16 December 2009


Looking back at my last post of 2008, I see I opened with the words "I realise I've really let this blog slide the past few months."

Well, I didn't have a baby then. (Frankly, the me of December 2008 didn't know he was born. He barely knew his son was going to be.) Now I do, I really know what it's like to be very much too bloody busy to maintain an online presence.

That said, I'm going to make more of an effort in 2010 to keep this blog up to date. As well as trying to actually write one of those novels I've been picking vaguely away at since, erm, forever. I hereby pledge that I'll have a first draft of what I'm currently calling The Arrow and the Circle written by the beginning of 2011.

(Probably. Very likely. Certainly any year now, I should think.)

Meanwhile, here's something I prepared earlier. Since 2006 I've been writing an annual Christmas story to send out with my Christmas cards to family and friends, and since 2007 I've been archiving the previous year's story here and on my website. Unless you're on my Christmas card list, you'll have to wait until 2010 to read the story I've written this year, "Stella Maris". For now, however -- both here and here -- you can read last year's story, "Blitzenkrieg".

In retrospect, it's a little obvious. Frankly I prefer both "Stella Maris" and "Polarity". However it does the job of wishing the recipient a damn well bloody merry Christmas.

Speaking of which, one of the above to you all.


by Philip Purser-Hallard

‘My, what a crowd. Good morning, gentlemen – and ladies, if there are any of you here.

‘Ah – good morning to you, ma’am.

‘Welcome all, to the third day of the International Defence and Security Solutions trade fair here in the beautiful Dock Lands of old London town – and to what I sincerely hope will be an unforgettable presentation on behalf of my company, Mistletopia Systems Inc.

‘Because, gentlemen – and ma’am – I’m here today to talk to you about SLAY.

‘SLAY stands for Strategic Localisation of Armament Yield – a modest name for a technology which will change the face of global, international and domestic conflict forever.

‘The SLAY prototype was developed at an independent R and D site in Northern Europe – now a subsidiary of Mistletopia Systems. At first the technology was directed to civilian ends, but the developers retained proprietary ownership. When we at Mistletopia became aware of its enormous applications in the defence sector, we instigated a takeover – a hostile one, of course.

‘That technology now belongs to us – lock stock and barrel, you might say. But with it we’ve built something a little more effective than a quaint old musket!

‘SLAY is unique. My colleague sitting behind me here will deal with the technical details, but I’ll say this. Strategic Localisation means that SLAY can deliver any payload, any time, with pinpoint accuracy, to any building in the world.

‘I’ll repeat that. Any building – anywhere.

‘Yes sir, ha ha, that does include this one.

‘The system has been extensively tested on residential targets, making it the future solution of choice for dealing with troublesome elements both domestic and abroad. However, it can also be adapted to gain access to any structure not hermetically sealed.

‘Ventilation ducts, sewerage systems, chimneys – you name it, SLAY can find its way through.

‘Class of payload? Not an issue. Conventional explosives, chemical or biological munitions, tactical nuclear warheads – SLAY can deliver any package with equal ease.

‘And that’s not all. Fuelled by nothing more complex than fructose, fat and carbohydrates, SLAY is the cheapest, lowest-maintenance payload delivery system yet devised. It’s also by far the fastest system currently on the market. “More rapid than eagles”, as one poetic observer described it.

‘With SLAY you can strike at any number of targets simultaneously – that’s right, sir, I did say simultaneously – and at no more than 24 hours’ notice.

‘The advantages of SLAY to the discerning government are obvious. All you need do is make a list – better check it, of course! – and SLAY will do the rest. At midnight, local time, the targets you nominate – plus anyone unwise enough to share a building with them – will receive from you that very special package.

‘Is the head of a rogue state being naughty? Is an ally refusing to play nice? With SLAY, the solution is in your hands.

‘They’ll soon know who’s coming to town. By deploying SLAY, you send a powerful message to those who would oppose you: We know when you’re sleeping. You’d better watch out.

‘And to your allies: Be good, for goodness’ sake.

‘You’ll be wondering about the technical details of the SLAY system – the history of its development, its deployment in the civilian arena, the specifications of SLAY’s eight individual component systems. For that I’ll have to hand over to my colleague. It’s his first time at IDSS and he’s not accustomed to the cut-and-thrust – excuse the expression! – of our industry.

‘He was reluctant to be here today, in fact, before we explained to him the consequences for his workforce if he were to refuse. He’s operating in our world now, though, so please be gentle with him. At least at first!

‘Ma’am, gentlemen – please welcome my good friend Nick Claus...’

©Philip Purser-Hallard 2008
I've topped up the microfiction page as well, despite the fact that I haven't had time to update trapphic for months either. I'll try to be a more conscientious blogger, microblogger and site owner in the New Year.

16 October 2009

Books Update: Detectives, Outlaws, Archaeologists and Druids

Aargh. Blogger just swallowed my entire post, like the gigantic devouring worm at the heart of the world. I'll do my best to retype it while it's relatively fresh in my mind.

So. You were probably expecting me to say this, but I haven't had a great deal of opportunity to read or write of late. In the ten weeks since B. and I successfully procreated, I've managed a handful of books and a bare few thousand words in those respective areas.

I'm generally less impressed than I expected to be by the first three books of Ian "definitely not Robert" Rankin's Rebus series[1]. The first of them, Knots and Crosses (which I happened to start in the hospital delivery suite) is probably the most interesting, but then it's a vaguely psychological novel whose protagonist is a policeman, rather than anything resembling a crime novel in the genre sense. Certainly its plot twists aren't the least expected I've seen: [SPOILERS] We learn early on that Rebus has a) an unidentified enemy who mysteriously seems to know him, b) repressed memories from a traumatic period in his past, and c) a brother who's a professional hypnotist. Goodness, I wonder how those elements might end up fitting together?

On its own terms, Knots and Crosses is a reasonably good story about the repression of guilt and the chaotic eruption of the same. As the first in a bestselling series of detective novels, it's distinctly peculiar. It doesn't give the impression that Rankin intended to write one sequel, let alone sixteen.

Hide and Seek covers similar ground: it's slightly more polished, but as a crime novel it noodles about aimlessly, conveying little sense that Rankin is interested in crime and police work rather than his psychologically aberrant characters.

Tooth and Nail is interesting primarily for its Scottish perspective on London -- and it takes an unholy delight in smashing the place up during the climax -- but the story depends on two huge cheats[2]. Rebus is losing his original personality at an alarming rate, while developing a habit of solving crimes by having the solution wander randomly into his lap. Inspector Morse he's not.

Now I have Strip Jack[3] sitting not six feet away, waiting for me to open it, and I'm not entirely sure I won't to return it to the library unread. Especially since I found a copy of Tales of the Dying Earth in a secondhand bookshop the other day, and that looks a lot more enticing right now.

I'm sure I read Roger Lancelyn Green's The Adventures of Robin Hood when I was a kid, but I remembered very few of the specifics apart from that deathbed bury-me-where-the-arrow-falls-twang-argh scene. It's fun, and does a good job of summarising what we know of the Robin Hood legend from the various literary sources. I found it very readable, but it's over five decades old, and I'm not sure how accessible it would be for a modern child. Hopefully the progeny will be able to enjoy it at some point, though. I'm also meaning to get around to rereading Geoffrey "not Henry Treece" Trease's unashamedly Marxist interpretation of the legend, Bows Against the Barons. Which should be fun.

I've mentioned Simon Guerrier's weighty reference book Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story here before. Now that I've read it, I can reveal that it's interesting in parts, but way too long. I did enjoy the history of Bernice during the Virgin era -- although to be honest I'd have been more interested in a history of those books which didn't focus quite so centrally on the one character, marvellous though she is. However, when Simon moves on to the Big Finish books and especially the plays, -- this being the area with which he's been personally involved and where he presumably has better access to the material -- the book becomes painfully bloated, padding out the interesting material with anecdotes about actors hanging around recording studios eating lunch. Much as I love Benny in all her guises, I'd have preferred a substantially shorter and more focussed work, which didn't appear quite so skewed towards her current publisher.

