25 February 2009

Magnum Omnibus

I've updated my website today with a page about the forthcoming Iris Wildthyme anthology, Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus.

This has meant a certain amount of rearrangement of other material, including a new Iris Wildthyme Short Stories page to go with my Bernice Summerfield and Doctor Who ones. I'm rather pleased with the description of Iris I wrote for it:
What is there left to say about Iris Wildthyme –- transtemporal adventuress (and sometime Time Lady) extraordinaire, metafictional explorer of texts and subtexts, double-decker-dwelling interstellar bag-lady, amnesia-prone political and sexual revolutionary, writer of wrongs, wronger of rights (especially copyrights), all-round champion of freedom, occasional nightclub singer and frequent barroom floozy?

Well, there’s always something.
The site now incorporates a preview of the cover art for The Celestial Omnibus by former B.B.C. costume designer June Hudson, and the new Iris Wildthyme logo by Anthony Dry.

I've also updated the F.A.Q., although it duplicates information available elsewhere on the site and I'm now convinced that nobody except me ever reads it, ever. I'll get round to purging it at some point.

Meanwhile, allow me to recommend the Iris Wildthyme season 2 CD boxed set -- three excellent stories (and one reasonably decent one[1]) featuring Katy Manning as Iris and David Benson as Panda, packaged gorgeously in the artwork of the aforementioned Mr Dry[2].

[1] No, of course I'm not going to say which one.
[2] "Mr Dry lived in Dryland. Everything in Dryland was very, very dry. Dry sand -- dry river beds -- even dry books! One day, Mr Dry bought a novel called Wetlands..." Sorry, I've started free-associating now.

20 February 2009

Obverse Gear

You remember -- well, probably you don't, as I was a bit busy to blog much at the time, and only mentioned it once -- that I spent a substantial chunk of December writing a 5,000-word short story for a new anthology? And that I was going to announce it here when the publishers had made their own announcement?


Obverse Books, a new publishing venture owned by the estimable Stuart Douglas, has just announced the author line-up for its debut anthology Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus, featuring -- naturally -- transtemporal heroine and barroom floozy extraordinaire Ms Iris Wildthyme, created by Paul Magrs. The collection includes my short story "Battleship Anathema", along with stories by Faction Paradox authors Mags L Halliday and Jon Dennis, sundry Doctor Who authors and the category-defying Mr Magrs himself.

Iris's history has been a convoluted one, taking in Paul's Phoenix Court series of magic-realist novels, the original Doctor Who novels and short stories which Paul has written, her own series of CD audio drama adventures[1] -- and one previous short story anthology, Wildthyme on Top, published by Big Finish and including my Shakespeare-rewrites-Iain-M-Banks story "Minions of the Moon", of which I'm still absurdly proud.

I'll be creating a Celestial Omnibus web page on my site shortly. For the moment, though, suffice it to say that my story involves Iris trying to revisit the scene of a series of colourful -- indeed, garish -- space-opera adventures she experienced some thirty years ago, but finding that the people and starships she left behind have become strangely drab and gritty during her absence...

[1] As luck would have it, the postman put my copy of the Iris Wildthyme Series 2 CD box set into my hands an hour or so ago. It's a thing of quite remarkable beauty, the intricately detailed Target novel theming of the covers being offset wonderfully by the shocking pink box and vaguely Buffyesque logo. An awful lot of love and care has gone into designing it, and I'm really looking forward to hearing the stories.

17 February 2009

The Archetype Ark

This morning a Facebook application reminded me: "Valentine's Day is just around the corner! Send a cuddly anima".

Clearly the timekeeping processes at work here could do with some attention, but given the existence of fluffy microbes and plush subatomic particles, the idea of cuddly Jungian archetypes seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable.

They'll probably branch out into Freudian psychic apparatus next. Here, stroke my ego.

11 February 2009

66 out of 149 out of 1000

I missed blogging about it at the time, but a few weeks ago The Guardian, ever hungry to add value to their news coverage, started publishing a series of supplements which between them make up a list of recommendations for 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.

Inevitably the category of this list which most interests me is the rather impressive Science Fiction and Fantasy section. The whole thing's online:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Sidebar: The Best Dystopias
Sidebar: Radical Reading
Sidebar: Imagined Worlds
Sidebar: The Best Gothic Novels
Sidebar: The Best of JG Ballard
Sidebar: Novels that Predicted the Future
The Full List of 1000
As those sidebar headings make clear, the net's cast fairly wide here, which I approve of -- it's far better that the Guardian's readership be educated to see the continuity between Asimov and Heinlein on the one hand and Rushdie and Self on the other, than that they be encouraged to believe in S.F. as a ghetto literature. It's lovely to see the fantastical and science-fictional elements in such non-genre novels as Cloud Atlas, Ada or Ardor and The Handmaid's Tale embraced in the mainstream press rather than explained away.

