20 December 2011

Dyschronismus Carol

It's time for the now-traditional web release of the story I sent out last year in my Christmas cards. 2010's offering was a science-fiction reworking of a traditional Christmas story.

by Philip Purser-Hallard

     Marley was dead, to begin with. Luckily we could fix that.

     Protean Pete visited him on his deathbed – 24/12/1836, seven years pastward of our scheduled intercession – and made him the offer. We’d take a working CC of his mind at point of death (generations before the process was perfected, so Marley was a winner there) and timecap him back with us to our own century, once we’d wrapped up business in his.

     The boss could find him work – probably market-trend analysis, given his talents. He’d fit right in with the other post-mortal employees in TC:Corp’s central storage coil.

     Immortality came with a condition, natch. Marley had to use his intimate knowledge of our subject to give him a specially tailored spookshow.

     Jacob Marley hadn’t been a ruthlessly successful player in the C19 money-markets without knowing a sweet deal when he saw one. Even before Pete gave him our reasons, helping haunt his best friend didn’t give Jacob a moment’s qualm. Once he was convinced Pete himself wasn’t a delirium phantom, we had him on-team.

     Turned out he was quite the creative collaborator, too. His custom facetop burrowed right into our subject’s psyche and cracked it open along the faultlines.

     Jacob’s overlay of local fiscal imagery over Judaeo-Christian folk-eschatology would have scared the living oxytocin out of any Victorian capitalist. As Marley’s ghastly holophantasm groaned and wailed and ghouled it up in his chains of ledger-books and cash-boxes, our timecap’s psychometers all told us we were getting through to Ebenezer Scrooge.

* * *

     Big Ish, Protean Pete and me are the frequent flyers on TC:Corp’s emergency intercession squad. We spend so much time in the past we joke about settling down there. I’m certain Ish has a second wife in Medici Florence.

     Pete’s a premature post-mortal, a carbon-copy still active long after his original started renting six-by-two cellar-space. During fieldwork he resides in the timecap’s minicoil – luckily there’s enough storage for Marley to join him without getting too cosy.

     Ish is our musclebrain – not the insult it sounds. Germ-work and soma-drugs have boosted Ish’s brain and his muscles, till he can think as speedily and nimbly as he can... well, throw a small horse. He’s eight feet tall, built like a structural pillar which happens also to be a chess grandmaster.

     Then there’s me. I deal with the crude mechanics of intercession – where to point the timecap, which bits to push when, and the effect that has on the whole assemblage. Time itself is a mechanism, and some of us were just made to tinker.

     They call me the Mechanic, obviously. We intercessors pride ourselves on technical skill, not imagination.

     The Responsive Intercession Department’s been part of TC’s corporate responsibility wing since the boss introduced the Model A Time Capsules – back in ’47, our time. The engineers build in multiplural redundancies and safeties, natch, so users won’t impinge on the history they visit... but there’s always someone determined to crush the butterflies.

     Some of them have agendas. However well-intentioned, they’re liable to crumple history into a scrunched-up moebius strip of causality. Our single least popular assignment’s the Hitler bodyguard unit.

     This impingement seemed targeted, and at the origins of TC:Corp itself, no less. Stopping the inventors of time-travel using their own product? You’re looking at a major dyschronismus – a grandfather paradox of the kill-the-ancestors variety.

     Those never end well. Some of them never end at all.

     The boss (and I mean the boss, Mr TC:Corp himself) dispatched us as soon as the alarms started pulsing. He knew he had a limited window open before causality started caving in on top of him.

     If our intercession here in 1843 didn’t come out right, chances were we no longer had a future to call our own.

     It seemed the miserable hermit existence our subject was leading wasn’t what history demanded of Ebenezer Scrooge. Never one of the C19’s big noises, he was still part of the soundscape – a background hum which had suddenly changed its pitch.

     Whatever it was our rogue timecappers had altered (and there were plenty of possibilities in Ebenezer’s new biog, from his ma’s early death to the awkward breakup with his one-time best girl) it had changed him from a legendary philanthropist, his name a byword for generosity and bonhomie, into a crabby, embittered old man.

     Unless we could reboot his outlook on the world, Scrooge would die without giving away an ounce of love or money to another person ever again. And the consequences of that could – would – be catastrophic.

     A miserly, misanthropic Scrooge was a danger to history. Our job was to enrich his soul, awaken his long-suppressed childlike wonder, and generally act as agents of redemption in his withered, dried-up gourd of a heart.

     Well, it was more life-affirming than most jobs. It certainly beat working the Hitler detail.

* * *

     Stakes aside, it was a standard intercession. Jacob’s phantasmodrama was the warm-up, what we call in intercessor jargon stave 1. Pete took stave 2, the life-flashes-before-your-eyes session. Ish was on stave 3, AKA it’s-a-wonderful-life-and-you’re-not-living-it, and I was stave 4, the near-death-experience. As usual.

     Staves 2-4 use the timecap’s look-don’t-touch settings to let the subject walk around his own past and future, helping the process along with airborne psychoactives to unlock subconscious imagery. From Scrooge’s POV, stave 2 showed him characters from storybooks wandering round his childhood memories.

     Where most PM-CCs use some idealised version of their old body for their holographic interface, Protean Pete flickers between forms like reflections in a boating-lake. For stave 2, he uses this wrinkled-child facetop which, I tell you frankly, creeps me out. Fact is, I can’t remember what Pete looked like when he was alive, and my memory’s better than most.

     Big Ish gave stave 3 his full holly-green-giant act, a pagan god of edible dead things. He’d calibrated the timecap to show Scrooge what the rest of Victorian society – and especially his employees and family – were doing on Christmas Day 1843. His ho-ho-ho, sit-on-my-knee-old-man routine was meant to point the subject towards his own inner Santa.

     Then it was my turn. I’m no actor, but for an NDE you don’t need to be – a black cloak and an ominous silence pretty much cover it. Most people find the way I move disquieting, too, and that helps – though what really scares the oxies out of most subjects is being shown the circumstances of their own deaths.

     In the timeframe we’d gotten locked into, Scrooge died alone, unhappy and unmourned, his minimalist funeral attended only by his scant relatives and hangers-on hoping for a free meal. His gravestone was just about the bleakest thing I’d ever seen.

     By the time I left him, he was begging to be allowed to change the future.

* * *

     Of course it was never really about Scrooge. I tried to tell Marley that while we waited for the boss to see us.

     Stave 5 – dipping into the subject’s future life, checking its new course – had been textbook. We found Scrooge making his money ethically (which alone would have marked him out from his fellow Victorian financiers) then distributing it among... oh, you know. Dogs’ homes, starving families, orphans in dire need of outings to the seaside. That style of thing.

     Then it was back home to ’57, and routine decontamination in the Responsive Intercession Dept at TC:Corp central. The usual diagnostic ticklist of random historical events checked out against the secure records held in the timecap’s coil – dyschronismus averted.

     Then they told us the boss had asked to see all four of us.

     I don’t know what those rogue timecappers had against the boss, but we all understood that in sabotaging Scrooge’s biog, they’d been targeting him. Now he was safe, so were TC:Corp, and us, and history.

     The boss isn’t your usual post-mortal. He’s one of the earliest, for starters – 40 years dead, following an 80-year mortal span. He’s not one to haunt the coils, staring through a facetop at the outside world. He’s had a dedicated microcoil implanted in a mechanical frame – quite like mine, in the same way a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud’s ‘quite like’ a Morris Minor.

     The boss is also the richest man in the world, natch.

     ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Mr Marley,’ he said as we entered his office, Pete and Marley projecting from a portacoil on Ish’s wrist. ‘My friends were always speaking of you during my childhood. I was born after you died, of course – although I suppose I must now say that you apparently died.’