(I agonised about whether it was fair to Simon to write all this on my blog. Then I remembered the box-quote on p194[4], and realised that it would be terribly ironic if I didn't.)

And speaking of detectives, fantasy, British folklore and characters personally known to Mycroft Holmes... Druid's Blood by Esther M. Friesner is possibly the weirdest reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos I've yet encountered, being set (supposedly -- see below) in an alternative history where British druidic magic has kept the island safe from invasion since Julius Caesar's time. It came recommended by Paul Magrs -- and I can see why he likes it, its joyous eclecticism being very reminiscent of his own more playful novels. Unfortunately I'm not convinced it's all that good -- it's certainly not up to the standard of Paul's own Brenda and Effie sequence.

The story's founded in a solid (if rather formulaic) fantasy plot, and it takes an interesting view of Holmes, Watson and the relationship between them. There's also a lot more shagging than one usually finds in Victorian pastiche, and it even makes a rather tentative attempt to tie Holmes the folk-hero in with the far more ancient tradition of the dying and resurrected god.

However, the book has a number of issues which I found very difficult to clamber over.
1. The worldbuilding. Personally, I like alternative histories which think through the logic of events in their reimagined timeline. This isn't one of those. We get some sense of what's been happening in Britain over the past eighteen or so centuries, but there's no attempt to explain how ancient British monarchs such as Bran the Blessed and Arthur have been succeeded by such later specimens as Richard III, Henry VII, Elizabeth I, Charles II, George IV and ultimately Victoria. Given that this world's Britons have remained ethnically distinct from the Welsh and Scots Picts, let alone the French, Germans and Dutch, for the royal bloodline to have thrown up these same individuals beggars belief.

2. The worldbuilding. Nor is there the slightest consistency to it. Consider: Oscar Wilde is real in this world, as are George and Ada Byron, all of whom are much as history remembers them (apart from another set of inconsistencies, which I'll come to shortly). Arthur Conan Doyle is real, but his name's Arthur Elric Boyle. H.G. Wells is real, and has a time machine. Jack the Ripper is real, but turns out to be the goddess Kali (who at least has the merit of being a previously unidentified suspect). John H. Watson is real, but his background's entirely different from Doyle's fictional character, and his surname's Weston. Bram Stoker's Renfield is real and runs an upmarket restaurant (which is quite a funny in-joke until Friesner starts labouring it). Sherlock Holmes is called Brihtric Donne, and is -- strictly speaking -- fictional, being an imposter who's taken his identity from Weston's (not Boyle's) stories in the Strand.

So -- is Friesner presenting a world where what we know as fiction is reality, as in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Or one where fictional characters coexist with their creators, like Kim Newman's Anno Dracula? Or one where writers' own fantastical experiences infuse their fiction, like -- say -- most of the portrayals of authors in Doctor Who? Or a history that's meant to be vaguely plausible, including a mechanism whereby the fictional Holmes can appear? She doesn't seem to have a clue.

3. The worldbuilding. And she doesn't even know what period of history she's trying to cover! While we're clearly in a pastiche nineteenth century (never identified as such because Britain is, of course, pagan rather than christian[5]), the characters in Druid's Blood include Lords Wellington (1769-1852), Byron (1788-1824) and Kitchener (1850-1915), and the authors Dickens (1812-1870), Wilde (1854-1900) and Wells (1866-1948). You don't have to be a literary historian to work out what's wrong with this picture. Surely if something as contingent as the royal line of succession has stayed constant, most people would need to have the same dates of birth and death in Donne's world?

Admittedly the fantasy elements on display include magical longevity (the long-retired Charles II is also a character, for instance), as well as resurrection and time travel... but the few clear historical markers we're given (Victoria is a genuinely young woman, Dickens is working on, ahem, The Mystery of Edwin Druid, the Ripper is stalking the East End[6]) are equally contradictory.

Despite appearances, fantasy simply isn't a genre where anything goes. Any fantasy world needs its own rigorous rules -- rather more so, in fact, than fiction that's in closer contact with recognisable reality. It's setting those rules where the creativity of fantasy lies. Friesner just can't make up her mind what her rules are, and worse, she doesn't seem to feel it's particularly important. Consequently, the reader is left struggling to understand how this world works, and not altogether sure that he or she cares. Why should we, when the author can create new elements by fiat any time she wants to?

4. Cultural cringe. Although she's clearly read widely -- The Mabinogion, Caesar's Gallic Wars and possibly even The Golden Bough as well as the Holmes canon -- Friesner remains one of those charming anglophile Americans who doesn't know British culture nearly as well as she thinks she does, and isn't afraid to demonstrate it. Aside from getting a vague sense that Cornwall was located somewhere in Wales, itself possibly an island off the Devon coast, and that Stonehenge stands a short distance outside London, I kept wincing at her Vandykean attempts at local dialect and some startling uses of vocabulary.

Some examples, off the top of my head and without referring to the book: "tweeny" is used as a formal job title, "bobs" is used as the plural of "bob" (as in shilling), an aristocrat who shows no particular signs of being also a judge is addressed as "m'lud", and -- most wrongly of all -- "public school education" is used as if it refers to an education which members of the public might get at school. To be sure, this is a different world -- but the intent is clearly that it's the same as the real Victorian England except in certain identified respects. In that context, these errors are just embarrassing.

6. An earworm. Finally -- and, one might suggest, least importantly -- I had the New Vaudeville Band song "I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet" running through my head all the while I was reading it. Which was annoying.
Druid's Blood is interesting, and quite a lot of fun at times -- Friesner seems in general to write comedic fantasy, and although I wouldn't describe Druid's Blood that way, the fact does make rather more sense of its peculiarities.

I'd recommend it as a curiosity, though, rather than as a fantasy novel, an alternative history novel or a piece of the Holmes apocrypha.

[1] Usually referred to as the "Inspector Rebus" series, but in Knots and Crosses he's only a sergeant.
[2] SPOILERS: The serial killer turns out to be a walk-on character whom we met briefly in one scene... and due to some vague guff about schizophrenia isn't even the same gender as the viewpoint character in the murder scenes.
[3] He abandons the themed titles after the first three novels, which is a shame.
[4] "I have a somewhat robust attitude to criticising others' writing" -- Philip Purser-Hallard.
[5] In fact there's no mention whatsoever of christianity, even in discussion of the outside world's history. One might construct a chain of events whereby the repulsion of Claudius's invasion attempt eventually meant that, say, Constantine never adopted christianity as the imperial religion, but there's not a hint of such a thing here.
[6] These would be roughly the 1840s, the late 1860s, and 1888.

24 September 2009

Intelligence Update

I'm predictably late in blogging the fact, but I feel we -- where "we" means cinema audiences -- have been almost unprecedentedly privileged this summer in having the opportunity to see two new pieces of intelligent, well-made SF drama.

I'm talking, of course, of Moon and District 9: set respectively in a cramped mining station on a relatively near-future Moon, and in a boderline-alternative history where South Africa became home to a population of extraterrestrial refugees in the late 1980s. Neither creates an original SF premise -- indeed, both are rather derivative, in ways I'll explore shortly -- but they do what the best of SF cinema does, using familiar tropes as springboards for clever, thought-provoking human stories with real intellectual significance.

