postaweek2011

Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

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Wet weekend words

After an unseasonable week more summery than most of the summer, we’re now in full-on autumn. The curtain of rain hides the other side of the valley and gives me a good excuse not to leave my bureau to work on the garden, and I can break out my favourite jumpers again. Unfortunately it’s discouraging me from participating in the local literary festival – I hadn’t been organised enough to buy any advance tickets so I was planning on heading to the free events and some of those I thought would have tickets on the door, but twenty minutes’ walk which can be so pleasant and invigorating on a fine evening becomes much less so when you get chilled and wet on the way, and spend an hour sitting still, acutely aware of damp shins.

NaNoWriMo looms large on the horizon, and I’m wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, though I’m still determined to give it a go. The first draft of the detective novel, which I’d planned to complete by the end of September, is limping towards 50,000 words at the moment, disrupted continually by predictable distractions. Writing at home more or less came to a halt, first with clearing out and packing, then the move itself, followed by unpacking, DIY, gardening and suchlike. I realised yesterday that I don’t have a single short story doing the rounds, in fact I haven’t made any submissions since July (which is when I started the detective novel; I don’t think that’s a coincidence). Time for a reassessment of priorities, a flurry of submissions, maybe a break from the novel-writing to finish up some nearly-there shorts which can then be sent out, before I start the other detective novel at the beginning of November. Phew! Who’d have thought such a relaxing and peaceful hobby could be so hectic.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

Can I use moving house as an excuse?

You may not have noticed, but I forgot to blog last week. The two weekends prior to that I’d scheduled pre-written posts because I knew I’d be without broadband for a short while (and pretty busy) in the week before and after I moved house. What I’d forgotten (because it’s been all of two years since I last moved) is that I’d be busy for a while after that too, all normal routines would be cast aside, and I’d forget there was ever any life before I lived here. Writing? Oh yes, that’s the thing that used to fill my hours before I had a big garden that’s been neglected for a while and needs a lot of work before the winter sets in. OneMonkey and I have spent more time in wellies since we moved here than I would care to admit.

Needless to say, the detective novel’s slightly behind schedule (just over 40,000 words written) as I’m only writing in my lunch-hour at the moment, and reading is something I do to fill in the commute, but I have (slowly) worked my way through Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds in the past few weeks and I enjoyed it so I’ll share. It’s the first in a series, and is set in the 26th century. A self-important archaeologist, Dan Sylveste, is working on a dig which seems to relate to his life-long obsession, the Amarantin, a long-dead race. What he discovers changes the way the Amarantin are viewed, and his single-mindedness tries the patience of the colony he’s supposed to be in charge of. Meanwhile in another part of the galaxy, a soldier-turned-assassin, Ana Khouri, is selected for a covert mission which involves infiltrating the crew of an interstellar ship, who are scouring the galaxy for a cure for their sick captain. Everyone has their own agenda, their own secrets (sometimes hidden even from part of themselves), and there are some pretty long games being played, with lifetimes of waiting for the payoff. Manipulation is rife and nothing is quite as it seems, with strange loyalties forming and shifting. As an astrophysicist himself, Reynolds also gets the science seeming plausible, which is always a nice touch.

I’m looking forward to starting book 2, Redemption Ark, in the morning but for now, back to garden design.

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks

Feersum Endjinn is one of the few non-Culture sci-fi novels by Iain M Banks; I’ve already reviewed one of the others, The Algebraist. This is a much thinner novel than the Algebraist, at only 275 pages, but Banks packs a great story in nevertheless (possibly with a few loose ends, or possibly I didn’t pick up on something subtle).

Each chapter is split into 4 sections, each following one of the four main characters (or small connected group of characters). One of these is Bascule, a sort of lovable rascal of a novice monk who lives in a brotherhood and communes with the dead (or rather, their downloaded representations). OneMonkey was put off the whole book, unfortunately, because of what he saw as the ‘textspeak’ in which Bascule’s first-person sections are written. However, given that Banks is British and probably around Big Brother’s age I’ll take a guess that they’re more likely to be influenced by Whizz For Atoms and the like, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (he of St Trinian’s fame). If you’ve ever read those you’ll have little trouble with Bascule, but as he says himself ‘I tolkd farely normil but I thot a bit funy’ so it might not be that easy to grasp straight off.