     ‘You have me at a disadvantage, sir.’ Jacob’s holophantasm – appearing now as a handsome young Regency beau – bowed. ‘Doubly so, as I must thank you most humbly for your employees’ goodness in saving my life. Pray tell me, how should I address you, and who were our mutual friends to whom you allude?’

     The boss smiled. That expensive face of his can do that.

     ‘You knew my father,’ he said. ‘He was the clerk at Scrooge and Marley’s. I’m Timothy Cratchit, Bob Cratchit’s youngest son.’

* * *

     Cratchit Senior was the clerk we’d focussed on during the intercession, staves 3 and 4 particularly. Our subject took a special interest in his family, and ‘Tiny Tim’ in particular, which had continued well into stave 5.

     That, too, was history the way it should have been. As a kid, the boss was Ebenezer Scrooge’s protégé. He suffered from one of those stereotypically grim Victorian wasting diseases, and without our subject’s influence (and especially his affluence), he’d have died in childhood.

     Scrooge’s own nephew predeceased him, and it was Timothy Cratchit – already a financial genius at 16, thanks to the old man’s tutelage – who inherited his monetary empire, and put it towards alleviating those diseases of poverty which he and so many others had suffered.

     Now what was once Scrooge and Marley’s is TC:Corp – and the boss had to explain quite firmly to Jacob that no, having willed it away on his deathbed, he wasn’t entitled to a slice of the pie.

     The research Timothy Cratchit funds has led to cures and therapies, drugs and prosthetics: more recently, to biological technologies including germ-work and soma-drugs, and cybernetics like the mind-machine interface and the coils. Without the boss, mechanical men like me couldn’t exist. Nor could custom-builds like Ish, or PM-CCs like Pete and Marley.

     The timecaps were a tangential by-product, beginning in the study of human time-perception. It would be tempting to guess that it was Scrooge’s tales of seeing past and future that prompted Cratchit to pursue that like of research. But that would be the other kind of grandfather paradox, the become-your-ancestor type, and those can be just as chronoclysmic. So let’s hope that that isn’t how it happened.

     In any case, TC:Corp marketed its first Time Capsules in 1947. Ten years ago, our time.

     Without Cratchit – without Scrooge – who knows how long it would have taken the human race to get so advanced? It could have been another century or more before we had this kind of technology.

* * *

     So there we were – Big Ish, Protean Pete and me – politely trying not to look too bored while Cratchit and Marley caught up on old times, remembering life in C19 London and their joint best friend, Ebenezer Scrooge. It wasn’t long, though, before the boss was off on his favourite topic – himself, and his life’s work.

     ‘I might well have died, Mr Marley, as a child,’ he said. ‘Had it not been for dear Mr Scrooge – well, I dare not speculate. In any case, it is my firm conviction that God has spared me for this work.’

     This kind of talk makes us uncomfortable, natch, but C19 Christianity was Jacob’s native culture.

     ‘Should I understand, Mr Cratchit,’ he asked, ‘that you see yourself as a collaborator with the Almighty? One whom He has tasked with the perfection of His creation?’

     ‘Precisely, sir,’ Cratchit said sententiously. ‘With His help, I believe that I am to deliver all of humankind from the scourge of death.’

     Thing is, he may be right. Thanks to Scrooge – thanks, ultimately, to us three frequent fliers and Marley – ‘Tiny Tim’ did NOT die. Ever.

     And thanks to him... well, it’s just possible that no-one else will have to either.

     ‘God has already blessed you and me, Mr Marley, but we must not be the last. It is my dearest wish to ensure that God blesses everyone.’

     He’s always saying that.

© 2010 Philip Purser-Hallard
Past years' stories can be found here:
  • Sol Invictus (2006): A troubled couple experience some midwinter reality slippage.
  • Polarity (2007): Have you ever wondered who lives at the South Pole?
  • Blitzenkrieg (2008): An arms manufacturer develops a seasonal delivery system.
  • Stella Maris (2009): Three wise women attend an inauspicious birth.
They seem to be getting longer, slightly worryingly. You'll have to wait until next year for 2011's, which features a character from The Vampire Curse.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

07 December 2011

Tales of the City

The "side-project" I've occasionally mentioned here as running alongside my current attempts to write a novel, do a paid job, look after a two-year-old and find the time to eat and sleep occasionally, has now been announced.

We present Tales of the City, the first short-story anthology dedicated to my creation, the galaxy-sized secular afterlife known as the City of the Saved, as seen in The Book of the War, Of the City of the Saved... and A Romance in Twelve Parts[*].

Tales of the City will be volume 2 in next year's Obverse Quarterly, a periodical fiction miscellany from the same publishers as A Romance in Twelve Parts. It's my first editing assignment, and I'm hoping it will be a bit of a contrast with the previous City stories, with their CLASHING CIVILISATIONS AND EXPLODING GODS, and concentrate on the smaller-scale stories of some of the Citizens themselves.

Although I'll be providing some fictional linking material, Tales mostly consists of six stories by other authors, all set in the City. I'm very pleased with the lineup I've arranged -- I was lucky to be able to commission six splendid story pitches from six excellent authors which show every sign of blossoming into six brilliant pieces of City-based fiction.

(In fact, I was even luckier than that: the pitches I had to reject were also of an excellent standard -- these six are just the ones I think will fit together into the anthology with the most satisfying shape.)

I'll be posting more information here as it's announced: although I've been referring to this as a side-project (and I'm still pushing ahead with the novel as best I can), I really am very excited at how this is taking shape.
[*] Also, if you're counting, the Preview to Of the City of the Saved..., Lance Parkin's Preview to Warlords of Utopia (printed in Of the City of the Saved...) and my online short story "Unification Theory".
* * *

I've now had the five-CD audiobook of Peculiar Lives through the post, and listened to the first 45 minutes or so.

I never wrote the story to be read aloud: it's a literary pastiche. Nevertheless, I'm incredibly impressed by the deftness with which John Leeson tackles the difficult language, and the conviction he brings the sometimes creepy character of my narrator, Erik Clevedon. Even if you're already sickeningly familiar with Peculiar Lives (which, let's face it, I am), it's well worth hearing. It's a fantastic performance, and he keeps surprising me. It's available here, among other places.

* * *

On a more mundane note, you may be vaguely interested to know I've done a major structural revamp on my website. The content (and indeed the increasingly old-school look) are virtually unchanged, but there are now separate indexing pages for, for instance, my Christmas stories, or the individual themes and series of my microfiction. Presumably Tales of the City is going to need its own page pretty soon, but I'll hold off on that one for the moment.

03 December 2011

Desultory update

I've spent most of today writing this year's Christmas card story (see here for past examples -- I'll be posting last year's closer to Christmas itself). I keep ending up writing these at the last minute, which is annoying -- I keep noticing all the stuff that's wrong with them when I go back to look at them later.

Anyway, this one is the longest of these stories I've written to date, at a little over 2,000 words. It features a character from The Vampire Curse, and unless you're on my Christmas card list you won't get to see it till next year. Sorry about that.

In other news... I'm told that the audiobook version of my novella Peculiar Lives, read by John Leeson, is finally now available from Fantom Films. Various unforeseen delays have made it a long wait, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing what the voice of K-9 makes of the voice of Erik Clevedon.

And if you're not following @trapphic on Twitter, you may want to peruse the fresh microfiction I've uploaded to my website, along with that drabble from the other day. I think the latest one is actually my favourite:
A year in Faerie lasts a century on Earth – or in a hollowed asteroid in sublight flight. Fairy rings are cheaper than cryogenic suspension.

20 November 2011

The Only Way Is Ethics

The story so far: I'm still attempting to twist my worldview around by 180 degrees or so, to accommodate a great big absence of God.

