Saturday, July 31, 2010

Heroic factasy

I don't read much heroic fantasy, for various reasons. A good one is that it all comes in such fat multi-volume series that I simply don't have the time. But a deeper, slightly more sneaking one is that, well, it's all a bit silly, isn't it? It's not real. Science fiction is generally set in present-day or future societies that could happen. Fantasy is based on past societies that didn't happen, or can't happen, so there.

This isn't entirely fair but it's always there. Good heroic fantasy gets around it by being good. I recently read Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself and enjoyed it a lot: for the characters, the world-building, the humour and the sheer enjoyment of the writing. But still I get this nagging feeling that tells me I should be reading something else, and it isn't at all helped by reading something like Jan Guillou's Templar Trilogy.

Guillou himself is an interesting character - an investigative journalist and spy writer who did time in jail for revealing that the land of cuddly Volvo-driving Abba fans has a secret intelligence agency that can match the CIA dirty trick for dirty trick. That's life on the front line of the Cold War. His character of Arn Magnusson is a local Swedish folk hero because Guillou cleverly takes Arn's fictitious life and wraps it into real history in the form of the birth of the modern kingdom of Sweden. (Where I happen to be right now, but that's for a later blog post.) For instance, with a bit of handwaving the fictitious Arn becomes the grandfather of the very real Birger Jarl, whose grave I have seen and once sort of wrote a poem about. All the locations are visitable, and most of them are within a few miles of my inlaws. One of life's innocent pleasures is to watch Bonusbarn's face when he asks with resignation why we're looking at yet another church and we say "This is where Arn ..."

I was introduced to Arn's adventures by my future wife several years ago, but it's taken till now to finish them because at first only the first two books were translated into English. After that the publisher pulled the plug ... until recently. Different publisher, different translator, still the third book. Finally I know how it ends! Though given that Sweden exists, I had a shrewd suspicion.

In the first book, The Road to Jerusalem, Arn is born into minor Swedish nobility and for various reasons spends most of his childhood raised by monks, including an ex-Templar who teaches him various extracurricular non-monkly fighting skills. This is handy because at the end of the book Arn inadvertently sleeps (consecutively) with two sisters (hey, it could happen to any innocent young lad from the monastery), one of whom is his true love and one of whom is a scheming minx. For this sin he must do 20 years penance as a crusader in the Holy Land.

This brings us to the second book, The Templar Knight, which switches between his story and the story of the second crusade, and his beloved Cecilia doing her own 20 years penance in a convent back home. From her perspective we see the birth pangs of the new Swedish nation, while Arn's purity of heart, nobility and Christian virtue earn him the respect of Christians and Muslims alike, and make him one of the few crusaders, and very few Templars, to make it out of the Holy Land alive after the disastrous Battle of Tiberias. And finally - finally! - in Birth of the Kingdom Arn returns home determined to use his military skills and considerable wealth to bring peace to his homeland and forge it into a new nation, the kingdom of the Sveas, or Svea Rige, as you might call it.

If you read heroic fantasy for the world-building then medieval Sweden is described in enough detail to suit your every need, with no feeling of anything being contrived just to get a little extra buzz or laugh. (Plucking just one example from the air, like Arn and Cecilia's wedding night being unable to commence until the archbishop has made it up the stairs to bless them in bed.) If you read it for the military clashing and banging then Arn has it in spades, and the version of Christianity practised by the Swedes - a mixture of literalism, ritual, pragmatism and Marian veneration, all with residual pagan overtones - presses all the right buttons for anyone expecting arcane religions and magic. It's exactly the same as reading heroic fantasy, except that it isn't and it's a guilt-free trip.

Next up: Robert Harris's Lustrum, follow-up to Imperium, which I have previously reviewed and which has a similar effect.

Note: nothing herein in any way precludes me trying to write heroic fantasy if I ever decide that's the direction my career should take.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pulling off the Ritz

From the Beeb:
A jobless lorry driver who pulled off an "elaborate and outrageous scam" to sell London's Ritz Hotel for £250m has been jailed for five years.
Oh, come on! This story is hilarious. What happened to the good old British sense of humour? I mean, an unemployed lorry driver successfully passes himself off as a good friend of the Barclay brothers and people actually believe him. For this he is punished?

