Margaret Atwood / China Miéville

I went to the launch of Margaret Atwood’s new book Year of the Flood primarily because my partner was singing at it. It was held at a church in the centre of Edinburgh and was very well attended – so well that I had to queue for returns – and only got in because a kind American woman gave me her ticket.

What followed was a rather uninspiring affair. Atwood read passages from her book, the choir sang the ‘hymns’ she had invented for it and some other volunteers acted out parts – again, from the book. What struck me was that the whole thing sounded like an episode of Survivors – to be fair, I want to make it clear that I’m saying all these things without actually having read the book though, on the basis of what I experienced in that hour, I’m not likely to.

I have read two of Atwood’s books – Alias Grace – that I can remember nothing about – and The Handmaid’s Tale that I thought was brilliant… So I’m not saying the woman can’t write… but what get’s my goat are the claims that she persistently makes about her more recent writing ie. that “it’s not science fiction”… I listened to her being interviewed by Mark Lawson on Front Row where she said – several times – that the reason this new book of hers was not science fiction was because science fiction had things like “talking squid” in it. With that term, I feel she betrays herself. To dismiss all of science fiction as being the kind of writing that might have a talking squid in it (not that I have anything against squid, talking or otherwise!) is either profoundly ignorant, or disingenuous. Of course I understand why she struggles so hard to distance herself from the genre – more often than not, writing in the genre leads to work being ignored both by critics and reviewers and thus by many readers who might well enjoy it. (The success of Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’ would seem to suggest this might be true.) Of course it is because my own work has suffered this fate that this issue makes me angry. So, I understand that Atwood is behaving like this to protect her own interests, but what I don’t feel is acceptable is that she should do so by dissing science fiction and those who work in that genre… Being dramatic for a moment: history is littered with examples of the persecuted joining the ranks of the persecutors so as to save themselves.

Ursula Le Guin, a writer of the first rank whose many brilliant books are dismissed because they are classified as science fiction, puts this better and with more grace in her recent review in the Guardian. Perhaps it would be wise for me to defer to her (qualified) praise for The Year of the Flood though I wonder if it wouldn’t sink without a trace were it sold as science fiction, if only for the reason that the post apocalypse novel is already a venerable tradition and has been done brilliantly by many authors – however surprising such a concept might be to Atwood’s ‘literary’ readers.

Imagine then my relief when I went off to listen to China Miéville being interviewed (by Stuart Kelly). Here was someone who is happy to tell anyone who wants to listen about his fascination with creatures with tentacles. He is also someone who writes fresh and literate books on the cutting edge of genre fiction. In fact, his books have had the tendency to cut through the edges of the various genres that attempt to contain them. His latest book The City and The City punches its way out of fantasy/science fiction into another genre, crime. Miéville read passages from various books – including one of startling invention from a work in progress. All of it was far more engaging, both linguistically and in its ideas, than anything I had heard from Atwood. Kelly wondered out loud when Miéville might win the Booker Prize – but we all know this is unlikely because such awards are not for genre writers.

human uniqueness…

I was just reading a review of Wild Justice that included the sentence: “Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of ascribing morality to animals because it seems to threaten the uniqueness of humans”…

Nothing could more succinctly demonstrate how neurotic a species we are. How amazingly insecure are we, the Rulers of the Earth, the ‘paragon of animals’? It used to be that we relied on an absolute division between us and ‘them’ – a distinction insisted on by our holy books – for are we not, after all, made in the image of God…? When Darwin punctured this conceit we regrouped behind other barricades – our language, our culture, our tool using, our ‘reasoning’ – as researchers have brought down each of these in turn, we have scurried to a new defence… All of them seem to me to be something akin to: but do whales sit in rocking chairs smoking pipes and reading magazines? Thus we move the goal posts to make sure we always win!

Isn’t it about time that we grew up – that we started finding confidence in what we are within ourselves, and accept that we are one animal among many…? The sooner we do that, the sooner we will stop behaving like spoilt children…

SFX review…

Was sent this review by the legendary critic David Langford last week, but couldn’t show it to you until I got permission. Needless to say, as the first review (that I know about), I am chuffed.

Eastercon 2009

Eastercon was delightful, challenging and exhausting. I moderated panels for the first time and found that I really rather enjoyed it. I appeared on various others and, it turns out, being rather new to this convention malarkey, I had volunteered for more than perhaps I should have done… There’s a lot of drinking goes on at these things, and every night I was up carousing into the early hours – only to find that, bleary eyed, I had to get to the convention hotel early for yet another panel… This meant that I was unable to attend as many of the talks and panels that I would have liked. I did much enjoy watching Tim Powers being interviewed. Another highlight was a screening of a 1912 silent version of Frankenstein – accompanied by a wonderful live piano improvisation.

But what really makes a convention so enjoyable is the people. Imagine being locked into the Overlook Hotel with 800 souls whose interests intersect yours – for days! Everywhere gaggles discussing anything that you can (and that you can’t) imagine… I met a lot of fascinating people, some who I knew, others who I did not and I made some new friends. It was a particular pleasure to hang out with Gary Lloyd, and with Liam Sharp and his lovely wife, Chris. A prominent comicbook artist, Liam is branching out into books, the first of which, God Killers, is an amazing debut – vibrantly written, raw, visceral – with something of the brooding atomsphere of Beowulf and the earthiness of Robert E. Howard. What’s worse, there are some scenes in there I wish I had thought of!! ;O)

My friend Vince Docherty gave me a lovely intro at the launch of The Third God. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and so was quite nervous. I intended to speak for 4 minutes, but ended up talking for nearer 45 – the spirit of my books possessed me.