Since a couple of readers have been startled at the speed of my volte-face from "christian" to "atheist", I should probably clarify what I mean by the latter.

I no longer see any reason to believe in God. That doesn't mean there isn't a God (or even that there's no reason to believe in one, since obviously I'm not infallible), but -- given the depth of thought I've applied to the area over the past two decades -- it seems to me to mean there's no God who's relevant to me. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but Occam's Razor suggests that the null hypothesis should always be preferred in cases of ambiguity.

I see no reason to believe in God; therefore I don't believe in God; therefore I'm calling myself an atheist. Although I'm claiming no certainty in the matter, using the term agnostic would, in my view, just be pussyfooting around. (In a sense, and I accept that this bit isn't strictly rational, I feel as if I've given God enough benefit of the doubt already.)

That said, I don't like the label much. It defines a philosophy by an absence, and tacitly in opposition to an assumed norm, which is never a brilliant start. I might call myself a humanist instead, if I didn't find the British Humanist Association so irritating. Mind you, I claimed that label when I was a christian too, so maybe I'd be better off keeping it.

The alteration I'm finding most difficult to adjust to is, at this point, the absence of objective truth. I'm not talking about observable fact and the system of scientific knowledge which has been empirically constructed upon it, which is a separate epistemological category. Alpha Centauri may very well be 4.37 light years away, and I'm very happy to accept that as true based on the centuries of astronomical observation which underpin it... but really, it's not fundamental to my world. The figure could be discovered to be wrong by, ooh, anything up to about 20% and I'd still approach questions about human life and its place in the universe in much the same way.

Up to now I've been in the habit, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, of thinking in the face of a complex moral, philosophical or metaphysical issue, "Well, this is what I think, and I think I have good reasons for it, but we'll probably never know the truth -- only God knows that." In the absence of that final clause, the penultimate one breaks down -- if there's no God, then I've no basis for believing that there is a "truth", at least pertaining to any concept or phenomenon not resolutely physical.

Is Shakespeare really better than Marlowe? God knows. Do mathematics reflect a fundamental reality, or are they just a human construct? God knows. Do human beings have "free will" in any real sense? God knows.

Is murder always wrong? God knows.

That phrase used to be a reassuring one. Now it's just rhetoric. It turns out -- and I've always known that this was a standard atheist point of view, but suddenly to be living it is a horrible body-blow -- that there are no absolute truths. We make our own, as best we can, from the materials available, and if ours don't agree with someone else's... well, one may be better than the other according to certain criteria, and if we accept those criteria we may wish to adjust our own views accordingly, but there's no real question of one person being objectively right and the other wrong.

When you believe there are such "rights" and "wrongs", even if they're essentially unknowable in this lifetime[1], simply thinking they're there in the mind of God makes a radical difference to how you approach this whole business of thinking.

For the moment, until I have a proper framework to hang all this on, I have to accept provisionally that: 1. Attempting to follow a system of ethics is a valuable habit, certainly for society and possibly also for the individual; 2. Present-day liberal Western society, into which I happen by sheer fluke to have been born, has on the whole made pretty good assumptions about what make for worthwhile values.

If this sounds pretty feeble, well, yes. I'm working on it.

In fact, I don't think many of my previous values were directly derived from my faith, although I've tried with varying levels of success to claim that they were. My pacifism and vegetarianism always needed some fancy footwork, for instance, and it seems to me that there's a sounder foundation in humanism for justifying the view that murder is always wrong, than in what's necessarily an idiosyncratic interpretation of christianity.

All of this is a work in progress, obviously. Next time I may discuss why I still think Richard Dawkins is an utter tool.

[1] I say "in this lifetime" because this idea rather coloured my view of the afterlife. I saw Heaven as much as anything as a place where the unknown became knowable, all truths were laid before us for our contemplation, and where I could watch the future history of humanity unfolding on fast-forward like the greatest SF epic ever filmed. I bloody miss that.

08 November 2011


I've dithered about posting this. What I have to say here is a very big deal for me. I think, though, that it needs to be said.

When I was nineteen, I had a religious experience. Two, in fact, one a few weeks after the other. The second was in a church, but this wasn’t directly relevant as the first was on a beach. Both involved an intense appreciation of the beauty of the created world (a particularly fine sunset, a woman’s singing voice) which opened up into a transcendent sense of joy, in which I had a profound sense of the Creator who’d worked the beauty I was observing.

It’s fair to say that this pair of experiences was fundamental in maintaining my Christian faith over the following couple of decades. As I came to understand the Bible as an assorted collection of disparate ancient texts whose context we could only attempt to reconstruct; as I became fascinated by other faiths and the alternative truths they represented; as I came to realise that much of traditional Christianity, at least as popularly understood by my contemporaries, was anathema to me; as I became embroiled in more and more discussions with atheists who insisted that faith was a delusion, a self-deception, a complete denial of reason and science, I had this to hang on to: I know God. God must exist, because it’s something I’ve experienced for myself.

I derived a theology based on that premise which was rational and satisfying, at least to me: a theology which acknowledged the many reasons for not believing, but combined them with my certain knowledge that God did exist. It was liberal, allowing the inner light of individual conscience to dispel the shadows of biblical and traditional authority. It was apophatic, maintaining that language, logical propositions and the like simply didn’t apply to God because they were invented to describe the created world. It was pluralist, accepting truths from all faiths while privileging Jesus’s interpretation of the divine truth.

It was -- I’m still convinced, given the premises I was working from -- quite rational.

I understood, of course, that there might be sound biochemical or neurological explanations for those foundational experiences which had no need to invoke the divine. I felt that to accept these would be... I’d have to use the word unfaithful: it would be untrue to the quality of the experience, disloyal to the Person with whom I felt the experience had placed me in contact. Having experienced that transcendence, attributing it to a glitch in my brain chemistry would have felt simply dishonest.

What changed my mind (and here I’m doubly outing myself, compounding my newfound atheism with an admission of mental illness) was my experience of clinical depression. In a diffuse way this is something I’ve suffered from, in retrospect, for my entire life since puberty, and perhaps earlier; but it was the total disruption of all my established habits and coping strategies following the birth of my son which brought it out into the open. It’s a hellish condition, blotting out all happiness and love from life for days or weeks at a time.

I want to be clear about one thing. This isn’t one of those anti-testimonials that runs ‘I believed in God, but then he didn’t help me in my personal tragedy, so I gave up on him’. I wasn’t the kind of naïve, arrogant Christian who cheerily assumes the Problem of Pain doesn’t apply to them, and is gobsmacked to discover that suddenly it does. (There are solutions to the Problem which strike me as intellectually satisfying, and solutions which strike me as emotionally satisfying, but I’ve never seen one which managed to be both. Nonetheless, I didn’t assume that my satisfaction was the most important criterion, or -- given the whole apophatic issue -- that the ‘true’ solution was susceptible to being understood in human terms.)

For a couple of years as I suffered from depression, I integrated it smoothly into my Christian faith -- not in any special way as ‘my cross to bear’, but on what seemed to me the obvious basis that shit happens, I’m bloody lucky I don’t live in Darfur, and this is still a world in which God exists.

Then one day, I wondered what it would take for my depression actually to destroy my faith. And almost at once I came to the conclusion that the only way it could do that would be to make me disbelieve in the reality of those experiences of transcendent joy, back in my teens.

This was followed, seconds later, by the realisation that depression is a state of transcendent misery, every bit as all-encompassing and world-obscuring as those fleeting crises of euphoria. And if I could believe -- as I do, of course -- that my depression came from my aberrant brain-chemistry, how could I any longer deny that those earlier experiences could have arisen the same way, in the strange turmoil of my late teens?

If I had never, in fact, been in contact with the divine, if that sense of transcendence had in fact been a neurological artefact, then all my theology was built on a false foundation, and the many perfectly sensible arguments that God was not a necessary proposition to hold to would have to come powerfully into effect.

