24 January 2008

‘Us and Them’

The Word Dogs have been loosed again. Their next hunt is scheduled for Wednesday 6th February, at 7.30 p.m. in the 13th Note on King Street, Glasgow (£2 on the door). The theme for the evening is ‘Us and Them’:
Are you with Us? Or are you one of Them.

Differences abound everywhere: political, sexual, economic, racial, religious, cultural, sporting. Entertain Us with the rivalries of siblings, cities, countries, worlds. Shed light on what They are really like, because, frankly, We just don’t understand Them at all. Who is that beautiful stranger? A threat, a rival, an ally, a saviour?

Transhumans vs White Trash, Criminals vs Politicos, Aliens vs The Dead. Aren’t we all the same under the skin anyway? Well we know We are, but They’re not.

By the way, Word Dogs has a nice new website, courtesy of Richard Mosses. I particularly like the subtitle: ‘Biting the hand that feeds Lit’. You can find it here.

21 January 2008

‘Don’t get it right, . . .’

‘. . . just get it written.’ (James Thurber)

After a long period of inactivity (more than six months, in fact), I have once again started making progress on the novel. This weekend I completed another chapter and the end is in sight. All I have to do is keep going. And at the moment I am so fed up with this story that I just intend to plough on regardless until the thing is finished. Hence the quotation from Thurber. Once I have a draft of the entire novel, there will be plenty of time to tidy it up.

I am still using yWriter (mentioned here) to draft the novel and it is proving to be an immensely useful writing aid. The current incarnation is version 4. It now allows rich text editing and it can store all kinds of notes on characters, locations, scenes, etc. This has to be one of the best free pieces of software I have ever come across. I can’t wait for version 5! In addition to yWriter, the program’s author has also created a handy submission tracking utility (Sonar) and a useful project timer (Track-a-minute) that I would probably use if this facility were not already built into my PIM.

11 January 2008


During my Christmas break I did quite a bit of reading, including Liz Williams’s 2006 novel, Darkland (Tor). I have read one or two of her previous novels but not enough to go looking for more. This book, found in one of my local charity shops, has changed all that.

It is set in the far future; a future of very rapid interstellar transport with a human diaspora spread across the galaxy on many different colony worlds. But the main focus of the novel is on the extensive genetic manipulation that the human race has used to adapt itself and other terrestrial species to these very different environments. As the opening scenes of the novel reveal, genetic manipulation has also been used to create and reinforce a range of novel human societies.

Darkland has the scope and drama of a space opera but is sharply focused on the experience of one woman, Vali, an assassin for an all-female organization called the Skald. The story is largely about the chance she is given to take revenge on a former mentor and lover who is now working for the enemy. I enjoyed Williams’s characterization and the way she developed the complex motives driving her central character.

The story reads like a standalone novel and, apart from the inevitable handful of minor loose ends, Williams ties everything up neatly by the end of the final chapter. Then she unravels everything again with a classic cliffhanger of an epilogue. Normally I don’t like novels that end on a cliffhanger, forcing me to buy the sequel in order to finish the story. But I thought this approach worked really well: a satisfying ending followed by the realization that there is more to follow.

Williams’s feminism is perhaps more obvious here than in other things of hers I have read. At times it is clumsily obvious. For example, was it really necessary to call an evil patriarchal society ‘Nhem’?

I did find myself wondering at times whether this was science fiction or fantasy. According to Clarke’s Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Reading Darkland made me think there should be a corollary to that law: ‘Any piece of science fiction built around sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from fantasy.’ That is certainly the case for those sections of Darkland set on Mondhile, a backward colony planet, and even the parts of the novel set in more ‘civilized’ locations are filled with fantastical moments.

07 January 2008

Theological zoology?

I have been asking myself what kind of theologian I am. (As Tillich pointed out many years ago, the fact that I don’t earn my living directly from doing theology is irrelevant.) This particular piece of self-analysis was provoked partly by insomnia brought on by the bug that has finally caught up with me and partly by the consideration that I really don’t enjoy much of what passes for academic theology. In particular, I find abstract discussion of the nature of God and/or Christ uninteresting and detailed analysis of the writings of other theologians tedious.

The kind of theology that interests me tends to be in response to the question ‘how should we then live?’ This was the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer, a conservative evangelical theologian whose work was an early influence on me. It is many years since I read anything by him, but his question remains with me. How should we live in light of the promises and challenges of the Christian gospel? How should we live as Christians faced with this or that contemporary challenge (whether social, political, environmental, or personal)?

What sort of theology is this? As I thought about this, I recalled a distinction made in Greek Orthodox theology between bios (nature red in tooth and claw) and zoe (life transformed by the Holy Spirit). The kind of theology that interests me is theology that maps out the contours of life transformed by the Spirit. Hence the rather tongue-in-cheek title for this entry.

04 January 2008

Messiah again

I managed to struggle against my annual Christmas cold long enough to take part in the RSNO’s performance of Messiah on Wednesday afternoon. This year it was conducted by Roy Goodman who brought his expertise in baroque music and his usual lightness of touch to the performance. The other factor that distinguished it from most other performances was that we did it without any of the usual cuts. I suspect that there will have been many in the audience for whom at least some of the arias and choruses were completely new.

So far I haven’t come across any reviews of the performance, but Michael Tumelty gave it a very positive preview in The Herald on Wednesday morning (here).

A new look for 2008

As you will notice, I have decided to revamp my blog. This is a response to my relative neglect of the blog over the past several months and a promise to myself that I’ll pay more attention to it in the coming year.

Besides the new layout, the main difference so far is the updated and improved list of links. Coming soon (once I’ve decided on the best method): some way of keeping track of visits to the blog (to reassure myself that people do read it occasionally).