On my way home I did a radio interview for the BBC. After days of endless, unbounded conversation, it was hard to compress my chat down to such a minimal medium.

The week after, I went to London to hang out at various exhibitions, to see plays, to hook up with friends. I also had a meeting with my editor Simon Taylor. Over lunch we discussed what I might write next. We both fixed on one project and I have been working on it ever since.

IVF and global warming

IVF is a sign of our times: society encourages us to remain non-adult ever longer, but our bodies ignore this cultural infantilizing of our minds.

It strikes me that there is a parallel here with our response to something like global warming. We have created a virtual reality (the human world) and imagine that it IS reality. Meanwhile the world continues to turn, global warming approaches inexorably, and we don’t realize that there is a REAL reality and that no amount of argument or wishful thinking will keep it at bay.

language and the human face…

The April 25th issue of New Scientist has an article discussing a computer that can read from a speaker’s lips what language he/she is speaking. This reminded me of something I came across stating that people in southern Russia had a characteristic face shape that was thought to be due to the heavy bread that was their staple – the intense and persistent chewing required, bulked up certain face muscles. I would suggest that what is true for chewing could well be true for speaking – that one language will use certain facial muscles more than another. The consequence would then be that a French speaker would tend towards a particular facial configuration – a speaker of Mandarin Chinese would tend to another… so that the language you speak determines, to some extent, what your face looks like…

hand holding halberd…

Continuing my, possibly reckless, exploration into Chinese, I want to discuss the character for the singular pronoun (I, me) wǒ which is the first character shown. Now this is composed of two elements: the one on the left, the 2nd shown, is a pictograph for ‘hand’; the one on the right is a pictograph for ‘halberd’ or ‘lance’. So wǒ is written as a hand holding a halberd…

This seems to me to pose two interesting questions. The first: in what kind of time did this character originate that when anyone, male or female or child, should represent themselves in any text, that they must do so as being armed? The second: what does this indicate about how a modern, literate Chinese person might see himself/herself. Of course, most likely, they just use the character and don’t think about it at all.

I hasten to add that I’m not trying to imply anything here about some kind of inherent agressiveness, but perhaps that there may be some kind of tendency for a person to feel that he or she is a ‘warrior’. Having studied T’ai Chi for several years, I have some understanding of the spiritual values that may underlie this…

Finally, can it be entirely unrelated that  one of the core ways that China seems to perceive herself, and thus projects herself to the outside world, is through martial arts…?

school time

Today I took some time off working on this website to go and give a ‘language class’ to some 8 year olds. I read them the first paragraph from The Chosen. Unsurprisingly, they were intrigued by the ‘childgatherers’. We discussed choosing verbs and alliteration. Next I read them the first paragraph of The Third God. They wrote stories based on this, speculating on how Ykoriana might have lost her eyes and what she may have done to deserve this. What they came back with was delightful. Some saw her as a victim, others as evil and having stolen her ruby eyes from the Wise. Fairytales riffing on the themes in that first paragraph, reflecting all kinds of child-logic, yet resonating well enough. I’m not sure why I should feel surprised. A fascinating experience.

triptych hinges

the Stone Dance as a triptych

Often it has seemed to me that rather than the Stone Dance being a trilogy it would be better described as a triptych – it isn’t three works, but rather a single ‘picture’ in three parts. This feeling has found its way into the structure of the books.

Here I would like to comment on the first chapter of both The Standing Dead and The Third God. These alone do not stick to the close 3rd person perspective used elsewhere in the Stone Dance. In this respect they can be considered as the hinges on my triptych – hinges that hold together the three ‘panels’ of the books. (Pushing the analogy near breaking point: the Song to the Earth, the poem appearing at the beginning of The Chosen, could be seen to be the clasp that opens and closes the whole work.)

This is all a rather elaborate way of saying that you can read the first chapter of The Third God as an entity somewhat separate from the rest of the story – and as a link between The Standing Dead and The Third God proper, the action continues in the second chapter.

how a rabbit may have run off with the sun

I had become increasingly curious about the Chinese language, but everything I read about it contradicted everything else. So at last I took the plunge and I am now in the 2nd term of a course in Chinese. I am less interested in learning to speak it than I am in learning to read and write it – at least a little bit. Fundamentally, what I am after is an insight into China and its people: I believe that a language is the soul of the culture that speaks it. (Incidentally, for this very reason – I am also considering studying Ancient Greek, but that’s another story…)

Anyway, I don’t imagine that I’m the only one who is curious about Chinese and so I’ve been thinking that I might like to share some of my more interesting experiences and ‘discoveries’ with you.

I will write more about my initial experiences, but, for now, I just want to share with you what I’ve understood about just one character: wǎn (spoken with a falling/rising tone – the 3rd of 4) and that means night, evening or even late (words in Chinese, even ones with exactly the same sound, can have many meanings – sometimes more than 50!?!?)

Reading top to bottom (and putting up with my dodgy calligraphy), the first character is the one we’re discussing:  wǎn = night. The element on the left is shown 2nd and is a pictograph representing the sun. The other element of our character is shown 3rd and means escape.

Now here’s the fun bit – if you look at the 4th character you will see it is identical to the 3rd, except for a dot in its ‘tail’… Now this 4th character is a pictograph for rabbit.

So what we end up with is that escape is written as a rabbit that has escaped – this being indicated by the missing dot – and that, when this is combined with sun, becomes our 1st character, that for night. Now, I don’t know if this means the ‘sun has escaped’ or that the ‘rabbit has escaped with the sun’ – nevertheless, I feel it does hint at the delights hidden in written Chinese.

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