16 December 2012

Mission to the Stars

I may not have updated this blog for the last two months; it may be true that nearly every update for the last two years has been plugging a book; there may be 20 or so updates I've promised in the past to put up, easily that many books I've read without reviewing, and any number of interesting thoughts I've been wanting to blog about before ending up simply not having the time... but never let it be said that I don't post a Christmas story here every damn year.

Until I run out of ideas, of course.  You can let it be said then.  

This is the one I sent out with my Christmas cards last year... as ever, there's a new one this year, but unless you're on my Christmas card list you won't be reading it until 2013. This one features Imogen Tantry, the 27th-century Jesuit and pope-in-waiting who appears in Predating the Predators and "De Umbris Idearum".

Past stories, including this one, are archived on my website.



     On top of the massive conical tree, a five-pointed star glistens and winks.
     As the priests approach, it opens all its eyes in alarm and takes fright. It launches itself away through the branches, chittering as it swings from arm to arm to arm to arm to arm. Centuries ago, the first human naturalists to land on Brising were astonished to find the descendants of starfish living in trees.
     To any Brisingi animal, of course, the Earthman and woman now traversing the forest floor look strange and ugly, their four-limbed frame and bilateral symmetry as unnatural as those of the crosses they wear. So far their companion, a cleric of native Brisingi stock, has refrained from commenting on this.
     ‘This is an out-of-the-way place,’ observes Father Soranzo, one of the human pair. It is not clear whether he means the town or the planet. The clerical party has come directly from Forest Town, the planet’s centre of human settlement and de facto capital, where the buildings merely look like trees. Elsewhere, across most of Brising’s wooded landmass, the towns are distinguished only by how densely populated the trees are.
     ‘Miracles tend to happen in obscure places,’ observes his female colleague, ‘when they happen at all.’
     ‘Indeed.’ Soranzo latches onto the back end of the sentence. As an investigator for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints his job is to strive energetically to disprove miracles, and he loves his work. ‘We have no proof that there’s been any miracle here. Even if we confirm the facts of the case, I’m still far from convinced there’s no scientific explanation.’
     Their hermaphrodite companion makes a fluting sigh of exasperation. ‘For the last time Father Soranzo, my people are complex organisms. We can’t regrow our limbs without divine aid, any more than you can.’
     To human eyes, the Right Reverend Hgnull, the Bishop of Forest Town and the senior Roman Catholic on Brising, looks very little like his-her ancient marine ancestors – themselves, of course, not true starfish but merely a close native analogue to the Earth echinoderm.
     If anything, the Bishop resembles an assemblage of different species of starfish grafted together, around a stocky central column. Nine sturdy legs carry this torso, while nine slender limbs branch from its top, each tipped with a circular, nine-fingered hand at whose centre is an eye. Brisingi are generally happy to do without clothes, but Hgnull affects a cloak-and-collar arrangement which approximates to the stole and clerical collar his-her human equivalent might wear. The bishop’s mottled skin is, as it happens, rather close to an episcopal purple.
     ‘Your Grace, I know.’ Soranzo holds up his hands placatingly. ‘Still, perhaps some kind of genetic throwback...’
     ‘That’s absurd, Father,’ snaps the woman who accompanies them. ‘If I laid an egg you’d consider it miraculous enough.’
     The Bishop giggles. Since his-her harmonious voice is produced by carefully modulating air flow through papullae, it’s a calculated noise rather than a spontaneous one. ‘Thank you, Monsignora,’ Hgnull says.
     ‘Nevertheless,’ Soranzo persists, ‘in some species of Earth starfish...’
     Monsignora Imogen Tantry tunes them out as best she can.


     Somehow, without asking for the honour and indeed rather to her dismay, Imogen Tantry has become the Pope’s go-to cleric for xenotheological issues – even when, as in this instance, they seem entirely routine apart from the involvement of alien believers.
     True, the appointment comes with its own (rather meaningless) courtesy title – and when the Holy Father (even a liberal reformer like Cosmas IX) commands, it is not for a mere priest to refuse her mission. Still, in all honesty the former Reverend Doctor (or, if one insisted, Mother) Tantry would prefer to have been left alone to her studies.
     Most recently, these have revolved around the simple but fundamental theological question: was Jesus’ the only Incarnation? If so (and this has certainly been the assumption of, well, all previous Catholic thought), then the question of why humanity, of all the species in the universe, was favoured with the sole manifestation of God in mortal form remains a baffling one.
     Through a combination of library research, fieldwork and buttonholing alien academics at conferences, Imogen has drawn up a list of 23 non-human religions whose fundamental principles are remarkably similar to those of Christianity and whose founders – living anywhere from a few centuries to three million years ago – were born or hatched or otherwise brought into existence in circumstances approximately analogous to those of the Christian Gospel narratives.
     The more unusual the alien biology, of course, the stranger the analogy becomes. Imogen’s favourite illustration of this is the Tripiktit legend of the male and female who, lacking as they did a spouse, were visited by an angelic thremale and conceived a holy larva. Certainly a virgin birth would mean little to the Brisingi, whose population centres are constantly awash with airborne male gametes and who regularly conceive with no thought whatsoever as to the providers’ identities.
     Not that the Brisingi have a Nativity-equivalent narrative – relatively few species do. This also irritates Imogen, as it effectively replicates the previous problem: why would God particularly favour these 24 sentient species above His other creations? If Tripiktit, why not Brisingi?
     One possibility, of course, is that every sentient species experiences an Incarnation event, but that only a minority result in organised religions. To Imogen, a loyal daughter of the Church, this thought is potentially troubling.
     Unfortunately, it has little connection with the matter in hand. Catholicism is by no means the dominant religion on Brising – there are few worlds where it is these days, certainly not Earth – but the planet has a well-established, majority-alien Catholic diocese. It was founded by the missionary Order of St Kloxoth, shortly after the planet came under the spreading hegemony of humanity, and has governed itself with humdrum banality ever since.
     The reports of Mhiskir’s visions, and the subsequent miraculous healings, are unprecedented on Brising but hardly elsewhere. There are standard routines for investigating them. Imogen feels, in point of fact, that the Holy Father is getting himself terribly worked up over nothing.


