Thursday, May 31, 2007

Vista, pros and cons

Cons: the release of Vista is expected to put 175 million PCs into landfill sites within the next 18 months.

Pros: it makes things like this possible.

It's an 18 minute video which you can either stream or download, and it starts getting good after about six minutes. It also features the world's most boring Director of Marketing but try and look past that.

Environment? Who cares.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good deed for the day

Cutting your credit card in two - great fun.

Cutting a complete stranger's in two - priceless.

Actually, wrong credit card slogan, it was a Lloyds TSB Platinum Visa that winked up at me like a rectangular grey gold coin from a medieval Cotswold stone paving slab in Woodstock. That's a town without any Lloyds branches. So I phoned the number for lost cards on the back and they told me to destroy it.

Always happy to oblige ... though as a special treat, I gave it to the Boy to do. Under strict supervision, of course.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Icarus allsorts

This is called "Icarus", by Andrea Wordsworth. The original is more like 4ft wide but this was scanned out of the catalogue of the Wylye Valley Arts Trail, so it's probably in massive infringement of copyright but hey, people, I'm trying to advertise you.

And anyway, a quick look at her own web page tells me it's there too.

The Arts Trail consists of artists in all kinds of media opening up their homes and galleries in and around Wiltshire's Wylye (pronounced Wiley) Valley so the great British public can turn up and gawp. As part of our now substantially revised sailing holiday we did just that, looking at paintings and jewellery and sculptures and strange fabric thingies and hats. I feel a kind of duty to appreciate the work of anyone who genuinely labours in the creative arts, whatever their medium, but some are easier than others, and Andrea Wordsworth's pictures are the ones that stayed with me the longest. She did a whole series based on the Greek islands, and the Mediterranean heat and the light beat right back at you out of the canvas.

But it's Icarus that takes the prize. I generally find it very hard to believe that any human figure in a painting is meant to be moving - maybe it's just the way my brain is wired - but here I really could believe she had got a boy in red Bermudas to jump into the sea, and then shouted "hold it!" while he was in mid-air so she could do a sketch.

And that, too, is the way my brain is wired.

For some reason I was always the one made to sign the visitors book, and you can trace our steps around the valley by spotting the decreasing inspiration in each book's Comments section. But it meant I got to read the comments of others, of which my favourite was "Midnight Horizon would look better the other way up."

Well, that's modern art, and everyone's a critic.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

See? Water!

Just not sea water.

The point of our sailing expedition this weekend was to teach the Boy the basics about sailing holidays. In this we were 100% successful, as the first lesson of any sailing holiday must be that plans concerning sailing holidays very rarely turn out as planned.

His injury reported on earlier - and thanks to those enquiring after his health; he's fine, with a nice scar that should impress any girl who doesn't actually ask how he got it - disqualified him from the sailing anyway. Then our skipper read the weather forecast and decided we would have no difficulty at all in having a great time on Saturday, but would find it impossible to return to port on Sunday. And it would be cold and wet.

So, sailing cancelled, time for Plan B. Boy stays with his grandmother; we take my father's canoe (a 10 feet long aluminium kayak) out on a canal somewhere and introduce Best Beloved to the delights of being paddled by two strong men Cleopatra experience:

"the barge she sat in like a burnish'd throne
burn'd on the water"

and so on.

Leading to Plan C - find a marine engineer who can fix an outboard that has been in storage and unused for two years. Which we eventually did, in the town of Saltford, on the Avon between Bath and Bristol. The area around Bath is invariably quite beautiful, as if someone pinched all the local geography together and let ago again, leaving an astonishing network of steep and forested valleys. The engine was dropped off and we took the opportunity to explore, wander up and down the towpath and enjoy bucolic little scenes like this. It wasn't tacking up and down in the English Channel outside Dartmouth; on the other hand, it was warm and dry and just as quintessentially English.

Another aspect of sailing holidays is that you can very easily get down to Plan C and beyond, and still enjoy yourself. Which is a good lesson for life generally. A sailing holiday that never goes anywhere near salt water is well within the usual parameters.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Never a winning combination

Boy + pets + glass. Just doesn't work.

