31 March 2008

Triptych of Stuff

1. S.F. authors -- the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (Thanks to Geoff Wessel for the link.)

My favourite paragraph:
Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.
The neocon ranting is somewhat less funny, admittedly, though more or less what I'd have expected from this particular clique of hard-S.F. practitioners. What the article doesn't mention is that Niven and Pournelle have been itching for a shot at statesmanship for a while now: their 1985 novel Footfall has a pair of strangely familiar S.F. writers advising the U.S. government during an alien invasion.

I'd pay good money to see a U.K. equivalent of this group, with the likes of Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod explaining to Gordon Brown why technology makes the revolution of the proletariat inevitable, and why he might as well hand over power to the people now.

2. For various reasons relating to small publishers and the extreme commercial pressures they face, most of the writing contracts I've had have involved flat fees -- I deliver the manuscript, I get paid, then the publisher takes it and sells it as best they can without having to worry about any further outgoings in my direction. There's one exception, who I won't name for obvious reasons of confidentiality, and they sent me my first genuine actual royalty cheque last week.

Hurrah for royalties! B. and I were so excited that we went out and blew the entire £21.72 on a modest pub lunch. Rock and roll!

3. If you're on Facebook, you may have been reading the products of the Six Word Stories writing group. If you aren't or haven't, then you'll be momentarily distracted to know that I'm the runner-up in their fortnightly writing contest with a werewolf story:
"You teach, like, anthropology?"
"No -- lycanthropology."
Yay me.

22 March 2008

Resisting All The Usual Puns

"Everyone knew he was gay," writes Michael Moorcock of Arthur C. Clarke.

Well, it would have taken a remarkably closed mind to read, say, Imperial Earth or 2061: Odyssey Three without realising that this was a strong possibility. But as far as I'm aware, Clarke never publicly acknowledged his sexuality, and nor did his family, his ex-wife or anyone else close to him.

I'm wondering why Moorcock feels the need to out Clarke when he's been dead less than a week. It feels oddly gleeful, somehow, as if he still thinks he's living in 1967 and needs to freak out the squares.

20 March 2008

And So To Beer

Hurrah, and many of them, for last Saturday, when B. and I, nine of our friends and a couple of thousand other people piled into the Brunel Passenger Shed at Temple Meads to drink 120 different kinds of beer.

We all had a splendid time. At least, I know I did -- I was enjoying my beer to much to keep track of everyone else. As a particular personal triumph, this year I managed to avoid the perennial trap of previous years: deciding that what's needed after four-and-a-half hours of drinking many different kinds of beer is -- huzzah! -- more beer, and thus falling over outside some nearby pub. (The absence on family business of Silk may have assisted in averting this.)

Instead we repaired to the chocolate café in Clifton to replenish our sugar and fat reserves. (There we met up with, among others, our goddaughter E., who I perhaps unwisely promised she could accompany us to the 2019 Beer Festival, by which time she'll be old enough.)