Admittedly there are one or two occasions when I think they've been too inclusive -- the authors' other work notwithstanding, it's difficult to see The Wasp Factory or Kavalier and Clay, for example, as fantasy or S.F. -- but I'd far rather that than the alternative. Similarly, I don't agree with all the choices -- in Banks's case again, Consider Phlebas is probably his least good S.F. I'd have preferred a Philip K. Dick Top 3 to a Ballard one and in particular I don't think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Dick's best, rather than his best-known, work. (The Man in the High Castle's an excellent choice, mind you.)

Nevertheless, many of the right books and nearly all the right authors are listed, and the selection as a whole gives an excellent overview of the history of the novel in these genres -- in English, at least -- from their origins to the present day. The people who put the list together are literate, knowledgeable, intensely well-read and deeply respectful towards the genres they're writing on. Which of course is entirely as it should be, but still, it isn't altogether the sort of thing we S.F. readers have come to expect.

However, this is the internet, so let's skip over the detailed analytical discussion and dive straight for the tickable booklist. (I presume there are people on the web memeing up the entire list of 1000, but frankly I have too much lust for life.)

I've separated out the sidebar entries and stuck them on at the end (except for the "Novels that Predicted the Future" list, which doesn't seem to count). Books I've read are in bold, books I own are underlined, books I want to get around to reading are italicised and books I have no interest in whatsoever are struckthrough. Is that reductionist enough?
1. Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
2. Brian W. Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
3. Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
4. Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
5. Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
6. Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
7. Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
8. Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
9. Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
10. Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
11. Greg Bear: Darwin's Radio (1999)
12. Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
13. Poppy Z. Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
14. Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
15. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
16. Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
17. Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
18. Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
19. Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
20. William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
21. Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
22. Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
23. Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
24. Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
25. Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
26. Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
27. Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
28. Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
29. G.K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
30. Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood's End (1953)
31. Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
32. Michael G. Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
33. Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
34. Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
35. Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
36. Samuel R. Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
37. Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
38. Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
39. Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
40. Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
41. John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
42. Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
43. Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
44. William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
45. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
46. William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
47. Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
48. M. John Harrison: Light (2002)
49. Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
50. Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
51. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
52. Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
53. James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
54. Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
55. Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
56. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
57. Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
58. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
59. P.D. James: The Children of Men (1992)
60. Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
61. Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
62. Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
63. Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966) [I own and have read the short story, but this is a list of novels.]
64. Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
65. Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953)
66. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
67. Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
68. Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
69. David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
70. Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
71. Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
72. Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
73. Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
74. Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
75. Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
76. Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
77. Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
78. China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
79. Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
80. Walter M. Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
81. David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
82. Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
83. William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
84. Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
85. Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
86. Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
87. Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler's Wife (2003)
88. Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970) [Not entirely sure I own this one -- if I do, it's in the loft.]
89. Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
90. Flann O'Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
91. Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
92. Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
93. Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
94. Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
95. John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932) [I sincerely tried -- it's just so huge...]
96. Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
97. François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
98. Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
99. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
100. Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
101. JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) [My wife owns this one, but I disown it.]
102. Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
103. Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
104. José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
105. Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
106. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
107. Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
108. Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
109. Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
110. Robert Louis Stevenson: Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
111. Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
112. Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
113. Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889)
114. Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
115. Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
116. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
117. Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
118. H.G. Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
119. H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
120. T.H. White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
121. Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
122. John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
123. John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
124. Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

125. George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) [Yes, they did get the title right.]
126. Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
127. Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
128. Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
129. Thomas M. Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
130. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
131. Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)

132. Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
133. Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
134. Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
135. Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)

136. C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
137. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
138. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
139. Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
140. Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- ) [Well, nearly all of them.]
141. Ursula K. Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990) [Edit to add: I've just realised that I've only read the first trilogy, not the more recent supplemental volumes, so this one might strictly be a "no".]

142. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
143. William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
144. M.G. Lewis: The Monk (1796)
145. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
146. Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)

147. J.G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
148. J.G. Ballard: Crash (1973)
149. J.G. Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Why they stop at 149, I've no idea. (Or maybe I've left one off -- do feel freel to check.) Never mind.

By my count I've read 66, which comes to a moderately respectable 45%. What about you?

06 February 2009

Recent Products of My Brain

Forecast, adj.: Having a bifurcated bottom (cf fork-tongued).

Pillowcase, n.: The enzyme responsible for digesting pillocks.

A: I just found my wife hiding behind an evergreen oriental shrub.
B: Japonica?
A: Well, something must have.

[Edit 7-2-9 to add:]

A: I think my wife's joined a Japanese organised crime syndicate.
B: Yakuza?
A: No, I wouldn't dare.

04 February 2009

More Books, More Spooks

The Servants by M. M. Smith is a rather different offering from the author's previous books as Michael Marshall and Michael Marshall Smith -- some of which I've discussed here in the past.