     Given how male germ cells saturate the air of Brisingi settlements, it is fortunate for human visitors that their smell is rather pleasant, somewhat like cloves. The intensity of the odour is the only real way to tell from ground level whether one is wandering through one of Brising’s cities or its countryside.
     The place the priests have come to visit is on a rising gradient of scent, the outskirts of a town whose surrounding trees are used as pasture for herds of food animals. The five-point treestar the party saw earlier was an outlier from such a herd.
     The Bishop scurries expertly up one particular tree, with a sudden turn of speed which forcibly reminds Imogen how ill-suited the Brisingi species is to ground-dwelling. A moment later, a platform is lowered on ropes, which she and Soranzo climb onto, to be raised up into the forest canopy.
     The clerics convene on a wide wooden deck slung between branches – the nearest thing to a building usually found in this kind of traditional settlement. At one end are an altar and a cross, flanked with conventional statues of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. A Brisingi priest greets them, along with a handful of his-her congregants. They vary widely in colour, as do all the species, but nearly all of them display the crouching, submissive posture which Imogen has come to associate with the Barren.
     Like most humans, most Brisingi retain their original sex throughout their life. Unlike humans, around a quarter of the population are male, biologically speaking, and a quarter female, with the remaining half being hermaphrodite. Tradition makes a different distinction, however.
     Before Brisingi scientists came to examine their own biology in detail, fertilisation was seen as a phenomenon without agency, as impersonal as the fog or rain. Nobody questioned the origins of the clovey scent surrounding their settlements, and the only difference they observed between the sexes was that three-quarters of the population – the females and hermaphrodites – regularly gave birth to young, whereas the remaining quarter did not.
     Even today, the pronouns in most Brisingi languages equate to ‘she’ for the ‘fertile’ three-quarters, and ‘it’ for the remaining males. In English, for the sake of politeness and (relative) accuracy, these are generally rendered as ‘he-she’ and ‘he’.
     Although it is now generally understood that the so-called ‘Barren’ contribute with the hermaphrodites to the common aerial genetic pool, nonetheless the planet’s less enlightened cultures continue to treat them as an underclass, untouchable lest their reproductive uselessness rub off on more fertile members of society. The worst regimes, with self-perpetuating idiocy, sterilise them.
     Often they are used as cheap labour, trafficked and indentured, ill-treated and abused. As in the past, in the Roman Empire and Imogen Tantry’s native India, it is largely to this caste that Christianity on Brising appeals.
     In this region, most of the Barren work as treestar-herds for rich farmers. Their employers harshly punish such crimes as laziness, theft or disrespect, wherever (and however inaccurately) they perceive them. This explains one especially noticeable thing about this small congregation, which is how many of its members are missing one or more arms.
     In an eighteen-limbed species this is of course a less drastic punishment than it would be among humans, but to Imogen’s eyes it still appears barbaric.
     This despite the fact that all the arms which have been thus removed are now quite visibly growing back.


     The Bishop ushers forward one of the Barren, a ruddy, stippled individual whose smaller stature betrays his relative youth. His missing arm has now grown back to nearly two-thirds of its original length, its end already circled with stubby fingers.
     ‘This,’ Hgnull tells the humans, ‘is Mhiskir. He was brought here half a year ago, from the other side of the continent, then indentured as a treestar-herd.’
     It was Mhiskir whose vision started the current spate of miraculous healings in this outcast community. It was (if the Order of St Kloxoth, who still take an interest in the planet, can be believed) a vision of the Blessed Mhust, the first Brisingi to convert to Catholicism and a hot contender for sainthood. The Kloxothans, whose patron was also of the extraterrestrial persuasion, precipitated the priests’ current mission on Brising.
     It soon becomes clear, however, that the account which reached the Order was deficient in certain vital respects.
     ‘Was it the Blessed Mhust you saw, Mhiskir?’ Father Soranzo asks, getting straight to the point.
     ‘I suppose,’ Mhiskir says. The lad is shy, and speaks no English. The local priest acts as his interpreter. ‘It was a Brisingi, all shining with light. I suppose it must have been.’
     ‘Who did you tell about it first?’ Soranzo asks.
     ‘I went straight to the treestar pens and told my boss,’ Mhiskir says. ‘But he-she said I was wicked and arrogant to say such things. Then he-she chopped off my arm.’
     Imogen winces. Then, intrigued, she asks, ‘Why wicked? Is your boss a Catholic, Mhiskir?’
     ‘Not him-her,’ the Brisingi says. ‘No way. He-she didn’t like what the shining Brisingi said to me.’
     ‘Which was?’ asks Soranzo. A look of some significance passes between Mhiskir, the native priest and the bishop. Then one of the parishioners scampers away in search of something, and Hgnull turns his-her eyes towards Imogen.


     ‘They didn’t know what to do at first,’ the Bishop says. ‘When the story of the healings got out, the priest confided in me, and I contacted His Holiness directly. I requested that he send you specifically, Monsignora.’
     The human clerics look at him-her in bafflement. Then Soranzo repeats, ‘What did it say? What did the vision say to you, Mhiskir?’
     The local priest translates again. ‘That I would have a child,’ Mhiskir says simply, and all along Imogen’s arms the hairs stand on end.
     Mhiskir continues. ‘I asked, “How can I? Surely you know I’m Barren.” “But God will find a way,” the figure said.’
     The parishioner returns with great care, supporting a basket in three arms. Mhiskir takes it and rocks it, making gentle shushing noises, before showing it to the humans.
     ‘It’s not the Blessed Mhust who’s been healing people,’ Mhiskir tells them. ‘It’s him.’
     Nestled in cushioned fabric lies an arm. A Brisingi limb, the same dappled red as Mhiskir’s own. At one end fingers flex, and the hand’s central eye regards them solemnly.
     At the other – the plane where it was sliced from Mhiskir’s shoulder – a new torso is growing. Already the columnar form of a Brisingi, with nine legs and eight other, tiny, fragile waving arms, is present in miniature.
     ‘Oh my,’ says Imogen.
     This child was born – not that that can really be the word – in animal pens, after his father had made a long journey. His birth came with its own stigma of implausibility – the child of a male, a virgin birth on a world with no concept of virginity. It is impossible, surely, for this creature to exist.
     No, not impossible. Miraculous.
     Imogen looks at her two companions: Hgnull, quivering now with this revelation of the great secret, Soranzo looking simply dumbfounded.
     Far above their heads, a treestar chitters. It is almost as if the three of them followed it here.
     ‘I’m very sorry,’ Imogen says politely. ‘I’m afraid we haven’t brought a thing to give him.’

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2011
Merry Christmas, one and all.

20 October 2012

Book: Burning

I seem somehow to have neglected to mention here that Burning with Optimism's Flames, the Faction Paradox anthology in which my short story "De Umbris Idearum" appears alongside the work of numerous exciting authors, is actually out in ebook format, and can be bought from Obverse Books, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The hardback is expected soon, although I believe there's some kind of delay at the printer's.

The redoubtable Andrew Hickey has already reviewed the book in glowing terms. I'm nearly halfway through, and while it's obviously not a disinterested opinion, I entirely agree with him.

I've had an absurdly unpleasant and stressful week, or I'd certainly have mentioned on Wednesday that the previous Faction Paradox collection, A Romance in Twelve Parts (including my short story "A Hundred Words from a Civil War"), was going free on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com that day. Even without my tireless self-promotion, though, it briefly reached the dizzying heights of number 4 in Amazon's SF and fantasy download charts.

In City of the Saved news, Tales of the City has had a moderately approving review from no less reputable a source than The British Fantasy Society. I've also put the Background Notes which I prepared some time ago for prospective authors of future City of the Saved stories up on my website. This is the generic City background material, not the stuff relating to any particular anthology, but still, you may find it of interest.

Incidentally, I'm doing some more editing, and so far I'm enjoying it as much as I did last time. I'm not mentioning the project in question publicly at the moment, so the connection between this paragraph and the preceding one is left as an exercise for the reader.