Of the two, I prefer Moon, although I wouldn't argue with those who point out that District 9's the more important film. Moon is unexpectedly written and directed by Duncan Jones -- a man who evidently now rejects the only other fact I and the rest of the world knew about him, that his father had given him the name Zowie Bowie[1] -- and stars Sam Rockwell, who I only remember as Zaphod in the regrettable film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I went in without notably high expectations, and emerged raving. Moon is low-key, non-blockbustery SF drama reminiscent of the best examples of the genre before Star Wars ruined it for adults: Dark Star, for instance, Silent Running, or even the monolithic 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It also reminded me of Solaris, which is odd as I've somehow managed never to see either film version, or indeed read the novel.) Well-imagined, claustrophobic sets complement a small cast; although there's plentiful well-written dialogue, the central revelations are conveyed through almost-silent visual sequences. Although the special effects are excellent (and must have been very demanding to achieve), the script is such that most of the time I didn't even notice they were there.

Moon is definitely a film whose plot you want to avoid having spoiled, so I'm putting the rest of my comments in white (highlight the text to read it). Rockwell's role, whereby he needed to portray the clone protagonist and his clone antagonist / ally as essentially the same person after different life-experiences, must have been a daunting one, and he pulls it off brilliantly well. The other iterations of the character, in their brief appearances, are also distinguished in subtle shades. Purely from this point of view (and leaving aside the effects work which must have been involved in creating, for instance, the scene where Sam plays table-tennis against himself), the film's a tour de force.

It's also, of course, a clever meditation on the nature of human identity and where it resides -- while the Sam clones are unquestionably entitled to the same rights as the original Sam, and their callous exploitation at the hands of Lunar Industries is an atrocity, it's also clear that each of them is his own person, sharing a base personality and many memories but with a unique identity.

The one element of the film which doesn't quite fit the rest is the one which reminded me of Solaris: the soon-to-be-dying Sam's visions of the original Sam's daughter, appearing as the teenager she now is, despite being as far as he knows a toddler. This adds an odd, but appealing, edge of mysticism to an otherwise hard-edged piece of humanist storytelling.

Oh, and I loved the way Kevin Spacey's A.I. character subverted expectations by turning out noble in the end.
I'm desperately hoping someone's going to get me the DVD for Christmas.

District 9 is a very different animal. You couldn't accuse it of being low-key, although the early exploration, through documentary and found footage, of its only slightly alternative world gives a pleasingly bleak and deceptively low-budget feel. The aliens are a generic underclass (the middle-class human characters being a significant though unremarked mixture of white and black), and our view of the slum from which they variously beg for drugs, thieve from humans, set fire to stuff and scrabble for a living on rubbish heaps, would dehumanise them quite effectively without the deliberately alienating insectoid design.

I'll spoiler-protect this one, too, although I think it needs it less -- if only because it's obvious from about 20 minutes in (if not before) that there's only one direction in which the story can go.

I was disappointed when this storytelling device was abandoned -- from the early scenes I'd been anticipating something more in the style of Cloverfield (except better, obviously -- perhaps I mean more like The Office, only with aliens). In fact the film falls broadly into three chapters, only the first of which uses the faux-documentary effect. The second is rather tedious gross-out body-horror (a genre I have little time for, to be honest, so I probably wasn't its best audience), and the third a less-dumb-than-usual action-movie climax.

I've had an interesting discussion with Not Invented Here about how these disparate styles are unified by the protagonist's journey. In the opening scenes Wikus van der Merwe is a corporate lackey, his worldview as objectifying as that of the documentary cameras. As a likeable and rather wet hero who acts as a willing instrument of fascism because it's his job and he doesn't want to fuck it up, he's one of the most effectively shocking portrayals of evil I've seen in film. Later, he descends into poverty as one of the underclass and becomes radicalised by the experience -- and as N.I.H. points out, the appropriation of these other SF subgenres, body-horror and schwarzeneggerish action, mirror that in metaphor rather nicely.

However, I felt that these three elements were insufficiently well married together, and in particular that they resulted in distressingly incoherent worldbuilding. The objectified, frankly disgusting aliens of the first third are humanised for us, not through subtle revelations, but through subtitling their dialogue to make it clear that their thought-processes are exactly like ours, and by giving one of them a cute big-eyed spielbergsque lobster-child. It's a copout, and compromises the integrity of the first part. Some of the differences can be rationalised by the fact that Wikus's alien friend and his son are clearly of the officer caste in the aliens' hive-system, but even so it's very tricky to reconcile the grim, shit-smeared arrival of the aliens in the opening montage (in which Close Encounters of the Third Kind is cleverly evoked in order to be scoffed at) with the disneyesque departure of their representatives at the end.

Nor does the central mcguffin have any logic behind it -- no matter how biological the enineering of the aliens' technology may allegedly be (and it all looks mechanical or electronic to me), it makes no sense that exposure to their fuel would mutate a human into one of them. As a method of alienating the protagonist, it's rather less sensible than the plan of the Nigerian gangster characters to take on the aliens' characteristics by eating their body-parts.

These elements felt as if they needed more thought -- which, in what was overall such a thoughtful film, seemed to me a bit of a letdown.
Unlike Moon, which felt damn near perfect, I didn't feel it hung together completely as a narrative.

When District 9's most obviously about apartheid, and more generally about the casual subjugation of individuals whom society views as less than human, it's quite devastating. As Not Invented Here's also said, the significance of such a film coming out of South Africa itself (albeit with international money) can't be underestimated. It's just a shame that the film as a whole doesn't, or so I felt, follow through on that initial promise.

I'll still be getting it on DVD, I suspect.
[1] There's a "Moon Unit" joke in there somewhere, but I don't think I've got the willpower.

03 September 2009

Not So Long Now

This year, for the first time since 2004, I didn't blog the Greenbelt festival (of faith, art, music, activism, food and stuff in general) for Surefish. Those of you who've been paying attention may be able to guess one reason, which is that Surefish haven't actually been paying for new content since a while ago now. The other is, of course, young master R., who rather restricted our attendance this year.

Nonetheless, we did manage to get from Bristol to Cheltenham for day trips on Saturday and Monday. At three weeks old R. remains something of an impediment, of course, and the one alternative worship session we managed to get to consisted largely of a breast-feeding, nappy-changing and baby-quietening marathon.

Still, we managed to attend and pay attention to a number of the events as well as generally appreciating the atmosphere.

This year's festival theme was "Standing in the Long Now", about which I was rather enthusiastic -- the long-term futurological thinking of these people being something I feel the world in general could do with very much more of. Sadly, aside some rather nice theming in the aforementioned worship session (which, of course, we hardly got the chance to see), the only evidence of the festival organisers drawing inspiration from this source was the slogan "Now is all we have" on a T-shirt (see illustration above).

A panel discussion on whether Doctor Who and its ilk should be frightening children (for both moral and aesthetic values of "should") benefitted hugely from the erudition of its panel, who included two Doctor Who authors and a vicar who used to draw Judge Dredd.

Kester Brewin's two talks on, respectively, "A Plea for Christian Piracy" and how physics might inform faith, were highly entertaining idea-play: the former reinterpreting 18th-century freebooters as revolutionary proto-anarchists, and the latter ranging through higher-dimensional spaces as an analogy for divine revelation and the many-world hypothesis as a justification for heaven, hell and immortality.

(Mind you, my question at the latter, about the alternative lives of Jesus and how they might knock the crucifixion from its central place in atonement theology, seemed to throw him rather. I might see if I can talk about something along those lines next year -- fortuitously themed "The Art of Looking Sideways" -- if a) I get time and b) they let me.)

Brewin also pointed out that "atom" and "individual" have the same root meaning, which had somehow never occurred to me before.

Aside from sessions with various friends at the Moroccan Pizza Tent, the Tiny Tea Tent, Nuts Wholefood Cafe and the Jesus' Arms pub tent (the last being a godawful letdown after the past two years, due to a change of franchisee -- we must give the organisers some feedback on that), the only other organised event we attended was a promotional gig by Jasper Fforde. Sadly, Fforde's overly high estimation of his own cleverness comes through in person as strongly as in his books, so we went away from that slightly irritated.

