16 June 2007

In praise of great literature

There is an interesting article by SF author John Wright on the online journal Implications (here). He offers seven reasons for admitting that certain books do, indeed, count as great works of literature. For example, ‘reading great books increases the pleasure one gets from merely good books.’ Or again:
it takes humility to be an elitist . . . An elitist, someone who likes great books because they are great, not because he likes them, is as humble as a mountaineer standing before a titanic, mysterious, unclimbed peak. To climb that mountain is work, at least at first, we all agree. But once you have achieved the summit, and all the world is under your heel, how far you can see! . . . The humility of a mountaineer is this: he does not think of himself as he climbs, he thinks of the rock under this fingers and toes. He did not make the mountain; he is not the one who piled it up.
My main reservation is the question of who decides which books should be regarded as ‘great literature’. I am very wary of ‘authoritative others’ creating literary canons (whether they be ‘the classics of English literature’ or ‘the hundred greatest SF books’). What purpose do such lists serve? Why are certain books chosen? Because of internal literary qualities? Or because they reinforce a particular worldview? So, while I would tend to agree with Wright’s reasons for reading great literature, I think a degree of scepticism is needed whenever someone tries to insist that I really must read this particular book because it is ‘great literature’.

12 June 2007

New from Solaris

Mark Newton from Solaris has kindly sent me copies of a couple of books I edited for them a few months ago: Eric Brown’s Helix and The Infinity Plus Anthology. Both books are really good reads.

Helix is a straightforward space opera in the Ringworld mould, but far better. In spite of the awards it won, I never really warmed to Ringworld – probably because the rather unlikeable characters in the novel are comprehensively upstaged by the Ringworld itself. Brown’s Helix is as imposing an artefact as Niven’s Ringworld but the characterization in his novel is much stronger – even the two-foot-tall ballooning rat!

The Infinity Plus Anthology is a fascinating collection of fantasy and SF shorts by many well-known authors. The rationale behind the collection is that these stories have been chosen by their authors as works that are particularly dear them and deserving to be republished.

And here is something else to watch out for from Solaris: I have just finished copy-editing their New Book of Fantasy (compiled by George Mann). It offers a comprehensive overview of the state of fantasy at the moment, from sword and sorcery to magical realism. My particular favourites are: ‘Grander than the Sea’ by Tim Pratt (not just comic fantasy, but well-structured comic fantasy); ‘Prince of End Times’ by Hal Duncan (I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of poetry he can squeeze in to a piece of prose), ‘The Song Her Heart Sang’ by Steven Savile (this is the sort of story that inspires me to get on with my own writing); and ‘Chinandega’ by Lucius Shephard (a searing piece of dystopian magical realism).

11 June 2007

Thunderbird is gone

I have been happily using Thunderbird to deal with my email for the past year or so. However, a couple of weeks ago I discovered that it sometimes loses emails when I move them from one folder to another. A bit of investigation with a text editor revealed that the emails are, in fact, still there. The problem seems to be that Thunderbird's indexing system has lost track of them.

That would be no more than a nuisance if I were simply dealing with personal emails, but a lot of my work comes to me via email so reliability is essential. Clearly Thunderbird is not absolutely reliable, so it had to go.

I really don't have time to learn how to use a completely new email program, so my choice of alternatives was limited to those I have used in the past: Outlook, Outlook Express and Opera. Since I had several thousand emails to export from Thunderbird, Outlook and Outlook Express ruled themselves out by having very inadequate import facilities.

So Thunderbird is gone, and Opera is go. The fact that it also offers an extremely fast web browser, a newsreader, IRC client and BitTorrent client makes Opera almost irresistible. My only niggle is that it is not very good at displaying web pages that have been sloppily coded (i.e. optimized for Internet Explorer).

07 June 2007

An eighth of a million

We took a few days off last week to explore Galloway, particularly the Machars and the Mull. Apart from a spot of rain on the Sunday, we had good weather for the visit, which was just as well: the Machars would be a really bleak spot in bad weather.

The highlight of the visit was certainly our trip to Logan Gardens. Nestled behind an extensive shelter belt, they are exotic sub-tropical gardens containing some really spectacular specimens. One of the most amazing sights there is the Gunnera bog: Gunnera looks vaguely like rhubarb, but much bigger. Even in spring, the plants are a good seven feet tall!

I took the laptop with me in the hope that I would be able to make some progress on the novel. In fact, I did rather well: I managed to add about 6,000 words to my total, taking me over 125,000 words. More importantly, I seem to have broken through the block that has been preventing me from making progress for the past several months. I had been banging my head over how to make a description of a long winter journey interests. The secret was the realization that it would never be interesting and probably wasn’t necessary anyway, so it could simply be omitted. Instead I shifted my attention to the action in a parallel subplot.