My tasting notes were, like last year's, a little incoherent and not always easy to decipher. Of the circa 25 beers I tasted (13 of which I drank half-pints of), the following were notable:
  • Skinner's Cornish Knocker -- a very decent beer, despite the tweeness of the website. My tasting notes read "Nutty and sweet -- mm. Good session beer, I suspect" (a "session beer" being one you could sit and drink all evening, or at least that's what I've always imagined it means).
  • Orkney Dark Island. Orkney do some lovely beers, and I very much enjoyed this one, although it was probably too dark to drink early on (as I did). I've underlined and ticked the word "chocolate" in the CAMRA-provided programme notes, and written: "[M.] says 'whiskyish' -- tasty and caramely."
  • Ottley O.B.B.. Everyone seemed a little surprised by how much I raved about this one, but I really liked it. "Refreshingly bitter -- sloshy, persistent. Good stuff.", I wrote.
  • Copper Dragon's Scotts 1816. My notes read: "Mellow and cheerful, like a relaxing tongue-massage." [Later annotation: "I expect."] "This is good."
  • Triple FFF's Comfortably Numb. Not as good as it sounds -- I've written "Way too sweet... OK otherwise. Grows on you, actually." I've underlined "fruity" in the phrase "subtle fruity flavours", but crossed out "subtle".
  • Dark Star Festival. Despite the quirky name (and wanky website), I wasn't all that keen on this one. I wrote: "Grows on you... don't judge by early appearances. Still... bit unimaginative. Coffeeish (oddly)."
  • Spire's Sgt Peppers Stout. This one I really liked, although it wouldn't have been to everyone's taste. The CAMRA programme explains that it's "An unusual stout that is flavoured with ground black pepper," although I have to say this wasn't overly apparent in the taste. It was very tasty, though. I said, "Good. Esp w food. Smooth & stouty.", and added three ticks.
  • Beowulf's Dragon Smoke Stout. I seem to remember I was too late to get any of this in 2007, so I made sure I managed it this time. I described it as: "Smoky, stouty, dragony. Mm. Good stuff, though not supernally so" (supernally?), and underlined "full roast" and "bitterness" in the programme notes.
  • Bath Ales Dark Hare, from a brewery close to both Bristol and my heart. Dark Hare is a rare seasonal beer including chocolate malt, roast barley and nutmeg. My notes read: "V. nice -- rather mellow (though less so than [Cottage Brewery's] Norman's Conquest) -- velvety and pleasing mouthfeel", and all instances of the word "chocolate" in the accompanying programme notes are underlined. I think I'd just tried the Norman's Conquest (which I found "mellow and calming"), and had been amused earlier by the word "mouthfeel" in the programme notes for the Dark Star.
  • Moor's Ported Pete Porter. By this stage I was frantically buying all the dark beers I could find and quaffing them. This one I pronounced "Good -- little bit metallic, but hurrah." Which is less flattering than it could have been.
  • Sarah Hughes' Dark Ruby Mild. This was almost the last one I had, so I'm not altogether sure my opinion can be trusted, but I voted for it as Beer of the Festival. An initial tasting note (when I tried someone else's) reads, "Ooh. I could drink lots of that," and I later added: "And indeed, it is fine & relaxed & leisurely, with fruity, chocolatey tones."
I didn't get to try the Sarah Hughes' Snowflake, which was alleged to be as good as or better than the Dark Ruby Mild, and I was disappointed to miss out on the St Austell Proper Job, an I.P.A. apparently flavoured with pine resin.

I was less keen on the Dr Okell's I.P.A. ("tad generic"), Purple Moose's Dark Side of the Moose ("liquoricey aftertaste") and Nottingham Rock Mild ("sluggy aftertaste", bizarrely). For Shardlow's Whistlestop I wrote: "No idea. Forgot to make a note. Beery???".

Things I need to remember to do next year include rereading my notes from past years, so that I know a) what I've had already, and b) which of those I liked. (I don't seem to have duplicated any from last year, as it happens, but there are a couple I'd have liked to sample again.) Also to bring my CAMRA membership card, folding chairs and chocolate.

As the pantheist said...

My God: it's full of stars.

(My Arthur C. Clarke obit, now up at Surefish.)

Life, Death, Space, Time, Matter, Gods, Aliens...

...you know the drill.

And now so do I. A BLOODY GREAT BIG DRILL, in fact, positioned a few inches from my head as the next-door house is disassembled down to its very foundations (warning: slight risk of hyperbole). I guess that writing I mentioned won't be happening today.

(Disturbingly, the van at the front of the house belongs to a pest control company, suggesting that they've been called in to deal with something living in the walls.)

So -- books. And beer as well, but probably in a separate post.

I think I've said what I wanted to about Arthur C. Clarke in my piece for Surefish. I'll update here when that's available online -- I'm hoping it might be today [ETA: Yes -- see above], but it may have to wait till Tuesday[ETA: No, I told you, the link's just up there.]. Suffice it to say that Clarke's been an inspirational figure since my childhood, has had a pervading influence on my thinking in all kinds of ways -- most of them too deeply ingrained to identify -- and that his death, whatever age he reached, was always going to be a loss to the world.