07 October 2012

A Man of Substance

Here's some of the thing I'm writing at the moment:
     Señor 105 grunted. He was a man of immense solidity, his gray-blue business suit packed with granite-hard muscle tissue. He looked as if he could absorb the impact of a medium-sized family saloon car and stay standing, though possibly slightly dazed. His face was obscured by a grey mask, with huge black ovals concealing his eyes, two tiny nostril-holes and the number 54 stitched across its forehead. The frightening effect was mitigated, partly by the way it disclosed his mouth and grizzled goatee beard, but mostly by the brown fedora he wore over the top of it.

     Above his right shoulder bobbed a delicate shell-pink balloon.

     ‘I don’t know,’ the Señor admitted reluctantly. Linguistics, like most areas of human knowledge, were something of a specialty with him. ‘The writing system is like nothing I’ve seen before. Some of the symbols could come from ancient languages, though not the Roman alphabet we in the West use. Others seem new.’ Though built like the wrestler he was, Lori’s friend was also the scientist and scholar which his masks, each themed around one of the 105 known elements in the periodic table, would suggest. He had told Lori that the one he wore today represented xenon, whose name came from the Greek word for ‘alien’.
Señor 105 is a masked Mexican wrestler, or luchador. He wears 105 masks, and is known as Señor 105, because he lives in a perpetual early 1970s where seaborgium and its successors are as yet unheard of [1].
As well as being a wrestler, 105 is a scientific genius, a polymath, a man of peace though capable of great violence, a friend to children and to stray balloons housing sentient isotopes of helium [2]. He regularly fights to save Mexico City and the world from such threats as aliens, monsters, giant robots, jackalopes, dinosaurs and men with dangerously enthralling moustaches.

Like many of the central characters in the stories I've written, Señor 105 isn't my creation. He was invented by Cody Quijano-Schell (who also produced the splendid cover for Tales of the City) for his story "Iris Wildthyme y Señor Cientocinco contra Los Monstruos del Fiesta" in Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus. In his first appearance, Señor 105's job was essentially to welcome Iris -- a personal friend of, among others, Carnacki, Professor Challenger, Santa Claus and Doctor Who -- into the weird genre world of Lucha libre. Even here, however, the wrestler comes across as the hero of his own adventures: already the story reads as a crossover with a series which hasn't happened yet.

Which, at the time, was true. Since then, however, the Señor has reappeared at novella length (also written by Cody) in Miss Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, starred in his own volume of the Obverse Quarterly, Senor 105 and the Elements of Danger (which allowed six other authors to provide their own takes on the character), and most recently spun off into his own range of e-novellas, The Periodic Adventures of Señor 105 from Manleigh Books (by diverse hands -- one of which, it would now appear, is mine).

I love Señor 105's surreal, pulpy world, which is explicitly posited on the fact that anything can happen at any time with no particular need for scientific explanation (frustrating though the latter fact often is to the rational-minded 105 himself). It's why I've chosen one particular old, rejected proposal, whose opening chapter I posted here quite some time ago, to form the basis of the story.

I have to admit that Mexico, and the Lucha libre genre particularly (which, outside the Señor 105 adventures, I've only ever encountered through that Angel episode), are some distance outside my usual comfort zone, which is probably why my story takes the luchador and his friends to the relatively neutral territory of the United States. It's also the first time I've written somthing for e-publication only, which feels a little odd.

It's not necessarily a final title, but so far my novella's called The Ghosts of Odin-Hotep. I'll keep you posted as it progresses.

Incidentally, there's a fine gallery of Señor 105 fan art here.

[1] If he remains active to the present day -- which is doubtful, as he's in his 50s in 1970 -- he's presumably be known either as Señor 114 (in which case his highest-numbered mask will confusingly be 116) or Señor 116 (in which case he'll be two masks short).
[2] Her name's Sheila, incidentally. Lori, the Señor's other friend, is a freelance detective with a totally explicable penchant for dressing up as a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman.

21 September 2012

Matt Kimpton

Just a note to record my sadness at the recent passing of Matt Kimpton, a short-story writer who moved in some of the same circles as me and whose writing I very much admired. His death at the age of 35 is tragically premature.

I didn't know Matt well -- we'd never met in person -- but we had enough of the same friends that I felt the benefit of his witty, self-deprecating humour on Facebook and elsewhere. Much of his work was in oral storytelling -- he held the position of Chief Skald of Suffolk from 2010 to 2011 -- but he also wrote with humour and humanity about his life-threatening illness, notably here in the Independent. His stories, should you choose to seek them out, were 'Life After Queth' in Short Trips: Farewells, 'Shadow of Times Before' in The Panda Book of Horror and 'Storyteller' in A Romance in Twelve Parts. His final published fiction (as far as I know) is due to be released in The Casebook of the Manleigh Halt Irregulars, one of the titles in Year 2 of the Obverse Quarterly, due out later in the year.

'Storyteller' is a wonderful piece, set in Anglo-Saxon England and drawing heavily on the skaldic storytelling tradition. Like all the authors in A Romance in Twelve Parts, Matt kindly used his contribution as a springboard to provide a guest drabble for my own story, 'A Hundred Words from a Civil War' (it's number LXIV, and one of my favourites). I very much hoped that I'd be able to get a longer City of the Saved story out of him one of these days.

I'm very sorry to have seen the last of Matt. He was a funny, generous, popular man who will be very much missed. I'll be thinking of his family and friends as they say farewell to him today.

19 September 2012

The Other Problem of Susan

In an effort to keep better track of my reading and book ownership than my ageing parental mind can manage these days, I recently joined Goodreads, a highly specialised social networking site which enables users to keep track of each other's reading habits, post reviews, discuss books and the like -- and, if they're authors, promote their own stuff, which I need to get round to doing properly. Given the rate at which people typically read books, it's not the busiest forum on the internet, but I'm finding it useful and fun so far.

(If you're on Goodreads, I'm here -- and I do own more than 450 books, it's just that entering them all takes time.)

One thing I'm trying to use it for is posting mini-reviews of books as I finish them -- I've managed so far, although as I only joined a month or so ago this only applies to six books to date. This should help this blog in the long run, as all I'll need to do to create a book review roundup post is cut and paste from Goodreads. (I've got a fair bit of catching up to do, though. At some point I'll try to transfer the reviews I've posted here in the other direction too. I've already done it for Dune.)

Which brings me to this: the venerable British fantasist Alan Garner recently released an adult sequel to his first two novels, the children's fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In honour of this, I reread the first two books for probably the first time since I was about fifteen, before proceeding to the sequel, Boneland. Here are the Goodreads reviews, written as I worked my way through the series.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Well, Garner could certainly write, even in his twenties. The prose is bleakly, laconically poetic, the dialogue manages to be memorable rather than blandly archaic, and the book's full of images which have stayed with me in the 25 years between readings. The sequence of squirming through a tunnel deep underground may actually be responsible for my strong dislike of caves as an adult, and I found rereading those passages physically stressful, to the extent that I had to keep setting the book aside and reminding myself of where I really was. That's good writing.

Amongst all that, the plot barely matters, but it's amusing to realise now the extent to which Garner simply took the story of The Lord of the Rings and reset it in Cheshire, with children playing the hobbits. The Cadellin-Grimnir-Nastrond setup is irresistibly reminiscent of Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron, and the book features dwarves, elves, trolls, farmers, mines, goblins under a different name and a beautiful woman in a forest handing out gifts (although many of these, the "mara" troll-women especially, are creatively different from Tolkien's). There's even a jewel -- the titular Weirdstone -- which has to be taken to an arbitrary place in order for the plot to end.

