29 January 2010

OK, So This Is Important...

...too important to bury at the bottom of that last post, in fact.

I've been told that Haloscan, the comment-hosting service I've been using for this blog since long before Blogspot (as it then was) got its own act in gear, is closing down. I have the choice of either upgrading to a paid service -- which hardly seems worth it now Blogger are hosting a moderately effective comments service of their own -- or letting all the extant comments disappear. Which I've now done.

I've exported the 1500 or so comments made so far to a file, and Haloscan tell me (rather optimistically, in my view) that Blogger may get round to creating an import tool in the future. In the meantime, I'm sorry to say that any comment you may have made here in the past has disappeared, and -- while I very much hope this isn't the case -- it's possible that they may never reappear.

In the meantime, I can only encourage you to carry on commenting using the Blogger tool. Thank you...

A Bunch of Five Four

1. Today I'm trying to finish my working synopsis for the prospective novel I was calling The Arrow and the Circle, and have now renamed (under what may be the too obvious influence of Christopher Priest) The Devices. Once I know what the shape the plot takes, writing a 120,000-or-so-word novel in which it all happens should be, er, simplicity itself.

This clearly calls for diligent application and undivided concentration on my part. Hence this blog post.

2. I've managed to keep @trapphic, my Twitter account for microfiction, going at a steady rate since reviving it for the New Year. For those who can't be bothered to join Twitter (and you're not missing a huge amount, unless you're the kind of person who's desperate to be informed whenever Stephen Fry scratches his right ear), I've appended more stories to the already lengthy back-catalogue on my website. I'm quite pleased with some of them -- the Quaestor's tale[1] in particular is one I'd like to revisit at greater length.

Being an enormous narcissist, I'm always interested to see (either from comments on Twitter itself or, more commonly, after reproducing the stories on Facebook) which of the stories receive most approval from readers. Some of the ones I've been most pleased with turn out to be overly complicated, the way they hang together neatly in my head failing to reproduce itself in anybody else's. (This failure is, naturally, mine entirely as the person trying to communicate the ideas in question.) I was, for instance, much more impressed with my own account of an alternative history of Vikings and Egyptians on Mars, recounted in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, than anybody else seems to have been[2], while what I thought was a throwaway metafictional joke turned out to be the most popular story I've posted yet[3].

3. A couple of weekends ago B., R. and I made the trip to London, to attend both a friend's birthday party and the British Museum's Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler exhibition, which closed last Sunday. We'd been intending to visit the latter back in December, but the difficulties of reliably transporting a baby 100 miles in a car intervened. This time, through careful booking of advance train tickets and two nights in a rather good hotel, the whole enterprise became substantially more feasible.

The exhibition was impressive, although limited by the failure of many Mexica artifacts to survive the Spanish Conquista. The sophistication and variety of what was on display was a strong reminder of the complexity of the Aztec civilisation and its occupied territories, as well as of the relativity of human cultural values. Despite their ability to make a simple carving of a bunny rabbit look terrifying, there was evidently nothing special about the Mexica that was "savage", "primitive" or "inhuman". And yet they built a culture around ripping the hearts out of living victims in numbers that ran into at least the hundreds of thousands. It's a conundrum which is difficult to get one's head around (and has produced two extremely good, though very different, Doctor Who stories). The exhibition naturally offered no glib answers, but seeing items which were routinely used by the people in question helped to make the abstract question considerably more concrete.

I was amused by the exhibition's use of the term "deity impersonator", which made what I assume was a fairly straightforward sacramental role sound like an exotic drag act.

(The party was also lovely, and R. extremely popular at it -- although we had of course to leave for our hotel bed, and his cot, relatively early. We also managed to meet up with one of his godfathers on the morning of the Sunday, which was nice.)

4. In "Prose I Didn't Write" news, I've recently managed to finish two more books: The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, and Transition by Iain "Look, no M!" Banks. I want to say more about both of them soon, but... well, I really ought to be getting on with writing that thing of my own. I'm now reading The Panda Book of Horror, Obverse Books' follow-up to last year's Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus which I bored you all about at the time.