As ever, I appreciated the visual art as much as any of the talks, and was particularly impressed by these photos. I'd have liked to have seen more of these paintings as well, but unfortunately there was a guided tour in the way when we managed to make it there. Those we saw were great, though. We also managed to pick up a limited edition print of a rather incomprehensible artwork by Billy Childish.

Our partial attendance meant that we missed, among others, Robert Beckford, Michael Ward, Pete Rollins, Alister McGrath, Iain Sinclair and Gene Robinson, as well as any of the christian-muslim dialogue events (which the organisers depressingly felt the need to justify to their christian attendees in the programme). Any or all of these might also have been splendid, but circumstances weren't really on our side.

We had a fantastic time anyway, brief though it was, and look forward to managing longer next year.

28 August 2009

Embroiderer of the Daleks

My God. Over the past few weeks we've had (by which I really mean that baby R. has had) some wonderfully thoughtful presents -- including clothes, toys, books, DVDs and various containment mechanisms -- from a vast array of people we know, love and / or are related to, most of whom we've completely failed to thank so far. (If that's you, then sorry -- things have been a little bit hectic.)

Lovely thought they are, though, none of the others have been quite as wonderful as this handmade baby quilt: I knew the friend in question had taken up quilting, but I hadn't realised the results looked this impressive. I hardly dare imagine the amount of work she's put into it.R. seems to appreciate it, anyway.(I know, I know -- this isn't supposed to be a baby blog. To be honest I've not had terribly much time for books, TV or, well, a life over the past few weeks. They say it'll settle down soon -- hopefully by 2027 or thereabouts, I'm told.)

21 August 2009

Index and Contents

Things about fatherhood which are easier than I expected: Changing nappies[1]. Barely disgusting at all after the first half-dozen or so, and for reasons I won't trouble you with it gets less unpleasant still after the child's first week or so of digestion.

Things about fatherhood which are harder than I expected: The sleep deprivation. God, it's difficult. Still, if you haven't heard that before, you obviously haven't been hanging around enough new parents.

In other news... After a fortnight off, and four hours of sleep last night, I've managed to get back into writing in a small way today, so I'm no longer feeling as if that part of my life has been severed from me forever. Which is nice. It's just 500 words, but it's a start.

Another reason why I'm feeling like a writer again as well as a father is this substantial coffee-table book by my ex-editor Simon Guerrier, in which I'm one of many authors interviewed.

It's a history of the fiction featuring Bernice Summerfield -- a series character for whom you may recall I've written on four separate occasions, most recently in The Vampire Curse. Simon has assembled quotes from a truly huge number of authors who've contributed to Bernice's life story under three different publishers[2], and my name crops up -- according to the index, at least -- on 16 of the book's 310 pages. (Oh, hang on, there's the index page itself. 17 of 318, then.)

A lot of this material echoes stuff you can read on the Extras pages on my website, but you do get the (very out of date) inside scoop on why a couple of people apparently considered it mildly controversial for Big Finish to be commissioning me in the first place. Nine-and-a-half short stories and two novellas for them further on, this seems a touch academic... but if you're interested it's neatly summarised in a box-quote on p194. Enjoy.

[1] Diapers, if you will. And if you will, please be my guest.
[2] Yes, three -- Virgin, Big Finish and Marvel UK. (And in fact the Mad Norwegian press reprint of Dead Romance is mentioned briefly on p88, but of course Bernice isn't actually in that one.)

15 August 2009

Stray Thoughts Scraped from the Brain of a Recent Father

I'm writing this at 1:30 in the morning, with my son strapped to my chest. He's breathing gently, and occasionally stirring slightly. I keep worrying that he's too hot, or too cold. He's five days, three hours and twenty minutes old.

I won't be identifying him by name here -- privacy is rare enough on the internet, and I'm not going to blow it for him by naming him on a public forum before he's old enough to consent to it. As far as this blog's concerned, he's R.

* * *

Being present at a birth is one of the most draining, traumatic, shocking and paradigm-shattering experiences imaginable. I honestly think, until I actually saw R. emerge from his mother, I'd never believed that this was genuinely how it happened. I remember very clearly thinking, "My God, it's actually true!". Lord knows what I'd been expecting to see -- some kind of stork, perhaps.

* * *

My respect for people who voluntarily go through this experience on a daily professional basis has rocketed through the ceiling. Forget soldiers and firefighters, midwives may very well be the closest thing we have to superheroes.

* * *

I want to write a story now about anti-gestationists who believe babies come into being at the moment of birth and reject all this so-called scientific propaganda about foetal development.

* * *

To a regular SF viewer, a newborn baby looks like a none-too-convincing special effect. It's greyish-purple, it moves strangely, it's connected to a human being via a disturbingly organic-looking conduit, and looks unlike anything you've ever seen before. I remember finding the birth sequence in Children of Men oddly unrealistic, and feeling that it let down the rest of the film. I've a suspicion it matched what I saw on Sunday evening, pretty much frame by frame.

* * *

Incredible though midwives are, maternity wards are horrible places, full of hormonal panic and routinely violated privacy. B. and R. were kept in until Wednesday to be given antibiotics for a potential (and, as it turned out, mythical) infection. I was leaving them at 9pm, spending hours sorting stuff out at home and snatching a few hours' sleep before returning, if I managed it, for 9am. B. was having things far worse. The night they came home was an enormous relief.

* * *

Newborn babies are tiny vortices of need. Insofar as they have a personality at all, it relates to how their very basic needs -- for food, for sleep, for cleanliness, for warmth, for comfort -- stack up against one another. R. is particularly fond of comfort. I'm currently giving thanks daily for the invention of baby slings. (Not that our were bought -- they're six-metre by half-metre rectangles of stretchy fabric tied in a pattern designed by a genius.) It's thanks to them that I still have hands to call my own.

* * *

Yesterday was my and B.'s tenth wedding anniversary. To my utter astonishment, we actually managed to drive to a (not terribly good) restaurant, swallow a (not terribly good) meal and make it back home without R. regaining consciousness. He was blissed out on breast milk, and sleeping like... well, a baby I suppose.

* * *

I realise, of course, that this must be terribly dull for you, dear reader, unless you a) care about the individuals concerned, or b) fall into that demographic bracket which hasn't yet been through all itself this but has an active interest in doing so one day.

I'm not intending to turn this into a baby blog, as that would be a massive gear-shift and I doubt I'd be very good at it. (The blogging, that is, although now you mention it I'm far from confident of being any good at fatherhood either.) It does seem likely that there won't be much space for other things in my mind for a while yet, though. When there is, I'll do my best to mention them.

26 July 2009

Bullet Time

I'm told it's very dull to start so many of my posts here with an apology for not having updated for ages. So, if you've been checking here daily in the hope of new thoughts and insights from the mind of PPH, then, erm... ha ha, you're obviously some kind of loser. (Is this right?)