One solution, of course, would have been immediately to ascribe depression to the Devil. But Satan had never had a place in my theology, and I couldn’t seriously consider introducing him merely in order that I could go on believing in God.

I’d always maintained that faith is not an irrational phenomenon; that it can be as sensible and sane a philosophy as any secular one; that fear of death, desire for reward and punishment, and submission to authority were not among my reasons for belief; that the desire to believe, no matter that I felt it, was not sufficient reason to believe; and that if I ever became convinced through reason that my faith was invalid, I would abandon it.

It lasted twenty years.

But it would be dishonest -- it would be unfaithful to the truth as I perceive it -- to cling on to it any longer.

I have more to say about the consequences of this, about how my thinking has been and will be affected by this, about the kind of atheist I intend to be, and the kind I intend never to become -- and, perhaps, about the kind of Christian I might conceivably still be. But this is long enough to be getting on with, I think.

Margaret Drabble

Well, it's been three months. Unless you comment and let me know otherwise, I'll assume you've missed me.

I'm still working, when I get potential writing time, on this novel project, and on an exciting side-project which may well get a proper announcement sometime soon. This (and paid work, and childcare, and sleep) leave little time for blogging, so I've missed posting here for quite a while. Significant events since 7 August include my son's second birthay and my mumbleth.

The caffeine withdrawal went fine. I'm now eating chocolate (in modest quantities) again, drinking one or two cups of proper tea a day, and subsisting mostly on Twining's sweet fennel and orange, mango and cinnamon herbal blends. Both of which are actually rather decent.

There's some stuff I want to blog soon, and hope I get the time to. Meanwhile, this idea's been in my head for a little while, and it's too long for Twitter. So I've written it up as a drabble:
     ‘We think the killer started with children,’ says the Special Branch officer. ‘Then worked his way up to MPs, and eventually a Minister. Those two lads at the Bullingdon Club were his halfway house.’
     He shifts awkwardly. ‘There’s no other pattern. The two Labour MPs had shared an office and were friends, but there’s nothing special to connect them to poor Mr Major.’ He swallows. ‘The fact is, ma’am, we can’t even guarantee your safety.’
     The Prime Minister inclines her head and gives him a chilly smile. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I think I’m safe enough for now, Inspector, thank you.’

07 August 2011

Caffeine Withdrawal, Days Four to Nine

Hmm. Well, I intended to keep these updates daily, but they would have been rather dull if I had. I'll probably make this the last, unless anything surprising emerges later on.

I still don't understand how easy this has been this time round: my previous experiences of giving up coffee (yes, temporarily, obviously) were agonising, and I've been drinking more coffee since R. was born than any previous period in my life (undergraduate termtimes possibly excepted, although a lot of that was going towards counteracting my vastly larger alcohol consumption). I should have had a week of headaches and mood swings and restlessness and lethargy, whereas in fact I've just been feeling a bit tired and snappish for a lot of the time. I suppose I'm just monstrously and undeservedly lucky.

The process of completely eradicating a caffeine addiction supposedly involves eight weeks spent without any source of caffeine (no tea, no cola, no decaff, no chocolate), so I'm not actually finished yet. Still, my experience and all the accounts I've heard suggest that the first three days are the worst, closely followed by the rest of the first two weeks. And, honestly, I've felt worse than this with a mild cold.

I have been combating the tiredness with daily afternoon naps, which has probably been helping (and will be rather difficult -- though perhaps not impossible -- to continue over the next three days when I'm in the office). That's a habit which obviously has to end sometime, although sharing a house with a toddler who currently still needs to do the same makes it both easy and remarkably tempting. Maybe I'll try to manage without one today -- to be honest I think it's the hot weather as much as the lack of caffeine which has been making me wilt after lunch.

My biggest problem has been identifying non-vile hot beverages to make me miss my habitual mug of coffee less. I find mint tea insipid, and fruit teas wildly variable in flavour, although I do find I need to brew them for at least five times as long as the manufacturers suggest to make an impression on my coffee-ravaged palate. Rooibos tea sounds quite desperately unappetising (though I suppose it's only familiarity which makes actual tea sound less so), and when I had a cup this morning I could barely taste it. I'll try a stronger one later.

The best news of all, as far as I'm concerned, is that I'm still able to write, managing two days of 1,500 words each since last Friday. That may not sound like a lot (and it isn't), but it's as much as I was managing before the caffeine supply dried up, and I have hopes I can expand it later on. Given that I hadn't previously managed to write without caffeine since I was about fifteen, it's this that feels like the real achievement.

(All of this does seem terribly self-indulgent, so failing any surprising revelations later on I'll stop here before I start accidentally going into detail about my bowel movements. Twitter has a category tag, #firstworldproblems, for this sort of thing.)

01 August 2011

Caffeine Withdrawal, Day Three

Right. Well, yes. Very little to report, really. 77 hours now without a caffeinated beverage, or caffeine from any source. Still no headaches, although I'm getting aggravating muscle twinges in a variety of places, which isn't normal.

At present this feels less like withdrawal than a ludicrously protracted period of getting up in the morning and not having had coffee yet. I'm tired and irritable and can't get my brain to work properly, but that's about it. This was awkward at work, but to be honest I've been in that state for weeks now when at work -- whether because of the caffeine, because the building's so very hot in summer or because of some undiagnosed source of mental collapse I have yet to discover, I couldn't say.

Latest theory to explain the relative lack of withdrawal symptoms: I'm in fact having blackouts, during the course of which I guzzle ProPlus pills. No, I'm not convinced by that one either.

31 July 2011

Caffeine Withdrawal, Day Two

I'm actually feeling like a bit of a fraud at the moment. It's... let's see... 50 hours since I last had coffee, so that's genuine enough. What's odd is that the promised withdrawal symptoms -- and in particular the violent chiselling headaches which I remember from previous attempts -- have yet to materialise.

I had some milder headachiness yesterday, which was easily addressed with paracetomol. I haven't needed to take any today. I'm also tired, though not nearly as much as I'd expected, and have exploded with unjustified rage at my beloved wife three times for no reason that would have made sense to anyone with any understanding of logic. My thinking feels muzzy and unfocussed, but no more so than on a warm day after a heavy lunch, say. I've even been able to get a small amount of writing today, with the help of fruit teas and a strategically-timed nap.

My aforementioned beloved wife has two mutually contradictory hypotheses about this. Either: a) I've been drinking so much coffee that my body has stored up caffeine reserves which it's still working its way through (unlikely on biological grounds), or b) I've been drinking so much coffee that my body has stopped experiencing it as a stimulant and has merely been experiencing it as a toxin (also unlikely, though possibly slightly less so).

What seems most probable to me is that the headaches are still to come, but are awaiting the most effective moment to strike -- probably as soon as I get to work tomorrow morning. In my impaired mental state I feel like a dinosaur waiting for an asteroid.

30 July 2011

Caffeine Withdrawal, Day One

This is a difficult post to write.

I don't mean it's emotionally charged or brings bad news or anything, just that it's an extraordinary challenging task to actually compose it. My head feels as if it's been inexpertly filled with cavity wall insulation which someone's still trying to hammer in, and attempting to organise anything like a sentence in a form which my fingers can interpret as instructions for muscle-movement is a matter of considerable difficulty.

I'm giving up coffee, you see. This isn't the first time -- if I had to guess I'd say it's probably the fourth -- but it's likely to be the most difficult so far. Since R. was born I've been staving off the sleep deprivation by drinking somewhere in the region of ten cups a day, and the progressive desensitisation which accompanies caffeine addiction has left me all but incapable of writing, working, concentrating or, under certain circumstances and at certain times of day (afternoon meetings in warm rooms being a particular killer here), staying awake, even when I'm actually drinking the stuff.