5. [Edit: See separate post above.]

[1] Within the reservation my badge meant nothing. The tribal authorities ran the show. ‘You’re on Catuvellauni land now, Quaestor,’ I muttered.

[2] Our sky-craft’s snake-prow glints proudly / As we stand sturdy on Tiw’s red world. / Bronze bowmen hail us, bragging of Horus. / We fight...

[3] ‘Once I’d had the idea, the book wrote itself. After our creative differences and arguments about royalties, it erased itself out of spite.’

22 January 2010

What happens when you give a literary critic a board book

When I said it had been ages since I finished a book, I wasn't, of course, counting books which are about twelve pages long and made of cardboard. I've read an awful lot of those recently, a couple of them upwards of a hundred times.

I may at some point do a list of recommendations, for anyone who's interested, but I did want to mention one in particular: Peepo! by Janet & Allan Ahlberg. Uniquely among the Very Young Children's Books I've encountered recently, it has an entire layer to the narrative which wouldn't be fully apparent to any reader except an adult, and which I've found haunting me oddly over the past few weeks.

Peepo! is on the face of it a charming, only slightly twee narrative in verse about a baby's day and what he sees -- his family and their surroundings, mostly -- at various points during it. There's occasional adult commentary as part of this ("And a dog in the doorway / Who shouldn't be there"), and it's assumed that the baby can identify his parents, sisters and grandmother, but for the most part his viewpoint is presented -- realistically enough -- as a collection of unrelated visual experiences. He wakes up, watches his family perform various domestic tasks, is taken to the park, given a bath and put to bed. On the surface, there's no more to it than that.

The adult reader will presumably spot at least that the illustrations and a few of the words ("And his father in the doorway / With a bucketful of coal") put the story in a period context, that of a working-class family sometime in the early twentieth century. Only a fairly close examination, though, will reveal that this is specifically the early 1940s, and the sergeant's jacket hanging over a bedroom chair in the second illustration. The trip to the park in the afternoon is with the sisters and grandma, and the group return to find the mother asleep and the father, who began the day in civvies, wearing khaki shirt and trousers.

Having said his (presumably passionate) goodbye to his wife[1], the father bathes his son, kisses him goodnight and -- again presumably -- leaves his family to go and fight. The baby, of course, has no more idea of this than the book's infant readers, although the final question of the text ("Fast asleep and dreaming / What did he see?") might invite us to consider his future.

For an adult reader who spots this hidden story, the book becomes a very different experience from that which any child -- even one a fair bit older than our R.'s nearly six months -- is likely to get out of it.

Which is what you need, really, when reading the same twelve cardboard pages over and over again and optimistically aspiring not to lose your mind.

[1] I say "wife", that being the default assumption of the era, but in fact the mother's hands are clearly visible in several of the illustrations and this is the only one where she appears to be wearing a ring. In this interview Allan Ahlberg mentions his own experience of illegitimacy in the '40s, adding -- probably redundantly, in fact -- that "I was the Peepo! baby".

10 January 2010

In Other News...

  • I've reinvigorated @trapphic on Twitter: if you're not a subscriber, you can consult the feed here for the latest 140-character microfictions spattered from my disintegrating brain.
  • I realise I'm... erm, 56 years late to the party, but the two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment are shockingly awesome.
  • I don't know if anyone else has noticed, but it's bloody cold out.

Books Update: Chinatown

For the first time in a couple of months, I've managed to finish a book: The City & the City by China Miéville, which my grandmother-in-law was kind enough to obtain for me for Christmas.

I love Miéville's three New Crobuzon books: Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, complex, intelligent tales of radical politics in a baroquely embellished fantasy world. If I had a quarrel with them it was that the quality of the worldbuilding vastly outstripped that of the stories. Their plots wouldn't look out of place in a Terry Pratchett novel (which, much though I love them, are rarely primarily concerned with plot): it's the creation of the city of New Crobuzon, and to a lesser extent the surrounding world of Bas-lag, that's been Miéville's real masterwork to date.