Since 12 June I've accomplished the following:
  • Finally finished the absurd book project which I've been obscurely alluding to here for well over a year now. (Well, sent it off to the publishers, at any rate. There's a whole editing process to go through later.)
  • Had a very nice meal out here, and another one here.
  • Attended a seemingly endless sequence of, er, four National Childbirth Trust ante-natal classes, teaching me to usher B. through the whole birth-giving process and which way up to hold the baby afterwards. I never thought I'd find talk of breasts in a room full of attractive women quite so dull.
  • Gone to a rather madder session on yoga and shiatsu massage in a childbirth context, where there was much talk of cervices opening like beautiful flowers.
  • Undergone an intensive driving course, costing over £500 and consisting of three hour lessons nearly every day for a week and a half.
  • Hilariously failed my driving test.
  • Mostly enjoyed, but been ultimately disappointed by, Torchwood: Children of Earth. Which is nonetheless a nigh-unthinkable improvement on all earlier Torchwood.
  • Uploaded lots more microfictional goodness to my webpage.
  • Successfully rationalised our VHS, audio cassette and, most mastodontically, book collections to make space for various baby-related items of furniture and other possessions.
  • Made a surprisingly large number of trips into the loft in pursuance of the above.
  • Successfully completed various tasks at work which, even assuming you were interested in any of the above, you're not remotely interested in.
This afternoon I need to move some more furniture around, before possibly getting out to the pub for a spot of lunch. Preparing for a baby turns out to be harder work than anyone could possibly have predicted.

Still, he's due in a week and a bit, after which I'm sure everything will calm right down again.

12 June 2009

E Omnibus Plurum

My revived work of approximately halfway-deranged fan-scholarship is taking up most of my time at present. (Most of the time, at least, when I'm not being a civil servant, learning to drive or changing my entire inventory of possessions in preparation for the increasingly imminent arrival of the fruit of my loins.)

However, I did want to record the fact that I've had time actually to read Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus, and to offer a few thoughts on it.

As usual with books I've contributed to, this can't be in any sense considered a review. But I hadn't read any of the other stories before reading the book, so -- aside from knowing several of the authors, and that I share with them a project to demolish and rebuild various important works of fiction using the deconstructive tools of a talking panda and a mad old woman in a double-decker bus and a floppy hat -- I came to them relatively fresh.

In many ways, the first two stories are my favourites, showing as they do the range of genres and tones an anthology like this can cover: Steve Lyons's hilarious "A Gamble with Wildthyme" takes literally the idea of (of all things) dogs playing poker and frames it within a science-fiction setting, unearthing some brilliant jokes including a quite magnificent punchline. My fellow vampirologist Mags L Halliday's "Sovereign", by contrast, is a contemplative, elegiac piece set in a women's commune in a wintry 1960s Cornwall, which foregrounds Iris's romantic side to lovely effect. Between them they set things up wonderfully for the rest of the volume.

I'm not going to go through the stories one by one, mind you, so these are the highlights. The volume's editors each turn in a fab story (snuggled up cosily on either side of my less than timely Battlestar Galactica parody "Battleship Anathema"). Stuart Douglas's "Future Legend" is a funny but rather sad story of vicious sentient cats making the best of things at the end of time, while Paul Magrs's blisteringly funny take on Torchwood, "The Dreadful Flap", throws Iris in with Dracula, Noel Coward and a lost robot from Paul's last Doctor Who novel in a chaotic, sarcastic, carnivalesque medley. In Darlington.

My other favourite in the collection (which isn't to say that the others suck, by any means) was Cody Schell's "Iris Wildthyme y Señor Cientocinco contra Los Monstruos del Fiesta", a splendidly demented story where Iris joins forces with a Mexican luchador, the periodically-tabular Señor 105. Cody's story is his much-deserved first publication: it's cheerful, very silly yet oddly disturbing nonetheless.

At least two of the other stories are thoroughly great as well. If I've sold the book to you (and yes, obviously that is what I'm trying to do, rather than dispassionately appraising the volume), then you can buy it here.

Two further pieces of Iris news, and then I promise I'll shut up. Firstly, our first review's appeared online, and it's pleasingly appreciative. [Edit 15-6-9: Oh look, here's another one.] Secondly, Obverse Books have announced that a second anthology, The Panda Book of Horror, will be out later in the year.

03 June 2009


It's been quite a while since I did any photography, and my old camera seems to have died in the meantime. But I was quite pleased with these, taken wandering around a startlingly small area of central Bristol on Monday while thinking about borders, boundaries, thresholds and spaces between:

Waterfront 1-6-9 009
Waterfront 1-6-9 011
Waterfront 1-6-9 013
Waterfront 1-6-9 014
Waterfront 1-6-9 016
Waterfront 1-6-9 019
More here.

I am Jack's Irritating Adolescent Self-Absorption

Up until last Sunday, I'd somehow managed to spend every second of the ten years since its original release not watching Fight Club.

This was, as it turns out, the right decision.

After all the praise I'd heard, I couldn't believe what a pile of faux-radical, pseudo-intellectual drivel it was. To be sure it's well made and well acted and the like -- and I did enjoy the animated Ikea catalogue sequence -- but almost everything about the story itself rubbed me up the wrong way.

[SPOILERS follow, just in case someone's reading who's somehow also managed to preserve their Fight Club virginity yet also cares.]

The intellectual elitism of enlightened Tyler Durden saving the humble working man from his ignorant drudgery was so extreme as to border on the gnostic, while the film's message remained astonishingly dumb. As for the meretriciousness of multi-billionaire Brad Pitt informing us in a film funded by Rupert Murdoch's multinational Fox corporation that -- astonishingly -- people are not defined by their material possessions, while the media control what we see and hear... well, I think you can guess my likely reaction. (Plus did you know soap was made from, like, fat? Eww, gross, dude!)

I also object profoundly to the idea that men have been emasculated by society and can only reclaim their manhood by beating the hell out of one another and blowing stuff up. (Although I admit to having rather less of a problem with the shagging Helena Bonham-Carter part.)

It's true that Tyler Durden is, explicitly, barking mad, so it's possible that the film didn't intend to endorse this worldview of his. (Strictly of his alter ego's, as Tyler himself spends the film, in his intellectually shackled middle-class way, wriggling against it.) It wasn't sufficiently clear about what it did endorse, though, for me to have any confidence that this wasn't what it was doing. Certainly casting the charismatic Pitt in the Keyser Söze / Malcolm Crowe role didn't give me any confidence that his apparent position as a Nietzschean ubermensch was being especially problematised.

Factor in the cheap plays on the audience's disgust (the filthy house, the human-fat soap) and the asinine twist (which is about as difficult to see coming as Godzilla in East Anglia), and you have a film which rises above the handicap of its very decent acting and production values to stand proudly as appalling rubbish.

I'm sorry, I just hated it. It's put me right off the idea of ever reading any Chuck Palahniuk.

29 May 2009

1. Rant, 2. Rave.

1. AMERICAN FANTASY AUTHORS AND SCRIPTWRITERS! A "lady" is a female member of the nobility. "Ladyship" is the quality possessed by such a person. A male minion addressing a female member of the nobility will either call her "my lady" (because she is) or "your ladyship" (out of respect for the quality). A minion who speaks of "my ladyship", in any context, is referring erroneously to a non-existent quality of ladyship which he believes himself to possess, and makes the person who wrote his dialogue look like an utter cretin. It's a solecism on a level with referring to your head of state as "Mr Barack President". Stop it now.

2. Private Eye really should publish their regular "From the Message Boards" spoof on their website, to give it a proper online context. It's brilliantly cumulative -- when you first read it it's only mildly amusing, but its gets funnier and funnier as you learn the "regulars"' posting styles and realise who you know from the web whom they precisely resemble. I'm particularly fond of clueless Hayley_321 ("insted of electian may-be let people jus choos the ppl they want in wesmister?"), and serial sloganeer Sword_of_Truth ("Time to end the disastrous democratic experiment").

26 May 2009

Internet Users "Capable of Pettiness, Idiocy," Study Claims

T'sk. I don't post anything substantial for ages, and then I pop up to denounce the organisers of an online forum. I can feel the process of accelerating détournement as I morph into an internet caricature of myself.

The executive summary is that, as of today, I'm quitting the primary web forum for Doctor Who fans, imaginatively known as The Doctor Who Forum. It's a wrench, to be honest, as I've been a member since the olden days when it was known as Outpost Gallifrey, but I can't put up with the endemic immaturity, cronyism and self-regard of the moderators and the forum owner any more.