It's obvious, though, that plot isn't really Garner's priority. (At one point, a random unexplained stranger arrives on a magic horse, gives everyone a lift from one geographical location to another, then buggers off again.) The story is compelling, which is what matters, and it acts as a framework for Garner's haunting words and images.

I'm following this up with The Moon of Gomrath, as a prelude to reading Garner's demicentennial sequel, Boneland.

The Moon of Gomrath

This is an altogether different proposition from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The prose is still bleakly beautiful, but the characters are better developed, more assertive and more independent after their experiences of the last novel, and the story is far more creative. The imagination which created elements like the mara and the lyblacs for the last book is given full rein here. The bodachs, the palugs, above all the Brollachan, are all weird and disturbing creations not found elsewhere in fantasy.

That's not to say there are no influences. There are a few Lord of the Rings echoes still -- the magical McGuffin is now a series of ancient bracelets of lunar power, one of which is revealed to be wielded by the last book's Galadriel substitute -- and the focus on the Morrigan as primary villain recalls CS Lewis' White and Green Witches in the Narnia books. (Rather shockingly for a trilogy whose third volume has just been published, it was less than half a decade between the publication of The Last Battle and that of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.)

That said, The Moon of Gomrath's evocation of a matriarchal Wild Magic pre-dating the masculine wizardly magic of Cadellin and co prefigures multiple examples of children's fiction, from the weird hierarchy of High, Dark, Light and Wild Magics in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence to Terry Pratchett's treatment of witchcraft in the Tiffany Aching books.

For me there's nothing quite so memorably upsetting as the underground sequences in Weirdstone, but the developing both of Garner's cosmology and of the individual characters of the children (especially Susan, emerging triumphantly from her brother's shadow here) make this the better, more sophisticated book. The hints of Susan's and Colin's futures (we're told casually on the penultimate page that the latter "never found rest again") make the eventual publication of Boneland, if not inevitable, then something many of this book's readers have probably been waiting fifty years for.


Boneland is essentially the story of the psychoanalysis of Colin, the male co-protagonist of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath -- now an adult of indeterminate middle age, working as a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank and living in a shack at Alderley Edge. Beyond a few significant flashbacks he has no memory of his childhood adventures, but he retains the trauma of them, especially the disappearance of his twin sister Susan.

Boneland takes place in the same landscape as the earlier Alderley books, but it is no longer the haunt of elves, dwarves and wizards. This book's fantastical elements arise more subtly from Susan's implicit fate (only foreshadowed in The Moon of Gomrath, although Colin's reading of the outcome is convincing in the light of what we saw there), and what emerges as the unusual nature of his analyst. There's also a series of time-hopping reversions to the prehistoric life of a man who turns out to be a Homo erectus shaman also inhabiting Cheshire, seeking a successor to his post of observing and thus maintaining the world, whose relation to the main narrative is definite but elusive.

Though of no great length, Boneland is a dense, slippery text which starts off close to incomprehensible but becomes crystal clear as one learns to inhabit the storytelling. That's the kind of reading experience I always find rewarding, but it's not the light read its predecessors were.

In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as the revisionist texts which reinterpret much-loved works of children's fantasy through a filter of adult understanding and knowledge: Lev Grossman's Magicians sequence and Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan" (both dealing with the Narnia books) spring most readily to mind, but one could also cite Alan Moore's Lost Girls (Alice, Peter Pan, Oz) or Geoff Ryman's Was (Oz).

In most such stories, adventures are re-examined as traumatic, paradigm-shaking experiences which can neither be revisited nor fully shared, but which will colour the rest of the adventurer's life; child protagonists are followed into their problematic adulthood, with the psychological fallout of their pasts unflinchingly surveyed; and parental figures, even God-analogues, are interrogated and found wanting in benevolence and responsibility.

Boneland is exactly that kind of revisitation of past innocence with a cynical half-century of hindsight -- indeed, the Alderley books are of essentially the same vintage as the Narnia cycle, with less than half a decade separating Weirdstone (1960) from The Last Battle (1956). However, Boneland has the unique qualification that it's not a piece of sophisticated fanfic based around the Alderley books, but the authentic work of their original author. If CS Lewis had survived until 2008 and suddenly written an eighth Narnia book at the age of 110, it would have been comparable.

The original books are essential reading for fully understanding Garner's own Problem of Susan (although there's one non-revelation which might have been more effective if read in isolation from them). The primary source of Colin's trauma particularly makes no sense without such background knowledge: suffice it to say that what Colin thinks of as a curse may be, given its source, the nearest thing available to a blessing. The narrative is rife with this kind of unresolved moral inversion, however, and in the end the subjective ambiguity of Colin's childhood experiences grows to dominate the book.

Although I loved the Alderley books as a child, I'm ashamed to say that I've not actually read Alan Garner's other adult novels, nor even his other children's novels, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift. My parents told me at the age of 10ish that they'd be too difficult for me, and I somehow never caught up with them later in life. I intend to rectify this soon.

12 September 2012

Feeling Testy

Like most male authors who profess to have a clue about feminism, I sometimes fret about unconscious gender bias in my work. There's no real way to tell whether your work is accidentally sexist: I try my hardest to avoid many of the well-known pitfalls, from the trivial (like making characters male -- or indeed heterosexual, white etc -- by default) to the absolutely appalling (like the casual use of rape as a plot point), but heaven only knows how many solecisms I'm committing unwittingly.

One test which is often applied to texts (usually films) is the Bechdel Test, first posited by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 and taken up by feminist commentators since. The Bechdel Test proposes that, as a kind of minimum threshold of gender awareness:
  1. A film should have two women in it.
  2. They should talk to each other.
  3. The conversation should be about something other than a man.
As I say (and leaving aside the tricky issue of how the character in the comic knows in detail what conversations a film might include before she goes to see it), this test was designed for films, and it's not infallible even there. Some films have settings which would realistically exclude women; some have no dialogue; some are entirely about penguins.  None of these approaches are inherently anti-feminist. However, astonishing numbers of works fail the Bechdel Test without any such excuse.

It's instructive, though not entirely equivalent, to apply the test to literary works to see whether its criteria are being met, and if not, whether this is for a good reason or a useless one.

What follows is a Bechdel-Test tour of my published work. If whiny post-feminist man-angst annoys you, you're probably better off going and watching Steel Magnolias or Fight Club, depending on preference.

My entries in The Book of the War (2002): A tricky one to start off with, as The Book as a whole has virtually no dialogue, and my segments certainly don't. One can assume that Amanda Legend Lefcourt and Dauphine Malatesta had conversations together, but they were presumably at least partly about Lord Foaming Sky, whom Malatesta assassinated. I think we have to discount this one as inconclusive. 0/0.

'Scapegoat' (2003): The entire story is two blokes talking. At the end, one of them uses a woman for transitory sexual relief. A pretty ignominious failure at the second hurdle. 0/1.

