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.)