There's a long, long backstory behind this, which most readers of this blog would find insanely dull. It's your standard tale of Doctor Who canon disputes[1], internet acrimony and personal vendettas, relatively few of them actually involving me. Nobody comes out of it looking terribly good, to be honest, but some have ended up significantly more tarnished-looking than others.

The slightly longer abstract is that of late the Doctor Who Forum's officials have:
  • Persistently demonstrated arbitrary, petty and partial judgement in moderating posts, to the extent of suspending one user for banter with a friend while allowing another to remain after posting potentially libellous insinuations against the aforementioned poster (now deleted, fortunately, but sufficiently scattershot that at one point I though I might be a target too). [Edit to add: All the links to DWF posts originally included in this post no longer work, so I'm deleting them.]
  • Vindictively banned any mention of the suspended user's small press (to the likely detriment of said small business, as its first book is primarily aimed at Doctor Who fans), after he made representations to them about these potentially libellous post.
  • Edited contributors' personal signatures, including mine, without notification or permission, in order to remove any mention of said small press.
Now, I'm partial in this myself (although I don't, of course, aspire to the exalted status of a forum moderator), because the poster in question is Stuart Douglas -- a personal friend and the owner of Obverse Books, the publishers of Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus.

For what it's worth, though, I've seen the correspondence between Stuart and the Forum's owner, Shaun Lyon, which appears to have been the immediate catalyst for the ban. Stuart's representation to Shaun (made after several indirect and independent approaches had been ignored) is polite and adult, expressing a hope that his issues can be dealt with without recourse to legal action. Shaun's is hysterical, childish and obnoxious, and employs the words "fuck" and "twat". I know who I think comes out of the exchange looking better.

I can't be doing with a forum where that kind of thing is considered sane or rational behaviour, and am about to tell them so.

[1] This is particularly stupid, as there's no such thing as canon in Doctor Who. Some people don't like you saying that, for some reason.

17 May 2009

Yeah, well,

right. The unexpected resurgence of a previously moribund writing commission FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE means I probably won't have very much time to blog for the next couple of months. Erm, again.

I know I've been saying that sort of thing rather a lot recently. I wish I were able to keep this blog updated as frequently as I used to a couple of years ago, but what with imminent procreation and a paying job, I hardly ever find myself with the time. (It's not just you either, dear reader -- I've also turned down a couple of offers of paid writing work this year. Hey ho.)

I'm still just about managing to keep up with the microfiction on Twitter, although I think my previous daily posting rate is overly ambitious. If you're not able to follow on Twitter or Facebook, the latest (decent) stuff is available, as usual, here. I quite like this six-word one:
Decimate: one tenth of a friend.
Meanwhile... Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus is due out this very Wednesday, and you can still pre-order copies from Obverse Books. My polymathic fellow author Cody Schell is producing promotional artwork for various stories in the book, and he's already released a poster for my short story, "Battleship Anathema", which you can see on my website. Cody's poster for Paul Magrs's "The Dreadful Flap" is up on the Obverse Books site, and I've also seen the one he's done for his own story, "Iris Wildthyme y Señor Cientocinco contra Los Monstruos del Fiesta", which is equally fab.

So far my story is the only one I've seen, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the others. I'll be banging on about this more once it's released, I shouldn't wonder.

Argh, I have to go right now. I'll try to update again soon.

04 May 2009

Half-Price Trips

If the steepish price has so far put you off buying The History of Christmas and Time Signature, the Short Trips volumes containing my two licensed Doctor Who short stories, you may be interested to know that they and the other 26 volumes in the series are currently half price at the Big Finish website. This means each hardback costs £7.50 -- a moderate price for a paperback these days -- or you can have both for the price of one a couple of days ago. Postage and packing are free within the UK, as well.

This is effectively a closing-down sale for the range, and stocks of some titles are supposedly low, though I have no information as to whether these two are among them.

Still -- if you've ever wanted to see the eighth Doctor celebrating midwinter on a brown dwarf planet, or the first Doctor exploring a world from which time is literally running out, this would be the opportunity. Other titles in the range I'd highly recommend would be Transmissions and 2040.

01 May 2009

Books Update: Mars to Magrs

Lord, I'm being useless at the moment. Keeping the twittering classes entertained with daily microfiction isn't helping me keep up, either with the personal writing projects I'm working on or with this blog. Speaking of which...
Here lies Billy Joel Underton (1984-2011, 1947-1981) with his beloved wife Deborah (1925-2010). This monument erected by his son and father.
This one may be slightly more obscure than I intended (Was Billy Joel named after the popular entertainer or after his "grandfather"? Was there an original Mr Underton whom he replaced?), but I like it anyway.

Still. I've wittered enough recently about the fiction I've written -- it's time to give other people's work a turn. Here's a roundup of what I can remember reading over the past -- blimey, about three months now.

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, I said I'd come back to this one. I've blogged quite a bit about the experience of ploughing through the trilogy over the course of more than half a year, and I haven't really the heart to give the experience the dissection it deserves now. Suffice it to say that this colossal triptych defines and delineates Mars as a human society, with plausible political, social and religious movements -- and original developments in philosophy, morality and even physics -- which initially are merely transplanted to, but later respond to and eventually arise from the planet's stunningly evoked landscape, the whole amounting to a complex, monolithic yet realistically textured history of a kind which SF has rarely, if ever, managed to convey. It's a towering achievement.

And yet... it could have been done, quite honestly, in half the length or less. It's true that the sheer time it takes to read assists in giving a sense of the characters' own epic struggle with history, culminating finally in the long-sought Martian utopia of their dreams. But sheer length isn't the only technique that could have achieved that, and frankly there are others that would have been kinder to the reader. Robinson states upfront that he's put 17 years of research into these books, and he's keen to give us the benefit of his prior thinking in every area from geomorphology, astrophysics, mathematics, etymology, ecology, cerealogy, economics, social history, politics, anthropology, comparative religion, nuclear fusion, psychoanalysis, hydrology, alchemy, soil biology, oceanography, metallurgy, chemistry and botany, to sailing and kite design. It's utterly exhausting.

My other quarrel with the trilogy is that many of the original protagonists survive well into their 230s, simply so that we can have a consistent viewpoint on the progressive development of Martian history. The "longevity treatment" is a separate novum that has nothing directly to do with colonising Mars, it adds a spurious extra malthusian pressure which the future doesn't honestly need, and -- given that some of the political clashes are intergenerational -- it absurdly obliges us to accept characters in their 80s or 100s as bold young rebels. It also limits the organic development of new points of view which would have helped keep the whole thing fresh: as it was, my favourite section of Blue Mars wasn't even set on the planet, being the section where the Martian great-granddaughter of the first astronaut on Mars visits Mercury, Earth and Miranda.

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon: Chabon's a brilliant writer, but I didn't feel his imagination had the room to unfurl itself in these short stories. Though told from various points of view and with some clever variants, these are all essentially portraits of middle-class American marriages in collapse. They're well-written and fun -- except when Chabon strays into the area of US sports, making no concessions to the ignorant reader and becoming completely impenetrable -- but basically inconsequential. The one exception is the final story, "In the Black Mill", an exuberant and loving Lovecraft parody attributed to the nonexistent pulp author August Van Zorn, which nonetheless manages -- if I'm reading it correctly -- to implicate the unthinking antisemitism of Lovecraft and some of his pulp-writing peers in the attitudes which led to the Holocaust.