A bit over a year ago I was in a mercy dash to the Minor Injuries Unit, following an unsuccessful attempt to feed cats out of a glass jar. Yesterday it was the Fish's turn to sample the Boy's unique way with glassware, ending with a broken bowl, fish (unharmed) confined to a small plastic box with an inch of water, and a chunk missing from Boy's thumb. Not a big chunk in proportion to an entire human body but, as a percentage of an average thumb, quite noticeable. And leaking of red stuff.

Best Beloved did the first Minor Injuries Unit dash yesterday afternoon; I did the second at around 9pm when blood started showing through the bandages again. Which meant watching most of Hustle in the waiting room (which despite earlier reservations I have to admit to starting to enjoy), then waiting a further 20 minutes in a cubicle while staff battled to save the life of a man the other side of the curtain. His symptoms were: dizziness, white as a sheet, hardly any blood pressure, faint pulse, vomiting blood. Even I could guess some fairly major internal bleeding into the stomach. His version: he felt fine (apart from the dizziness), his stomach only hurt because he'd been lying on his front and he'd been already been told by his doctor that it would always be hard to read his blood pressure because of the aneurysm ... "But I don't need to go to the bloody hospital!"

Ho hum.

This rather dents the plans for sailing this coming weekend ... They may proceed, minus Boy, in some altered form. Or not. To be continued.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How to fill up the schedules

Johnnie Walker, Radio 2, approx. 8.30 a.m. today:
"Gareth Gates talks about living with a stammer. That's from 12 till 2 this afternoon."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007

Only funny if you're a Pratchett fan

The document I have spent much of today proof checking shows classic signs of too many people having an input, and one of these is an abrupt change of verb ending halfway through a sentence.

Thus it will say something like (totally made-up example to preserve confidentiality) "Jack is at the market buying a cow, picks up the groceries and haggles with magic bean vendors" when it should say "picking" and "haggling" to match the "buying". So I have crossed out the incorrect verb endings and written the correct ones in the margin.

In other words I have been busy writing "ing ... ing ... ing ..."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

China in your hand

Say I'd visited a friend and seen that the inner rim of their toilet had a massive chunk measuring approx 1.5" x 2" missing from it. I might have wondered, "how on earth does anyone do that to a toilet?" And I would probably have enjoyed a quiet glow of moral superiority, knowing that whatever they had done, I never would.

Until last night. Look, all I did was take the top off the cistern to study the valve which seemed to be leaking a little. And we don't go for yer cheapo plastic toilets in this house, no sir - it's Royal Doulton Vitreous China or nothing. Meaning that the lid of the cistern is a fairly solid, dense object. So when it slips from your hand and impacts on the top of the bowl, it's no laughing matter.

Interesting how we see different bright sides of things. My bright side is that it landed corner-on, as any other angle would probably have snapped it. The impact made an indentation in the top of the bowl and knocked this chunk out of the inside rim, as reported.

Best Beloved's bright side is that it hit the bowl, not my foot.

Anyway, the chunk has now been superglued back; results are awaited with interest. The key thing is that the ability of the bowl to hold fluids with 100% integrity has not been compromised. Phew.

Bearing in mind recent posts about putting too much information online, I will spare you a photo.

Current Music: "Porcelain", Moby

Friday, May 18, 2007

Privacy on parade

Well, the young people of Great Britain in the forms of Simon, David, David, Sarah and Peter have rallied to answer my open question about privacy and what they expect of it. See the comments column of the post in question or, in the case of one of the Davidi, his own blog. The answers are encouraging. Attitudes towards MySpace and Bebo range from “eurgh” to “I have all of them because I have different friends on each”, but either way they are seen as useful tools, not personal infodumps to which it is compulsory to contribute.

A good point from David W: “You know virtually everything about my politics, but then that's the point of the blog, not my life.” (And) “The question that every "lifelogger" needs to ask themselves is: will I look back on this and cringe? If so, either stop now, or refocus your web presence.”

Indeed. Lifelogging isn’t compulsory and you’re as public as you choose to make yourself. If you feel a compulsion to reveal every single detail about yourself then you’re a mug and social Darwinian principles will apply. (Even if that isn’t you, but you have a witty or whacky e-mail or cyberspace persona, now may be a good time to change it. When you’re standing for party leader 30 years from now, once having been called may come back to haunt you.)