Needless to say this is all very unsatisfactory, and I've decided I need to finally just give up drinking the demon's bile altogether. I'm very nearly 40, and health problems like this have stopped looking as amusing as they used to.

It's 21 hours since I last had a mug (and that wasn't very nice). Now, apart from the aforementioned inability to concentrate, I'm feeling headachy, irritable, lethargic and resentful of everything. Frustratingly, approximately every two minutes I think "Oh, hang on! I know what will make me feel better! I just need a -- Oh."

[Have you enjoyed reading about Phil's abject misery so far? Come back to this blog over the next few weeks for daily updates!]

05 July 2011

Books Update: Page head separator

For the last few weeks I've been reading Hodd by Adam Thorpe. It's a dense text, bleak in its outlook and not an easy read, but I enjoyed it.

Superficially, it's a revisionist retelling of the Robin Hood legend, set in an authentically violent, slimy, pustule-ridden Middle Ages, following a young minstrel (later a monk, whose confession in old age we're supposedly reading) as he's pressganged into a thoroughly vile horde of wilderness-dwelling thieves, murderers and rapists led by a charismatic Antinomian heretic, Robbert Hodd. The ballads in which the protagonist later admits to his crimes become notorious, and over the eight decades which he somewhat implausibly lives through in his cloister, give rise to the romantic legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

It's a nice conceit, but a relatively small part of the story's subject matter. Though he's no miller's son, the minstrel / monk (whose true name we never learn, unless the Guardian's reviewer managed to spot a clue I didn't) is nicknamed "Much" during his time with the robbers -- their thuggish ranks also include a "Lytl John" and a "Will Scerlock" -- and his greatest crime is that recounted in the ballad Robin Hood and the Monk. This isn't a spoiler, as the relevant stanza's printed as the epigraph to the novel:
John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
Ffor ferd lest he wolde tell.
But that's about it. Aside from a passing mention of him giving money to a group of beggars, the priest-turned-heresiarch Hodd has nothing particular to relate him to the Robin of legend.

Instead, the story is about the orphaned narrator's search for a surrogate father -- Hodd being one of three he destruct-tests during the course of the novel -- and his jealousy towards his pseudo-sibling rivals. It's about love and hatred, guilt and penance, the twin dangers of concealment and honesty, the constant effort to rediscover old truths or to fabricate new ones. It's a deep-immersion simulation of the medieval worldview, and most especially of its religion -- orthodox and heterodox -- which is treated with complexity and a wilful refusal to make judgements easy for the reader.

There's an odd, seemingly pivotal account of an encounter with a woodland lunatic whom the narrator mistakes for a "green man" of the Antipodes. I'm sure this means something important, but I can't quite work out what.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the novel was literally marginal: the fake scholarly apparatus (including square-bracketed Latin words of dubious meaning, elenchi in the text and footnotes) which allows us to believe we are reading a translation from a lost Medieval Latin MS, also allows for the possibility that the entire narrative was concocted in the 1920s by a traumatised, shellshocked and perhaps syphilitic medievalist who lost a close friend, possibly a boyfriend, in the World War I trenches. Oddly no review of the book I've seen so far comments on this possible reading, though the novel's bleakness, its savagery and its obsession with death, disease, mud, mutilation and the imagery of Hell make far more sense in this context. (There's a further dusting of fiction in Thorpe's "editing" of the narrative as well, and of course it's just as much a document of the author's own time.)

Hodd is a clever, unsettling and complex novel, but it's only tangentially a retelling of the story of Robin Hood. It's done little to illuminate my understanding of the legend, even in its medieval context, but it has made me feel quite intrigued about reading some of Thorpe's other works. Ulverton and Still come recommended, so I may well give one of those a try.

Finally, you'll be pleased to know that the double "d" in the title reminds me of Eddie Izzard impersonating a carpet-sweeper (starting at 4m 35s), which provided some much-needed amusement during the more uncompromisingly grim passages.

27 June 2011

Peculiar Noises

So, another month's gone by. Hello.

Because I know you're sick of me plugging A Romance in Twelve Parts by now, I'm going to start by plugging something you won't have heard me mention since, ooh, last March: my novella Peculiar Lives. It's still available through all the following methods:However, I'll soon be able to add to that list the audiobook, due to be released by Fantom Films in August. It's an unabridged four-CD reading of the story recorded by John Leeson, the voice artist best known as K-9, but who -- I'm reliably assured -- can do lots of other voices as well. Nobody's ever recorded one of my stories before, so I'm looking forward very much to hearing how he tackles my narrator, Erik Clevedon.

The audiobook's available via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com, or direct from Fantom Films.

And having eased you in gently... if I now tell you that I've now read all of A Romance in Twelve Parts, and that it's quite wonderful, you'll naturally (and correctly) conclude that I'm biased. So I'll have to refer you to these good people, all of whom have reviewed it on the internet:
  • asmoranomardicodais at Gallifrey Base (a Doctor Who discussion forum where you'll need to register to read the post, unfortunately).
  • War Arrow (aka cover artist Lawrence Burton, who admittedly can't be called entirely unbiased either) at the Faction Paradox forum (which you won't need to register for, although you will unfortunately be spammed with unwanted video ads).
  • Andrew Hickey at his blog, which happily neither spams you nor demands your personal details.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point you to:
  • Emily Carter (scroll down to the bottom of the page), who mostly doesn't like it at all, but does make a grudging exception for my story.
An admiration for the stories by Matt Kimpton (Anglo-Saxon storyteller versus narrative-subverting witch), Blair Bidmead (the Faction does The Apprentice, with hilarious results), Ian Potter ("We are about to militarise the Peace") and Daniel O'Mahony (an unsettling and warped take on the myth of the American frontier) seems to be an emerging theme here, and quite deservedly so. People seem to like my story too, which is pleasing.

26 May 2011

Live Romance

Well, A Romance in Twelve Parts arrived with me on Thursday, and (as we expect by now from Obverse Books) it's a gorgeous-looking volume. As well as the other contributors' copies, I gather the first batch of orders has been sent out too (although the official publication date's this coming Tuesday, 31 May).

I've only read the first two stories, partly because -- having finished Embassytown, on which more soon -- I've also been rereading The City and the City, but partly because I'm wanting to savour it slowly, picking at the stories piece by piece, rather like the large vegetarian mezze B., R. and I shared at The Windmill this afternoon.

Those first two stories are brilliant, though. (You, er, don't need a declaration of interest at this point, do you[1]?) The excellent Matt Kimpton's opening story in particular -- about the Faction's dealings with an Anglo-Saxon storyteller and wannabe hero, born from a deep immersion in the culture and poetry of the era -- is so extremely good I feel quite embarrassed to be sharing a volume with it. (At least my story's up the other end of the book.)

I'm looking forward to sampling the others with... well, eager restraint. I bet they're good too, though.
[1] If you've somehow avoided gathering this from your prior reading of this blog, or if you've arrived here for the first time since about August, the collection contains my official, 10,000-word sequel to Of the City of the Saved..., "A Hundred Words from a Civil War". There's 1,100 words of bonus material available on my website, as well as a story I wrote a while ago (2,897 words, in case you're wondering), which acts as a kind of three-way bridge between "A Hundred Words", OtCotS... and my novella in The Vampire Curse. You can buy the book from Obverse Books, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com, so please do.

11 May 2011

I Heart Surgery

That plan of reviewing the books I was reading hasn't gone well, has it? I accidentally keep reading more. I now have Moon over Soho to review when I get time, among other things.

Meanwhile... erm, sorry. I'll stop plugging A Romance in Twelve Parts, which incidentally you can buy here or here, once it's been out for a short while, I promise. I'm probably overemphasising it a bit because it's been a couple of years now (yes, I know) since the last thing I wrote was published.

