26 September 2008

Austen and Ostensibility

After the delay to my Surefish column last month, this month's is up with admirable alacrity. My title was the rather more Austenesque "Fandom and Fundamentalism", but Andy's variant works too.

I just ran a brief google for similarly Austenesque puns, and came up with this insanely wrong-headed blog post, by a freelance writer who subsidises his career with the money he won on a gameshow once -- and is, quite clearly, as wrong as a McCain supporter wearing a "We Love Noel Edmonds" T-shirt.

Not merely because Gillian Anderson is obviously an intensely cerebral, as well as a sublime, sexy, spiritual and deeply sensuous woman, who I'm sure would come in time to appreciate my complementary virtues if we ever met, but -- perhaps more importantly -- because Jane Austen's novels are saturated with economic necessity.

Anyone who thinks that Austen had a fluffy, woolly-headed view of matrimony as a romantic idyll separated from the sordid transactions of the real world, really hasn't been reading her novels properly, and has possibly never actually been in the same room as one.

All together now: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife..."

25 September 2008

Transformation and Terraforming Update

I'm going to be reading The Great Transformation and Red Mars for a little while yet, I suspect.

As I said before, Karen Armstrong's thesis (not originally hers, but developed in great detail in The Great Transformation) is that the revolutionary spiritual philosophies she exemplifies with the figures of Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and Jeremiah, represent a paradigm shift in global (or at least Eurasian) thinking about religion, and thus in the consensus definition of what it means to be human. The main difficulty I have with this so far is the lack of connection she draws between the histories of China, India, Greece and Israel.

China's clearly the odd culture out here, as there are visible links between the remaining three: the first-millennium-B.C.E. Greeks and North Indian Aryans shared common (and relatively recent) Indo-European roots, while Israelite and Greek spiritual culture were strongly influenced by the common myth-systems of the pre-classical Mediterranean and Middle East. All three peoples later had common dealings with colonial Middle Eastern superpowers, most notably the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great.

However, as I understand it, contemporary China was a great deal more isolated, and isolationist. Although only rarely and sporadically unified, the people of the North China plain in the first millennium B.C.E. mostly dealt with one another, or at most with neighbouring peoples whom we'd also identify today as Chinese -- rarely travelling, under no threat from foreigners and warring only against one another. Aside from some trade with neighbours including India (the route by which Buddhism eventually arrived in the first century B.C.E.), ancient Chinese culture was monolithic and self-sufficient. Nor was the era of Chinese history which Armstrong takes as her starting-point -- the culture of the Shang Dynasty -- similar in any notable way to that pertaining in Mycenaean Greece, pre-Biblican Canaan or tribal Punjab.

Thus one might see Jeremiah, the Buddha and Socrates responding in the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. respectively to broadly similar (and distantly connected) social upheavals which led them to question contemporary belief-systems (Yahwism, the Vedic religion, Olympian polytheism) which in turn had originally been revisionist responses to yet more ancient polytheisms with a common ancestral background. The contemporary Chinese sages, however -- Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zhuang Zi et al -- weren't responding to anything that hadn't been Chinese for millennia.

I haven't read ahead, so it's possible that Armstrong's saving up her explanations for the last chapter. As far as I can see, though, if she really wants to justify these supposed simultaneous revolutions in thought (and let's not forget that Jeremiah and the Buddha, say, were roughly as contemporary with one another as Newton and Einstein) as anything more meaningful than coincidence, then her options are limited.

Unless she posits: a) a level of global travel and communication during this era that there's really no evidence for, or b) some kind of large-scale global influence (climatic or epidemic, perhaps, although she's shown little interest in those so far), she'll have to fall back on c) a load of mystical bollocks ("It was a quantum leap in human evolution", "God moves in mysterious ways", "It was Gaia achieving self-consciousness", etc). I can't really see her doing any of those... but if the conclusion's going to be "It was all a really big coincidence", then I can't altogether see the point of the book either. Oh, well.

Meanwhile, Red Mars is also exploring the gradual, large-scale tectonic changes which turn ordinary people adapting to a changing environment into an entirely new culture, and doing so at a very, very leisurely speed. At this rate I'm hoping I'll be finished with the trilogy by Christmas. Thank heavens for the lovely, brief short stories in Short Trips: Transmissions.

Incidentally, apropos of my tag for Robinson-related posts... when my fellow Bernice Summerfield authors Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham were writing their take on Martian history, the only mildly parodic Beige Planet Mars, their original suggestion for a back-page tagline -- veoted by Virgin -- was "Danger, Kim Stanley Robinson!". Which, in the absence of any humour in Red Mars, at least makes me smile wryly.