It’s reassuring to know that the cyberspatial majority isn’t like that real-world (thankfully) minority who insist on regaling you with every incident of their tedious, tedious lives, down to how drunk they were last night and which bird they shagged.

But it begs a question. Even if they’re not prepared to add that information actively to the public datapool, there is an ever-increasing amount of information that can be added passively just by being alive in this modern electronic world. Are the instincts of the present generation sufficiently well tuned to detect abuses of this as a Bad Thing, which is what the post that started this all off was talking about?


Some comments on the use of blogs were also made.

Simon: “I know for sure that I censor my blog, whether consciously or subconsciously. Often I use it a lot like propaganda to paint a picture of me I think people will expect, leaving out certain things and emphasising others.”

David C: “when I do present myself on the net though, I make sure I am real. I believe that honesty is one of the more important qualities of people and of the Christian ideal, so I stick to it.”

Good points, not necessarily contradictory. There is a certain amount of showmanship and it’s not pretence. This blog shines a light on particular areas of my much broader life and I try to make it shine on the nicer bits, or at least move anything unpleasant out of the spotlight before I turn it on. But it’s all genuinely my life, the real me.

And there’s never any harm in being presentable. Note how nice I was to teenagers in the original post. I could have said “right, you pimply hormone factories, it’s time to get off your wii-using web-surfing butts and make yourselves useful for a change,” but that would have been counterproductive. And not all of them have wiis.

Kidding. Love you all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The future's bright, with the possibility of showers

Calling young people. I need your thoughts.

SF author and one-time roommate (for one memorable week) Charles Stross has published an interesting talk he gave on ‘Shaping the Future’, in which he extrapolates growth in technological ability and changing attitudes towards privacy, and draws some not entirely optimistic conclusions. Not entirely pessimistic either, mind you. A couple of key passages:
“If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? ... [snip] ... One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.”
It’s a conclusion that follows logically from his premises. But here’s a key passage from earlier in the talk:
“Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.”
Assumption. Right. In any argument, it’s the assumptions that are important.

I started my personal web site in 1996, on the basis that if I was destined to become a world famous author then I should give the fans something to satisfy their craving for More Ben. Still working on it. I remember hearing one friend describing it to another as: “you can learn everything there is to know about Ben!” And I thought – no, you can learn everything I choose to let you know about Ben. (The second friend remained net-sceptical until, later in the same conversation, he was shown how to track down the website of Barnsley FC, whereupon he converted.)

I certainly put up more information on the site than I might usually divulge at a first face-to-face meeting, but it still didn’t contain anything that wouldn’t soon become apparent in a more than passing acquaintance. Eleven years and a blog later, we’re in the same situation. I may come over all friendly and chatty here in cyberspace, but unless you already know me personally you probably don’t know the names of my wife or stepson. Or my address. Or where the Boy goes to school. Or my bank details. And so on. And you need to know me very well indeed to know details about my extended family – parents, siblings etc.

So, someone might work on the assumption that anything knowable about me is available on the net, but they will be disappointed.

But of course, I am not Young People. I’m almost half my grandmother’s age, which is a scary thought. You Young Things have Bebo and MySpace and apparently you fill it up with all sorts of crap stuff that helps you ‘hook up’ (whatever that means).

Believe it or not I have a MySpace profile; I had to sign up to leave a comment on a friend’s blog. The friend in question is one of the least MySpatial people you can think of so I’m not quite sure what he was doing. According to my profile I have one friend. Not the friend whose blog I was looking at. This friend is called Tom. I have no idea who he is; he seems to have been randomly assigned to me by Murdoch’s Minions. His profile includes the helpful note that he may have been there when I signed up and if I want I can get rid of him. Well, I dunno. If I only have one friend then maybe I should hang onto him. My peculiar notion that I’m well able to choose my own friends, thank you, in my own space and time may just be a hallucination.

