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.