24 September 2008

The Cabinet of Sound

I'm disproportionately excited to read the announcement that Telos, my publishers for Peculiar Lives, have licensed Fantom Films to produce audiobooks of the Time Hunter novella series. These are full and unabridged readings of the books on CD and for online download, starting with Daniel O'Mahony's excellent The Cabinet of Light and Lance Parkin's splendid The Winning Side.

[Geek Note: The audio version of The Cabinet of Light has been sadly but necessarily stripped of its Doctor Who content, which was always a bit esoteric and tangential. Presumably to compensate for this, the actors they've got in to read these first two books used to play Davros and Leela respectively.]

It's too early to say how many of these audiobook versions will be produced (presumably it will depend partly on the success of these early titles), so no word as yet on whether, when and by whom Peculiar Lives is likely to be recorded. Watch this space for further developments.

19 September 2008


...my most recent column's up at Surefish now. It's another summery collection of lists, which gives you some indication of how long ago I wrote it.

It's ended up a little less topical than I'd hoped it would be, particularly now the second X-Files movie's sunk without trace. Still, now it's there all I need to do is finish this month's.

18 September 2008

Yahweh, Ares, Ganesh et al

Heavens, I didn't realise I'd left it that long between updates again. I'm going to try not to do that sort of thing now I've finished the novella.

I've been mostly in post-Greenbelt, post-novella, post-generally-busy-summer recovery recently, so there hasn't been a great deal to report. (Catching up with the events of the summer, on the other hand, might take some time. There've been two weddings, for a start, one of them my little-sister-in-law's. But they're too sizeable to tackle today, so will have to wait.)

Now I'm evaluating current and future writing projects, trying to work out what I should be doing next. There's talk of a short story commission, the continuing saga of one particular ongoing project which I've mentioned here occasionally, and the small matter of still wanting to get some mainstream S.F. publishers interested in my idea about getting paid lots of money to write some novels. I might also be involved in next year's one of these.

I'm still reading The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah by Karen Armstrong. Which is fascinating, but very, very long, and the prose is on the arid side. Admittedly an attempt to trace the development of spiritual and religious thought in Israel, Greece, India and China between 1500 and about 200 B.C.E. was always going to be a bit of a mammoth undertaking.

I'm over halfway through, but so far it's the early stuff which remains the most interesting, looking at the original belief-patterns (for instance an increasingly absent and abstract sky god replaced by various more local and dynamic warrior-gods), which underly faiths as diverse as the Hindu and Olympian pantheons, Judaeo-Christo-Islamic monotheism and the apotheistic[1] belief-systems of Buddhism and its relatives. I'd have been interested to know more about how (if at all) this related to the oldest complex religious system for which we have extensive evidence, Egyptian polytheism... but one of the book's weaknesses is that, while it's very strong on the individual histories of its four "Axial peoples", it does less work in placing them in their global context or even tracing lines of influence between them. Still a fascinating read, though.

As if this wasn't enough to be getting on with, I've also finally immersed myself in modern S.F.'s own A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Colours Mars trilogy. I'm two-ninths of the way in, and -- although as ever I enjoy Robinson's prose, his politics, and his sense of humans as creatures shaped by and shaping the environments they inhabit -- I'm finding both the volume and the detail exhausting.

It's an immense feat of worldbuilding, but I can't help suspecting that I've read the interesting bits of it already, in the portions of The Memory of Whiteness set on a terraformed Mars. If it had been me, I'd have written my equivalent of Blue Mars (or, knowing me, some kind of far-future Ultraviolet Mars) and left it at that, but Robinson is intent on showing us his working. The way he envisages Mars as a landscape is nothing short of visionary, but do we really need to see so much of the process whereby he gets there?

Perhaps we do. I gather Blue Mars has utopian aspirations, and I've talked before about how Robinson's previous utopia, Pacific Edge, works only because of the groundwork laid by its predecessors in the Orange County Trilogy -- the bleakly post-apocalyptic The Wild Shore and the seductively dystopian The Gold Coast. Presumably something similar is at work here.

But in the meantime, I find myself really yearning for a short book.

In other news, B. and I have a new favourite restaurant, happily within walking distance, which does fantastic Indian food that (the chef maintains) you might conceivably find actual Indians eating. There's an abundance of veggie stuff on the menu -- the chilli paneer is particularly marvellous, but the range of various creative breads is also wonderful. (If the elephant-god logo looks a little odd, it's because it's also spelling out the Sanskrit syllable "om". Which is cool.)

If you're ever in Bristol, it's well worth a visit. If you're not, envy us.

And finally -- goodness me, tomorrow is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. These things seem to come around again so fast, don't they?

[1] OK, so "apotheism" may not actually be a word. But its literal Greek meaning of "away from god[s]", and its combined connotations of "atheism", "apathy" and "apotheosis", seem to apply pretty well to Buddhism's insistence that the gods are irrelevant and that humanity's goal is union with an ultimate yet impersonal state. So I'll be using it. Cheers.