More Charlie:
“Now, in this age of rapid, transparent information retrieval, what happens if you've got a lifelog, registering your precise GPS coordinates and scanning everything around you? If you're updating your whereabouts via a lightweight protocol like Twitter and keeping in touch with friends and associates via a blog? It'd be nice to tie your lifelog into your blog and the rest of your net presence, for your personal convenience. And at first, it'll just be the kids who do this — kids who've grown up with little expectation of or understanding of privacy. Well, it'll be the kids and the folks on the Sex Offenders Register who're forced to lifelog as part of their probation terms, but that's not our problem. Okay, it'll also be people in businesses with directors who want to exercise total control over what their employees are doing, but they don't have to work there ... yet.”
So here’s my question to young people. Do you have these reduced expectations of privacy? Does it even occur to you that you don’t have to put everything about you out on the net, and it’s quite easy not to? ’Cos if we do end up in a future like this, I don't think it will be you lot who put us there. It will be our present generation of technophile, how-can-we-possibly-be-wrong-I-mean-we're-Christian politicians. It will be up to you lot to sort it out.

This is an optimistic assessment that I make based on the personalities and my estimation of the intelligence of the teenagers I know (friends of the real-life, reach-out-and-touch-them variety). But what do your classmates think? What’s the word on the street in yo’ hip with-it well-happenin’ world?


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Books, books, books

Time was when book clubs were reputable affairs. They didn’t bind you into contracts requiring a purchase every month for perpetuity or your first child as forfeit; half a rainforest garishly advertising their wares didn’t fall out of every magazine you bought.

I’m guessing this time must have been around the mid to late 1950s as that’s when my grandparents were members of the Companion Book Club, which seems to have undertaken to provide you with a cracking read from an eclectic range of authors in a standard, hardback format on a regular basis. And we have the books to prove it – about 80 of them in a bookcase that fits them exactly. Or maybe there were more than 80 once and the rest got chucked because they didn’t fit in. Anyway. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t aware of this lot, because I can’t remember a time I didn’t know my grandparents’ house. The bookcase always stood next to the door into the living room.

I first read one when I was about 11 or 12 – I’d heard of Douglas Bader and I noticed one of the books was Reach for the Sky. I explored a little further, but not much – basically the three Alistair MacLean novels, HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone and Night Without End. The first two are better but then his war novels always were his best. (In fact HMS Ulysses is one of the best war novels ever and is crying out for a film to be made. It could be done. Perfect Storm-type technology to depict this harrowing tale of a Murmansk convoy; a cast of solid British names for the crew; and a token Yank – probably George Clooney – to guarantee it’ll actually get made. No problem.)

Then for some reason I stopped, probably because I spent most of the next 30 years reading science fiction. Even inheriting the bookcase and its contents nine years ago didn’t really get me going again; still too much SF to read. But now ...

I’ve moved beyond MacLean but have still started on the relatively easy. Hammond Innes, CS Forester. But I’m moving beyond these adolescent fumblings now. I’m ready for an adult relationship. There’s Agatha Christie (who, astonishingly, I’ve never read). Daphne du Maurier. W. Somerset Maugham. Virginia Woolf. We may be getting a bit too adult for my comfort zones, but they can stretch. And a host of other authors I’ve never heard of. Maybe I should just start at the left end of the top shelf and work my way along.

Hundreds of thousand of words have been trapped between these clothbound covers for over fifty years. It’s time to set them free. And the sheer smell and feel of secondhand paper is just one reason why e-books will never replace the real thing.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Perils of the crackly line

Well, that moment of glory was indeed momentary. They tried calling me back before I was on the air but the line still crackled so I just got to warble briefly some ad hoc theories about what boys like to read and why. I don't think I got tongue tied but there were times when I certainly had no idea what the next words out of my mouth would be. I think I said something about "what boys want", listened to myself say it, almost panicked and emphatically didn't talk about sex thereafter. Then a blink-and-you-miss-it plug for The New World Order and it was on to the next item. If you absolutely have to, you can listen again.

Apparently they had earlier been talking to the guy who first signed up JK Rowling, but unfortunately I hadn't heard any of that so couldn't follow up any of the points. Instead I just got described on air as a "great fan" of the Young James Bond series, which might be accurate if I actually read any of them. I didn't have the heart or courage to contradict the nice lady live. "Reasonable fan of Alex Rider" would be a more accurate description (my favourite being Scorpia with Eagle Strike a close second, mostly because the baddie is quite obviously Elton John) but we didn't discuss him.

Now I'll talk about sex. It's a canonical fact in the original Fleming James Bond novels that Bond was expelled from Eton after "some alleged trouble with one of the boys' maids" and that he lost his virginity on a school trip to France aged 16. I'm curious to know if the Young James Bond series will reach that point in his career. But I didn't get to mention that either.