It has the same core premise as Only Forward and Spares (and to some extent One of Us), of a solidified subconscious realm where the protagonist's psychological issues are worked out through surreally allusive imagery. Unlike those stories, however (and even despite the fact that it's set in Brighton, like certain key scenes in Only Forward), it's a tighter, more disciplined work. It eschews the genre-bending, heavily cyberpunctuated S.F. setting of those books for a mundane, though compelling, narrative of difficult family dynamics seen through the eyes of a painfully alienated present-day eleven-year-old.

If it wasn't quite so dark, and so demanding of emotional maturity from its readers, this could even be a "Young Adult" book. As it is, it seems to have most often been described as a ghost story. It's not, or not really -- there's no sense that the titular servants (who are sometimes to be found hard at work in the otherwise empty and long-abandoned basement area of Mark's stepfather's Brighton-seafront house) are the surviving spirits of the dead. Rather, they're a function either of Mark's subconscious or of the house itself -- or, this being a work of symbolism, of both. The Servants places us firmly inside Mark's head, and forces us for much of the time to see his well-meaning though sorely tried stepfather as the monster Mark needs to believe he is. The reconciliation between them, desperately needed by Mark's sick mother, is achieved only through her son's under-stairs work experience with the eponymous nonexistent domestics.

Although I doubt more than a dozen other people on the internet have read the thing, the story reminded me of nothing so much as David "A Voyage to Arcturus" Lindsay's psychological fantasy The Haunted Woman, where a specific room in a house awakens the higher consciousnesses of otherwise mundane human beings, whose everyday selves are tragically incapable of retaining the enlightenment they receive there.

Peculiarly enough -- and I swear I'd forgotten this until this moment -- that book was also set partly in Brighton, and features a major character named Marshall.

The Servants is shorter than Smith's other books and more focussed, inspired by a humanistic (I might almost be tempted to say "christian") view of the value of vocation and of losing oneself in service to another. It's a very effective demonstration of his paradoxical versatility as a writer.

Andrew Cartmel's Prisoner novel, Miss Freedom (no Amazon link, for reasons elucidated here) is a decent enough Prisoner story, but -- for all its aspirations to be "a classic 1960s-style spy novel, in the tradition of John Le Carré, Adam Hall and Len Deighton" -- little more than that. It certainly hasn't the intellectual pyrotechnics to match Jon Blum and Rupert Booth's The Prisoner's Dilemma. Dilemma had a real sense of urgency about it, of having something important to impart which could only be told as part of a Prisoner story; by comparison Miss Freedom is... not lazy exactly, but certainly languid.

There's certainly much that's taken directly from the seventeen TV episodes -- Number 6 faces a clinically insane Number 2 (Hammer into Anvil) and a beautiful woman of ambivalent loyalties (The Chimes of Big Ben and passim), who place him in a subsidiary reality (A, B and C, Living in Harmony) where he's encouraged to tell a spy story with himself as the central character (The Girl Who Was Death), etc etc etc. Such elements as might seem newish (there's a rescue mission afoot to spring Number 6 from the Village, and the ousted Number 2 was actually on his side) are actually ringing the changes on these established elements.

Cartmel clearly knows his Prisoner, but most of his story is essentially pastiche -- well-written and perfectly competent pastiche, but unambitious. The most interesting thing, perhaps, is the way Number 6 redrafts his spy story as he's telling it, constantly revisiting earlier story elements and rewriting them. The fact that his fiction comes dangerously close to overlapping his reality might indeed suggest -- again, not exactly a new idea to the Prisoner aficionado -- that the Village itself is the product of Number 6's shellshocked fantasies.

Cartmel's biggest innovation, though, is in making his psychotic New Number 2 a sexually-motivated serial killer, which makes for some deeply uncomfortable moments. Given that a criticism frequently levelled against Cartmel's previous fiction has been his willingness to play the "violence against women" card, I might almost have found this creepy, if there hadn't been some evidence that he was attempting to address this tendency with a degree of complexity on a thematic level.

Basically, though... with this one, you're not really missing much. I feel less guilty about picking up one of the only 100 copies in existence, now.

On the Fly

The other day at work I was strolling along the top-floor corridor towards the Gents', texting my other half as I went. When I arrived at the urinal, I found my flies already undone.

It's possible, of course, that I hadn't zipped up again after a previous visit. That would be embarrassing, but only mildly so. We all do it occasionally, after all.

What bothers me far more is the possibility that whilst wandering along the corridor past colleagues of varying seniority, contentrating on pressing buttons on my phone but subliminally aware that I was heading for the lavatory, I might have absent-mindedly unzipped as I walked, to save time later.