Quoth Det Sgt Ridler, the policeman who led the investigation: "It was well-planned, it was well thought out and there were victims [...] Reputations were ruined."

Yes indeed, people were revealed as immensely gullible and/or greedy. It was the kind of thing that was bound to come out eventually so he probably did them a favour.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chill in Chichester

We were married in a half hour service from 10.30 to 11am. Exactly four years later we were sitting in a communion service in Chichester cathedral, lasting from 10.30 to 11am. The parallel didn't occur to me until later but I thought it was a nice one, especially when Best Beloved pointed out that a communion service is the exact opposite of the rigidly, unyieldingly secular civil marriage service that I once ranted of.

So, anyway, happy anniversary to us as of yesterday.

Chichester cathedral is smaller than my favourite (Salisbury, of course): blockier, more Romanesque, which is my understanding of "small, rounded arches". A Wellington or a Whitley, if you will, to Salisbury's Lancaster.

But it has a character very much of its own, especially since, as a community, it made the decision to be a sponsor of the arts and crafts. It was also being extensively renovated right up until the 1990s, still in the original style and stone; but these two facts together mean there is a lot of modern that blends very nicely with the old, and the gleaming white stonework might actually be how the entire building once looked.

And there's the more trad cathedrally stuff too. The Arundel tomb actually inspired a poem by Philip Larkin, which is actually quite good. He was moved by the way that the knight has taken off his right glove so that he can hold hands with his wife for all eternity. And it is sweet.

As the local MP, this guy gets a slightly more heroic statue than his manner of death would suggest (plonker).

From the department of "they did it different in those days" comes this affectionate memorial.

If I had tried penetrating anyone to bring them to a settled faith in Christ then my youthwork career would probably not have lasted so long.

Still with the sponsoring arts thing, outside where the sun had finally decided to shine there is an exhibition of sculptures going on in the cloisters.

There was also this intriguing display ...

... which turned out to be practice for all those times souls get lost somewhere up on a very high roof and have to be picked up. There's probably sermon material in there if I contrive it enough.

In other news, I now have an eighteen-year-old stepson. The difference between the adult and child Bonusbarn has yet to be remarkable, except that this year he can steward and take booze to Truck.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Look on my works, ye walkers, and despair

Beauty on the Harwell campus doesn't exactly jump out at you, but it is there if you know where to look. It helps if the Ballardian post-apocalyptic nature-reclaims-the-works-of-man vibe presses your buttons, like it presses mine.

Tucked away in the north west corner of the site there's a network of man-made roads being extremely reclaimed: now useful for tasks like teaching Junior Godson to ride his bike (a few years ago) or just strolling on a Sunday afternoon (us, today).

This used to be Hillside.

The odd modern-ish road sign suggests they were in use relatively recently ...

... and indeed (I'm told) up until about 20 years ago this was a post-war prefab residential area. In places the road is all but gone, with only the occasional concrete path leading up to a square clearing of moss in the bushes that once was someone's home - often with interesting displays of feral ox-eye daisies where the flower beds have burst free of their banks.

[UPDATE: My copy of Harwell: The Enigma Revealed tells me this was once the Aldfield estate, built in 1946 by German POWs. The prefabs were such desirable property that in one case an engineer's wife stood on the concrete base while the house was assembled around her, in case someone pinched it. They were lovely in summer and freezing in winter, as the walls consisted of two metal sheets with a 4-inch air gap and that was all. A programme to demolish them began in 1986 and by 1991 all were gone. Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs lived at no. 17 Hillside.]

I find it interesting to see how obviously fertile the area is in its natural state. Twenty years after the great plague, Abingdon will probably look a bit like this. Actually, if I was a spaceman who landed here I might conjecture that civilisation had been destroyed by the weird triffid-like thistles that flourish so happily (see foreground, right).

If I was a spaceman I would definitely want to investigate this feature if I spotted it from orbit. It's the end of Thames Rd in the map above ...

... and looks to me like somewhere that the original inhabitants might have used as a launchpad. Maybe they did. Not much to see from ground level, though.