UPDATE: according to Wikipedia, the fifth Young James Bond novel will indeed deal with the Eton incident. No news on the school trip, though.

Akzidenz Grotesk

The casualty ward in an Esperanto-speaking hospital?

A gothic hard rock band?

No, Akzidenz Grotesk is the 1896 typeface that, 50 years ago, inspired the Haas Type Foundry in Muenchenstein, Switzerland to design Helvetica. Helvetica is 50 years old. Hooray. You can see why they changed the name.

"Ms Jones, type my letters in Grotesque Accidents, will you?"

"So, what font were you thinking of for your company logo?" / "Well, Akzidenz Grotesk says it all ..."

Not going to happen.

Much cleverer people than me can probably explain why different fonts work in different ways. Generally I would say a san-serif font like Helvetica (or Arial, the digital version) is okay for a sign or a headline but not for a large body of text; and yet, our company newsletter is set in the san-serif Futura and looks fine. Maybe it's because Futura is just a little bit more compact. Not to mention art deco. Here's Helvetica:

and here's Futura:

Almost the same, just subtle differences here and there that take up less space.

Maybe said cleverer people could also explain why these two Helvetica/Arial characters:

are exactly the same as this Futura pair:

-when they don't look remotely like each other, which probably leads us into whole new realms of psychology and human perception.

One day I shall devise my own font. It will be called Benface and will be large, friendly and well rounded.

Five minutes of fame

Apparently I'm going to be on BBC Three Counties radio from 4.30 pm today, talking about teenage fiction or related matters. Even if you don't live in Beds, Herts or Bucks you can listen live ...

This time I'll try not to mix up stars and planets, like when BBC Oxford interviewed me a few years ago: as in, "the nearest planet is well over a light year away."

Monday, May 07, 2007

The great outdoors

Ben the Outdoorsman has made one of his not entirely frequent appearances.

The Sarsen Trail is an annual 26-mile walk from Avebury to Stonehenge, with the option of bailing out after 11 miles and getting a coach back to Avebury, which is what we always do. The first half is anyway the most fun as it takes you across the Wansdyke and over the highest point in Wiltshire with some stunning views, then down onto the flat farmland with some pretty villages to walk through before the final triumphant ascent of Redhorn Hill – 80m straight up in what feels like a similar distance horizontally. After that, apparently, it’s all flat roads.

It’s a significant event for us as ’twas this bank holiday three years ago that my new family met my old family for the first time. Three years ago the 11 miles took well over four hours, more like five, dragging a whinging 11 year old behind us. Two years ago it was more like four on the dot, accompanied by a chatting 12 year old all the way. Last year’s was cancelled due to illness of a 13 year old; this year the 14 year old disappeared into the distance after Avebury, doing the course in 3 hours flat while we caught up with him 40 minutes later.

Earlier in the day a senior male relative had done that stretch in the same time, by fixing his eyes on a nineteen year old female fellow walker who stayed just in front of him for the entire journey. Maybe she was trying to get away from him. I’m not sure if the Boy used the same trick or if he was just motivated by a desire to get away from us, but one way or another we’re all pretty pleased.

People of Britain, be scared

The Boy has had his first driving lesson.

The vehicle in question was my brother in law's fully automatic gas guzzling Landrover, the terrain was up and down the dirt tracks of Salisbury Plain. Therefore the experience has not been completely representative of the reality that awaits him when he gets real driving lessons in a real car in 2.5 years time. Even so, a big black Landrover with tinted windows coming down a narrow track towards you can look quite ominous, and it's even more so when you know there's a 14 year old behind the wheel.

I can't say how well he did, because at the time I was busy helping my sister help my nephew to find wolves and treasure in some nearby woods. But morale is high, for everyone including the wolves as they went undetected. We did find some treasure but put it back for other people to find after.

Afterwards he was allowed to try his luck on the manual transmission Vectra, and got about 20 yards before giving up. But it was time for lunch so maybe next time ...

Friday, May 04, 2007

The joy of sects

The ever enjoyable Scott Adams today cites the Wikipedia article on Spinoza, prompting me to read it myself. I'm pretty certain I studied Spinoza at least in passing sometime during a three-year degree in Philosophy & Politics, but I can't say his work stuck in my mind.