Of the City of the Saved... (2004): Several examples, thankfully (although it should be pointed out that there's a heck of a lot more scope for a variety of scenes in an average-length novel than in an average-length movie). A little under half the significant characters are of the female persuasion (not all the remainder are male). Laura Tobin and Mesh Cos, Mesh and Kyme Janute (twice), Tobin and Compassion III and Tobin and Civitata, all talk of things other than the late Ved Mostyn. Admittedly three of those characters were originally the same woman, while Janute is accidentally rather than essentially female, having like all the Manfolk been born male. Still, it would be hard to argue that this doesn't pass. 1/2.

'Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants' (2004): There's only one woman in the story. This is mostly because the majority of the characters are either Jason Kane or a clone of him, but still. However I justify it, this one's a fail. 1/3.

Peculiar Lives (2005): This is also a bit difficult, as: a) the narrator's a man and we see most of what happens through his eyes; b) it's a deliberate pastiche of a particular type of inter-War SF, where articulate women weren't thick on the ground. Even so, I think it scrapes through: Emily and Freija have an exchange in Erik's hearing about Emily's past (or lack of one). You could discount it on the technicality that Freija's too young to be considered a woman, but I'm sure that's not what the original rule had in mind. 2/4.

'Minions of the Moon' (2005): Iris Wildthyme attempts to seduce Harry Peerless, who is in fact Olivia Somerset in drag. A cunningly disguised pass. 3/5.

'The Long Midwinter' (2005): A bit of a mess generally, this story has the Doctor and two obscure companions I didn't care about (one male, one female) visiting the posthuman inhabitants of a brown dwarf world. The locals have a sensible male-female mix, but we mostly see them interacting individually with the visitors, and there are no conversations between women. Fails the test, clearly. 3/6.

'The Ruins of Time' (2006): This time the TARDIS's complement includes the Doctor's granddaughter Susan and her redoubtable history teacher Barbara -- as well as Barbara's companion Ian and the Doctor himself -- but the pair of them don't actually have a conversation together. Nor do they talk to any other women, because every other character in the story's a hermaphrodite. Another fail (unless, of course, you count the hermaphrodites as both men and women). 3/7.

Five vignettes and a co-written story in Collected Works (2006): Individually some of these fail the Bechdel Test, but individually the vignettes are so short it hardly seems fair to apply a diversity standard to them.  Taken en masse (and ignoring the fact that the members of the Quire are technically part of the same metahuman individual whose gender is indeterminate), we see Bev Tarrant talking to Dorso about the Quire's position on the Braxiatel Collection, Bernice talking to Dorso about parenting styles, and Dorso talking to Incunabula (like Freija a girl rather than a woman, although in her case this is less certain) about complete nonsense. The co-written story, 'Future Relations', has a couple of conversations between Bernice and Verso, but they're all about Verso's boyfriend Parasiel. Nonetheless, an overall pass. 4/8.

Nursery Politics (2007): Bernice and Ithva the Draconian ambassador's wife (and imperial spy) have a lengthy conversation ranging through politics, literature, parenting and military history. Bernice also speaks at length to a character named Victoria, but 'she' turns out to be a neuter shapeshifting sponge with a fragmented polysexual personality. Pass. 5/9.

Predating the Predators (2008): Most of the main characters are women this time -- two of the three narrators and the primary villain -- although most of the supporting cast (an alien mad scientist aside) are male.  As the climax approaches there are several conferences and confrontations involving Imogen, Bernice, Elanore and Leustassavil, though none of these happen without men present. Still, for the test as phrased, it's a pass. 6/10.

'Battleship Anathema' (2009): No, this one's hopeless. Again it's a pastiche, but of something whose own gender balance isn't actually too bad. The longest scenes are Iris's conversations with Admiral Rex Halidom and Archdeacon Barnaby: there's no good reason for them to be male except that I wanted to write in the voices of Edward James Olmos and Dean Stockwell. There are female characters other than Iris, but very little's made of them. Big fail here. 6/11.

'A Hundred Words from a Civil War' (2011): In a drabble, every word counts, and a conversation between two people of the same gender can waste valuable words identifying them with more than a 'he' and 'she'. There are a number of contextless conversations where we don't know the gender of the speakers, but we can hardly count those. A scene between a female Pope and a vampire queen fails because they're discussing assassinating the (male) Mayor. Nonetheless, there's one scene which qualifies -- the trench-warfare segment in which Capt 'Spiky' Sperrin and Lt 'Fanny' Featherstone discuss the imminent zeppelin-zombie attack. This is mildly embarrassing, as I only changed the soldiers' sexes at the last minute. Still, another pass. 7/12.

Framing sequences for Tales of the City (2012): 'Akroates' is a meditative piece, with almost no action or dialogue. 'Apocalypse Day' brings together the characters (three female, four male, plus one husband) from the other stories in the book, but then splits them up so none of the women are talking to any of the others. I really have no idea why I did that, unless it's the convenience of the aforementioned 'he said' / 'she said' shortcut. A fail, and it really didn't need to be. 7/13.
Additionally, I'm sorry to say my Burning with Optimism's Flames story fails (due to being mostly about Roman Catholic priests in the past and present, although Imogen from Predating the Predators reappears), as does my recently completed novel (being largely about the patriarchal power structures of traditional stories). So even that feeble score's going to take a sharp downturn imminently.

Part of what this highlights is that the Bechdel Test, being designed for contemporary film, isn't actually very good at the less conservative end of science fiction. Futuristic material may have less excuse for marginalising women (hence Alien being the example given in that original strip), but SF can do things with gender that are an awful lot more radical than simply attempting parity between the sexes. Between them, my stories feature a busload of hermaphrodites, neuter individuals both organic and machine, naturally sex-changing characters, composite individuals, occasional mentions of trisexual species and a transvestite.

(This may sound like a parochial objection, but... well, mainstream fiction can also do transvestites.The Bechdel Test assumes rigid gender identities, such that characters can be unambiguously classed as "men" or "women", and that can be an issue in non-SF too. If two post-op male-to-female transsexuals discuss a pre-op friend, does that pass the Bechdel? If two Roman matrons discuss a eunuch slave, does that fail?)

This does make it particularly frustrating that 'The Ruins of Time' fails, because the hermaphrodite milieu is striving quite strenuously to question our (and cause the 1960s human characters to question their) accepted constructions of gender.

Mostly, though, I have to admit that my stories don't have that kind of mitigating factor. Which suggests that I really need to think harder about this kind of thing.

10 August 2012

Burning Issue

I promised myself I'd add at least one ordinary, discursive, non-publicity post here before the next book came along that I needed to pimp. Obviously events overtook me there.

Julian "Jay" Eales, who way back in the twentieth century published me in the Doctor Who 'fanthologies' Perfect Timing 2 and Walking in Eternity, is editing a Faction Paradox anthology for Obverse Books, a follow-up to A Romance in Twelve Parts named Burning with Optimism's Flames.  He's been releasing teasers for the stories at his blog, Factor Fiction.  The final story in the collection -- and therefore the final teaser, posted today -- is 'De Umbris Idearum', written by me.