Meanwhile, Stuart's released the blurb, and it's splendid. Here, see:

     ‘What’s that? Did I hear you ask what romance has to do with anything, little Cousin? You do surprise me. Why Romance is Story itself, nothing less than that. Romance is the tale with which a cunning man winkles out a widow’s secrets and an honest one breaks his beloved’s heart. Romance locks us away and sets us free, brings us great pleasure and also great pain, is the thread which binds all other stories together. Dear me, little Cousin, I expected better of you...’

     – Godfather Valentine, Dresden, 1928
I love the callback to Lawrence Miles' sort-of prequel to Faction Paradox, Dead Romance, and the way that context makes this title sound like a dismemberment or a dissection.

21 April 2011

Books update 2: Witches and heretics

Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream is a a historical novel about Galileo Galilei, with SF interludes where time-travellers take him to visit the civilisation of human colonists living on the Galilean moons of Jupiter in 3020 AD.

This, at least, is true on the face of it (it's how Guardian reviewer Adam Roberts describes it, for instance). However, the history (though it is indeed meticulously researched) is continually inflected by Galileo's response to his revelations of the future, and in particular his efforts to escape the fate he has -- in these people's history but not in ours -- of being burned at the stake. While this certainly contributes much to an excellent novel of character and ideas, it renders it fairly dubious as a narrative based in historical events. (In this connection, the intervention of time-travelling agents using anachronistic technology at a crucial point in his heresy trial doesn't help.)

Galileo is richly and vividly imagined -- a brilliant, arrogant, insatiably inquiring character. We're spared neither the details of his various progressive illnesses nor his moral blindness, although the Jovians are there to comment and to challenge him on the latter (his conventional, monstrous treatment of his daughters, for instance) from what might just as well be the reader's 21st-century perspective. The novel's full of fascinating historical detail -- I hadn't known that the elderly Galileo met the young Milton, and Robinson makes a mordant play of their respective attitudes to blindness.

Philosophically, the novel deals with predestination and free will, understanding and ignorance, experimentation and revelation, in ways which are complex, subtle and never simplistic, involving some intricate inversions as the plot unfolds in the two timeframes. Just as in several other works of Robinson's (to which this is tied by a few links of continuity), future history becomes a vehicle for visionary writing. My main quibble is the same as Roberts' -- that (in a much lower wordcount than that of the painfully overlong Mars trilogy), the future society seen here isn't, by Robinson's usual standards, terrifically detailed or convincing.

It is, however, a bloody good read. Over this kind of length Robinson's style usually becomes dry, but that never happens here.

* * *

For ages I refused to read Terry Pratchett's Discworld subseries for young adults, the Tiffany Aching books. This was partly because I was annoyed by what I saw as a prevalent trend of packaging fantasy for children instead of adults (the same reason I've still not got round to China Miéville's Un Lun Dun), but mostly because I'd found the first book's titular characters too bloody annoying for words in Pratchett's earlier Carpe Jugulum.

This was silly of me, as I recently discovered after caving in and reading the first two: The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky. They're excellent novels about the lived experience of childhood, and tiny smurfish scots-speaking fairies play a relatively minor role in both. Carpe Jugulum was a poor novel which fails to live up to the promise of its "Witches vs Vampires" premise, whereas the two Tiffany books are excellent character studies of a young witch, which endeavour to deconstruct the fantasy clichés of certain other magical coming-of-age sagas I could mention.

Tiffany's experiences are both universal and highly individual. Her relationship with the Nac Mac Feegle (who, to be fair, are often very funny here) is subsidiary to the story of her origins and training as a witch, and her developing relationship with Granny Weatherwax, possibly Pratchett's finest continuing character since Equal Rites, who -- on the showing of these first two novels -- might end up as either her mentor or her archnemesis. At the same time, Tiffany's growth into a place in the adult world, her recognition of the various darknesses inside her and her learning to embrace and transcend them, are archetypal aspects of a child's journey into adulthood.

So yes, I was wrong. And I need to read Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight as soon as possible. Happy now?

20 April 2011

2011 Books Update 1: Blue Lamp, Black Arts

Right. I've repeatedly promised you book reviews, and despite the manifold distractions in my life at present, I am -- or at least, I strive to be -- a man of my word[1].

As it turns out, it's going to take several instalments. So here's the first...

First, Rivers of London by Doctor Who novel alumnus (and my one-time fellow contributor to this volume), Ben Aaronovitch. It's an urban fantasy with a strong narrator -- PC Peter Grant, a young policeman of mixed English and African heritage who's recruited to the minuscule division of the Metropolitan Police which deals with magical crime. It's a lovely mix of police procedural with magic -- not in itself unique, but the firm grounding in a contemporary London setting gives it a quite different flavour from, say, Terry Pratchett's City Watch novels.

Aaronovitch's love for his setting is very evident, based in historical events dating back to the Roman founding of the city, but embracing its present in its full multicultural glory. One particularly refreshing aspect is that none of the senior figures in the Met express the usual tedious scepticism about the phenomena Peter and his boss deal with -- to them, it's just one more jurisdictional turf war. The villain's identity is a very clever choice, and the mayhem sown by them is often graphically horrific.

If I have a reservation, it's that the prose -- narrated by the clear-headed and down-to-earth Peter -- reads like a superior quality bestseller. It's a canny commercial choice, but I do miss the more refined "literary SF" style of Ben's previous novels. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward keenly to reading the sequel, which turned up on my doormat yesterday.

I wasn't expecting, when I read Rivers of London, to be almost immediately reading another London-based fantasy involving the magical division of the Met, but then I started Kraken by China Miéville [WARNING: Link contains radical politics which may disorient and confuse]. Here the police are not uncomplicated heroes, or indeed the viewpoint characters, although they're not unsympathetic either.

The main character, though, is... well, it's complicated. It involves the Natural History Museum, taxidermy, giant squid cults, various supernatural custodians of London's cultural heritage, in vitro fertilisation and the power of throwaway banter to change the world. The world he moves through is enormously more complex still, although cults and magic of various inventive kinds play a substantial role. The book's relentlessly inventive -- it feels like Miéville's let everything fantastical which came into his head during the writing of the highly disciplined The City and the City spill over into this volume, and the results are pyrotechnic.

Miéville's perennial habit of mashing together radical politics with fantasy tropes here becomes hilarious. My favourite weird concept -- although there are many worth mentioning, including some unexpected twists to the works of WH Hodgson and HH Munro -- is Wati, the Ancient Egyptian shabti figurine who led a proletarian revolt in the Duat and now organises a union of golems, familiars and other magical assistants.

Miéville's style is distinctly literary, so much so as to be difficult at times. In my current sleep- and energy-deprived state[2] I found it a challenge, but I like a challenge. His dialogue, in particular, is startling in the vividness with which he portrays completely different speech-patterns, slang styles and idiolects. (The main police character is, once again, a young PC and magic-user, female this time -- but a novel narrated by this one would make for an extremely tough read.) Yet again I'm looking forward to the author's next novel with keen anticipation.

Reviews of books not featuring magic policemen will follow shortly.
[1] Admittedly my word is "lenticular", but I do the best I can with it.
[2] R. is well over a year and a half old now. I was, to be honest, expecting parenthood to have got just a little less intense by this point.

19 April 2011


1. Buy new cooker online. Take careful note of the terms and conditions, which state that unless your existing cooker is thoroughly disconnected at time of delivery, the delivery staff will neither take it away nor install the new one for you.

2. Spend an evening with your head in a cupboard disconnecting wires.

3. Await delivery of new cooker.

4. Receive phone call informing you that the delivery staff have accidentally dropped your new cooker, which is now in bits, and that it will take a week to procure a new one from the manufacturers. Explain angrily that there's no way you'll be able to reconnect the old cooker safely, and that this means you'll be spending a week preparing meals for two adults and a one-year-old using a camping stove.