The two-hour lump of cinematic cheese that is Logan's Run redeems itself with a five minute section where Logan and Jessica come across the post-apocalypse ruins of Washington DC, and marvel at such wonders as an overgrown Lincoln Memorial and Capitol, which unlike the rest of the movie actually look quite convincing. At one point they slosh through a marshy swamp, the camera pans around and we realise they're wading down the Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument.

(Image (c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976, and taken from this site, which has many more.)

That's a bit what it's like in the top left corner of Harwell. But only a bit. Or possibly a bit like my favourite part of Prince Caspian, where the Pevensie kids explore the ruins of Cair Paravel.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Seriously Opposed to Christ Agency

You might think that SOCA, if you've heard of it at all, is the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the nearest Brit equivalent to the FBI, the Untouchables, the high-tech Thin Blue Line that stands between law and anarchy.

You fools, I once thought that too until the scales fell from my eyes as I walked down Park Road this afternoon. The truth was tacked to a tree just outside St Michael's.

Truly, there can only be one reason that SOCA's logo resembles the description of the Biblical Beast. Just in case you think that's circumstantial, there was a URL at the bottom which I have blanked out to preserve your sanity and innocence. Just trust me that it takes you to a very long web page - a lesser mind would say "rambling", I prefer "comprehensively argued" - that starts with the eye-catching line: "Visiting pornographic chat rooms I discovered the girls were captives [...] The girls I met are locked up for an existance of being forced to have sex with animals or Mafia ..."

Following that discovery, our hero stumbled across a veritable web of vileness and corruption that involves Google, Yahoo and Serco. He mistakenly took his evidence to SOCA, only to discover that they are in it too, having started well but been corrupted by the Freemasons, an organisation which includes both George Bushes, Barack Obama and Tony Blair. And guess who provided SOCA's IT systems? Serco. Can it get more conclusive?

Unfortunately it does with screenful after screenful that takes our hero to destinations including Russia, Estonia, Poland and Auschwitz. I then came to a link to Page 2, but ventured no further. There's a black helicopter hovering outside the window and the doorbell just rang and-

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The man they couldn't pin down

First chapter of latest novel:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Second chapter of latest novel:

I write like
Chuck Palahniuk

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

(Who? Oh, him.)

Third chapter of latest novel:

I write like
Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I decided to stop there.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

955 posts later

I have decided to change the layout of this blog.

Because I can.

Resume your lives.

Women can wear dresses too, says CofE

The CofE is to allow women bishops. Excellent.

The saddest part of the Beeb's report is the line "although supporters were celebrating a breakthrough, some traditionalists had left the synod chamber in tears." Well, of course, and that was the teeth-grittingly inevitable bit that had to come. This was not going to happen without a lot of people feeling that the church they love has slapped them in the face. Sadly, the nature of that love is not the fully-featured bi-directional give and take of a proper loving relationship. It's the love of a stalker for their victim; of Mrs Van Hopper for the future second Mrs De Winter; of Michael Corleone for his family. It's a love that says "I give you so much because I love you, now you must respect that love and do exactly what I say or else you don't love me in return." In any such relationship, for the secondary partner to have a future they can can only tear themselves away, maybe in tears themselves, knowing that any damage caused is only by the first partner refusing to let go and is not their fault.

Don't let the door hit you as you process out in all your finery.

I remain utterly baffled why anyone who would consider conversion to Catholicism over this issue isn't a Catholic already. What does the future hold in the eyes of these people from Planet Trad? Especially the ones with wives and kids? I'll tell you. Palpatine Benedict will regard them as used goods and his open arms of welcome will at the same time usher them into a securely guarded enclave of the church behind several firewalls where they will be second-class citizens forever more, but they won't mind, because like the denizens of Hell in CS Lewis's The Great Divorce, they are in a fool's paradise of their own making. And because the most important thing to them is the absence of women bishops, they will never notice.

On Planet Trad, the whole Reformation was just friends agreeing to disagree; Martin Luther's Thesis no. 1 was "women clergy now!" while the other 94 were just nitpicking over details; Bloody Mary would have been Lovely Mary if only Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer hadn't insisted on such dangerously liberal issues as letting women read the Bible in English. (Thankfully they will admit that more sophisticated avenues of dialogue have evolved since those days.) Whereas in the fantasy world that I live in, the whole ministry of Jesus Christ might be seen as instituting the salvation of all humankind in a manner equally applicable to every nation and every society of every part of the world in every era of history (and that includes the utterly unimaginable future), in actual fact it was to set up an exclusive, male-dominated, highly ritualised church based heavily upon the rites and practices of an extinct pagan empire.