It has overtones of Gormenghast in places; there is a whole landscape within a huge castle, and for a while I wasn’t sure if the people were miniature or the rooms were huge. As you might expect from a contained society like that there is murder, intrigue, civil war, a possibly corrupt government and various conspiracies. Add the downloaded personalities of the dead, who live through eight lives in the speeded-up time of the cryptosphere, and you have a rich construct woven around a gripping story.

Paris Noir anthology

I’d seen a couple of the other anthologies in this series from Akashic Books in the library before but Paris was the first one that prompted me into borrowing it, as I’ve actually been there. I figured that part of the idea behind a one-city setting was that you could immerse yourself, and it helps if you can picture the streets, hear the sounds. All the stories were translated from French, which adds an authenticity (and sometimes a confusion, though no more than I occasionally get from, for instance, American writing).

I nearly gave up on this book, I will admit – the first 2 or 3 stories I dipped into were, to my mind, more monosyllabic brutality than richly atmospheric crime fiction. However, I persevered and the next couple were OK, and then I hit upon The Revenge of the Waiters by Jean-Bernard Pouy. It takes a theme I often play around with (but have never yet finished a story on), that of the familiar stranger and particularly the way we notice their absences and wonder what’s become of them. With a welcome injection of dark humour, Pouy sets a band of bored waiters on an investigation into such an absence, with escalating consequences.

La Vie en Rose by Dominique Mainard makes good use of a technique that’s sometimes seen as old-fashioned, that of having our main character sit down and listen to a long and almost unbroken exposition of the back-story from the other main character. As an interesting twist, the listener is a proto-crime-writer pretending to be a private detective in order to gather material, but he soon finds he’s out of his depth.

I’m not sure if I’d read other volumes in the series, but if I do dip in, I’ll let you know how they measure up.

A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett

A history of the Protestant Reformation sounds like it should be dry, dull, of narrow interest, and not at all relevant today. Which is why I’d like to tell you about this book. William Cobbett is marvellous, sadly not as widely-known as he should be, and an inspiration. If he were alive now he would be blogging and tweeting every moment of the day, trying to bridge the ever-present gap between truth and the population at large. This book is written in Cobbett’s usual style, not so much conversational as like the man who corners you at a gathering and begins a lot of sentences with ‘And I’ll tell you another thing about…’; it’s certainly not formal and dusty, though he does like to cite references (primary sources if possible so you can go check for yourself) and he gets himself wound up to a pitch and repeats things sometimes (this was serialised, too, so no chance for him to change his sections around later).

The main spur for this book was the ridiculous and appalling anti-Catholic laws still existing in England in the early 19th century (some, like no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic can be the monarch, are in place even now). The point that tells you the most about Cobbett is that he and all his family were members of the Church of England, he had no personal axe to grind but he saw an injustice and he couldn’t resist bringing it to public attention, questioning it in a reasoned and logical manner, and campaigning for its end. Although the book, and the creation of the Church of England, are nominally about religion, Cobbett argues persuasively that it’s all about greed, power, corruption, and land-grabbing. Everything rides on a political agenda.

It’s the same today, which is why Cobbett’s book is still relevant. Not only did I learn some unsavoury things about the Tudors, but it made me think in a joined-up way about the things I already did know, which was part of Cobbett’s point – you don’t have to hide unpleasant truths, you just have to present them in such a way that people are unlikely to go ‘but hang on, didn’t he also do…?’ and want to dig deeper. How many contradictory things do governments say on a regular basis, and how many laws or policies are formulated ‘after careful consideration of expert evidence’ meaning ‘we read it, it didn’t fit our pre-formed ideas or political goals so we discarded it’?

If you’re not interested in religion, or you’re not British (or Irish – they came under the same heavy-handed laws at the time, of course), or you’ve never heard of William Cobbett, it doesn’t matter – you might not be familiar with all the players but the game itself may be enlightening. I would also suggest that if you enjoyed Josephine Tey’s unusual detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, this might appeal to you in that same spirit of painstakingly uncovering historical facts that weren’t hidden, but have just been publicly contradicted so often that ‘everyone knows’ the complete opposite.