(One thing I hadn't room to mention in the article was that his 62-year professional writing career was one of the few to threaten the 65-year record of George Bernard Shaw. If Clarke had lived another four years, as Shaw did, I'm sure he'd have overtaken him.)

One thing that some of you might be able to tell me, though... the most recent book of Clarke's I read was 3001: The Final Odyssey, one of a cluster of utopian novels by senior SF writers which popped up unexpectedly around the turn of the millennium. I've not read any of his co-written stuff, not being a big fan of Stephen Baxter's work and suspecting that Beyond the Fall of Night and the Rama sequels in particular were blatant cash-ins.

So, um... are any of the collaborations any good? I'm thinking here particularly of the Clarke-Lee Rama books and the Clarke-Baxter Time Odyssey series, all of which I really ought to have read at some point.

In other S.F. news... I enjoyed Iain Banks' Matter, but like The Steep Approach to Garbadale and to some extent The Algebraist, it had the feel of Banks working to a reliable formula without much interest in stretching himself. (Dead Air didn't feel like that to me, and nor did Look to Windward, so I hope this is an extended lapse rather than a long-term slide into senescence.)

The complex and massive detail of an insanely long-lived galactic metacivilisation (and a completely different one from the one in The Algebraist, at that) was well done, but other elements felt fairly familiar. This is particularly true of the absurdly advanced and enlightened Culture's covert intervention in the affairs of the rather boring feudal society who form the focus of the novel, since this was also the plot of Inversions nearly ten years ago. Admittedly this feudal culture occupies a portion of a world-sized artifact left behind my mysterious long-vanished aliens, but -- as one of the characters even points out during the novel -- that's the only interesting thing about them.

Admittedly there's a cleverish twist in that the Culture's agent is herself a native of the feudal society in question -- a princess no less, donated by the king as payment for services rendered some time previously, and immediately emancipated as a fully entitled (and enabled) Culture citizen. (Her name, Djan Seriy, recalls "Janissary", whether deliberately or otherwise.) In other respects, the book rehashes elements of Excession, Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, to no particularly worthwhile effect. It's a fun read and I was never bored, but I do feel Banks has been treading water for the past half-decade or so.

Since finishing Matter I've started River of Gods by Ian McDonald. I'm not very far in, and so far it's a little baffling -- I'm ashamed to say the panoply of Indian names, not all of them readily distinguishable to my angloglot eyes, isn't helping with that. I've just reached the part where the synthetic Bollywood-soap star explains that he was created as an A.I. actor rather than an A.I. character because everyone likes to know what stars get up to behind the scenes, only for it to be revealed that this part of his life is just as scripted as his soap appearances. That's fairly promising.

I'm also most of the way through Bryan Appleyard's Aliens: Why They Are Here, an examination of fictional and supposedly-real aliens which blends pop-culture and philosophy with immense readability. It's fascinating.

Oh, and this isn't a book, but it did appear in the Guardian Books supplement, and is written by the author of a book I want to read. Well, I guess that about wraps it up for Dawkins.

19 March 2008

I Know, I Know...

...I really need to update this blog more often.

I was expecting to be writing a report on Saturday's Bristol Beer Festival today -- I've got my tasting notes and everything, and I really need to use them before everything I drank falls out of my head.

(Er, metaphorically. It didn't do that in literal terms, thank heavens.)

But then Arthur C. Clarke died, and I spent this morning expecting that I'd be blogging instead about his books, their influence on my life -- which has been substantial -- and on the world.

Which I would have done. Only when I got home from work I got an email offering to pay me for writing something along these lines... only obviously not here. So what I've actually been doing this afternoon is writing the wittily-entitled "2008: A Space Obituary", which should be appearing at an internet near you after the Bank Holiday weekend.

I'll try to catch up here tomorrow. But -- and this is also somewhat crucial -- I actually succeeded in doing some proper creative writing late last week, with characters and descriptions and stuff. Given how rare that's been recently, if I can manage to carry on with that tomorrow, it may have to take precedence over telling you all about my exciting adventures with beer. Fun though those were.