But what grabs me about the Wikipedia account is:
"Spinoza, having dedicated himself completely to philosophy after 1656, fervently desired to change the world through establishing a clandestine philosophical sect."
Well, don't we all? All that has held me back from doing just that myself is:
  1. the sect bit - a sect needs followers. How do I recruit? From readers of this blog? They are by definition broad minded sensible types so unlikely to fall for it. Also, I know for a fact that several are under 18 so it would probably be illegal.
  2. the philosophical bit - what philosophy, exactly? The Philosophy of Ben derives from many sources. I dare say I could come up with something suitably mystical.
  3. the clandestine bit - defined by the department's New Oxford Dictionary of English as "kept secret or done secretively". For just one of the obvious disadvantages of this, see (1).
But once I've worked out solutions to these obstacles, I promise that my philosophical sect will be launched amidst a blaze of absolutely no publicity at all, after which I submit my membership application to the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Only obeying orders

From the Bat Conservation Trust website:
"The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) protects bats and their roosts in England, Scotland and Wales. Some parts have been amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) which applies only in England and Wales, and by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 which applies in Scotland."
"It is an offence for any person to ... Intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place that a bat uses for shelter or protection ... This is an absolute offence - in other words, intent or recklessness does not have to be proved."
Oh dear. The bomb disposal team's in for it ...

High-pressure activity

Christopher Priest. What a guy.

This revered, veteran and award-winning author of many excellent novels (The Prestige and The Separation being just two) is the kind of man who presses his way through to a crowded bar to buy two beers, simply on the probability that he will find someone he wants to give the other one to. And that person turns out to be me.

What a gent.

The occasion was the Arthur C. Clarke Award, an annual experiment to model a strange form of matter in which particles (writers, editors, critics) are crammed into a highly pressurised container (the lobby of the Apollo Cinema, two floors below Lower Regent St) and subjected to strange radiation (blue neon) and intense heat. Strange effects may be observed in the resulting mixture, such as the only way to get across the room being quantum tunnelling through all the other people in the way.

After an hour of this, the doors to the auditorium finally open with a loud pop and the Clarkium mass is sucked into the air conditioned interior where it condenses back into human beings again. There the chairman of the awards tells you all about six novels you've not managed to read yet, you applaud each one politely, and then the winner is announced and you applaud a little louder, because even if you haven't read Nova Swing by M. John Harrison, it's going on the Christmas list so you one day probably will and anyway, you're glad for him.

The very first time I was invited to the Clarkes, I couldn't go, as in those days it was on a Saturday evening and my sister chose that day to get married. I could have gone to the ceremony and then slunk out to the event afterwards rather than go to the reception (which frankly would have been preferable to my eventual fate of being stuck on the singles table, but that's another story) but manners and family loyalty won out.

The Clarkes aren't always perfect; the judging is by jury and there are often gripes about compromise candidates and the like, though I doubt that will happen this year. But in many ways that's better than the much-higher-profile Hugos, which are by popular vote and can lead to the latest Harry Potter being declared best science fiction novel of the year, as happened in 2001.

During all this the Apollo somehow managed to be running a normal evening's programme of movies too and the award event was listed on the plasma screens out in the lobby with the shows on offer. Many people observed that we were certified U. Which is either an affront or a challenge.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The eyes have it

I have a subconjunctival haemorrhage in my right eye. Never had one before and they're weird. You wake up one morning not aware of anything different, until you look in the mirror and discover you've swapped one of your eyes with an extra from 28 Days Later. The fine folk of NHS Direct assure me it's nothing to worry about and will fade within a couple of weeks.

It's much nicer having these sorts of things when you have a lovely wife to worry about you.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Moondust to the Max

My friend and once-a-month drinking companion who chooses to go by the name of Bookzombie is off to Wiscon, where one of the panels he will be on is:
Revisiting the Wow: Books That Changed Everything (Reading, Viewing, and Critiquing SF&F)
Saturday, 8:30-9:45 a.m.
Remember that early work you experienced, the one that twisted off the top of your head and let new ideas in? Rereading breakthrough works can be a mixed blessing: insight into their power, disappointment with the writing or the concepts, embarrassment or bewilderment at what was so intriguing the first time around. Revisit one of your sparkplug works and come to share the experience.
Not been to Wiscon, don’t know if I ever will. Got me to thinking, though: what would be my breakthrough works? Leaving out the entire range of Target Dr Who novelisations up to about 1978, The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (read ’em both by the time I was 11-12, but more as groundwork than for the wow! factor), the Foundation trilogy and Dune (didn’t read them until my later teens) ...