I don't have a theology degree but I'm suspecting the divine purposes ran deeper than that.

So, three cheers for the synod, and just don't get me started on Jeffrey John.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I'm Don Alfonso, I work for Oxo

To my surprise I've discovered exactly the right amount of World Cup to watch to make it bearable. That is to say, about 35 minutes of the last game. It does help the strategy if the winning goal is scored within that period.

Bonusbarn actually turned the TV on. I wandered through, found there were about 5 minutes of a no score game to run and stayed out of curiosity. Then of course they added 30 minutes of extra time. At some point Best Beloved decided to join in with the male bonding too and so we actually watched the rest of the game as a family.

I think it helped that I had even less idea who any of this lot were than I did about our own team. Maybe back in the Netherlands and Spain they're in the papers just as much as Tall Thick Guy and Little Guy with the Funny Eyes but to me they were just a bunch of even more anonymous than usual quite good football players; though while the Spanish in their dark blue were quite distinct on screen, the Dutch really were just fuzzy orange blobs in the long shots. And it was kind of fun, watching the ref machine gun the orange side with his yellow cards, and amusing myself during the times where everyone stood still and kicked the ball to each other by working out how often the advertising screens changed image (every 2 and 32 seconds, since you ask).

Then someone went and scored, which kind of validated the last 35 minutes when I could have been in bed reading a book, so that was okay. One of the goalies seemed to be in floods of tears but I think it was the one who hadn't let a goal in. I'm sure it makes sense.

So: Wimbledon down, World Cup down, just the cricket to miss now. Oh criminy, and the bloody Olympics in 2012. Meh.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Invisible boundaries

Rather sweet, isn't it? You get little reminders like this everywhere you walk in Harwell, giving the impression our nuclear secrets are protected by well-maintained flower beds and perhaps invisible forcefields.

Back in the used-to-be, RAF Harwell's giant aircraft hangars left over from the war were used to house things like GLEEP and other faintly - or even extremely - glow-in-the-dark type toys. This was before they invented cool-sounding names for nuclear reactors, of course. A single fence enclosed every affected area and the bits in between too, and a right pain it was for the rest of us.

Two of the hangars were demolished a couple of years ago (the third still stands) but the fenced-off area remained. Until I noticed, the other day, taking the obligatory two-sides-of-a-triangle route to the shops past the main gate at lunchtime, that the war against terrorism seemed to have been won. No armed guards at the main gate. The barriers stood invitingly open. What gives?

The answer is that they've mostly taken the fence down. The seriously affected areas still remain fenced off, including the site of the two ex-hangars which is now a bit of grassland where rabbits can breed safe from predators but at increased risk of mutation. But you can now walk between the fenced off areas. You can vary your route! You can walk straight to the shops from work, hooray. I had no idea there's a lake in there (technically). And everywhere you come across these little souvenirs, abandoned in place, of what once was.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Not sure which of these is funnier

The juxtaposition of items 3 and 4...

... or the opening paragraphs of no. 3.

Thatcherite initiative at its best, I say.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Rev review rant

Rev is, by all accounts, quite good. The pre-publicity was promising. Post-performance reviews were upbeat. I would have liked to have seen it.

I have not yet been able to see it.

I didn't watch it when broadcast, because 10pm is a silly time for people who have to get up at 5.45 the next morning. No matter, I thought, I would wait to watch it on Virgin TV catch-up.

Except that the next day it wasn't available on catch-up. And when it finally did get there ... it's in HD.

It's in frakkin' HD.

H bloody D.


This is a 30 minute sitcom, you morons. What sad obsessives watch a sitcom for the effing HD?

No one, is the answer. No - one. At all. Ever. In the history of the world. Has watched a sitcom and thought: "you know, this would look better in HD."