In The City & the City, for my money, he outdoes himself. The presentation of the titular cities constitutes one the cleverest, strongest and most innovative settings in the whole of urban fantasy (if indeed that's what this book is -- see below for a few thoughts). Besźel and Ul Qoma are independent city-states located somewhere on the fringes of Europe. As you'd expect, each has its own distinct cultural and political history, which is expressed by its unique populations through the usual urban semiotics of architecture, dress, currency, signage, behaviour and bylaws. The mind-altering part is that the cities -- Besźel vaguely Eastern European, with Communism and Orthodox Christianity in its past, Ul Qoma approximately Ottoman-Byzantine and implicitly post-Islamic -- occupy the same geographical space as one another, their territories being interspersed, distributed and in many cases making use of the same thoroughfares, open spaces and even buildings.

Because they are, after all, in different cities, the two groups of citizens refuse to acknowledge one another's presence, or those of the clumps of foreign cityscape in their midst. A psychological habit as familiar yet as extreme as Orwell's doublethink enables them to "unsee" one another, subliminally registering their neighbour city (sufficiently to navigate around its traffic, for instance), but refusing to acknowledge the evidence for it in any other than the crudest practical ways. The narrator, Inspector Borlú, recalls policing an unusually wild music festival during the '60s, and unseeing the strollers in the congruent Ul Qoman park genteelly picking a delicate path between copulating Besź couples.

Locals learn the skill from childhood, eventually internalising it as instinct; visitors to one city or the other need to be painstakingly trained to avoid the heinous crime of "breach". The twisted ramifications of this collective denial include the checkpoint which constitutes the cities' only official border, and where it's uniquely legitimate to look from one into the other; and Besźel's "Ul Qoma town" district, where the locals implicitly understand the parodic inflections from one city which overwrite the other's characteristic stylings, to the utter confoundment of visitors.

It's a rare novel that you can feel rewiring your brain as you read it, but The City & the City qualifies. Its brilliance lies not merely in the task of conceptualising the cities, which is stunningly inspired yet always rigorous, but in the fact that none of this is explicitly spelt out for the reader: we learn what we learn through implication alone, as the conventionally-minded Besź Borlú describes an everyday life which makes perfect sense to him.

Compared to this, the actual story -- of Borlú and his Ul Qoman counterparts investigating the disappearance or murder of foreign archaeologists who may, just conceivably, have discovered the existence of a third city occupying the gaps between the two -- is, while clever and entertaining, hardly the point.

Miéville is a fantasy writer, and yet I'm not convinced that The City & the City is a fantasy. To be sure, his setting is a fictional one, but that's merely a matter of degree. A story set in a fictional world is by assumption fantasy even if its inhabitants are insurance underwriters and equalities compliance officers (unless that world is explicitly located elsewhere in our universe, in which case it's science fiction)... but in most cases a fictional city is understood to be no more fantastic an invention than a fictional family, organisation or person. Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the contemporary world, with European investment and American diplomats in evidence (Besźel has a fully-fledged U.S. embassy, while Ul Qoma remains under a slightly embarrassing embargo). The missing academics are all American or Canadian. Characters refer to Google, Coke and Nikes with all the enthusiasm one might find in Prague or Ankara.

There's nothing supernatural, magical or miraculous in the entire novel: indeed, it feels like an attempt to reclaim the familiar fantasy trope of the hidden city-within-a-city for the mundane world. With the exception of one whimsical detail -- the anomalous relics of the pre-Cleavage Precursor civilisation, themselves no less plausible than the Baghdad Battery or the Antikythera Mechanism -- all the apparent weirdness proves to be purely psychological in origin. The central conceit is extreme but far from impossible -- nearly every city-dweller practises less extreme and formalised types of "unseeing" on a daily basis -- although Miéville never delves into its potential for political allegory, leaving this (with consummate restraint, given his socialist sympathies) as an exercise for the newly-rewired reader.

Neither is this quibbling about genre in any way the point, of course. The City & the City is a book that will change your mind: not in terms of convincing you of a particular agenda, but of subtly altering the way you perceive and understand the world. If I could write just one book in my career that achieved as much, I'd be a very happy author.