Actually it’s not too hard. Both of these were in the school library; both were read over and over and over and over and over when I was 13-14ish; and I haven’t read either in years, partly because I suspect they will not have aged at all well.

1. Arthur C. Clarke: A Fall of Moondust. Published years before Armstrong’s one small step but based pretty well on what was then known about the Moon, Clarke imagines a crater that has filled up over the millions of years with microdust so smooth and fine it’s like a liquid. Which means, you can get boattrips on the Moon. Which means rides for the tourists. All well and good until a moonquake beneath the dust sea causes one of the dustcruisers to be swallowed up, and the tourists are trapped with air and power running out.

In short, it’s a suspense novel, a race against the clock, with (being Clarke) top of the form extrapolation of what probably would happen. The rescuers must improvise all their equipment – this kind of thing has never happened before – and it’s described in loving, realistic detail. Also, any novel or story of Clarke’s set on the Moon makes you want to go there now with its images of vacuum-parched, razorsharp mountains and sweeping plains beneath a sky of purest night. He pays attention meanwhile to the human angle and I still remember some of the pastimes the passengers think up to keep themselves occupied. One of which is a public reading from a porn novel.

And that’s where I think the datedness would start to show. Clarke’s idea of what constitutes racy has always lagged behind the rest of the world, and back in the early sixties he was out by a few decades. He must have been writing this at much the same time as the Lady Chatterley trial was going on but he hadn’t twigged the impact. Also, from memory, the female characters are frumps, ice maidens or in just one case – the chief stewardess, the capn’s bird – just right, and the scene where she and the captain finally join the 30-Feet-Under Club in the ship’s galley is (I suspect) just plain embarrassing.

2. Robert Heinlein: Starman Jones. This was the kind of thing Heinlein wrote in his glory days, before the right-wing diatribes and polemics in favour of plenty of underage sex to guarantee psychological wellbeing. Maybe he believed all that back then, he just didn’t write it. His teenage heroes were decent lads – honest, straightforward, bright, courageous – and Max Jones is no exception. His uncle was an astrogator – i.e. space navigator – on a space liner, and when Max’s widowed stepmother remarries an abusive git he runs away to get into space himself. Sadly his family connections don’t work and he has to smuggle himself onto a starship as a deckhand. And when a hyperspace jump goes horribly wrong and the ship is stranded deep in unknown space, Max is the only one who can get them out of trouble.

Y’see (and this is where the datedness creeps in) astrogators calculate their hyperspace jumps on a sliderule which gives them numbers to look up in massive volumes of tables, which convert the numbers into binary so that they can be fed into a computer. Max has an eidetic memory and has memorised the tables that belonged to his uncle. That’s right. Numbers are worked out by sliderule and looked up in a printed book to be converted into binary for input into a computer ... if you can’t see why that might date, you’re reading the wrong blog.

But Heinlein isn’t doing scientific extrapolation – he sets up the rules that make the story work and sticks to them, like any good science fiction. I liked Max then and I think I’d like him now. En route in his adventures he falls in with a Wise Old Guy who befriends him and ultimately lays down his life heroically; for various reasons he ends up as captain (pro tem) of the ship; he gets captured by aliens along with a beautiful rich young gel from among the passengers; and he is just gauche enough with her to guarantee that they will always be just good friends and she still goes off and marries her rich fiancĂ©. In short it’s about heroism and coming of age and life and all that, without off-putting squishy stuff.

So, for sensawunda, A Fall of Moondust. For good intelligent adventure, Starman Jones. And now I think about it, I’m pretty certain I’d be able to read the latter still without squirming.

A few years later I read The Number of the Beast, published 30 years after Max’s adventures, by which time Heinlein had ricocheted off into the distant realms of lunacy and I couldn’t believe it was the same author. Read David Langford’s spot-on review and doff your heart at the passing of genius.