But I think I have the answer. A sneaking suspicion. It's those TV people again - you know, the ones who work for the greatest public service broadcaster in the world and have no conception of what TV programmes actually are, so doing silly things like ruining the end of Dr Who with a plug for Graham Norton is quite acceptable. Programmes are televisual product, that is all: no finesse or understanding is required. HD is the new technology: it is policy to push the new technology. Rev is a new series: it is policy to push new serieses. Therefore, Rev must be pushed in HD. Stands to reason, doesn't it?

These are the same people who about ten years ago were assaulting our screens with those endless stupid adverts for Comedy Monday, where police pursue some comedian who has made the mistake of being funny on a day that isn't Monday, because the BBC has decreed Monday is Comedy Monday. The logic, in their tiny brains, is impeccable. Two Pints is (allegedly) comedy; Goodness Gracious Me is (very definitely) comedy; therefore we'll put all our comedy shows on Monday evening so that they can all be watched by people who like comedy. "There's a time and place for comedy. Save it for Mondays." It still makes me wake up in cold sweats.


Rev is available on iPlayer, so all is not lost. I would have liked to have been able to watch it with my wife but apparently it's not to be. I suppose she could watch it at the same time on the PC in the living room and after we could compare notes. Technology, eh?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ben and Bas in Beds

Can I come and give a talk in Wootton to the upper school reading club? said the email. Wootton, just up the road from Abingdon? Yeah, no problem. I'd just take a long lunch break, maybe half a day off work.

I'm sure Wootton only has a primary school, mused a colleague. I looked more closely at the email address: Okay, I'm guessing "beds" isn't short for Oxfordshire. I may need to take longer.

Turned out to be Wootton Upper School, near Bedford, just past Milton Keynes if you can fight your way past the roadworks. First you have to drive through southern Milton Keynes, which is retail Mordor: vast and hideous, with towering, city-sized warehouses that you can probably see from orbit serving the likes of Amazon and John Lewis and which suck the very soul from you if you dare even glance at them. Sudden flashback to Big Engine days when it was cheaper for me to deliver my own books to Amazon than have them couriered, and I spent a happy day fighting my way past Amazon's shielding spells and wards to get a simple phone number of someone to call if I got lost.

Anyway, getting through Mordor more or less unscathed I then failed the simple little task of passing under the M1. They're converting the A412 into a dual carriageway and the whole area is a devastated battlefield with fewer signposts than the Somme. Then Google Maps lied to me by assuring me I could and should turn left into a road that doesn't exist any more, crushed into non-existence by the route of the new big road. I had already made out an invoice with mileage based on how many miles Google Maps said it should take, but I'll gift the school the extra as my bit towards easing a strained education budget. But I made it, and suddenly I was back in civilisation - a clean, airy, modern school with lovely people in it, both staff and pupils, who seemed to be expecting me:

Well, half of Sebastian was there (I only wrote books 1-3), but they also seemed quite pleased to see the whole of Ben Jeapes. I didn't do a head count but I would guess 30-40 turned up. I talked for an hour about how I got into writing; the various forms I have partaken of (my own stuff, Sebastian, the ghostwriting); agents; editors; how publishing and bookselling work; what to look for in good science fiction; and then gave readings of my favourite crank letter and (a world premiere) bits of the first chapter of the current work-in-progress. It's hard to tell how well you're doing: carefully honed witticisms may or may not be sinking in; they might be keeping silent for an hour because they are stunned by your awesomeness, or they might have tuned out long ago.

Following the hour's set piece it was an informal lunch and natter with the school reading club, me answering questions, of which there were many. Some harder to answer than others.

"Do you find working out plots hard?" "Yes." - Easy.

"I write romance stories; how can I stop them sounding corny?" - Um ...

It's not completely true that you should only write about what you know, of course: I've never captained a starship, for a start. But when it comes to writing romance I can't help thinking you probably should stick to your own experience and that really wasn't something I was going to talk about to a teenage lad I had never met before. "So, have you ... I mean, um ..." I suppose I could have told him to write under a woman's name. That seems to work.

I met some lovely young people with a real love for reading and writing, and at least two budding sf writers, which are of course the best type. I sold my first story when I was 24, published when I was 26, so give them another 10 years and I fully expect some high quality fiction to be emerging on the market. Pay it forward, guys ... (but thanks for the bottle of wine, that was a nice touch!).