my brother and sister-in-law's delayed presents from the post office, including the splendid-looking two-DVD edition of Dune.
  • Watched somewhere in the region of seven hours of Doctor Who and its spinoffs, which I may be writing about on Parrinium Mines at some point.
  • Spent New Year's Eve in a pub with Bath Festivity and some very nice single malt whiskies to hand.
  • Gone back to work, which has admittedly been a rather less celebratory experience.
We're planning on finishing up the remnants of Christmas dinner for Epiphany tomorrow.

I should also mention the generous and exciting gift of a digital camera from my parents, although that happened during our visit before Christmas. I'm currently trying to un-bloat the contents of my hard drive so I can download the software and start transferring actual photos. I'll probably post some here, although I may be required to start a Flickr account at some point soon.

Pluto to Mars in Six Months

My second monthly column, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians", is now up at the Surefish site. It's about life on Mars, responding (rather belatedly now) to the discovery of running water on the Martian surface back in December.

And they've started using my preferred title, Divine Invasions. Hurrah.

As a bonus extra (and following on from the "planet" theme), here's the first of the two sample columns I offered Surefish back in August to persuade them to take me on. (The second is what became my first Divine Invasions column, "It's Been Unreal".)

It's not usable now, because it's tied so explicitly to a particular moment in astronomical history. Crucially, it attempts to pre-empt the result of the I.A.U. discussions concerning Pluto, and gets the details wrong. You could probably date it to the day, if you studied the contemporary press predictions carefully enough.

On the understanding that most of the information in it is now out of date, though, we present...
Hell-Gods from Outer Space

Most of us know the story. There’s the hot one, the mysterious one, the motherly one, the red one, the great big one, the one with all the rings, the one with the rude name, the blue one and the cold one.

Sadly, the myth of the solar system’s nine planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, as they’re more formally known – has been exploded for good.

Pluto, the most recent to have been discovered, has been recognised as a planet since 1930 mostly because its discoverers knew rather less about the solar system than astronomers do now. This month [August 2006] the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has voted to recognise the fact, demoting Pluto to a new class of ‘dwarf planets’. It is joined there by the asteroid Ceres, by the recently-discovered 2003 UB313 (more memorably nicknamed ‘Xena’), and – in the ultimate indignity – by its own moon, Charon.

The debate only concerns definitions, and the new categories are simply those which astronomers consider most helpful in discussing celestial bodies. The only people who are actually likely to care are the disenfranchised astrologers (for whom Pluto governs power and corruption, thanks to the decade of history following its discovery) and the science fiction fans.

Pluto was discovered just as science fiction was taking off as a popular art form, and consequently the myth of the Nine Planets has contributed profoundly to its readers’ sense of our place in the cosmos. Stories have tended to depict Pluto romantically as the Solar System’s last outpost, a chilly, lonely world on which humanity might one day walk. (Neptune, the next one in, is a bad candidate for landing or colonisation, having a surface mostly made of gaseous hydrogen.)

For some of us, discovering that Pluto isn’t a proper planet after all means a change of world-view as traumatic as Galileo’s suggestion that it might be just about possible the sun wasn’t going around the Earth.

The process of redefinition has also brought into the open the process whereby new celestial bodies are named. In 1930 astronomers still followed the ancient tradition of calling planets after the Roman gods, and hence gave Pluto the name of the ruler of the underworld (and not that of Walt Disney’s cartoon dog, who first appeared in the same year as the planet).

Unfortunately, improved detection technologies have meant that virtually all names from classical mythology have now been used. The discoverers of recent asteroids have been forced to turn to other sources for their names – as a brief glance at 17059 Elvis and 9007 James Bond demonstrates.

The conventions for naming planets are more stringent – which is why, sadly, the name ‘Xena’ is unlikely to stick. The IAU’s specifications require such bodies to be named objects after creation deities or underworld spirits, hence the names given to some of the other bodies considered for ‘dwarf planet’ status.

90377 Sedna, for instance, is named after an Inuit sea-goddess (who is both), while 50000 Quaoar’s name comes from that of the creator in the Native American Tongva tribe’s myth system.

All of which raises the possibility of a devout astronomer – or perhaps more interestingly a clear-thinking atheist – naming a future planetary discovery after the Christian God, and thereby relegating that deity to just another upstart competing with the Roman pantheon.

Still, there’s already an asteroid named 1930 Lucifer – and Satan, after all, might qualify as an ‘underworld spirit’. A planet named Jehovah could still prove to be the more palatable option.

Useful Links
International Astronomical Union
Facts about Pluto
List of names of minor planets
Astrology and the new planets

I'll carry on flagging up further columns here, unless it starts annoying people.

03 January 2007

Missing Matter

Still somewhat exhausted from all the Christmas and New Year cheer, followed by a rather half-hearted return to work yesterday and today.

A proper summary of What I Did On My Holidays should follow in the next couple of days, after which normal service should be resumed. In the meantime, a brief public service announcement: my email's shagged. The providers claim to be sorting it out, but I don't hold much confidence in that. Things like mailing lists, CCs and the forwarding from the various at infinitarian dot com addresses are either bouncing or vanishing into the ether. If you've been trying to contact me since around 22 December and failing, then leaving a comment here alerting me to the fact might be a good idea.