5. Spend a week preparing meals for two adults and a one-year-old using a camping stove.

6. Await delivery of new cooker.

7. Welcome delivery staff. Listen in appalled horror as they inform you that you've been too thorough in disconnecting the old cooker, that they need to reattach some of the screws you took out from the junction box, and that this is utterly, completely infeasible without a magnetic screwdriver, which, oops, they happen not to have with them that day. Watch as delivery staff demonstrate that, look, they're trying their best but, ooh, it's really hard.

8. Watch as wife demands access to junction box and reattaches screws with brisk efficiency. Try very, very hard not to giggle.

9. Watch as delivery staff install new cooker, take away old cooker and leave.

10. Victory dance.

11. [Optional] Agree to throw in new cooker free if potential buyers agree to purchase your house. Repeat from 1.

18 April 2011

Twelfths and Quarters

I'm working on a book review post. Honestly I am.

In the meantime, on with the plugging. Here's the updated cover of A Romance in Twelve Parts, due from Obverse Books on 31 May:

Note the rather lovely use of the blended-case font last used back in 2003-04 by Mad Norwegian for the titles of This Town Will Never Let Us Go and Of the City of the Saved....

You may also wish to speculate about what kind of animal that skull might belong to.

In other Obverse news, Stuart Douglas has recently announced a really exciting new venture -- periodical anthology series, the Obverse Quarterly, aimed at genre fans with eclectic tastes. Subscribers will receive four marvellously eclectic collections of short stories each year. (Individual titles can be bought separately, but as far as I can see the quirky mixture of styles and sources is part of the charm.)

The first four volumes are:
  • a collection of original horror stories edited by up-and-coming author Johnny Mains;
  • a volume of spin-off stories featuring Iris Wildthyme's Mexican wrestler pal Señor 105, edited by his creator Cody Quijano-Schell and featuring several of the same splendid contributors as A Romance in Twelve Parts;
  • a reprint of the short stories of Fitz James O'Brien, an early author of proto science fiction who even I've never got round to reading;
  • a collection of new stories featuring the classic pulp villain Monsieur Zenith the Albino, edited by Stuart and featuring stories from Paul Magrs, George Mann and -- deep breath -- Michael Moorcock.
All of which sound fantastic in their respective ways. The only one of those which doesn't immediately appeal to me is the horror anthology, but the pricing structure cleverly means it's £1.97 cheaper to subscribe to a year's worth of titles than to buy three individual ones.

I should clarify that I've no personal investment in any of these four volumes (although I've hopes of becoming involved in future years, naturally) -- I just think that this is a fascinating project for a contemporary small press to be embarking on, and want to publicise it as widely as I can. Which means telling all of you lovely people about it.

30 March 2011

A Romantic Autopsy

It's taken a little while, but Obverse Books have made the first of their Faction Paradox short story collections, A Romance in Twelve Parts, available for preorder at their website. As I may possibly have mentioned before, this anthology contains my 10,000-word sequel to Of the City of the Saved..., "A Hundred Words from a Civil War".

(It's also on Amazon, although there "Twelve" appears to be spelt "Twleve".)

Obverse have also announced the ISBN -- a thrilling 9780956560544 -- and a provisional cover image (as yet without the title added), which looks like this:

The list of stories is also included, to whit:
  • Alchemy - James Milton
  • Holding Pattern - Scott Harrison
  • Storyteller - Matt Kimpton
  • Gramps - Jon Dennis
  • Mightier than the Sword - Jay Eales
  • The Story of the Peace - Ian Potter
  • Print the Legend - Daniel O'Mahony
  • Nothing Lasts Forever - David N Smith and Violet Addison
  • Library Pictures - Stuart Douglas
  • Now or Thereabouts - Blair Bidmead
  • Tonton Macoute - Dave Hoskin
  • A Hundred Words from a Civil War - Philip Purser-Hallard
Daniel and Ian are among the best authors I know, and Matt, Jon, Blair, Dave -- actually, sod it, nearly all the other authors -- have contributed excellent stuff to previous collections including Obverse's Iris Wildthyme range. The book's going to be fab, and you should buy it.

As if you needed an extra inducement, I'm told that Iris herself features in Stuart's story, her first appearance in a Faction Paradox book since pp165-67 of Interference volume 2, very nearly twelve years ago.

Official word is now that A Romance in Twelve Parts will see publication on 31 May. When I have more information on that, I'll apprise you of it.

09 March 2011

Degrees of Separation

My word, you have all been patient.

The latest word is that publication of Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts, initially scheduled for last month, is now expected in April. Final tweaks to my story are being made this week.

So, here's the last of my pre-prepared deleted scenes. In the alternative universe where ‘A Hundred Words from a Civil War’ was published without the guest contributions, this drabble would have acted as a bridge between a scene set in Paynesdown District and one set in the Romuline District:.
     The persistent rain of Paynesdown forms a case-study for the potential weaponisation of the City’s gigaclimate being undertaken by meteorologists from Rullish District University, one of the students in whose Physics Department is secretly accumulating nuclear material at the behest of a cult whose restrictive views on the nature, definition and exclusive right to continued existence of ‘Chromosomal Humanity’ have led to their investigation by a Civil Intelligence Agent, whose partner was recently murdered using contact poison supplied by a neuro-bokor who is practicing experimental zombification processes on a consignment of slaves purchased from mercenaries from the Romuline District, where:
...a bunch more stuff happens. To find out what, you'll have to read the story itself once the book's published.

I'm hoping to do more bloggery shortly -- I very much want to review Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London and Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, and possibly the film version of Never Let Me Go, which I managed in an uncharacteristically toddler-free moment to see -- but for the moment toddlercare, work and the non-series novel I'm very, very, very slowly writing are pressing rather too insistently.

11 February 2011

'Road Lines'

What is the secret of the British ‘road lines’?

Across Britain, narrow lines can be observed at the edges of many roads. They occur close against the kerbside and parallel to it, on both major and minor highways. They occur singly or in pairs, appearing to be marked out in something similar to yellow paint. They range from two or three metres to many kilometres in length.

Where do the ‘road lines’ come from? Who makes them? What is their significance? Do they have a meaning -- and if so who, is intended to understand?

Millions of British motorists pass the ‘road lines’ in their cars each day, parking on them to visit the shops or pick their children up from school. None of them has the slightest clue as to the meaning of the mystery beneath their tyres.

02 February 2011

Cowboys and Indians

I'm beginning to suspect that Obverse Books' original plan to publish Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts this month may have been a tiny bit optimistic, and thus that my (no doubt annoyingly) persistent trailing of the book since October may have been premature. Obverse are a highly competent, not to mention lovely, small press, but the precedent for anyone managing to publish Faction Paradox books when they say they will hasn't been glorious, to say the least.

Nevertheless... here's the penultimate specimen of the eleven "Deleted Scenes" from my short story, "One Hundred Words from a Civil War":
     Once, the tribes of Mesara Plains Park sent their strongest, bravest young males to become bodyguards in the households of the rich. Now Mesara has been designated a Collateral Reservation, administered by a Sheriff from nearby Samraja District.
     The Mesarans are, to all intents and purposes, minotaurs, their human DNA ancestrally mingled with that of a proud species of bovinoid warriors. They do not accept subjugation willingly. Nor, now, is there any occupation for their restless youth.
     A troupe of them has surrounded the wagon-train bearing a gaggle of Samraji Civil servants. They brandish traditional axes and utter bloodcurdling bellows.
I'm not sure what I'll do after the next one. Possibly -- and I emphasise that this is contingent on my finding the time, energy and concentration span -- I'll make up some more, and carry on doing so until the book's published.