The Casebook of Carnacki - Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson: I could, if I had the space and time, say almost as much about these nine brief vignettes as about Robinson's Mars books. Stories of an Edwardian ghost-hunter whose scientific approach means he explains away as many supernatural phenomena as he endorses, these always leave you guessing as to exactly where they're going, and are at times genuinely very creepy. There's a weird cinematic feel to them, as if Hodgson was writing with a medium in mind which scarcely existed -- I'd love to see a Carnacki feature film combining elements of, say, "The Haunted Jarvee", "The Horse of the Invisible" and "The Hog". These stories are relatively neglected -- certainly compared with Lovecraft's -- but well worth seeking out.

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct by Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway: Hmm. Alan Moore's original Top Ten series, together with its 1940s prequel The Forty-Niners, are scintillatingly-plotted, clever, entertaining police procedurals set in a city where everybody's a superhero. Having apparently lost interest in the series Moore has farmed it out to others, in this first instance SF writer Di Filippo.

Sadly, despite a few clever jokes, he has none of Moore's deftness of touch, and it's painful to watch his diminution of the characters. The cybernetic-American Joe Pi, who in Moore's comics deliberately talks like a cliched sci-fi robot largely in order to freak people out, now apparently just talks like that; while the religious police characters, whose respective christianity and satanism were formerly just single facets of rounded believable personalities, now rant about "infidels" and "blasphemy" exactly like every other religious character written by a lazy atheist. There's even an utterly gratuitous appearance by Jesus in a Superman costume, which makes no sense on any level except pointing and laughing at what a crap god Jesus is.

These points are especially galling since Di Filippo's idea of continuing Moore's eclectic aesthetic is to steal his villain wholesale from Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel deeply informed by Dick's sincere, if highly eccentric, interest in christianity. (Di Filippo makes no effort to disguise his source here, even referring to his steel-eyed demiurge as "the Hell Ditch Pilgrim".) This follow-up is a disappointment; I'm hoping other writers will do better with the property.

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross: I spoiled myself, I think, by making the inventive Accelerando my introduction to Stross's work. This, an earlier novel, is certainly better than Singularity Sky which it sequels, but still nothing more special than a generic post-cyberpunk space opera. Stross inhabits the safe genre-SF niche like a jigsaw piece, with no apparent wish to stretch his pseudopodia a micrometre beyond its confines. I'm not sure I'll bother with any more Stross, except perhaps Accelerando's sequel Glasshouse.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod: Another police procedural with religious characters, but this time written with a conviction and sympathy that's rare in an author who doesn't share their beliefs. This is a fascinating counterpoint to MacLeod's earlier near-future thriller The Execution Channel, whose tagline read: "The war on terror is over. Terror won." In this second future, terror lost, and the major world powers have enacted strict laws enforcing secularism in public life, defining religion as a private matter which official bodies are forbidden even to recognise. MacLeod doesn't shy away from the repression which was entailed in creating the resultant secular utopia, but as presented it's one I'd cheerfully live in. Of course there are religious individuals who disagree, and it's their attempts to bring others round to their way of thinking that drive the plot.

The Night Sessions is several very clever things, including a philosophical meditation on the relationship between faith and power, and a convincing portrayal of nuts-and-bolts police work in an information-rich post-cyberpunk future. (It also steers refreshingly clear, for MacLeod, of the topic of the inevitability of the revolution of the proletariat.) It doesn't entirely satisfy as a story, something that's true of a number of MacLeod's novels, but it's well worth reading for the world it portrays.

Conjugal Rites by Paul Magrs: The third in Magrs's "Brenda and Effie" sequence, about the Bride of Frankenstein trying to keep her Whitby B&B running smoothly whilst getting embroiled in various multitextual crossover adventures, reads as usual like the bastard love-child of Buffy Summers and Alan Bennett. For important plot reasons this one's told in the third person, and I missed being addressed by Brenda's voice, but it's still an awful lot of fun. This one sees Brenda the Bride, Effie the witch and former girlfriend of the sinister Count Alucard, and ageing child-bride Shiela Manchu meeting up with their various departed loved ones during a day trip to Hell. It's fab.

Since that lot, I've started on The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. It's entertaining enough, but I'm waiting for the bit where it stops being a knowingly postmodern rewrite of Michael Marshall Smith, and starts justifying the critical hype that's splattered all over the cover.

And that's all the literature.

29 April 2009

It's not the holy water, it's the font you put it in

It's been a little while coming, but The Vampire Curse has been reviewed at Sci-Fi Online.

Unlike last year's review of Nobody's Children, Richard McGinlay's opted to give the three novellas separate mini-reviews. He gives poor Kelly Hale (whose novella Possum Kingdom is for my money the best of the three) short shrift, but at least he likes Predating the Predators:
These are well-rounded and compelling protagonists, whose writings we want to read more of. Similarly intriguing is the elderly Bernice, whom we witness through the chroniclers' eyes. Philip Purser-Hallard captures the aged Bernice well, rendering a believably crotchety yet recognisable version of the character we know.
It’s my favourite story in this collection, and not just because of the accuracy of its typesetting.
It's always a morale boost to get good reviews, even when they do display an odd preoccupation with typography.

23 April 2009

Patient Iris

The 21st century isn't getting any less confusing. I'm beginning to lose track of the permutations of feeds between Twitter, Facebook, here and my website. I'm worried I'll start clicking through to check they're all working and get stuck in a never-ending loop. Ah well.

In less baffling news, I'm told that Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus is now at the printers for publication in May, and copies are available to pre-order. Just go to the Obverse Books website and click on the Panda. After all Stuart and Paul's hard work, it's all looking rather marvellous.

140 Characters in Search of an Author

During an idle moment in Tuesday's lunch hour I created a second Twitter account, cleverly named "trapphic ", as a conduit for the 140-character microfictions I've been posting there occasionally. By 2:30 it had been picked up and recommended by Dave Gorman (the famous one, that is), and by the time I left work it had over 100 readers.

(The presence of celebrities in Twitter is strange and confusing, partly because of the possibility of sudden unexpected celebrity endorsements, but also because I haven't a clue who many of them are meant to be. I'm lucky Dave Gorman was someone I'd heard of, really, or I'd have been completely mystified)

The uptake rate has died down a bit since -- it's currently at 122 -- but I'm feeling the pressure to keep them entertained.

Rather than treating the 140-character limit imposed on tweets as a maximum, I've been pretending it's an absolute, and working precisely to that length. The resulting form is an odd one, because it often means exchanging a word or phrase that works perfectly for a slightly less sparkling one which fits the count. (Of course it's possible to fudge this to some extent by fiddling with the punctuation. Names are also useful, because you can always change them if they're a few letters too long or short.) Occasionally, though, the space will unexpectedly open up for an additional adjective (say) which finishes the whole thing off perfectly. It all tends to confirm the Oulipian principle of creative inspiration through willingly accepted constraints.

Being a perfectionist tinkerer, I'm finding the impossibility of going back and editing my tweets frustrating. It's all useful discipline, though.

More generally, it strikes me that the very short story, rather than being the haiku of the prose world, is rather like a cartoon caption without a picture. The trick is to give just enough information that the reader constructs their own mental image, thus completing the story. My favourite of the ones I've posted so far runs:
‘It’s true,’ Alice conceded. ‘I can climb from a room into its mirror image. But however would my ability be useful to this Dr Van Helsing?’
This requires the reader, having recognised this as an Alice in Wonderland / Dracula crossover, to follow through on the logic and complete the story. The actual punchline lies in the answer to Alice's question, some distance beyond the words themselves.

In a rather delayed response to my sudden following, I've updated my website with a shiny new microfiction page, and a fresher, cleaner design for the front page and some of its subsidiaries. (Aside from the rotating quotes at the top, the design isn't substantially changed from the six-year-old version, but the fonts and colours look a bit more modern. Well, I hope.) The whole site still needs a comprehensive overhaul, but I'm unlikely to manage that any time soon.