As a reader as well as a contributor (and indeed as a fellow editor), I'm enormously impressed with the talent Jay's assembled for the collection. Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis and Kelly Hale have all written fantastic stuff for Faction Paradox and elsewhere in the past, including The Book of the War and Kelly's fantastic Erasing Sherlock. Sarah Hadley is another relic of those ancient fanthologies, whose short stories I greatly enjoyed at the time. Stephen Marley wrote the astoundingly fine Doctor Who novel Managra, which has been a huge source of inspiration to me (it features numerous characters from different eras of history -- plus Popes, vampires and clones of fictional characters -- interacting in a huge second-millennium-Europe theme park, which may give you some idea). And, of course, I'm very pleased indeed to see the three new-to-Obverse writers who I recruited for Tales of the City -- Helen Angove, Elizabeth Evershed and Juliet Kemp -- returning for this volume. I'm not familiar with the work of the other five contributors, but if they're up to the same standard then Burning with Optimism's Flames will be a real treat for its readers.

My story's a grand historical epic of Popes, cults and heretics, ranging across twelve centuries. It's the first Faction Paradox story I've written which doesn't involve the City of the Saved in any way, although both Mother Imogen Tantry, later Pope Beatrix II (from The Vampire Curse and "A Hundred Words from a Civil War") and Father Self of Faction Paradox (seen in flashback in Of the City of the Saved...) appear. It looks as if it's appearing last in the volume, so I'm going to have a hard set of acts to follow.

I'll update you all when Burning with Optimism's Flames becomes available to pre-order. Meanwhile I've set up a page for the book at my website, which gives you very slightly more information about the story.

22 June 2012

I'll Be Bound

Paper copies of Tales of the City [NB: note new link to dedicated ordering page] are now available, and some of them are in my possession. The wonderful cover looks even better wrapped around a crisply-printed, well-laid-out book full of narrative goodness, without (as far as I can see so far, anyway) any of the accidental printing glitches I feared. (B. has however found a space missing after a full stop, which will be entirely my fault and for which I can only apologise.)

I'm delighted, obviously -- although the ebook's been out for a while, and has even garnered one highly positive review, my understanding of publishing was formed long enough ago that a book never feels published to me until its contents can be pinned down and contained between covers. It's never felt more appropriate to refer to paper books as "bound".

To celebrate, I've updated my website with the extras for the book, including the author biogs (previously posted here), a City of the Saved chronology and... what I'm nervous about calling, but has to be considered in purely chronological terms to be, the Last Ever City of the Saved story. It's called "God Encompasses", and it follows on directly from the events of "A Hundred Words from a Civil War" and "Apocalypse Day". (Both "God Encompasses" and the City chronology contain SPOILERS for Tales of the City, so caveat lector.)

It's not anyone's intention that this should be the last City of the Saved story published, however. I've massively enjoyed the editing process for Tales, and I hope it will be the first of, if not many then at least several, collaborations of the kind with Obverse Books. News of further City volumes should hopefully be posted here in due course.

01 June 2012

Trailers of the City #6

Since the ebook of Tales of the City is due out today, with the physical codices to follow in a week or two, it's time for the last in my occasional series of trailers for the anthology.The sixth and final full-length story is by Mr Dave Hoskin:
Dave Hoskin is a writer living in Melbourne. His fiction has appeared in Doctor Who – Short Trips: Transmissions, Bernice Summerfield: Something Changed, Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts, Midnight Echo and World's Collider. His non-fiction has appeared in The Big Issue, Metro, Australian Book Review and Overland. His favourite colour is jam, his favourite band is world peace, and his favourite pastime is closed for renovations. Currently he has no bruises, but several scars. Some of them are visible to passersby.
I first encountered Dave's work in Something Changed, to which I thought his contribution was outstanding. His name didn't stick with me, though, until 'iNtRUsioNs', his splendidly disturbing piece in Transmissions -- again, one of the best stories in a far stronger collection. His Faction Paradox story 'Tonton Macoute' (the story of the Faction's cook, a pragmatic gourmet who takes on the qualities of the entities he eats, up to and including things like gods) -- and in particular the follow-up drabble Dave contributed to 'A Hundred Words from a Civil War', in which the resurrected Macoute finishes his preparations for eating the City itself -- convinced me that he was an author I wanted to write a full-length City of the Saved story.

Dave's story in Tales of the City is a quieter, more personal affair: 'Bruises' is a police noir with a strange theological twist -- not an unfamiliar genre in City terms, but one which Dave accomplishes particularly effectively. It takes the City's cheerily utopian and pluralist ethos to some very dark places... which is just what's needed as the book approaches the epilogue, 'Apocalypse Day'.

It starts like this:
     She started by licking the bruise off my face.
To read the story, buy the Tales of the City ebook, or order the physical volume, from Obverse Books.

30 May 2012

Urban design

I'm finally in a position to reveal the highly talented Cody Quijano-Schell's cover design for Tales of the City, and it's fantastic:

Click to see a larger version, in all its brilliant weirdness. (Also available at my website.)

The ebook is due out this Friday, 1 June, with the physical volume to follow a week or two later. Place your order here.

23 May 2012

Books update: Deserts, Sheikhs, Monks and Magicians

It's probably about time I wittered on about books other people have written for a change.

Since January I've read a further seven and a bit of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books, bringing me (in publication order) up to about quarter of the way through Flashman and the Mountain of Light. I'm enjoying them hugely, though I've found it improves them to intersperse them with other things. I'll blog about all twelve once I'm finished, I think.

I believe I'd already read Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs when I blogged that last piece, but it managed to slip my mind. It's a series of memoir-essays, rather than the handbook which the title promises for navigating masculinity, fatherhood and husbanddom in a post-feminist world (a shame, as I could really have done with one of those). It's very sweet though, and beautifully written, especially when talking about familiar elements of geekdom such as Lego and Doctor Who (Chabon is, inevitably, a fan). The only downside, and it's an equally characteristic one, is that it sometimes becomes doubly impenetrable by talking not only about sport but specifically about American sports.

Frank Herbert's Dune is... well, long, isn't it? And there's an awful lot of it that's primarily about sand. To tell the truth, I was disappointed in this, one of SF's undoubted towering classics which I'd never quite got round to reading before. The worldbuilding is astonishing -- possibly unmatched outside Tolkein, in fact -- but most of it is kept off the page, in oblique hints in the appendices and glossary or at most in the dialogue of subplots which only temporarily diverge from the grand epic scenes of trudging on and on through some more sand. In fact, one gets a much, much stronger sense of Herbert's remarkable universe through watching David Lynch's magnificent film than by reading the book.Creating the Imperium but setting your story on Arrakis makes about as much sense to me as imagining the whole of Middle-Earth, then writing a huge novel set entirely in Forodwaith.

The writing isn't particularly impressive either, often aiming for a grandeur which it never quite lives up to, and getting lost in its own abstractions. I was amused by the fleeting mention of a Fremen warrior called Geoff. I reckon he deserves his own web comic.

Another SF book failing for me to live up to its (more recent) hype was Lavie Tidhar's Osama, a poetic but ultimately rather predictable alternative-world fantasy with a Dickian twist. It gains kudos for dealing directly with the eponymous bogeyman of our age, who in a world free of terrorism has become the hero of a series of pulp thrillers whose author the protagonist, an equally Dickian private eye, must track down. The twist will not surprise anybody who's been keeping their eye on popular BBC time-travel series over the past few years, though, and ultimately I was left with the impression of a book which thinks itself cleverer and more daring than it is.

