27 May 2009

An interesting review

Adam Roberts has just posted a fascinating review of China MiĆ©ville’s new novel The City and the City over at Punkadiddle. Quite apart from whetting my appetite for the book, the review itself is a work of art. Go and read it.

On being a slow thinker

Over on Taking Note, Manfred Kuehn quotes R. G. Collingwood as follows:
I know that I have always been a slow and painful thinker, in whom thought in its formative stages will not be hurried by effort, nor clarified by argument, that most dangerous enemy to immature thoughts, but grows obscurely through a long and oppressive period of gestation, and only after birth can be licked by its parent into presentable shape.

I can certainly identify with his description of the struggle to formulate one’s thoughts. And gestation is a good metaphor for a process that can take months or even years. (Actually I have come across that metaphor somewhere else – in something Buber wrote, I think.)

22 May 2009

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

Here’s a review I wrote for Interzone a few months ago:

Stephen Hunt, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, HarperVoyager, 2008. ISBN 13: 978 0 00 723220 8

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves opens with the central character, Amelia Harsh, engaging in an Indiana Jones style piece of tomb robbery. She is an archaeologist obsessed with discovering the legendary city of Camlantis (once the utopian home of a race of pacifists) and she hopes the tomb will furnish evidence for her theories. Barely escaping with her life, Amelia returns empty-handed to the Kingdom of Jackals only to discover that she has been dismissed from her college post. However, the mysterious philanthropist Abraham Quest offers to fund an expedition to locate Camlantis. Although she blames him for her father’s bankruptcy and subsequent suicide, Amelia accepts his offer.

Amelia’s search for the key to the location of Camlantis takes her by submarine into the dark heart of the continent of Liongeli. On their way to the submerged ruins that contain the key, she and her companions (a motley crew of ex-convicts and Quest’s female mercenaries, with a half-demented steamman as their guide) have to face a mind-boggling array of threats. However, she succeeds in finding the key, and the search for Camlantis can really begin.

Amelia and Quest both hope that the discovery of Camlantis will usher in a new utopian age. But they have very different visions of how that is to be achieved, and one of those visions could be very bad news for those condemned to live in the present age. The stage is set for a climactic confrontation.

To say that this book is action packed is almost an understatement. There is something unremitting about the intensity of the action and the frequency with which dramatic moments arise. In keeping with the ripping yarn levels of action, the characters in the book are generally larger than life. In Amelia’s case, this is literally so: she has been magically enhanced into a cross between Lara Croft and a Soviet-era woman shot-putter. Abraham Quest combines the genius of an Einstein with the entrepreneurship of a Bill Gates. But I think my personal favourite is Cornelius Fortune: a shape-shifter who uses his powers to free political prisoners from the clutches of a crazed revolutionary regime. While Hunt’s characters tend to be larger than life, they are also all flawed in some way: Amelia’s obsession with Camlantis, Commander Black’s selfishness, Cornelius Fortune’s inner demons, Abraham Quest’s fanaticism. This is very much a postmodern take on heroism. Perhaps in keeping with their larger-than-life nature, Hunt’s characters are generally interesting and engaging but none of them is particularly deep or complex. The complexity in this novel definitely lies in the action and plotting rather than the characterization.

My first reading of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves managed to turn several hours in the departure lounge at Stansted Airport and a flight with Ryanair into enjoyable experiences! But what for me lifted this book above the level of airport escapism was Hunt’s vivid descriptions allied with a strong vein of anarchic imagination reminiscent of China Mieville at his best. Hunt has created some remarkable characters and races, from craynarbians (a race of crab-like humanoids) to the lashlites (a race of flying lizard-like beings with remarkable powers of prophecy), and set them in a world of remarkable natural phenomena, such as the floatquake (in which large tracts of land occasionally break off and float away).

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves has no literary pretensions. It is quite simply a wonderful escapist yarn with some nice satirical touches and a mass of literary and media allusions to tease the reader. Definitely a book to take with you on a long flight.

20 May 2009

More software for writers

Scrivener is widely regarded by creative writers as an indispensable tool for bringing order to the chaos of multiple files that seems to be an inescapable part of writing with a computer. As Gary Gibson points out, ‘Using the Mac-only Scrivener software has helped a lot for organising the manuscript and giving me a better overall sense of the book's structure than I've previously managed to get using more standard software like Microsoft Word’. Unfortunately it is only available for Macs and the developer has made it clear that he has no intention of developing a Windows version.

Now it looks as though PC users’ dream of a Scrivener-like outliner are about to be fulfilled. Rob Oakes, who blogs at Apolitically Incorrect, has just unveiled an early alpha version of an outliner for LyX. For anyone who has not heard of it, LyX is a graphical front-end for the legendary document processing system LaTeX (effectively a LaTeX-based word processor). At the moment, LyX-Outliner is little more than a demonstration, but it promises much for the future.

This post was originally going to be about LyX-Outliner on its own but I have just come across another piece of software for writers that looks really interesting. Storybook is a piece of Java-based freeware which offers writers a way of outlining their stories based on storyboards. Java-based programs have a reputation for being slow, but I am tempted to try Storybook out while awaiting developments on the LyX-Outliner front.

19 May 2009

Climate Stewards

I’ve just come across a new environmental venture organized by the Christian nature conservation organization A Rocha. It is called Climate Stewards and comes with an endorsement from Sir John Houghton (former director of the Met Office). Looks like a good thing.

05 May 2009

Some management speak weirdness

I recently came across the following piece of wierdness among the core values of a local lifestyle consultancy firm:
We will always look further than what is possible to ensure we are truly inspirational.
Inspiring their clients to do the impossible?

01 May 2009

Idealist: an update

In spite of being tempted from time to time to try out alternatives, I keep coming back to Idealist as my main tool for storing information. It is incredibly simple to use and yet surprisingly powerful. My main Idealist database currently contains about 7,000 references and 15,000 notes and yet searches are virtually instantaneous because of its full-text indexing. If the existing record types are not to your taste you can create new field and record types very easily (and you can do this on the fly in existing databases). Each database can hold up to a million records and each record can be up to 8Mb (though there is a 64K limit on the length of an individual field). Its search ability is very well thought out, enabling you to drill down quickly to precisely the records you need. In addition, simply highlighting a word or phrase in a record and pressing the Stack button will take you to a new hit list containing all the records in which that word or phrase appears. And, if you like, you can set up kinship (parent–child) relations between records. If you want to try it out, I have just discovered that it can be downloaded from here.

The owners of Idealist, Bekon, may have disappeared, but a recent flurry of comments on my earlier post gives me some faint hope that Idealist might not be dead. In particular, one of the commenters admitted to having a copy of the source code and another suggested that he might be in a position to run that source code past a developer. So perhaps it would be possible to bring Idealist into the twenty-first century (always assuming issues about ownership of the code could be sorted out).

If that were possible, I already have a wish list of things I would like to see. Top of the list would be Unicode support closely followed by RTF fields. Then, in no particular order, easy insertion of hypertext links into fields, better implementation of the kinship system, and much improved import and export.