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.)

18 August 2007


I may have invented a new class of crossword clue in the shower. On the other hand, someone else may well have thought of it already.

Docker to line up, we predict, awaiting first two notes (9).

Highlight the whitespace to read the answer, which is: "STEVEDORE".

B. isn't sure this would be adopted, because (whitespace again: software differs from mobile to mobile, so not everyone's phone will predict "queue" as "steve". On the other hand, I think the interchangeability means it still works.

Have any of you cruciverbalists encountered clues of this type? If not, do you think they might catch on?

[Clue edited slightly 19/8/7]

14 August 2007

Largely Random Observations

Or, What I'd Be Blogging About If Only I Had The Time

1. I must stop mentioning the weather in my Surefish column. When this month's number goes live it's going to start "Gosh, isn't it marvellous that summer's finally started after all that miserable rain we were having earlier?" Aargh.

2. B. and I have been married for eight years as of today. Hurrah for us! Eight years is Sodium, if I recall correctly.

3. Thanks to the aforementioned balmy summer weather, I spent today wandering about the office in:
  • wet trousers.
  • a wet shirt.
  • a wet tie.
  • wet underpants.
  • no shoes, because they were wet.
  • dry socks, because I keep a pair at work.
It's amazing how much difference dry socks make to your comfort levels. I'm beginning to think I should keep a pair of pants at work too, and possibly an entire spare bedroom.

4. Trisyllabic words that should rhyme but don't: "kilobyte" and "trilobite".

5. When I was growing up in Worthing, my parents had a lean-to shed which they referred to -- in an act of 70s middle-class pretension which Margo Leadbeatter would have baulked at -- as "our loggia". It was only when I read A Room with a View that I realised that what I'd always heard as "losure" was an Italian word, rather than being short for "enclosure".

6. Heroes is -- so far, at least, which from our point of view synchronises with BBC3's advance showings but not with The Sci-Fi Channel -- pretty great.

7. Cryptic crosswords are surprisingly difficult, though. I've been making a vague effort to start doing them regularly, given that sources as diverse as B.'s granny and Toby off The West Wing inform me that they keep your brain supple well into old age. I'm finding the bastards almost impossible, though, suggesting that I've already descended too far into senility for any non-miraculous intervention to be effective. Oh well.

8. I can't work out quite why anyone would want to visit Ashton Court for the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, given that there are better places across Bristol's multiple hills for watching the launches and flights. On Saturday our preferred vantage point (and that of around 2,000 other people, most of them under the age of six) was up the cliffs near Clifton Observatory, where the balloons pass pretty much overhead. (Sometimes they dip right down into the Avon Gorge first, which apparently is Just Showing Off.) It seems particularly perverse to drive to Ashton Court just as some godblighted football match is finishing at Ashton Gate Stadium, which is what the entire population of Southern England bar those 2,000 were doing an hour or so before the launch.

9. The other day I read an ancient Dilbert strip which included the words "Now I have to hug this guy so it won't seem awkward." Five minutes later I had "Purple Haze" going through my head.

10. After nearly nine years of very occasionally killing mice or other small vertebrates, then sitting and watching the corpses in the forlorn hope that they'll start moving again, Mulder has finally worked out what being a predator is actually about. Or so the mouse B. found on the living-room floor last Wednesday would suggest... if it had any front half left to squeak the news with.

10 August 2007

Pressing Linguistic Questions of Our Day, No. 41,685

RAFFLE is to RATIO as FELAFEL is to FELLATIO. True or false?

(The existence of Aer Lingus has always made me feel that the Italian national airline should be called Aero Latio.)

01 August 2007

Nobody's Perfect

Ahem. I may have mentioned on one or two occasions that my new novella, "Nursery Politics", is out next month in the Bernice Summerfield collection Nobody's Children, and that you might care to buy it. I may even have published the occasional link to where on the Big Finish site you might be able to purchase it from.

Ignore those. Big Finish have just redesigned and relocated their entire site, and none of the old links work. You can buy Nobody's Children here.

It's going to be a lot of work at my website updating all the old links. Hey ho.

On the plus side, though, the cover is up. And if you hurry to the front page, you can even see, for now, a banner with my name in it. (It's at the bottom right. No, further down. No, look, down there, you see?)

Meanwhile, the extra I hoped to stick on the website to accompany the book hasn't worked out, so I'm going to have to think of something else there. More news on that shortly, I hope.

[Edit to add: Just had a big -- if rather general and faffy -- update to my website. Hopefully the links to the Big Finish products will stay working. If not, then aargh.]