I read SJ Parris's Heresy as research for a thing I can't talk about yet, and found it distinctly under par. It's a mystery set in Elizabethan Oxford, where a serial killer's carrying out murders modelled on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but is hugely less fun than that makes it sound. The formulaic plot relies on intelligent people being dense and making stupid decisions, and there's only the most desultory of attempts to help the reader inside the renaissance mindset. (To give you some idea, one character uses the word "paranoid" -- a solecism which this reviewer makes a valiant, but ultimately bollocks, effort to justify.)

Stonemouth, like Iain Banks' last non-genre novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, reads like a greatest hits collection: a family of gangsters; a young protagonist returning home; his long-lost love; violence, drugs and shagging; landscape and buildings; the merest hint of incest; a suspension bridge... Banks effortlessly gets inside the head of a generation for whom the internet and mobile phones have literally been around all their lives, in a way I'm not confident I could do at nearly 20 years younger. It's a good read -- fun, and evocative, and ultimately touching -- but don't expect any of the exuberant originality which makes Banks' truly great works great.

From Obverse Books this year I've read the latest Iris Wildthyme collection, Wildthyme in Purple, whose theme of pulp fiction leads to some surprising approaches, verging from pastiche to metafiction to massivel multitextual crossover; The Diamond Lens (Obverse Quarterly volume 1.3), which reprints some fascinating and genuinely excellent SF and fantasy short stories by the almost entirely neglected Fitz-James O'Brien; and Zenith Lives! (OQ volume 1.4), which revives the Sexton Blake villain Monsieur Zenith the Albino, in assorted tales by some familiar Obverse hands and -- in a startling coup -- Michael Moorcock.

In theory, Shada, Gareth Roberts' novelisation of Douglas Adams' unfinished Doctor Who story, combines two of my favourite things. In practice, the story is so familiar from partial releases including a scriptbook that it's rather less exciting than the combination would suggest. That said, it's not at all bad -- veteran Who novelist and latterly scriptwriter Roberts is doing his best (which can be pretty good) to do justice to something written by a genius on an off-day (which is also, mostly, good). He does a lot of work to firm up the characters and tidy the wobbly plot, explaining in an afterword that he was working with later versions of the script than have previously been published (so it's difficult to know what exactly he added, except when it's obviously novelistic). He also talks about a process of archaeologically extracting Adams' pre-deadline intentions from early drafts, abandoned plotlines and unfollowed hints, and again it's impossible to know how accurate his guesses are.

The book's not entirely satisfying: it's obviously not a pure transcription of the nonexistent TV story, but it's too tied to those roots to take flight as a novel. I enjoyed it, though.

Last year I read Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and earlier this year I finished off the Tiffany Aching sequence with Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight. They're very good books, full of humanity and realism (witchcraft is a painful, thankless path of discipline and service, and if you take pleasure in it, it probably means you've turned evil). If I had to quibble, I'd say that the wonderfully-drawn character of Tiffany becomes slightly less interesting as she leaves adolescence for womanhood, although this may be because the fourth book, Pratchett's penultimate to date, lacks focus in rather the same way as his more recent and disappointing Snuff.

Another book intent on deglamorising magic -- and, much though I love Pratchett, one that seems to me to be in a different league altogether -- is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This is one which does live up to its hype; The Magicians is a very strong novel in its own right, as well as being both a brilliantly-imagined fantasy and a clever critique of fantasy in general.

Thoroughly readable on the surface as fantasy of escapism in which (as closely as the demands of copyright law will allow) students at the US equivalent of Hogwarts graduate and find their way into Narnia, it's actually a fiercely intelligent deconstruction of the cosy comforts of this kind of conventional story. It does this partly through treating its situations with rigorous realism and logic, and partly through the character of its protagonist Quentin -- a teenager (and later a man) who's never satisfied with what he has and always suspects the universe is keeping something better from him. His addictive character could be said to typify the Western consumerist mindset to which modern fantasy is obliged to cater (although it must be said that The Magicians is also a bestseller, and that The Magician King, the second book in what looks suspiciously like a trilogy, is already sitting on my Kindle awaiting my attention).

Grossman's glittering, crystalline prose is perfectly pitched to serve the clarity of his purpose: in the end, one suspects, the only reason this is a fantasy at all is because the real world it depicts is ultimately equally unsatisfying.

If I had to recommend one of these books, this would be the one.

[Edit 26/5/12: Somehow managed to forget Shada. Have included it now. Also linked Foxe's Book of Martyrs.]

22 May 2012

Hyde Bound

I've updated my website today, with the blurb for Tales of the City, which currently looks like this:
After the end – ours and the universe’s – there is the City of the Saved. A repository for the uploaded souls of all humanity, the City is a technological utopia, a secular heaven. Heroes and villains, angels and monsters may be found in the City, but many ordinary people live here, too.

Well, all of them in fact.

In these stories, the first by writers other than the City’s creator Philip Purser-Hallard, we meet six of them. A hitchhiker, a lecturer, a tourist, a socialite, a twin, a cop: ordinary men and women living an extraordinary afterlife.

These are their tales.
(Sadly it now looks as if 1 June was an optimistic publication date, and the actual release of  Tales of the City is likely to be closer to the end of the month.) 

The updates make liberal use of the new City of the Saved logo, as designed by Cody:

I've also uploaded a bunch of recent microfiction from my Twitter account, @trapphic, including some new additions to my sequence of Victorian literature mashups, which I'd thought were pretty much played out:
‘Miss Havisham was an amateur. Henry Higgins, a dilettante. To make someone a real lady,’ the Baron avers, ‘you must start with the basics.’

* * *

‘You!’ gasped Edward Hyde, cringing. ‘But – how?’ ‘We have our friend to thank for that,’ noted Henry Jekyll, nodding at the Time-Traveller.
I've been busy with multiple other things as well, including a brief introduction for Obverse Books' forthcoming Faction Paradox titles, a draft of a short story (slightly longer than 'A Hundred Words from a Civil War', though not as long as 'Minions of the Moon'), an imminent change of day-job and a small child with chicken-pox. Some of these have been more enjoyable than others.

Cross Talk

You may be wondering, since I haven't blogged on the subject recently, how I've been adapting to my newfound atheism.

I haven't mentioned it for a while because, after the frankness of those two early posts, I've been feeling as if I'd rather prefer to get on with my crisis of faith in private, instead of tweeting it on a minute-by-minute basis. Suffice it to say that not a great deal has actually changed: my worldview was sufficiently secularised before that not having itunderpinned by a literal belief in a deity hasn't really made a terribly seismic difference.

I'm still wearing the wooden cross I've worn under my clothing since some friends brought it back for me from Lourdes when I was eighteen. The habit had become so ingrained it took me months to spot that this was even anomalous -- and about five minutes to conclude that my reasons for wearing it had far more to do with its sentimental value than with what I'd believed. I'm even attending an Anglican church only slightly more sporadically than I used to (atheism being generally accepted as no real bar to ordination these days, let alone communicant status). I've always found church ritual soothing, a link to a historical context of British communities across the generations, and that hasn't changed either.