I wanted to put a feed from trapphic in here as well, but it doesn't seem as if Blogger allows the existence of more than one Twitter feed on a page (or if it does I'm too dense to work out how to juggle the code). Since this is, when all's said and done, a blog, I've kept the feed from the purserhallard account and included a trapphic feed on the microfiction page. I may fiddle with the template on the right there to link to that.

21 April 2009

The Condition of Moo

The twenty-first century to date has been very odd. The day before yesterday I was sitting in a Lebanese restaurant in Soho listening to someone in California playing "Yesterday" on a pretend ocarina. The Californian ocarinist (who was surprisingly competent, given the instrument they were working with) remained serenely unaware of my existence.

The day before I'd seen another iPhone simulation, this time of one of those plastic cylinders you get with a picture of a cow on them, and if you turn them upside down they go "moo". (The phone has a picture of a cow on the screen. When you turn it upside-down, it goes "moo".)

If nothing else, this demonstrates effectively that science fiction's function isn't predictive. As I said to the friend whose phone the second one was, any aspiring Grubgecks who'd tried to put this in an SF story 50 years ago would have been told by their editor to take it out because it was far too silly.

15 April 2009

Lack of Brain Error

I feel completely zonked. Every time I try to do something (update this blog with anything of substance, for example) I end up sitting and staring into space and / or my screen, and vibrating gently from side to side. It's a good thing we're about to go on holiday for four days, really.

Well, it would be if I could summon the energy to pack.

I have now -- finally, eventually and at both length and last -- reached the end of Blue Mars, and thus Kim Stanley Robinson's United Colours of Mars trilogy, which I've been reading on and off for nearly nine months since I starting it at Greenbelt last year.

It's... long. God, it's long. Hopefully I'll have the mental capacity to supplement that with some qualitative discussion sometime soon.

This isn't the sole reason for my mental incapacity, of course -- that seems to be primarily down to tiredness and overwork. Never mind, I'm sure everything will calm down once the baby arrives...

04 April 2009

Undermining Banks

There's a lovely (although perhaps inadvertently) double-edged compliment in the Wikipedia entry on Iain Banks's Raw Spirit:
Banks has said he felt more relaxed when writing this book; critics have said that this comes across on reading it.
I did enjoy Raw Spirit, but it reads more like a bunch of rather rambling letters to one of Banks's friends than something he's actually put effort into writing, let alone been given money for.

03 April 2009


[Three teenage boys are sitting in the shelter on a railway platform, possibly waiting for a train.]

TEEN 1: His dad was President before, yeah? Like twenty years ago or something.
TEEN 2: [Texting assiduously] Yeah?
TEEN 1: You know the first war in Iraq, yeah? That was George Bush's dad. Then he sent his son in to finish it.
TEEN 3: What war?
TEEN 1: There was this other war in Iraq, like twenty years ago. When George Bush's dad was President. You seen that film Three Kings, yeah? Where they steal Saddam Hussein's gold? With Ice Cube and... what's his name?
TEEN 3: George Clooney.
TEEN 1: Yeah, and Mark Wahlberg. Marky Mark.
TEEN 3: Who?
TEEN 1: Mark Wahlberg. He used to be a rapper, yeah? Marky Mark.
TEEN 3: Mark Wahlberg used to be a rapper?
TEEN 1: Yeah. You heard of Marky Mark, yeah? That was Mark Wahlberg.
TEEN 3: Yeah?
TEEN 1: Yeah. He grew up in the 'hood in, like, Boston or somewhere.
TEEN 2: Who did?
TEEN 1: Mark Wahlberg. He used to be that rapper Marky Mark, like twenty years ago.
TEEN 2: Mark Wahlberg?

02 April 2009


I finally succumbed to peer pressure and adopted Twitter a little over a month ago. (And yes, if all my friends jumped off a cliff I'd probably do it too. I'd miss them.)

Since then I seem to have posted there 83 times (84 including one I removed, which ill-advisedly commented on... ah, er, never mind). Assuming the code I cutandpasted has done its job properly, you should be able to view a selection of my recent wisdom imparted through the Twitter medium in the sidebar over to your right. (No, about a screenful from the top. That's right, there.)

[Edit to add: Oh, hang on -- not if you're reading the page for this individual post rather than the Peculiar Times homepage. Which you will be, if you followed my link from Twitter. Try here.]

I'm not going to start tediously repeating what others have said about the differences between Twittering and blogging -- suffice it to say that it is a different, and still reasonably novel, way to organise one's thoughts which is a lot more reactive and context-based. When it's used properly it can also help those stray ideas which wander across one's mind avoid becoming irretrievably lost in the spongy crenellations of undergrowth.

It's also a pretty good way to keep in touch with anyone else who spends most of the day parked in front of a screen, without it interfering too much with one's work. It's also handy for breaking news (although note the inevitable date on that article), and... oh, all sorts of stuff. At its best it's a little like being immersed in a direct-brain-fed gestalt stream-of-consciousness of the kind I imagine our grandchildren participating in almost constantly while they're awake. Provided such a thing supplements individuality (blogging in this restricted instance) rather than completely subsuming it, it has its interest and value.

Admittedly I'm making an effort to follow contentful stuff like daily crossword clues, microfiction and even microbiography rather than all the celebrity cigarette-break guff. (It's true that celebrities can occasionally be spontaneous and interesting -- but their interesting moments tend not to be spontaneous, and the converse applies.) I'm also trying hard not to be tugged into the tweeness of the jargon (whereby "tweeness", for instance, would have to mean the Twitter equivalent of a penis, because it begins with "tw" and rhymes).

...OK, so perhaps I am going to tediously repeat what others have said about the differences between Twittering and blogging. Sorry about that.

Anyway. Some of the stuff you've missed (assuming you're not reading them already on Twitter or Facebook) follows. There's probably a high-tech way to reveal them here, but I'm going to stick with what I know and cutandpaste them instead.

Microfiction (140 characters, to fit the post limit perfectly, seems to be the preferred form):
purserhallard To cheat death, Dr Ebbinghaus slowed time to an asymptotic standstill. Nobody experienced anything ever again, but at least they were alive.
11:29 AM Mar 27th from web

purserhallard Celebrity Exorcism: St Patrick vs Glycon! #sixwordstory
12:42 PM Mar 17th from web

purserhallard Diurnal amnesia is common in incipient lycanthropy. Some women learn of the condition only when an ultrasound scan reveals a litter of cubs.
10:19 AM Mar 17th from web

purserhallard "Eternal life, somatic control – they needed to rebel somehow. Odd though, the young hobbling down the streets, wrinkled and silver-haired."
9:00 AM Mar 16th from web
A handful of random pieces of what one might charitably call microcriticism:
purserhallard Actually: everyone, I love The Wire. Its humanity, empathy and rage at an obscene world make it everything The Sopranos should be and isn't.
6:51 AM Apr 1st from web

purserhallard ponders the eschatology of Desperate Housewives.
10:22 AM Mar 21st from web

purserhallard Modern art, n. Term used by lazy, unoriginal people as a byword for laziness and lack of originality.
9:53 PM Mar 19th from web

purserhallard thinks Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is more like Bagpuss than Scooby Doo. When he goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep too.
10:30 AM Mar 5th from web
purserhallard resists the temptation to add "Abraham van Hesling" and "Buffy Summers" to the list of stakeholders.
11:41 AM Mar 23rd from web

purserhallard Tachycardia, n. Medical term for overexposure to Hallmark products.
9:30 AM Mar 9th from web
And a crossword clue:
purserhallard , in self-directed anger, betrays fellow agent with steel (8).
5:56 PM Mar 31st from web
Most of those are the kind of random rubbish I wouldn't dream of posting here -- which makes Twitter, where the scrutiny's less intense, the ideal repository for them.