Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hear This

Recently received, and now available for purchase from Infinivox, a 3 CD collection of unabridged readings of 'Mini-Masterpieces of Science Fiction':

'Last Contact' by Stephen Baxter
'The Something-Dreaming Game' by Elizabeth Bear
'Grandma' by Carol Emshwiller
'Lambing Season' by Molly Gloss
'None So Blind' by Joe Haldeman
'Kin' by Bruce McAllister
'Gene Wars' by Paul J McAuley
'Bright Red Star' by Bud Sparhawk
'Far As You Can Go' by Greg van Eekhout

Editor Allan Kaster tells me that he's podcasting some of the stories; you can find them by poking around in his blog ('Kin' is up right now).

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Life's A Beach

It’s fun, if a bit dizzying, trying to write a novel that’s partly set on various moons of Saturn while all kinds of new discoveries are beamed back by Cassini. The latest confirms what we more or less knew - that the flat, radar-reflective bodies at Titan’s poles were almost certainly lakes of liquid ethane and methane - but it’s a most excellent discovery nonetheless. Especially as evaporation of the lake during summer at Titan’s south pole has created a beach. Hmmm....


So there I was, walking along a street in my neighbourhood, minding my own business, when a black Opel Vectra with a tall camera-laden pole sticking up from its roof went past: one of the infamous camera cars that Google is presently using, somewhat controversially, to photograph streets in major cities in Europe for Google Earth. After a brief moment of existential confusion, I remembered that I was carrying my little digital camera - but I was too late. The all-seeing eye had moved on. I had missed my chance to photograph Google photographing me. Other people have been more successful, and those scamps at the Register have made a neat mashup of Google Maps and sightings of their cars - including one getting a parking ticket.

Assuming Google uses the footage they shot today, if you check out in the near future Thornhill Road, London, N1, I’m the harrassed-looking middle-aged guy in the blue shirt and dark glasses.

If you want an alternative to Google Earth, by the way, try this wiki.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Light Of Other Days

From the family archives, here’s a photograph of the aquatic dodgems in Hotham Park, Bognor Regis. That’s my uncle nearest the camera, with an unidentified friend at the helm. They’re about to be rammed, in slow motion, by the boat coming in on the left. Note the lack of safety straps, life jackets or any other kind of protection apart from the rubber bumper wrapped round the coffin-like hulls of the doughty little motorboats. We were a tougher lot, back then.
The photograph was obviously taken from another boat, with a tilt that gives it a lovely sense of dynamic motion. Looking at it, I have a sense memory of a rainbow sheen on soupy green water, the tang of the blue haze of burnt petrol that hung over the little lake, and the frustrating lag between turning the steering wheel and winning any change in direction - a fine practical lesson in Newton's laws of motion.

Monday, July 28, 2008

90% Perspiration

My family weren’t so poor that we had to eat cold gravel of a morning, but we certainly couldn’t afford to have a summer holiday every year. And when we did go on holiday, it was to stay with our great-aunt, who ran a boarding house in Bognor Regis (a semi-detached Edwardian villa at 25 Canada Grove, it’s now part of a residential care home, so it goes). British readers will know that Bognor has a certain reputation, courtesy of a century of day-trippers, Butlins, and King George V’s infamous death-bed comment. He’d already been to Bognor to recover from a serious illness in the bracing sea air, and was grateful enough to allow it to add ‘Regis’ to its name. But when he fell ill for the final time, and one of his doctors expressed the hope that he would soon be well enough to visit Bognor again, he raised himself up and pronounced the phrase that’s stuck to the town ever since: ‘Bugger Bognor.’

But in the 1960s I could find little to fault. There was the promenade, and the sandy beaches, with little tidepools full of mysterious life. There was the pier, not then truncated by a storm, complete with theatre, candy-floss stalls, and a slot-machine arcade that featured a laughing sailor that scared the bejeesus out of me. There was the boating pond for toy boats, and there was Hotham Park, which had one of the smallest zoos in the world (I seem to remember the most exotic animal was a porcupine), a Crazy Golf course, the other boating pond equipped with motor boats got up as dodgem cars, and later on, an extensive miniature railway. There was also a pretty good library, one of the first in Britain to boast a computerised catalogue, where one thundery August I read something like fifty UFO books.

Those were the days.

Although I liked Bognor well enough, I never really caught the holiday habit. When I was at university, I worked in the summer to stay solvent, didn’t have time for a holiday while working for my Ph.D, and then treated trips to academic conferences as holidays (don’t feel sorry for me; one year I visited South Carolina and Hawaii, stopping off at Los Angeles in between, and returning via the WorldCon in Chicago).

All of which is preamble to the fact that this year, it doesn’t look like I’ll have time for a holiday, what with being halfway through the second draft of the ongoing, which is due to be delivered in October, not to mention expecting at any moment the proofs of The Quiet War. Hey, but it’s still the best job in the world . . .

PS Unlikely Worlds Trufact: James Joyce got married to Nora Barnacle in Bognor.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

In the latest Guardian book review pages, Alastair Campbell, former Commissar of Communication for Tony Blair, seems to think that book reviews shouldn’t be about the book you’re reviewing, but about what the book has to do with you. Reviewing Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Campbell writes:

I did have a plan to run 50 miles on my 50th birthday last year but a cycling injury to my calf - like Murakami, I also do triathlon - grounded me. Now, also like him, my running is accompanied by constant worries about aging, reflected in ever slower times.

He is in a different class to me, as runner and novelist, and throughout he gives the sense that he cannot be one without being the other. He has done 25 marathons and written 11 novels. I have done one marathon and written two novels . . .

And so, and so on, in a clumsy and mix of competitive envy and vain-glorious boasting. Pooter lives.

Meanwhile, in the same pages, M. John Harrison shows you how it’s done, framing the territory the book in question appears to inhabit, before getting under its hood and finding out what it’s really made of:

The post-disaster story has a deep ambivalence about the worth of that which has been lost. Its traditional purpose is to defamiliarise the world we know, and express our two worst fears: that the built environment will collapse, leaving us without material support; or - worse - that it won’t, saddling us in perpetuity with everything we hate about it, from office work to shampoo ads. Its purpose is to deliver a little frisson. So it’s clear from the off, then, that Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, though it appears to take place in the same querulous psychic space as, say, I am Legend or Survivors, isn’t a post-disaster story at all.

I confess to having a blind spot for Julian Barnes’s novels, but his introduction to a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters is very fine indeed, from the opening self-deprecatory anecdote about his first encounter with Fitzgerald, to his sharp observations of how novels and novelists work, and the special qualities of Fitzgerald’s writing:

Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when the material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.


[Fitzgerald] didn’t like to offend: on one occasion she went to vote, and as she left the polling station, ‘to my disgust the Conservative lady outside snatched away my card, saying - I’m only taking ours, dear - I didn’t like to say I was Liberal for fear of hurting her feelings - she had put a nice green hat on and everything - I often see her in church.’

That ‘nice green hat’ is a pure writer’s touch...

I have to say that I think the condescending ‘dear’ is a nicely vivid stab at fixing a character, too. And thanks to Harrison and Barnes, I have more books to add to my reading list . . .
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