It's possible I'm not a very effective atheist, but that's not really surprising. I was never a terribly effective christian either.

The main difference I've found in my thinking -- and it shames me to admit this -- is that I find forgiving people far more difficult these days. If you'd asked me a year ago to name a specifically 'christian' virtue -- ie, one which christianity is unusual in promoting, and which has therefore possibly been marginally more prevalent in christian circles than elsewhere, historically speaking[1] -- it would have been forgiveness, which Jesus was so keen on that he reportedly practised it even at the moment of his death. It's a vital social value, which assists in the general smooth running of the comomnwealth by keeping individuals and groups from constant feuding. It would certainly be indispensible in a utopia, which is one reason why it's difficult to imagine a utopia without faith. 

In any case, it's not something I'd feel happy to think I'd lost. 

However, I've come to understandthat the forgiveness I used to try to practice (not terribly effectively, I admit -- see above) had more than I realised of schadenfreude in it. The peculiar eschatology I'd constructed had no truck with the idea of eternal damnation -- that I'd dismissed, once I was old enough to escape the usual childhood terrors, as a barbaric dogma -- but it had metabolised the idea of purgatory into something typically idiosyncratic. I believed that, after death, each individual (myself not excluded, obviously) would be presented with a moment of absolute self-knowledge, in which it was revealed to them -- not as mere fact, but as an empathetic recognition -- exactly what they'd done and been in life. Every petty selfishness, every thoughtless action, every glib dismissal, sneering gibe, assault, murder or act of genocide would be seen clearly for what it was, and for the effect on its recipients.

Having received this insight, I blithely assumed, everybody would repent and turn to God.  There'd be no need for hell after that, because who could withstand such self-knowledge and retain their pride?

As I say, it was eccentric.  But it comforted me, when I saw people getting away with selfish, shitty behaviour -- especially the kind of thoughtless use of power which screws up entire populations for generations -- to know that it would rebound on them in the end.

It wasn't a vengeful thought particularly, just a feeling that this was the right, the just, way for the world to be run. Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan or Autgusto Pinochet or Rupert Murdoch might die peacefully in bed, surrounded by admiring well-wishers, but they'd damn well have their complacency stripped away from them afterwards. And, given genuine repentance and a heartfelt apology for the vicious crap they'd inflicted on the poor plebs around them during their lifetimes, I'd be magnanimously willing to share Heaven with the (formerly) evil fuckers. 

It sounds odd, I admit, but to be honest I'm not sure it's possible to sustain a religious universalism under a benign God without something of the kind. 

Now that comfort isn't available to me any more, I find myself raging day after day, appalled that whatever horrific idea Cameron and Clegg and Osborne (yes, and Murdoch) think up next to ravage the country with, the bastards are going to get away with it. They may face some uncomfortable verbal criticism, but unless God moves in some pretty fucking mysterious ways, it'll be water off a duck's back to them. Unlike the sick and disabled people, the single mothers, the nurses and teachers, whom these wankers are screwing on a daily basis to serve the interest of their plutocratic arsehole friends[2], they'll never see a moment's serious consequence to their actions. 

That isn't just, it isn't right, it isn't reasonable. It's not how I want the world I live in to be. 

When people say (atheists, I mean, and as a criticism) that religion is comforting, they usually mean that it allows believers not to be scared in the face of their own death. To be honest, I still don't see that as an issue.  I fear the pain that I imagine will precede death, but not the cessasion of my personality. Perhaps when you've grown up fearing hell, the prospect of oblivion seems like a neutral option. 

But my religion was a comfort to me, and it was one which for years helped me avoid confronting a basic truth:

The world is unjust, and it doesn't get any better, and that's the fault of specific people. Nobody -- apart from us -- is going to teach them any better. And until they make amends, the bastards don't deserve forgiveness.

[1] And yes, I'm fully aware of the large body of potential counterexamples.
[2] It's possible I swear rather more these days, as well.

19 May 2012

Trailers of the City #5

Here's the fifth and penultimate trailer for Tales of the City, the anthology of short stories I've edited set in the City of the Saved and due to be published by Obverse Books on (at last estimate) 1 June.

Dale Smith's biog, rather unexpectedly, says this:  
Dale Smith: I need you to kill a man, they said. Two hundred, I said, and how do I find him? There was some website – www.dalesmithonline.com – but the only thing you got from that was that he had already died, sometime before the invention of the broadband modem. But I found him. ‘I know how to live forever,’ he whispered as I stabbed him. Nothing personal, just work. But his name wouldn’t die. Dale Smith, Dale Smith, Dale Smith: he was everywhere. He was dead, and he wouldn’t die. That’s why I’m here. I need you to kill a man.
Dale's modesty covers the fact that he's the most distinguished contributor to the book, with two Doctor Who novels, a number of plays, some short stories (for Obverse and others) and the single best novella published under the Time Hunter banner under his belt. I've always admired his writing, which is intelligent, emotionally engaging and unafraid to take risks, with an interesting predilection for biotechnology. 

I knew as soon as I saw Dale's pitch for Tales of the City that I had to publish it: the central character alone was so perfect for the City setting that I was cross at not having thought of her myself. It's called 'About a Girl' and if I had to classify it by genre, I'd call it a cyberpunk horror rockumentary.  Here's the first sentence:
     They called themselves The Twenty-Seven.
That might be enough information for some of you to guess the story's starting-point, but you're unlikely to guess the rest. To read the story, order Tales of the City from Obverse Books.

04 May 2012

Trailers of the City #4

Update: Tales of the City has been moved up to form the first volume of year 2 of the Obverse Quarterly, ahead of the David-Bowie-themed Iris Wildthyme collection Lady Stardust. This means both that the expected publication date is early next month, and that I need to get a move on with these teasers.

Helen Angove began her working life as an electrical engineer on the south coast of England, took a brief detour as a pricing analyst for an electricity supply company (which was as much fun as it sounds) and then veered off in a different direction altogether by becoming a priest in the Church of England. Now, however, she is living with her husband and two children in Southern California, and is against all the dictates of common sense exploring the possibility of writing as a viable career choice. She has known Philip Purser-Hallard for longer than either of them might care to remember, and holds him responsible for inculcating in her a long-lasting love of science fiction. Her love of Jane Austen, on the other hand, she developed entirely on her own, and the blame for deciding to combine the two can be laid at the feet of no one else.
As that biog implies, I've known Helen longer than any of the other contributors -- since our teens, in fact, so that as she says we influenced each other's tastes in reading rather early.  Her writing is thoughtful and evocative and humane, and -- as she remains shockingly unpublished prior to now -- I'm delighted to be able to include a sample of it in Tales of the City

Helen's story, 'Highbury', is a comedy of manners, albeit with a nasty twist.  (I've actually thought for ages that the City of the Saved was a perfect setting for such a story, to the extent that my very first City proposal opened at a Jane Austen tea party with cyborgs and neanderthals in attendance.) Here's the first sentence:
     A gentleman should be allowed to consider a library a place of refuge: a room where he can have the reasonable expectation of temporary retreat from the distractions of domestic life and the interruptions of the fairer sex.
To read the rest of the story, order Tales of the City from Obverse Books.