16 January 2011

The Adventure of the Anagrammatic Algebraist

I'm beginning to suspect, if I'm to keep this blog going at all, that I need to learn the art of writing pithy but substantial posts, rather than great long screeds which lay out my every passing thought on a topic.

As a first stab at that, here are brief(ish) reviews of the most recent pair of books I've read:

* * *

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks: The latest of Banks' loosely-linked Culture sequence, this combines enjoyably labyrinthine politics with giant space-opera battle and some serious philosophising. The necessarily murky foreign relations of a utopian society are, as ever, highlighted even while the setting itself is evoked with confidence and style.

The new element here is a corollary to an idea I've used in my own writing, of a highly technological society building its own Heaven where its citizens can survive after death. In the Culture universe, we learn, many civilisations have also built Hells in which the uploaded souls of their dead can suffer eternal torment in retribution for perceived misdeeds in life. It's an effectively nasty -- and as far as I'm aware original -- idea, and Banks is just the author to deplore it whilst still having some sadistic fun. (Indeed, a couple of passages suggest that these Hells should themselves be considered artworks in just this vein, as if Dante or Bosch -- or the Banks of Complicity and its ilk -- had worked in the arena of actual experience, rather than in depictive media.)

I suspect most sincere believers in the Christian Hell would see this as an obscene usurpation of God's prerogatives, and the novel didn't work very hard to convince me otherwise. There's also almost no indication of what most of the souls in the Hells have done to be consigned there: although a few are political prisoners, one presumes that many must be guilty of crimes which Banks and the reader would join their parent societies in decrying. Still, Surface Detail's Hells are, fairly uncomplicatedly, a metaphor for fundamentalist religion in general, and going into fictional doctrinal detail would have detracted from that.

It's a highly entertaining novel, but doesn't quite face up to the challenge it sets itself. And some of the Culture material feels very much as if it's re-exploring familiar ground -- an impression which one continuity-based revelation (in literally the last two words of the novel) does little to dispel.

* * *

Zero History by William Gibson: The conclusion to the rather startlingly named "Bigend Trilogy", in which Gibson turns essentially the same sensibility as created his science fiction works on the unadulterated contemporary world. Shockingly, I see that I never properly reviewed either Pattern Recognition or Spook Country, though I did praise them in passing here and there. Both are outstanding, and if you've enjoyed Gibson's SF I'd urge you to seek them out.

Zero History is as gorgeously written as ever, the information-dense prose nonetheless elegantly inventive and enthralling, the characters -- most notably the genially appalling capitalist anti-hero Hubertus Bigend -- convincingly drawn and detailed. As with Pattern Recognition and (the suspiciously similarly-named) Count Zero, one plot strand concerns a typically Gibsonian quest to track down the creator of some mysterious anonymous art -- in this case a "secret brand" of designer clothing. Although I do find discussion of fashion rather wearying, I enjoyed the branding motif in Pattern Recognition, and there's an entire thesis to be written about the parallels between these three realistic novels and the Sprawl trilogy.

Although ostensibly far more closely connected to Spook Country, with which it shares its two point-of-view characters, than to Pattern Recognition, it does a very clever thing with the structure of the trilogy, which I'd better conceal with whitespace (highlight to read): When Hollis Henry, the retired rock-musician protagonist of Spook Country, eventually meets the designer in question, she turns out to be logo-averse Cayce Pollard, whom we last saw performing a parallel quest some seven years earlier in Pattern Recognition.

Unfortunately, the anonymous-designer plot strand is rather perfunctorily resolved, and insufficiently well-integrated with the main plotline (which relates to the commercial rivalry between Bigend and a rogue operator for, erm, the contract to design clothing for the U.S. military). There's also a McGuffin which may be the nearest equivalent to a deux ex machina in a modern mainstream novel, but which equally seems to come out of nowhere. The book's a fantastic read, but ultimately I felt not quite as satisfying a novel as its two predecessors.

* * *

I've a couple of short-story anthologies to read next (both in series I've previously contributed to), but the next novel on my list is Rivers of London, a fantasy-police-procedural by the magnificently talented, and heretofore hopelessly undervalued, Ben Aaronovitch. I mention this mostly because I'm amused by the coincidence -- his two full-length Doctor Who novels draw heavily on the works of Gibson and Banks respectively -- but I'm looking forward to it enormously.

Finally, in a similar spirit of brevity, and in keeping with the mention of the police... here's one more teaser (the ninth of eleven, if I'm not mistaken) for my forthcoming short story "A Hundred Words from a Civil War" in Obverse Books's Faction Paradox anthology, A Romance in Twelve Parts:
     ‘Who was he?’ The investigator wears a greatcoat and muffler. ‘Apart from being a Remake, an academic and a closet gay, obviously. And taking his phobia of Tube travel as read.’
     ‘Remake?’ Inspector Inshaller stammers. ‘No, he was a maths lecturer. Dr Roamers-Jay.’
     ‘Oh, typical,’ he sneers. Hologlyphs in various alphabets and number-systems orbit his camelish face. ‘Someone’s leaving me a trail of dead Moriartys, and none of them are mine.’
     ‘Erm,’ Inshaller says. ‘No offence, but when we hired the Great Detective Agency, we were expecting someone a bit more...’
     ‘Heritage? Yeah,’ he sighs. ‘I get that a lot.’
The book's due out in the spring. Ordering details will appear here as soon as I have them myself.

03 January 2011

Twenty eleven, forty, twelve, one hundred

2011 will be the year I turn 40. That really doesn't seem feasible, somehow. I remember a time when I thought that any year with two nines in it sounded thrillingly futuristic.

Anyway, B. and I have spent the past week-and-a-half gadding about the country in the traditional manner, only this time with a toddler in tow to help keep things astonishingly overcomplicated. (One happy by-product of the necessary extensive disruption to said toddler's routine is that he now accepts sleeping in a cot that's across the other side of the room from our bed, rather than strapped to it, as being normal. This represents progress.)

Among the spoils of this Christmas's festive present exchange with our relatives are complete boxed sets of the incomparable and timeless Twin Peaks and the two best BBC sitcoms of the past decade, Outnumbered and The Thick of It. (OK, so that last one's technically B.'s.) Also Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, which sounds rather akin to James Blish's earlier biographical-novel-about-a-scientific-revolutionary-with-SF-visionary-scenes, Doctor Mirabilis.

New Year's Eve was beset and blighted by various illness afflicting B and our proposed guests, meaning that we spent the evening alone and went to bed at 10:30ish. There were far fewer fireworks let off in our immediate neighbourhood this inter-year midnight than last, which I approve of from the point of view of the environment and my sleep, though it's probably economically telling.

2011 is also the year in which the first Faction Paradox short-story anthology, A Romance in Twelve Parts, is due to be published by Obverse Books, including "A Hundred Words from a Civil War", the official sequel to my novel Of the City of the Saved.... I'm certainly looking forward to it more than I am the longevitudinal milestone I mentioned earlier. You may be too, in which case you may like to see another teaser in the form of a deleted drabble:
     A dragon hisses and snaps at its handler, tail thrashing, hungry for flesh. The hobbits are going to war against the ogres.
     The diminutive Citizens of Erbor District’s island margins have always had troubled relations with the beetle-browed giants of the uplands. These thickset Homo antecessor Citizens were once a culture of cannibals, and have gazed hungrily at their tiny Homo floresiensis neighbours since long before the collapse of invulnerability. Now they grind the hobbits’ bones to make their bread.
     In retaliation, the floresians have been domesticating the marshlands’ vicious monitor lizards.
     The dragon-handlers’ charges trudge onwards towards the foothills.
There, I've even annotated it with hyperlinks for you. Happy New Year.